Why a Jewish Seminary Must Find Common Ground With Islam


October  24, 2010, The Huffington Post

Arnold Eisen

I am proud to be hosting a groundbreaking workshop on Judaism and Islam this week at The Jewish Theological Seminary, in partnership with the Islamic Society of North America and Hartford Seminary, because I believe, as a religious Jew, that there is no more urgent issue for individuals and communities of faith at this moment than to find our way to genuine cooperation, tolerance and mutual respect. This is a time when the fate of the planet and its inhabitants hangs in the balance as never before, and when religion, for better or worse, holds sway more than any other force over the hearts and minds of the world's peoples. More religious leaders, therefore, have an obligation to make sure that they speak a language of respect, cooperation, justice, and humility, rather than of intolerance, persecution and violence. The moderates of all faiths have to talk often and well, lest the extremists carry the day. The stakes of not doing so are simply too high to countenance.

But there is another, no less important, imperative to dialogue. It stems from the texts and practices that believers like me hold sacred and a notion of covenant with God and community that sees these bonds as precious vehicles to the service of something larger and higher than ourselves. I engage in conversations such as the one taking place at JTS next week because I believe that God and Torah command it. I am eager to talk with Muslims in particular because our list of shared concerns is long. We have much to learn from one another about the subject that I think the Torah wants me to keep at the top of my Jewish agenda: what it means to be a person of faith in our country, America, today.

Jewish Sages have always made much of the fact that the Torah begins with Adam and Eve, not with Abraham or Moses. After the Flood, humanity begins again with Noah and his children, only one of whom is the ancestor of Israel. Why? So that no one can claim purer blood than anyone else; so that all of us know that we all, without exception, are created in God's image and act on that knowledge. God makes a covenant with all "children of Noah" 10 generations before the covenant with Abraham. The Sages taught that the commandments that bind Jews are meant to serve the Creator of all, Who declares at Sinai that "all the earth is mine." God wants Jews, by obeying the Torah's teachings and commandments, to choose life, goodness and blessing for themselves and the rest of God's Creation.

The portion of the Torah that Jews read in synagogue this Shabbat announces the covenant with Abraham and, as if the liturgical calendar had been designed with our workshop on Judaism and Islam in mind, the story concerns not only Abraham, Sarah and Isaac, but Hagar and Ishmael as well. God more than once shows compassion for Hagar and Ishmael, declares a special relationship with Ishmael and Isaac, and tells Abraham that his very name signifies that he will be father to a "multitude of nations" and not just one. The Torah is clearly interested in both of the sons of Abraham and wants its readers to be concerned with them as well.

There is more. When God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and "every male among you" as a sign of the covenant, and declares that the intention to "maintain My covenant with [Isaac] as an everlasting covenant for his offspring to come," God also promises to bless Ishmael and "make of him a great nation." Abraham then inscribes the mark of the covenant on himself and his firstborn son, Ishmael, who is thirteen at the time. Isaac is not yet born. The result of the story, and its variant in the Quran, is that Jews share the sign of the covenant from the very outset with another people, another faith.

This is truly remarkable. Given such shared origins, it comes as no surprise, however, that Jews should find ourselves over the centuries, and still today, sharing an enormous amount with Muslims: law, philosophy, mysticism, grammar, the notion of a people defined by covenant with God, and sacred claim upon the Land of Israel promised by God in Scripture to Abraham and his descendants. The conversation that Jews and Muslims will conduct at JTS this week continues a long, sometimes vexed, but always rich tradition. It also reflects wholly new developments and complexities to the relationship.

That is why I am so pleased that our workshop will not merely explore the historical interplay (and tensions) between Muslims and Jews, or contrast and compare theologies and practice, but exchange lessons learned about contemporary issues of great concern to both faith communities.

We both see the world through the lens of sacred Scripture and address current dilemmas by means of Scriptural interpretation.

We both work through complex ethical matters -- individual and communal, economic and political -- through the medium of law and seek precedent to help us make our way through dilemmas that are unprecedented.

We are both minorities in a predominantly secular and Christian society, and so will compare notes -- with the help of several heads of Christian seminaries -- on how best to negotiate that situation.

We are both determined to resist assimilation while we continue to play a full part in the society and culture around us. We know this will require change that must not come at the price of authenticity.

Finally, we must continue to develop better methods with which to train clergy and other communal leaders so that they are equipped to guide their communities through the unique set of opportunities and challenges presented by America and only America.

There is clearly much to be learned from this encounter, not only about Ishmael and Isaac, but about how differences can be confronted and bridged in the common attempt to counter those who say such partnership cannot be achieved.

At the close of next week's portion of the Torah, Isaac and Ishmael are reunited, perhaps for the first time since childhood, to bury their father Abraham. I hope our workshop will help Jews and Muslims in America to "choose life" as the Torah commands. I think our effort will help both our traditions to speak loudly, and clearly, in a religious voice that is too seldom heard.


The Huffington Post, 2010