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Jewish-Muslim study course grounds interfaith dialogue in sacred text

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Naomi Seidman explains the layout of a Torah page on Feb. 2 to a Muslim-Jewish text study class in Berkeley while co-instructor Hatem Bazian looks on. A.H. Sellars

BERKELEY, Calif. – Judaism is a harsh, exacting faith condemning rebellious children to death by stoning. Islam exhorts Muslims to kill non-believers.

Neither statement, according to many Jewish and Muslim scholars, is true. But they are among the most persistent charges laid at the feet of Judaism and Islam by those who are unfamiliar with the basic holy texts of the other’s faith.

Hampered by such ignorance, how can Jews and Muslims engage in real interfaith dialogue?

A new graduate-level course in Berkeley, billed as the first of its kind, aims to rectify this failing, at least for the 40 or so students enrolled.

“Madrasa/Midrasha: Muslim-Jewish Text Study,” a nine-week course spearheaded by the Progressive Jewish Alliance and run by the Center for Jewish Studies and the Center for Islamic Studies of the Graduate Theological Union, introduces students of both faiths to the methodologies and foundational content of the Koran, Torah and Talmud.

Each session is co-taught by a Jewish and a Muslim scholar. The course also is open to the public.

The field of Jewish-Muslim dialogue and engagement is growing fast. According to a not-yet-published survey by the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement in Los Angeles, 13 of 18 groups involved in this work were launched in the past seven years, and six of them in the past two years.

The new Berkeley program stands out from the pack by its focus on rigorous text study. While 50 percent of the interfaith groups surveyed indicated they would like to do comparative study of sacred texts, experts in the field say very few actually engage in such work beyond one workshop, and none do so at the graduate level.

“This Berkeley program is very special,” says Rabbi Reuven Firestone of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, which two years ago partnered with the University of Southern California and the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Foundation to form the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement.

In January 2009, Firestone co-taught the text study section of a pilot program in joint text study and interfaith relationship-building run by the center and NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. The joint text study was conducted similarly to the new Graduate Theological Union course, although it was not part of a graduate level program.

The center is looking for funding to replicate the course for other institutions. Neither Firestone nor organizers of the Berkeley course know of similar initiatives elsewhere.

Instructors in both courses say that bringing together adherents of both faiths in text-centered dialogue defuses some of the tensions that typically crop up in interfaith groups by focusing attention in a third direction: the page of a book.

“The experience of reading a Torah story we know as it appears in the Koran, seeing where it overlaps and differs, is very moving,” Firestone says. “It elicits questions. Your dialogue partner becomes the representative of a deeply fascinating religious tradition” rather than someone you’re trying to persuade of the rightness of your cause.

At the Berkeley course’s first meeting Feb. 2, Professor Naomi Seidman, director of the Center for Jewish Studies at GTU, shows the class a page from Genesis, demonstrating how one line of Torah might be surrounded by pages of commentary.

“The Torah is always read through the lens of rabbinic literature,” she explains.

Flipping to Exodus, she reads the Hebrew, “Ayin tachat ayin,” and continues in English, “an eye for an eye, that’s the ‘proof text’ that the God of Israel is a vengeful god.” In fact, she points out, Judaism never understood that dictum literally, but follows the Talmudic interpretation that such crimes demand appropriate monetary compensation -- an interpretation that is at the root of contemporary tort law.

Hatem Bazian, a senior lecturer in Near Eastern and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and Seidman’s co-teacher for the night, provided similar insight into the Koran, believed by Muslims to be the word of Allah as revealed to his prophet Muhammad.

Muhammad had four main functions, Bazian begins -- prophet, head of state, judge and military commander. One cannot understand a passage from the Koran without determining in which function Muhammad proclaimed it. If he was speaking as a prophet, the ruling has universal applicability, whereas if he was speaking as a judge, it might apply only to the case before him.

Misapplying such rulings can lead to grave wrongs, Bazian suggests, such as nation-states that don’t protect the rights of all citizens.

Munir Jiwa, founding director of the GTU’s Center for Islamic Studies, says that when Jews and Muslims explore their sacred texts, they discover deep bonds of intellect and faith -- for example, shared assumptions about the primacy of religious law that is absent from Christianity. This can bring them closer as two minorities in a Christian-dominated culture.

When Bazian discussed an Islamic ruling on ablutions after touching one’s genitalia during the first evening’s class, the Jewish students “didn’t think it was weird,” Jiwa points out, because Judaism, too, regulates bodily functions via religious rituals.

“This course allows us to struggle with our texts in a scholarly way, as well as faith practitioners,” he says. “People walked out that first night amazed by the commitment to learning they saw in each faith.”

Hatice Yildiz, a doctoral student at GTU who wears a hijab, or head covering, proclaiming her a religious Muslim, says she didn’t know the Talmud was the basic source for Jewish law. She says she’s taking the course “because I have a lot to learn about Judaism.”

Her friend and fellow doctoral student Uzma Husaini agrees.

“Because of all the tensions between Muslims and Jews due to politics, it’s important for us to build bridges,” Husaini says. “In order to do that, we have to learn what are our similarities and differences.”

JTA

 
 

Muslim mayor and Jewish deputy highlight Teaneck’s diversity

Teaneck has long been on the frontlines of diversity. In the 1960s it was the first town in America to integrate its schools. It is home to more than 20 synagogues, more than 30 kosher restaurants, and a large mosque, which led The New York Times several years ago to dub it “the Jerusalem of the West.”

And last week, the township council appointed New Jersey’s first Muslim mayor. His pairing with an Orthodox Jewish deputy mayor is reportedly a first in the country.

Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin has been on the council since 2008, while Deputy Mayor Adam Gussen won re-election to his second four-year term in May. The pair’s relationship, however, goes back to their days at Ben Franklin Middle School.

“It was sports,” Hameeduddin said. “That would be the first thing everybody did.”

The two became friends playing pick-up games of basketball, and later started a volleyball team in a Teaneck High fund-raiser tournament. During their junior and senior years, their team — named Volleyball Marathon Champs their senior year — came in second place.

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Deputy Mayor Adam Gussen, left, and Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin

“We had our eye on the prize and we weren’t going to settle for less,” Gussen said.

The two eventually wound up at Rutgers University together, and the friendship continued. In 2006, after Gussen won his first term on the council, he noticed that several of the Teaneck planning boards had vacancies. Leaders of Hameeduddin’s mosque had been discussing expansion and land-use issues with the town, so Gussen encouraged his friend to run for the planning board. Hameeduddin ran, won, and served during the contentious debate over the township’s master plan to redevelop the Cedar Lane area.

“How I conducted myself in the Master Plan process built friendships with the mayor and others,” Hameeduddin said. “If you can’t compromise, then there is no democracy.”

In 2008, Hameeduddin ran for council in what many deemed a controversial election marred by uproar over the firing of two elderly black poll workers, perceived anti-Semitic comments by another candidate, and furor over a slate promoted by Councilman Elie Y. Katz. Hameeduddin was the only member of that slate to win election.

Teaneck has its issues with race and religion, but Hameeduddin praised the township for putting them aside when it matters most.

“The people who would vote against me wouldn’t vote against me because I’m Muslim,” he said. “They’d vote against me because of my politics.”

Hameeduddin pointed out that he and Gussen have disagreed on matters of policy. Hameeduddin voted to fire former Township Manager Helene Fall, while Gussen voted against firing her. Gussen supports repealing the blue laws, while Hameeduddin supports the restrictions.

“Teaneck did its job in creating an environment where Mohammed and Adam become friends — that childhood friendship goes through a lifetime, and then we can sit down as adults 25 years later and talk about commonalities we have,” Gussen said. “We can respect each other’s differences. That’s based on trust and mutual respect.”

“Politics by its very nature is divisive,” Hameeduddin said. “People need to disagree without being disagreeable.”

The pair have their work cut out for them. According to state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), the township lost millions in funding from Gov. Chris Christie’s budget cuts.

While the combination of a Muslim mayor and Jewish deputy mayor may be unique throughout the country, it’s par for the course in Teaneck, according to Weinberg, a township resident.

“We’re used to living in our diverse community — to us it’s not such a giant leap forward,” she said. “We’ve had an African-American mayor, an Asian-Indian mayor. I’m happy to say that while many other people think it’s unique, I don’t think we do.”

 
 

Iman trip to Nazi camps spurs project to fight religious hate speech

Just weeks after returning from unprecedented investigation of Nazi-era death camps, American Jewish and Muslim interfaith activists have announced their intent to form a national organization aimed at combating religious hate speech in all of its forms.

During a Capitol Hill briefing on Sept. 22 — in which several D.C.-area Muslim leaders reported to lawmakers about the recent educational trip they took to Auschwitz and Dachau — the Muslim and Jewish activists vowed to join forces in an effort to battle anti-Semitic and Islamaphobic rhetoric that they say too often imbues contentious national political debates.

The yet-to-be-named project will “set up a structure that would give” moderate Muslim leaders “a megaphone” from which to denounce extremism, said Rabbi Jack Bemporad, director of the Carlstadt-based Center for Interreligious Understanding. A lead organizer of the group, he also helped plan the August trip to Auschwitz and Dachau.

The interfaith activists also will work to prevent the proliferation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic tract that is easily procured in the Muslim world and many Muslim American communities.

The group’s other core organizers — who also were present at the Capitol Hill briefing — include Marshall Breger, an Orthodox Jew who is a law professor at Catholic University in Washington; Sayyid Syeed, national director for the Islamic Society of North America’s Office of Interfaith and Community Alliances; and Mohamed Magid, imam and executive director of the ADAMS Center (All Dulles Area Muslim Society).

Members of the group were scheduled to gather in the District for their first formal meeting on Tuesday, and, following that, to hold a briefing at the National Press Club in Washington. Organizers said they eventually aim to bring Christian leaders into the project as well.

The effort comes as Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the Reform movement, have independently stepped up efforts to combat anti-Muslim bigotry.

Syeed said the group represents a natural evolution in the growing relationship between the American Muslim and Jewish communities.

Syeed also recalled that after returning to America following the trip to Auschwitz, he was greeted by a vitriolic national debate surrounding the proposed Muslim community center located several blocks from Ground Zero in New York City.

“This has been a difficult time” for Muslims, as many Americans are gripped by Islamaphobia, Syeed said, adding that as the mosque debate intensified, “we noticed that the Jewish community has come forward and been the most public supporters of the mosque.”

The new interfaith effort, he added, is a byproduct of this relationship.

Bemporad noted that the seeds of the group were sown as debate around the Muslim community center intensified.

“I see similar patterns in the way Muslims are being treated to the way Jews and even Catholics” have been treated at earlier times in America’s history, he said.

Added Suhail Khan, another lead organizer of the group and senior fellow at the Institute for Global Engagement: “Rather than holding hands and singing Kumbaya,” the group will “bring people together to be the responsible adults in the room” by addressing controversial issues that can adequately be addressed by the religious community.

Washington Jewish Week

 
 
 
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