This fall, Jewish, Muslim, and Christian leaders from North America gathered at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) to begin an unprecedented conversation. On October 25 and 26, JTS, the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and Hartford Seminary convened a workshop on “Judaism and Islam in America.” Participants discussed the ways Jews and Muslims could learn from one another about the experience of religious minorities in the United States. Although political questions affecting relations between Jews and Muslims worldwide helped form the background of the meetings, all present agreed that there was a more productive kind of discussion to be had—one that focused on how American Jews and Muslims could see one another as partners instead of enemies.
Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of JTS, and Ingrid Mattson, immediate past president of the Islamic Society of North America and professor at Hartford Seminary, organized the workshop with the goal of initiating honest exchanges about what Muslims and Jews in America share—as well as what they do not. To this end, Eisen and Mattson decided to close the workshop to non-participants, limiting the group to twenty-five professors, religious educators, and presidents of seminaries. Eisen and Mattson wanted to ensure that people in the room felt comfortable speaking their minds with the reassurance and understanding that the conversation couldn’t be hijacked for personal political purposes by outsiders less committed to the work and dialogue. A number of participants noted how glad they were that Eisen and Mattson had created a space that was safe enough to bring all of the issues onto the table. The intimate setting encouraged participants to bring up complicated and often difficult issues that too often get swept under the rug in other avenues of inter-religious dialogue.
In addition to the closed sessions, workshop participants attended a panel discussion held at JTS which was free and open to the public. The roundtable included Chancellor Eisen, Professor Sherman Jackson, who teaches Islamic studies at the University of Michigan, and the Reverend Doctor Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary; Mattson served as moderator. Over five hundred people attended the event, and many more saw the webstream on the JTS website (www.jtsa.edu). The audience included Muslims, Jews, and Christians ranging in age from college students to retirees. The public event’s success testifies to the burning urgency of the question of Judaism and Islam’s future in America.
An important feature of this workshop was the commitment to starting a conversation, rather than arriving at solutions. The hope was that honest conversations would open up possibilities for further cooperation, and that relationships begun in October 2010 would flourish into partnerships in the coming years. The palpable excitement among participants during the concluding discussion around considering next steps suggested that Eisen and Mattson successfully planted seeds in fertile ground.
During the two days of sessions, discussion ranged from questions of law and scripture to gender and assimilation. The workshop was divided into six panels including: the history of Judaism and Islam in America, interpretation of scripture, adaptation of law, assimilation and authenticity, Christian perspectives, and the education of Jewish and Muslim clergy in America. Each panel was structured as a discussion; panelists gave short introductory remarks, after which the floor was open to all participants. Although the organizers allotted an hour and a half to each topic, there was never enough time to finish the conversation or to even come close to exhausting the issues that had been raised.
The first panel sought to ground the workshop in a discussion of history that introduced the arc of Jewish and Muslim experiences in America. In outlining the often very distinct evolutions of Islam and Judaism in America, a number of unexpected points of common interest arose. Participants wondered together about the importance of Jewish and Muslim causes outside the United States in the formation of the American Jewish and Muslim communities. Navigating the balance between investment in religious life at home versus solidarity with coreligionists abroad was one of the many challenges that Jews and Muslims had both faced (and continue to face) in America.
In subsequent panels, a number of issues arose repeatedly in different contexts. Issues such as gender equality and women’s role in public religion proved to be common challenges for Jews and Muslims. Jews discussed how questions of gender equality had caused deep divisions among Jews, resulting in significant differences among denominations. Muslim scholars noted the challenges Muslim women faced in becoming accepted as religious authorities in America. Even though there are few legal barriers to women’s assumption of religious authority in Islamic law—in fact, much less than in Jewish law—some Muslims said that many of the informal channels through which Muslim men acquired authority were closed to women. Other Muslim participants disagreed with this analysis, however, arguing that the majority of American Muslims were open to accepting women as authority figures.
Related in many ways to the issues of gender was the question of assimilation into the surrounding American society and the fine line between “assimilation and authenticity,” as Eisen and Mattson put it. A number of Jewish and Muslim participants voiced their strong desire to be part of American society, and yet expressed fears that doing so would mean losing touch with their religious and cultural beliefs. Timur Yuskaev, professor and director of the Islamic Chaplaincy Program at Hartford Seminary, suggested that Muslims’ authenticity enabled their assimilation into American culture. On the other hand, David Myers, professor of Jewish history at the University of California at Los Angeles, questioned whether such a thing as “authenticity” even existed in Judaism, an historically diaspora and minority religion that absorbed elements of whatever cultures Jews lived among.
One topic that ignited a fascinating conversation on the limits of assimilation—or acculturation, as many participants preferred to think about it—was the timely question of trick-or-treating on Halloween. Was it a betrayal of Judaism or Islam to allow one’s children to trick-or-treat? Sherman Jackson mentioned the difference between whether an American custom like trick-or-treating was technically allowed under religious law, and whether one would actually allow one’s children to take part in such a custom. Riv-Ellen Prell, professor of Jewish studies at the University of Minnesota, noted that the topic of assimilation and authenticity was rich enough to merit a conference of its own and suggested such a meeting as a way to continue the conversation in the future.
Although the workshop focused on Judaism and Islam in America, Eisen and Mattson made sure to include the voices of Christian leaders with long experience of inter-religious dialogue. In addition to Serene Jones, Heidi Hadsell, president of Hartford Seminary (a co-sponsor of the workshop), and Katharine Henderson, president of Auburn Seminary, joined the workshop and provided insight into the role of Christians in facilitating Jewish and Muslim cooperation. Hadsell noted the importance of Christians working within the Christian community to promote the importance of inter-religious dialogue, something which often involved helping the majority religion to “see” non-Christians in the first place. Echoing Hadsell’s call, Henderson described the need for a “conversion to multi-faith.”
Something that Jewish and Muslim participants reached consensus on early in the workshop was the fact that it was impossible to talk about Judaism and Islam in America as if each religious community were a monolith. Rather, American Jews and Muslims came from a wide range of cultural, social and religious backgrounds, and these differences had to be taken into account in discussions about convergences and divergences of Jewish and Muslim experiences. One of the topics that arose in the concluding conversation asked participants to consider who had been left out of this dialogue, and how those voices could be included in the future. Participants seemed to agree that they came from a relatively narrow range of viewpoints—since they were all interested in dialogue in the first place—and that this was a good place to start the conversation.
In the concluding discussion, participants suggested ways in which they could build on the foundation laid at JTS. One suggestion for practical cooperation between Muslims, Jews, and Christians addressed issues raised during the last panel on education. Safaa Zarzour, the secretary general of ISNA, emphasized the need for founding an Islamic seminary in America. Zarzour and others expressed how helpful it would be to talk to Jewish and Christian leaders of seminaries as preliminary plans for a Muslim seminary were laid. Eisen emphasized that such a conversation would be equally helpful for Jewish seminaries, noting how much he had already learned from hearing about the experience of Muslim educators in North America.
Another idea about how to continue the conversation was to hold a conference on contemporary interpretation of Jewish Law and Islamic Law. Jonathan Brown, professor of Islamic studies at Georgetown University, noted how much Jews and Muslims in America had in common when faced with adapting their respective legal systems to modern phenomena. He proposed a topic of mutual concern, such as bio-ethics, around which Jewish and Muslim legal scholars could discuss the process of contemporary legal interpretation.
Other participants suggested how helpful it would be for Jewish and Muslim clergy and educators of clergy to meet on a more regular basis to talk about the challenges of shaping the next generation of religious leaders. Benjamin Sommer, professor of Bible at JTS, noted that the opportunity to spend longer periods of time with clergy and educators of the other faith would enable the development of deeper ties across religions. A number of participants echoed Sommer and expressed their interest in having more time to engage with one another as partners committed to a number of shared goals.
Perhaps the most unusual element of the workshop was the spirit of excitement and openness which reigned from the first moment to the last. Participants repeatedly remarked how different this workshop was from others they had attended; most said they had learned an enormous amount, and that the workshop had made them hungry for more. The palpable excitement in the room reflected the urgency of these issues. Faced with increasing hostility between Jews and Muslims not only in America but in the world, the organizers and participants affirmed how crucial it was to build alliances across religious lines. All present expressed the hope that the energy and cooperative spirit of the workshop will translate into a continuation and deepening of the conversations started there. If the discussions about next steps are any indication, this workshop was truly just the beginning.
As many participants put it: God willing, in sha’ Allah, b-ezrat Hashem.
Photos: The Jewish Theological Seminary