Rabbinic Reflections: Ramadan rebound

It is NBA playoff season. Apart from the thrills and chills of the Sixers’ series with the Raptors, I am also highly aware that it is now Ramadan, the Muslim holy month known for daylight fasting. The combination takes me back to the mid-1990s when I first understood anything about Ramadan, and I learned from basketball.

I grew up in Houston, Texas. Back then, Hakeem Olajuwon, whom Portland Trailblazers’ Enes Kanter texted last week for advice on playoff games while observing the fast of Ramadan, was a towering star center for the Houston Rockets. In February 1995, Olajuwon was named NBA Player of the Month even though it coincided with Ramadan, which he observed as a faithful Muslim. I distinctly remember the press making a big deal out of his religious practice seemingly making his noteworthy performance that much more noteworthy. In those pre-internet days, I had to look up Ramadan in an encyclopedia, which I did. I was fascinated.

Twenty-five years ago, I was drawn to the mechanics of eating before sunrise, fasting all day, and then having festive meals well into the night once the sun sets. Today, I am far more drawn to what Ramadan is meant to celebrate and how that connects to the Jewish calendar. Since Ramadan, based on the lunar calendar but without correctives to align it with the solar calendar, moves throughout the year, the connection to the Jewish calendar is really only passing. Nevertheless, this year’s timing is like watching a last-second three-point shot swoosh in the basket, nothing but net.

The Jewish calendar also follows the moon’s cycles. Ramadan and the Hebrew month of Iyyar both started last Sunday as the new moon shifted into a bit of crescent. Just as Ramadan marks Allah delivering the first revelation of the Quran to Muhammad, Iyyar marks the month of preparation leading to Moses ascending Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah.

Ramadan and Iyyar both mix this celebratory atmosphere with solemnity. The fast is meant to help Muslims study the Quran and live it better. Most of Iyyar is part of a period of mourning for the hundreds of students of Rabbi Akiva who were persecuted by the Romans for studying and teaching Torah. While Ramadan’s nights are full of festive meals and special events, Iyyar sheds its light with the celebration of Israel’s birth as a modern nation-state and marks the end of that mourning period with Lag B’Omer barbeques and field games.

There is a much deeper meaning and practice to Ramadan than I am presenting here. Likewise, for the many traditions that Jews observe during Iyyar. My point, though, is that just as professional basketball can bring us together and even raise awareness of religious practices, the coincidences of our religious calendars can do the same.

A month of religious commemoration, especially when related to the receiving of scripture (by any name), is a month of possibilities for greater understanding by others. This year let us be inspired to learn more about Ramadan. Let us find more common ground. And let us shoot for those points our Founding Fathers sought in 1776 when they raised up religious liberty for all as a way to win a better society.

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About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington. Prior to that he was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years and he served as the rabbi for Bet Torah in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. and Adas Israel in Washington, D.C. He’s also one of several rabbis taking part in a radio show, The Rabbi Speaks, on WDEL. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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