This year, World Interfaith Harmony Week (WIHW) came along just when we all needed it. More typically, the timing of this celebration is not ideal – the first week of February, when twilight descends fast. Many of us would prefer to stay at home than attend a night-time event in mid-winter.
This year, however, was different. Given the U.S. immigration ban targeting seven Muslim majority countries, as well as the terrorist attack against a Quebec mosque, many of us felt a strong need to demonstrate our support of the Muslim community by embracing interfaith solidarity. Over 250 people from across Toronto came to Darchei Noam’s February 2nd WIHW celebrationMysticism Then and Now, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam in Word & Song. As noted by Rabbi Tina Grimberg at the opening of the event, “The knowledge we seek tonight, and the God we’re looking for, is reflected to us in the human face of the other… It is in the time of darkness that we seek light.”
The event, created by Darchei Noam’s Interfaith Committee in partnership with both the Intercultural Dialogue Institute and Vishnu Mandir, was a truly interfaith initiative. It began with greetings from John Voorpostel, Chair of the WIHW Toronto Steering Committee, who explained the history of World Interfaith Harmony Week (adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2010) and emphasized the essential role of interfaith initiatives as a counter measure to xenophobia. His committee generously sponsored the evening.
Next up was James Pasternak, Toronto City Councillor for York Centre, who spoke with feeling about City Council’s commitment to strengthening Toronto’s role as a safe haven for refugees. On behalf of City Hall, he condemned discrimination of all types.
Following Mr. Pasternak, the evening shifted from politics to mysticism (although subsequent speakers continued to comment on the political context, expressing compassion for the terrorist’s victims and the need for interfaith collaboration). Rabbi Grimberg explained about the mystical experience that, “It is popularly known as becoming one with God. It can also refer to an altered state of consciousness which is given a religious or spiritual meaning.”
We learned about Hindu mysticism from Dr. Budhendranauth Doobay, Chairman and Religious Advisor, Voice of the Vedas Cultural Centre (Vishnu Mandir). Dr. Doobay explained, among other things, that the popular impression of Hinduism as being polytheistic, with many gods, is wrong. There is one God in Hinduism – Brahman – and the other “gods” are actually symbolic representations of Brahman’s various aspects. He explained that Hinduism teaches about God that “All is One; All is He” in contrast to other traditions that more typically assert that “All is His”. “God lives in you”, he said. “When you find him, all the mysticism will come to you.” Following Dr. Doobay, the Vishnu Mandir Choir chanted an upbeat bhajan (devotional song) that raised our spirits and gave us a sense of Hindu religious music.
Next we learned about Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, from Azim Shamshiev, Former Vice-President of the Intercultural Dialogue Institute. Mr. Shamshiev described Sufism as the way in which Muslims seek truth, divine love and knowledge, explaining how it can help people from all faiths to find a more meaningful connection to God. He discussed its history, explaining, among other things, that women have played a significant role in Sufi practices going back hundreds of years, with some of the great medieval Sufi Masters having been female. The Band11, a group of three talented, traditional Sufi instrumentalists, then performed entrancing Sufi music, while Farzad Attarjafari, a classically trained Whirling Dervish, whirled before us into an altered state of consciousness. It was a remarkable sharing of meditation that we were able to experience up close – unforgettable.
Rabbi Grimberg then explained the link between Jewish mysticism and tikkun olam by recounting the Kabbalist creation myth. In the beginning, there was only God. In order to make space for creation, God contracted to become smaller. God then created 10 holy vessels filled with divine light. But the vessels were too fragile to hold the light and they broke, scattering light shards throughout creation. We need to release the sparks, through holiness, to restore the vessels and achieve tikkun olam – repair of the world. Jewish mysticism is, therefore, outward looking in its intention. Holiness might come from within, but the mystic’s goal is not simply to become one with God, but to repair the world for everyone.
Rabbi Grimberg was followed by Aviva Chernick, Toronto’s award winning, Juno nominated, singer, musician, and educator. Ms. Chernick led the audience in a profound exercise of voice, prayer and meditation, giving us a sense of contemporary Jewish mysticism. She brought us into her own embracing spirituality in a way that was inclusive, authentic and inspirational.
Despite the disturbing political backdrop, the evening was, overall, joyous and big-hearted, and those who attended came away feeling uplifted and inspired. In the words of Farzad Attarjafari, the Whirling Dervish, “I’m thankful Beloved brought us together. We are all ONE and turn to ONE. I felt at home; it’s so heart warming when I see us in Canada come together in solidarity & union.” These sentiments were echoed by all those who participated.
At the close of the evening, many people stayed behind to chat and nibble on Indian, Turkish and Jewish refreshments, and about 50 people took the tour of Darchei Noam’s sanctuary. All in all, it was a beautiful night.
(*) Anne Irwin: http://www.darcheinoam.ca/blogroll