Rabbi Describes Finding Religious Identity in Judaism

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Tell Me More gets the scoop on highlights from the latest Washington Post Magazine. This week, a story about three people devoted to different faiths: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Journalist Laura Blumenfeld, who wrote the article, is joined by Rabbi Josh Burrows, who was featured in the Blumenfeld's piece, to talk about the personal journey of faith, identity and religious experience.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now it's time for our weekly look inside the pages of the Washington Post magazine where you'll find interesting stories about the way we live now. This week, a story about three people devoted to their faith, each confronting questions about identity, the reason for living. One is Christian, one is Jewish, the other Muslim. The religious experiences are worlds apart, but they worship only a few miles apart on the same street in Washington. And each find answers in Scripture. I'm joined now by the author of the piece, Washington Post magazine writer Laura Blumenfeld. We're also joined by Rabbi Josh Burrows, who, until recently, was the junior rabbi at the Washington Hebrew Congregation. He was one of the people featured in the story. I welcome you both. I thank you for speaking with us.

Rabbi JOSH BURROWS: Thank you.

Ms. LAURA BLUMENFELD (Writer, Washington Post Magazine; Author): Hi Michel.

MARTIN: Laura, I have to tell you it was a remarkably - it was a beautiful story, it was beautifully written, but it was really remarkable about the way their stories intersect so I just have to ask what made you think of this, and how did you find these people?

Ms. BLUMENFELD: Well, as you drive along Mass Avenue in Washington, it's known as Embassy row, and you see the Greek Embassy, the Turkish Embassy, the British Embassy. But along there also is Religion row. And I was really struck by the architecture of these three houses of God. There's this white and turquoise, just dazzling mosque, and you drive a little bit further a mile up the road and you see this hulking, gothic cathedral which is the National Cathedral. And you drive another half mile, and actually, I never even noticed that hidden off in the trees and the bushes is this very nondescript white box which is the Washington Hebrew Congregation. And I asked myself, here you have these three houses of God, who lives inside and are there any similarities? Are the people inside different or alike?

MARTIN: And it seems as though you found people who were alike in one way, that each of them had some sort of a crisis. Crisis might be too strong of a word but each of them was searching, each of them had a fundamental sort of question that engaged him or her at that time. How did you find these people and how did you figure out that that's what each of them was about?

Ms. BLUMENFELD: Well, it's funny that you say that we found similarities. The first thing I was actually blown away by was how different the culture of each institution was. The tone and the mood inside the Washington Cathedral when I first walked in there, the minister was talking about, you are accepted and we forgive you, and God is here to comfort you. I walked into Washington Hebrew Congregation when Rabbi Josh Burrows was giving a class, and he was just raising all kinds of fundamental questions. Is there a God? Do we believe in God? Do we have to believe in God? And then at the Islamic center, again, a very different mood, one very defensive.

Why are they searching us at airports? Why is the American government not supporting Islamic people around the world? So there was a very, very different mood and I thought uh-oh. Three houses of God, three very different people. But then I found individuals, and decided to sort of dig deeper into their lives. And I found that at our very core, we're all alone or we feel this kind of loneliness and we're trying to get over that loneliness. And that's where the similarities came in, because they all had the same kind of magical secret way of finding some kind of connection and overcoming that solitude.

MARTIN: Rabbi Josh, you were - your place of aloneness, if I can put it that way, was that - you are really confronting the question of who you wanted to be. I mean, at the time you were coaching a young man through his own rite of passage through his bar mitzvah and you were struggling.

Rabbi BURROWS: Oh, absolutely. You know, at any moment of crossroads in our life, I think that we have to make sure to ask those questions of, you know, where we've been and where we intend to be, because every moment of crossroads is a moment of great struggle but also at the same time, you know, a moment of wonderful opportunity.

MARTIN: But the specific question for you is did you want to continue to be a rabbi?

Rabbi BURROWS: That's right.

MARTIN: How did you come to that place? It's not so easy to be a rabbi. So it seems that it would be hard having made that journey to walk away from it.

Rabbi BURROWS: You know, often many rabbis, and I'm sure other clergy as well, joke about the age-old question that we get no matter where we are, when somebody finds out that this is the life decision that we made, they often turn to us and ask, well why? You know, why would you make such a life decision to go ahead and become clergy? And every person, every clergyman, every clergywoman has to answer that question in a different way because every single one of us comes to this position in a different way. And you know, being a rabbi isn't the hardest job in the world, but what is difficult about it is that we're asked to accept upon our shoulders, you know, the very same kind of pain and struggle but also joy that our congregants feel as they walk through life. Essentially in other words, we're asked to walk our congregants through what can be at times the most joyous and what can be the most difficult moments in their lives and it's a difficult thing to do at times. But it's also a wonderfully holy thing to do.

MARTIN: I must tell you, I've always wondered about this - I've always wondered about this, how particularly a very young man or woman - and your wife is also a rabbi...

Rabbi BURROWS: That's right.

MARTIN: Deals with people whose - you know, kids whose parents are divorcing or someone whose, you know, husband - a beloved husband is killed in a car crash and the wife says, how - why? And what are you supposed to - if you'd say, of course - you know what I mean. I've always wondered about that, so I appreciate your candor in this piece. Laura, tell us about the two other people in the piece that you wrote about.

Ms.BLUMENFELD: Right. So while Josh was asking this very basic question that we all struggle with, who am I? Toni Kakeh, who was born a Christian and converted to Islam, was asking the question, how do I live my life? How do I live the very sort of small and larger details that fill up my day? And Ed Nassor, a Christian - he's the bell ringer, actually, in the cathedral tower - had recently suffered from near-fatal pneumonia, and that caused him to ask this very basic question we all struggle with, which is how do I face death? And what was so interesting to me was the three people couldn't have been more different.

I think - I've never seen them together in a room but I'm - they would be more different than alike, let's say, but each in their own separate worlds had discovered a way of going into the text - Jews and Christians and Muslims are all considered people of the book. And all of them reached into their books, whether it's the Koran or the New Testament, the Old Testament and they discovered this magical transformative power of the tale. And by identifying with certain characters - I think for Josh, who is at this kind of spiritual crossroads, it was with the freed Hebrew slaves in the desert who were at their own crossroads. You know, do I believe, who am I, am I free, am I a slave, am I a people?

For Toni, who by converting and leaving her home in Mississippi and her religion, Christianity, and coming to Islam, she deeply identified with Abraham - or Ibrahim, in the Koran - who was the first monotheist and he left his parents and his homeland and to believe in one God. And she, by looking thousands of years back into the book, into the history, was able to find the strength to lead her sometimes very lonely life but with Abraham holding her hand.

And Ed, the Christian - you know, lying in bed in the hospital, opened his book of Psalms and read the words of King David and there he is in, like, this semi-delirium, straining to breathe, and he's repeating King David's words from thousands of years ago from the Psalms: "the Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer." And there's this kind of magic because you think of Jews, Muslims and Christians and you might think of war, you might think of the Middle East and differences but here we are, this kind of scattered and squabbling family, you know, all of us the children of Abraham, and yet we all share this common heritage, and that's the power of stories.

MARTIN: I take your point on this and I found myself really struggling with this piece in some ways because on the one hand, yes, there is this subtext of commonality. We are all in this together - the, you know, sort of children of the book as it were, and yet, as you very eloquently point out in the piece, there is - there are very sharply different world views. I mean, Toni's teaching at the mosque includes a lot of opinions that a lot of people I think would find objectionable, and I'm sure that - you know, her birth family, for example, is convinced that she's going to hell, which is a very, very painful thing to her. And as you point out, just very - you know, drawn from the same religious heritage yet living worlds apart sort of mentally and yet side by side. What are we supposed to draw from this?

Ms.BLUMENFELD: Well, just think of your extended family or anyone out there. Think of your family, you think, God, you know I have nothing in common with my second cousins or third cousins in, I don't know, San Francisco or Minneapolis or Atlanta but then you know, Grandpa Abraham, I think, would look down at the generations and say look at that, I did teach them something. And I do think that there's a real kind of power in that. And Rabbi Burrows, Josh, I think that's - what was interesting to me is you couldn't find a different guy than Josh or Toni's husband Amin, who is the teacher. He's Syrian and he's the teacher at the Islamic center. Such different men, and yet both of them were telling their students, we're not telling - we're not teaching you these stories simply as stories. We're teaching them as lessons in life. And I think that, that's great because sometimes you know what, your friends and your spouse and your shrink and your, you know, your priest are not enough. Sometimes you need something more, it might just be a character who lived a thousand years ago. And I think the interesting, poetic thing about the story is, now Toni, Josh and Ed have become a story. And whether it's in six days or you know, 600 years, this story will live on and maybe it'll comfort somebody else in the future.

MARTIN: Rabbi, what's - we only have about a minute left. What's next for you? Especially as we are on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, beginning of the High Holy Days.

Rabbi BURROWS: You know, especially I think on the eve of Rosh Hashanah and reading this article and having received it from Laura just a couple days ago, and I know speaking to some of my former congregants at Washington Hebrew, the piece is so incredibly beautiful. And one of the things that really strikes me about it is how when we sort of pull back theologically and take a look at these three sister faiths and find ourselves amazed at how different these faiths are on so many levels. But then, when we really focus in on what it is that we try to do, each of our sister faiths, I think you find that we have a lot more in common than what we have that separates us.

And you know, on this Rosh Hashanah eve, it's hard to look beyond what the coming days of intense spirituality is going to be. But as for me, I think what my tradition asks me to do, as well as what Christianity asks the people to do and what Islam asks its people to do, is it asks me to try and figure out what exactly it is that I can do in my life to make myself the best that I can be. And what can I do to make our community and our world the best that it can be. That's what this time is all about. And I think that that's what unites the three of us in this article, which is what makes it such a beautiful piece.

MARTIN: All right. And then we have to leave it there. Rabbi Josh Burrows and Washington Post magazine writer Laura Blumenfeld both joined us from our New York Bureau. If you want to read the piece in its entirety, and I hope that you will, you'll find a link on our website, npr.org/tellmemore. Thank you both so much and happy new year to you, Rabbi.

Rabbi BURROWS: Thank you.

Ms. BLUMENFELD: Thank you.

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