This article first appeared in the Fall 2007 Edition of The Reconstructionist.
In the fall of 2002, after a four-year hiatus, I returned to the work of interfaith relations and discovered a new world. The events of Sept. 11, 2001 had dramatically transformed many aspects of American life, including — I soon learned — the field of interreligious dialogue. I had spent years keeping up with the burgeoning literature on Jewish-Christian dialogue, attending conferences and participating on boards and in coalitions, serving as “the rabbi” on countless panels with priests and ministers. The invitations I now received were virtually always for “Abrahamic” encounters — programs involving Christians, Jews and Muslims.
I was surprised by how unprepared I felt. I had dutifully taken notes in my course on Islam in graduate school and had even been part of an international scholars forum in the early 1990s with Muslims from abroad. But, lacking ongoing relationships with individual Muslims, I had failed to integrate what I had learned. In the case of Jewish-Christian relations, I knew what the issues were between us — historical, theological and political. More important, I had some idea of what was at stake for our communities in our public encounters. I could anticipate what would be said and what would be left unsaid. Over time, I had developed relationships of trust with some Christians with whom I could share, over a late night meal, what was usually considered “unsayable.”
The opportunity for interreligious dialogue with the Muslim community both challenged and intrigued me. Who was promoting this surge of activity? What hopes did Muslims bring to this endeavor? What were their fears? What motivated Christian interest in the conversation? And what about our community? What would it mean for Jews now to be part of a tripartite American civil faith, for the “Judeo-Christian tradition” to be replaced by the “Abrahamic tradition?” One thing was clear: I had a lot of catching up to do.
As I participated in ever more three-way encounters, I realized that I was not alone in my questions. Many of us — Jewish, Christian and Muslim — were stumbling about in new territory. As I thought about the knowledge and experiences I needed to do this work effectively, something else became clear as well. It was time for a new approach to teaching Islam to rabbinical students. Our elective academic course in Islam at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) needed to be rethought. After several experiments, the work of rethinking came to fruition in the spring of 2008 with a new course, Islam for Rabbinical Students, funded by the Henry Luce Foundation,
Teaching About Other Religions at RRC
For almost 30 years, RRC has included courses in religious traditions other than Judaism as part of its core curriculum. The college sees this as an indispensable component of a rabbinic education. Students develop a sharper and more nuanced understanding of Judaism by appreciating it in the context of other traditions, gaining perspective on both its unique and its universal elements. If religious traditions are valued as “keepers of conversation about ultimate questions across the generations,” then it behooves us to learn what we can about those other conversations. As a matter of spiritual formation, studying other religions can be a component in the overall process of developing as a religious person, of growing in one’s faith. As author/journalist Yossi Klein Halevi put it, “religious pluralism is the great spiritual adventure of our generation.”
Knowledge of other faiths serves our rabbis in more practical ways, as well. Increasingly, RRC graduates and the Jews with whom they work live in a multifaith world. Half of our graduates find work outside congregations — often in pluralistic settings such as universities, hospitals or agencies. Those who do become pulpit rabbis find their pews filled with family members who are Jews by choice or, in some cases, active participants in other faiths. As religious leaders concerned with the world around them, our rabbis often partner with clergy of other faith in activities related to social and communal concerns.
The Need to Teach about Islam
By 2002, three historical developments had converged to make RRC’s focus on an Islam program especially salient. First, the events of Sept. 11 and their aftermath, from the Iraq war to the USA Patriot Act, had put Muslims and Islam at the center of the news. A concerned American citizen would fail to understand national and international issues without first understanding something of Islamic thought and history.
Second, since the beginning of the Second Intifadah in 2000, there has been a growing awareness that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict cannot be understood apart from the context of the religious passions involved. Most observers agree that the religious conversation surrounding the conflict is growing in importance; they speak of the “religionizing” of the conflict. The religious dimension complicates an already difficult situation. Yet, some see in this complication a potential for understanding and resolution not otherwise available.
Most important, in recent years, we have seen the coming of age of large numbers of second-generation Muslim-Americans. In 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Act passed Congress with overwhelming support. Few anticipated that this act, the first major change in immigration law since the restrictive act of 1924, would change the face of America, creating a new geo-religious reality. The Muslim community in America had been small, largely composed of African-Americans and earlier immigrants from Syria and Lebanon. After 1965, Muslims from the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East began swelling its ranks. Today, between 3 million and 7 million Muslims live in America. Islam is the fastest growing religion in the Unites States and, while exact numbers are disputed, it is fair to say that in the not-too-distant future, America will be home to more Muslims than Jews.
In the absence of Muslim chaplains, Reconstructionist rabbis sometimes find themselves serving the religious needs of Muslims. For example, an RRC graduate working on a college campus was responsible for helping a Muslim student decide whether and how to observe Halal, the Islamic laws concerning permissible foods, and then for working with the college dining service to meet her needs. In another case, a Reconstructionist rabbi serving as a U.S. Army chaplain wrote the request for leave for a Muslim enlisted woman who wished to go on the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
Yet all is not well between Jews and Muslims in our country. Ironically, our experience of dialogue with Christians provides us with a reverse model of what we now confront. In Jewish-Christian dialogue, we explore a centuries-old, painful history. Over the last half century, the Jewish-Christian relationship has been characterized by reconciliation. In the case of Jewish-Muslim relations, however, our problem is less with history than with current events, dating back less than 100 years. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is at the center of our often contentious agendas, but larger issues swirl around it. Toxic levels of Jew hatred exist in the Arab world and radiate out to the worldwide community of Muslims. Some Jewish intellectuals and activists see a role for themselves in alerting Americans to the “dangers of Islamic extremism.”
In my experience, the Jewish fear of Muslims exists alongside a genuine concern for the well-being of a marginalized religious minority. I have met Jews who actively seek the opportunity to become allies with Muslims in America. I have also met Jews who are frightened by the “other” — this particular “other” more than most. Finally, I have met Jews who, in differing measures, harbor both of those impulses. As Roger Gottlieb wrote, we Jews often have a perplexing two-sided sensibility -- empathy for victims and a terrible fear of becoming victims ourselves.
In any case, many Jews are grateful for the opportunity to discover more about Islam and Muslims. For example, Jews frequently appreciate learning that only a minority of African- American Muslims are now connected with the notorious Nation of Islam and that the majority are mainstream Sunni Muslims. Jews are often surprised to discover that a Muslim in America is more likely to be of South Asian origin than Arab. Most Jews are eager to learn facts about the Muslim world — for example, that the proper word to use is “Muslim,” not “Moslem,” and that “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for God, not a proper name.
Jewish religious leaders need to develop clear thinking on what is true and what is not true in the narrative surrounding the Middle East conflict, with its discourse about the clash of civilizations and the relationship between Islam and the West. Slapping on labels, such as “Islamophobia,” to views that strike us as unduly critical is not nearly as effective as understanding the complex reality that stands behind such views.
The goal for a newly revised course on Islam was, at a minimum, to give our students basic competence in this area. Maximally, we hoped to instill in at least some students the motivation to continue learning so that they might become leaders and change agents in their communities. For that, we needed a course that went beyond the typical classroom model. In designing the course, three elements were crucial: 1) giving the students exposure to the pluralism and dynamism of American Islam; 2) creating opportunities for them to meet and interact with their Muslim peers; and 3) finding opportunities to provide interfaith education about Islam in a Jewish setting.
Exposure to Pluralism: Islam as an Evolving Religious Civilization
Reconstructionists understand that religious ideas, including our own, are historically rooted efforts by men and women to make sense of their individual and collective lives. Islam, like Judaism, is a pluralistic, evolving religious civilization. It is important to avoid essentializing such a complex weave of text, tradition and history. As guest speaker Rumeee Ahmed, the first Muslim chaplain appointed at Brown University, told our students, “Islam is not one thing. It does not wake up in the morning and brush its teeth.”
At RRC, our religion courses typically focus on the heterogeneity of religious traditions, as well as on their evolution through history. This is particularly important in teaching Islam. The popular media in America promotes simplistic images that fail to capture diversity and, even more serious, often ignore the possibility of change.
In order to give students a sense of the variety within American Islam, the class met with five different Muslim instructors, each of whom joined us for one or two weeks. I served as an anchor person. Our guests included a woman of South Asian background whose dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania is on a 13th-century commentator on the Qur’an; an award-winning poet who became a Sufi 38 years ago; and an African-American sheik from a Philadelphia mosque who memorized the Qur’an while growing up in Saudi Arabia. We emphasized how different these versions of Islam are from each other, at the same time noting how, in America, these distinct communities are interacting and affecting one another.
We especially focused on trying to sort out the complex phenomena that go by the names of “radical Islam,” “Islamist thought,” “political Islam,” and “Wahabi Islam.” When and why did these ideas emerge? How do the labels “moderate” and “extremist” fit in this context? How do different American Muslims relate to these movements? One of our guests said, “Al Qaeda hijacks true Islam,” while another said of the feminist, pro-Israel writer Irshad Manji, “She isn’t really a Muslim, even if she says she is.” We remained agnostic regarding such essentialist claims. It is our job to understand Muslim ideas as products of particular situations and to watch with informed curiosity as Islamic civilization continues to evolve in the years to come.
When I surveyed some RRC graduates regarding their experiences studying Christianity in rabbinical school, many emphasized the value of participating in Seminarians Interacting, a former program of the National Conference of Christians and Jews that arranged for cross-religious seminary visits. They almost all agreed that classroom learning at RRC, even with an excellent Christian scholar, went only so far; the most powerful education came from relationships with their Christian counterparts.
It was clear that pairing our students with Muslim peers would have many benefits. In previous courses on Islam at RRC, we had required students to visit a mosque. This had proven to be a difficult assignment. Students had trouble locating mosques where they might feel welcome, discerning how to behave while visiting a mosque, and interpreting what they saw there. In some cases, such visits had proven to be negative experiences. My goal for this course was to provide each rabbinical student with a Muslim partner; together, they would engage in some shared text study. The partner would also serve as host on our student’s visit to a mosque.
Our challenge was to locate young, emerging leaders in the Muslim community. Most imams in America are products of a classical education in “the old country”(often Saudi Arabia or Egypt). The Zaytuna Institute and Academy in Berkeley, Calif., recently graduated the first American-trained imams, five young leaders conversant in Arabic and Islamic textual traditions who are also committed to engaging Western thought and society — as we would say, “living in two civilizations.” Since these individuals were not local, we had to work with the next best thing: Muslim graduate students studying in Philadelphia universities. Most of the Muslim students who volunteered to participate in our program were working toward degrees in Islamic studies; a few were students in other fields, such as law or computer science.
The goal of these encounters was not necessarily to foster long-lasting relationships. Rather, we hoped to equip our students with the confidence to seek out Muslim peers in the future. In the end, at least some of the partners will continue to remain connected through the Internet. A few wrote that they were grateful to have made a new friend.
Opportunities to Practice: Service Learning
My third concern was that our students have hands-on experience as interfaith educators. I wanted them to practice helping other Jews to learn about Islam. Since one of the most effective ways to learn about a religious tradition is from a participant in that tradition, I asked the students to work with their Muslim counterparts to plan and then execute an educational experience about Islam for a group of Jews in a congregation, Hebrew school or university setting.
A student who planned a Hebrew school class with her Muslim counterpart wrote, “As the class progressed, I became ever clearer about the importance of the message we were sending. The children knew that these adults had worked together and were now teaching the class together. They had an experience of seeing adults engaged in respectful, easy Jewish-Muslim collaboration. There was nothing scary or uncomfortable…The most important thing we had done that day was to model our relationship to the students. They saw that we are in conversation with each other and that we are grateful for our relationship.”
Challenges Along the Way: Traversing Different Worlds
As expected, the requirement to study and collaborate with a Muslim peer over a period of weeks turned out to be challenging. Our students had to stretch themselves in some ways they anticipated and some ways they did not. Our students were mindful that their version of Judaism is on one end of the spectrum in its embrace of progressive values. From what they knew of Islam, they thought they might find some of the same issues emerging as those that often emerge in encounters with more traditional Jews or Christians.
This was especially pronounced for a few students in the class who were in same-sex relationships. One such woman who had been married in a Jewish religious ceremony worried that talking about her wife and son might undermine the relationship with her Muslim peer. She worried, however, that “not talking about them might seem cold or guarded.” One of the students in this situation wrote about the “challenge of entering into relationship and dialogue with someone whose tradition might not welcome or even tolerate me…. How would I bring my whole self to the encounter, when my whole self might be offensive to my dialogue partner?”
One female student wrote, “The gender dynamics were a major factor for me, especially when I visited my [male] partner’s mosque, where I sat behind a gigantic cloth barrier in the corner of the prayer space, blocked off from seeing any activity, listening to the prayer service through a malfunctioning P.A. system. I feared for a few days that this negative experience might color the rest of my encounters with my partner, but when we next met to study texts together, I came to that experience with enthusiasm about our opportunity to learn from each other. I knew that we would not have time to process this issue, so I let it go.”
And then there was “the elephant in the room,” as the Palestinian- Israeli conflict is known among veterans of Jewish-Muslim conversation. Would these students’ fragile new relationships falter on their presumed different responses to the word “Zionist”? In one case, a relationship did falter; in another, a good conversation (although hardly agreement) ensued. The other student pairs stayed focused on the tasks at hand, which, by design, were about text, worship and education, and not about Middle East issues. This is not to say that those issues should never be part of Jewish-Muslim conversation. On the other hand, American Jews and Muslims need not engage around it, especially at the start of building a relationship.
Students began to learn, by trial and error, what could be discussed and when. They struggled to achieve a balance between being “too nice” and, alternatively, endangering a warm and fruitful connection by insisting on discussing topics best left on the sidelines. A student wrote, “I was less afraid that our sessions would dissolve into polemics than that they would dissolve into politeness.” On the other hand, when people do not know each other well, and trust has not yet been established, politeness is often a far better choice than polemics.
One student reflected that she was able to draw upon the lessons she had learned at RRC while studying earlier periods of Jewish history. For example, when she was learning Talmud, her teacher, Rabbi Sarra Lev, had encouraged her to “put yourself at the table.” By this, Professor Lev meant that she would benefit most if she could surrender to the norms and values of a different social context, rather than lay her own on top in contention. In this situation, the student sometimes found it best to “put herself at the table” in order to forgo judgment in the service of learning.
As in most things in life, sensitive listening for the other’s burden and a respectful desire to help bear it go a long way. As one student put it, “ Our relationship feels like a gift that each of us wants to take very good care of.” Sometimes, that meant speaking and, sometimes, it meant remaining silent.
The late Rabbi Samuel Sandmel, a scholar of the New Testament and a pioneer in interfaith work, coined the word “parallelomania”; often, I found it ringing in my ears as we moved through the semester seeking the similarities and differences between Judaism and Islam. We were warmed by discovered connections, both expected and unexpected, and we were surprised when apparent similarities turned out to be a matter of our imposition of Jewish categories on Muslim ideas.
When Jews first encounter Islam, it is difficult not to notice the parallels between our traditions. Because of the connection between Hebrew and Arabic, cognates abound. Sometimes, noting parallels is entirely appropriate. In one Hebrew school class, a student and her Muslim partner created a matching game using Hebrew and Arabic words — easy ones, like “shalom/salaam,” and more difficult ones as well. The kids got to participate in the game, and the shared linguistic roots gave them a sense of comfort with something that might have felt alien.
Other parallels proved meaningful and worthy of focus. A student with a strong personal passion and knowledge of Jewish mystical tradition was paired with a doctoral student named Hasan who was studying Sufi texts. He wrote, “Hasan would mention a teaching of Al-Arabi, and I would say, ‘That is just like this concept in the Zohar.’ I would say, ‘There is this Hasidic concept I really connect to,’ and he would respond, ‘I know what you mean. That is like…’” The two found themselves finishing each other’s sentences and, like some — although not all — of the pairs, they did a good deal of laughing. This particular dyad envisioned a meditation retreat for Jews and Muslims to plumb the depths of connection.
The natural tendency to want to relate through commonality is enhanced in this case by two factors. Muslim theology understands Islam as a culminating faith, integrating into itself all that is good in the other traditions. In addition, American Muslims engaging in dialogue are often eager to move from the margins of American society toward the center. Emphasizing what Muslims share with other American religions is crucial to that goal. To take a prominent example, the focus on Abraham as our common ancestor serves an important purpose, providing the organizing symbol and language for Muslims, Jews and Christians to rally around.
On the other hand, the focus on parallels can be misleading; it can obscure the richest learning. Jewish scholar Jon Levenson, Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at the Harvard Divinity School, speaking about the example of Abraham, concludes, “When different communities understand each other better, it’s usually because they understand how they are different.”
As the semester progressed, we began to probe the easy linguistic connections more fully, noticing the more subtle nuances and even the more radical differences between words that sounded the same. We began to discipline our listening to notice how we quickly impose our own categories on what we hear. We appreciated the fact that Muslims in America have a strong drive to enter as full partners into Judeo-Christian culture. And there is much that is quite true about the common sources of our Abrahamic traditions. At the same time, we tried to be more attuned to the new and the different, for therein lay the challenge and growth for us.
Living in Two Civilizations: A Complicated Parallel
While American Jews and Muslims both have faced the challenge of living as minorities in a dominantly Christian culture, this shared experience might appear to be more parallel than it actually is. It is fascinating for Jews to learn how Muslims are now negotiating “living in two civilizations,” a process American Jews have been engaged in for several generations. One of our guests, an African-American Muslim who teaches at a local Quaker school, told us that when he was in college, he read Mordecai Kaplan, the seminal thinker of the Reconstructionist approach to Judaism, to try to “figure out how to create a progressive Islam.” Many American Muslims are trying to discern how to fit in and also remain distinct, how to preserve tradition and also reap the benefits of the contemporary world — in sum, how Islam will evolve in the American context.
The encounter with America is very different for Muslim immigrants today than it was for our Jewish ancestors. To take just one example, when most Jews immigrated to America from Europe, they did not have continued access to the “Old World” through jet travel, cable television, the Internet and Skype. Our students quickly learned that you couldn’t fit most Muslims into our matrix of Orthodox, Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, for example. The categories just did not work. Our traditions are different, the Muslim confrontation with modernity has been different, and America’s relationship to Islam is different.
One student reported a conversation she had with her Muslim partner regarding their respective decisions to publicly don (or not don) a hijab or a kippah. Another commented about how different the very questions are for progressive Islam from those facing progressive Jews. She began to frequent websites such as www.Muslimwakeup.com to begin to understand the issues as they are seen inside a Muslim context.
Although both Jews and Muslims in America are members of minority religious communities of similar size, there is an asymmetry in the relationship between us. The Jews and Muslims in our project were all young people pursuing graduate education at fine schools. But our communities are not similarly balanced. The Jewish community, for the most part, is further along in wealth, organization and power. Some Jews nurture a self-image as the vulnerable outsider. It comes as a surprise to them that to Muslims, our community appears to be one of insiders who “have it made” in ways that they can only imagine. One of our students reported that this project made her more aware of her privileged status in this country.
Reading Sacred Texts
As Jews, we assumed that shared text study would be an obvious way to build relationships. Perhaps the most surprising learning to emerge from our program was how much more complicated the reality was. More than a few students commented that the requirement to study texts together, in hevrutah — one on one — was the most difficult part of their interactions with their Muslim peers.
We learned that the place of the Qur’an in the world of a believing Muslim cannot be overstated. Personal testimony helped to make this clear. In the middle of the semester, we brought Islamic feminist and scholar Amina Wadud to Philadelphia to speak at a synagogue. Wadud grew up as an African-American Christian, but as a young woman, she was given a gift that, in her words, “made all difference in my life to this moment — a copy of the Qur’an.” As she described it, “ a romance began with sacred word and the sacred made manifest in language… I am still in a love affair with Qur’an.” Her words helped make sense of the statement by Mahmoud Ayoub, professor of Islamic studies and comparative religion at Temple University in Philadelphia, that while Muslims accept a human role in the scribing of the Qur’an, the Islamic science of textual study never questions the basic conviction that God revealed the Qur’an. He wrote, “To ask Muslims to doubt the divine origin of the Qur’an is to ask them to abandon Islam as a faith and a worldview.”
Of course, the Muslims we heard from and met with differed radically among themselves in how they understood that statement. It is also the case that some of our students would say the very same thing about the Torah, if given an opportunity to speak with nuance about what they meant by those words. Nevertheless, we were almost always bridging not only different textual traditions, but also different ways of thinking about the authority of scripture.
This is not to say that wonderful learning did not emerge from these sharings. One of our students spoke to her Muslim partner about the story of Abraham feeding the strangers (angels) in Genesis 18; she wanted to emphasize the role of hospitality in her spiritual life. Her partner responded by flipping through the Qur’an and showing her all the places where angels appeared.
Another student and her Muslim partner, in planning a presentation before a Hebrew school class, initially thought they would model how to politely probe major similarities and differences between the two religions. But in the end, they went for something more risky. They decided to do a text study around a provocative question: What do children owe their parents? They used as their texts the fifth commandment in the Bible and the Qur’an passage involving Luqman’s Advice to His Son in Sura 31: 13-19. Sidestepping the issue of hermeneutics and avoiding as well a simple “compare and contrast” model, they used their respective texts to jumpstart an animated discussion about parent/child relationships.
Looking to the Future
As the semester came to a close, students often wondered how they would go about finding Muslim study partners in the places where they would next live and work. They wondered, as well, about the hurdles they might face as Jewish leaders advocating for stronger Jewish-Muslim connections. How could they play a positive role in their cities or towns? One student wrote, “After this course, I plan to make it my business to develop solid bonds with Muslim leaders before a crisis or conflict emerges in my community.” At least by their stated intentions, most students confirmed my premise that increased knowledge and exposure would lead to higher motivation to engage with Muslims and to encourage other Jews to do so, as well.
We ended the semester by meeting with Raquel Ukeles, an Orthodox Jew who holds a doctorate in Islamic and Judaic Studies from Harvard University and who is now a post-doctoral fellow at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She shared with us her evaluation of the current state of relations between Muslims and Jews on an institutional level. Ukeles encouraged us to judge individuals and groups based on their own stated positions, rather than on the positions of others with whom they might be affiliated. She reminded us that if we set the bar for political correctness (as we define it) too high, we would limit ourselves to a very small pool of Muslims with whom to dialogue and collaborate. She said, “ I believe it is in the interest of the Jewish community to be active, open and risk-taking.”
In the two years that have elapsed since I initiated this course, enormous advances have taken place in Jewish-Muslim relations. At the national convention of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association last March, a session with Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim chaplain at Georgetown University in Washington, concluded with an opportunity, taken by many of the rabbis, to speak about successful efforts in Jewish-Muslim relations in their communities. This November, James Jones, a professor of Islam at Manhattanville College and President of Masjid Al-Islam in New Haven, Conn., spoke at the national convention of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation about his work with Jews on Middle East issues. A volume published by the Union for Reform Judaism in cooperation with the Islamic Society of North America includes a list of almost 20 American organizations that are promoting dialogue between Jews and Muslims. The proliferation of new initiatives suggests that this issue is growing in importance for both Muslims and Jews. Our learning curve is steep. For that reason – among others -- it is a privilege to be a part of this work.
The author acknowledges the generosity of the Henry Luce Foundation for making this course possible, as well as the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania and the Institute for Interreligious, Intercultural Dialogue at Temple University.
Rabbi Dr. Nancy Fuchs-Kreimer is Associate Professor and Director of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She also oversees Multifaithworld.org, a blog dedicated to the study of inter-religious issues, and serves on the Board of Scholars and Practitioners of the Journal of Inter-Religious Dialogue™.