Embracing the Challenge: Reuven Firestone on Jewish-Muslim Dialogue, An Interview by Joshua Stanton
Posted on July 5th, 2009 | Filed under Best Practices/Non-Profit, In Print: New Books, IR News and Events, On Campus
Stanton: How did you become so involved in the study of Islam and Islamic culture and history?
Firestone:It's a bit of a personal story. I went to Israel in 1970, by myself as a teenager. I went under the naïve impression that all Israeli Jews would be heroes and that all Arabs would be bad, violent, and untrustworthy. I was a bit of an aspiring hippie, hanging out in the wrong part of Tel Aviv and observed a fair amount of violence between Jews. I had never experienced that kind of violence before as an upper middle-class American.
I ended up befriending by chance two young Muslim cousins in Jerusalem and I found myself spending a lot of time with them and their families - they had both just married. I was interested in them, and they were interested in me. I eventually found a room in the Muslim Quarter and lived there for two months. It was almost like I had been joined as a family friend to their large family and social network. I was introduced to their extended family, friends, business acquaintances. I ate with them, picked up a surprising amount of Arabic, and had discussions about everything from philosophy to food, religion, and of course, politics. This experience shattered my preconceived notions and stereotypes.
Interestingly, I had learned these stereotypes not as a Jew and from my own home, but as an American. I later learned how such stereotypes are deeply embedded in American culture and affect everybody, Jewish Christian and even Muslim! When I was a very little kid, my father took me to the National Mosque in Washington, D.C. . I remember when my father said to me, "These people are our cousins." And then we walked into the mosque. These stereotypes I held were not family stereotypes - but from American culture.
Now, getting back to my Muslim friends, I really stayed in touch with them. I kept coming back to Israel. I did my junior year of college abroad at Hebrew University [in Jerusalem] and studied both Arabic and Hebrew. After college, I lived a couple years on a kibbutz [Israeli communal farm] near Jerusalem. I stayed in touch with them and just kept coming back to the issue of the ways that we are similar and the ways we are different.
I wanted to deepen my knowledge of Judaism, so I entered rabbinical studies and was ordained at Hebrew Union College. But I wanted to learn more about Islam, too, so I got a doctorate in Arabic and Islamic Studies at New York University.
Stanton: It seems like a lot of your books use history or the social sciences to approach theological issues. Why is that?
Firestone:I like to move things away from the transcendent to something more accessible - not because people are incapable of thinking of the transcendent but because theological notions are non-rational, so it makes that kind of discourse difficult when you cross theological or cultural boundaries. Within religious communities there is a particular way of engaging in discourse. If you didn't grow up within that religious tradition or culture, it may just sound like silliness. These include notions of divine imperative, one's place in the universe, etc....
When you communicate across these boundaries, you have to talk about concrete things at first in order to increase communication and learn more and more about each other's transcendent religious assumptions. You can't just jump into theological dialogue, or else what the other person says sounds like baloney. That's why text studies are wonderful ways to start.
Stanton: Are there any text-based dialogues at the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement?
Firestone: We just finished a pilot program in which Jews and Muslims are paired and study together in a chevrutah [Hebrew term for a pair of study partners] to look at parallel material in the Qur'an and Bible, with guidance along the way. We had students from age 22 to their late sixties, men and women, Jews and Muslims. It turned out to be a phenomenal program. The deepest change students experienced was in their self-understanding. They certainly gained a better sensitivity to the other religion, but widely reported a deeper engagement in their own religious traditions.
Stanton: Why such a heavy emphasis on study, rather than social interaction?
Firestone: Engagement between Jews and Muslims without responsible access to information is just being nice. Otherwise you go home saying, "I just met a nice Jew" or "I just met a nice Muslim." Because you may think that these nice Jews or Muslim are exceptions to the norm, stereotypes persist. Relationships without information [about the other person's religion] don't work. It is the combination of responsible information and personal relationships that works well.
That's why we focus on text study and social responsibility projects.... They go beyond lip service. Authoritative texts prove that religious groups don't just care about their own members, and social action proves it too. Information and engagement are key.
Stanton: What would you like to see the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement become?
Firestone : Developing bilateral relationships between the Jewish and Muslim community is very important. Sometimes it is best when a third party is not part of the discussion. We at the CMJE consider ourselves as a "wholesaler" rather than "retailer." That is, rather than try to do it all ourselves, we want to develop programs and resources to train leaders so that they can return to their communities can establish these kinds of partnerships locally.
We're also in the process of assembling a compendium of Jewish and Muslim religious texts, translated into English and organized by topic. So, when someone looks up information on Kashrut [Jewish dietary laws], they can also find texts and information about Halal [Muslim dietary laws]. We want this to be not only for academics, but also journalists and leaders. We don't intend it to be comparative, but rather... to make sure that people don't bring the best from their tradition['s texts] to the table and compare it to the worst of the other tradition['s]. We're trying to break down that natural inclination and make sure that interactions and text studies are informed and accurate. We'll have a preliminary database up within a year, but this project is likely to take years to complete.