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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Inter-Religious Dialogue in Action: Muslims and Jews Engage Scripture at Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles, CA

Fulbright Seminar

Date: October 8, 2002

Event Recap

One of the many high points of the Church, State, and Society Seminar occurred on the afternoon of Tuesday, October 8th, when our Muslim guests were invited to join faculty and students in their weekly Torah study under the direction of Rabbi Reuven Firestone at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. Director of the Louchheim School of Jewish Studies, Rabbi Firestone is also a scholar of early Islam, focusing particularly on Islam’s relationship with Jews and Judaism.

Rabbi Firestone invited our Muslim guests and his Jewish students and colleagues to engage the story of Noah both in the Hebrew and Qur’anic texts. “As people of the book,” Rabbi Firestone explained using a phrase to describe the common heritage of the Abrahamic religions, “we should be able to sit down and engage one another’s texts.” At small tables, groups of four or five were instructed to read and discuss the texts describing the story of Noah and the flood. Each table was given the Old Testament texts in both Hebrew and English translation, along with the original Arabic and English translations of the parallel stories from the Qur’an. The mood was exciting, for many reasons.

Certainly, after three weeks of dialogue about non-Muslim religions, the visiting scholars were thrilled to engage the Qur’an with North Americans, especially Jews. Moreover, the Jewish students were excited to read and hear about Noah and his particular significance to the Muslim faith. For nearly everyone in the room, this was the first opportunity to sit down with a member of the other faith and dialogue about their scriptural traditions. After the English translations of the stories were read aloud at each table, the participants were invited to discuss what about each story seemed distinctive, what points of contact the stories shared, and where the narratives diverged significantly.

Interestingly, many of the Jews found the character of Noah in the Qur’anic story to be more interesting than the Torah account. They valued Noah’s passionate concern for the other humans who would be killed by the impending flood. Similarly, many Muslims were fascinated by Noah’s righteousness and obedience to God’s will in the Genesis account. In this small way, people of both faiths came to a new relationship both with their own scriptures and with people of another, often misunderstood, religion. Performatively, Jew and Muslim sat side by side, engaging each other on a meaningful level; hopefully, the fruit of this engagement was a new and helpful perspective from which to view one another.

At the end of the scripture study, Rabbi Firestone presented each of the visiting scholars with his book Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Judaism for Muslims (Ktav, 2001), which was written as a companion to Khalid Durán’s Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Islam for Jews (Ktav, 2001). Secondly, Rabbi Firestone explained that one of the best ways to engage another religion is to “roll your sleeves up” and to come in direct contact with it. “Have any of you ever seen or touched a Torah?” he queried. He then retrieved the Torah scrolls from the ark where they are kept at Hebrew Union College and invited the Muslim scholars to come forward to look at the Hebrew text and to touch the fine leather upon which it is printed. The visitors met this final gesture with great enthusiasm—they crowded around the Torah, delicately touching it with both curiosity and deep reverence. “This,” recalls Alan Wolfe, “is surely what the State Department had in mind when it sought out scholars who would promote mutual understanding between the United States and the Muslim world.”