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Ancient Texting: The Urgency Of Muslim-Jewish Dialogue

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A profound event quietly took place this last week: Jewish rabbis and scholars in halacha (Jewish law) met with Muslim imams and scholars in sharia (Muslim law) to discuss how improved understanding and interpretation of the foundational texts, upon which their respective religious laws are based, can help bring the two communities together. The uniqueness of this coming together cannot be over-emphasized.

Though scholarly, this coming together was not just some Ivory Tower undertaking. Ancient religious texts are profoundly influential in our daily lives today. From the Golden Rule to the Ten Commandments and everything in between, our laws, society and understanding of each other are guided, and at times held captive, by the ancient texts of the Abrahamic faiths. So how they are interpreted today is crucial.

In response, an unprecedented gathering of 40 of the country's foremost minds in sharia and halacha met in a closed-door conference in New York. The October 30 inaugural meeting of the "Muslim Jewish Scholars Conference" will be an ongoing bridge-building effort between the two communities. The conference brings together Jewish and Muslim scholars, rabbis and imams, university professors and chaplains who otherwise have little opportunity to talk to each other. It will provide an opportunity for Muslim and Jewish scholars to talk with each other openly about their respective views of their own traditions; and to talk about pressure points between their communities.

With the status of sharia at the forefront of controversy, the early afternoon session on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia was of particular interest. It focused on honest discussion about the limits and contextualization of criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. It also considered the extent to which legislative attacks on sharia -- some 20 U.S. states are looking at various proposals to ban it -- logically implies similar attacks on halacha. Quoting one of the Muslim participants: "Bigotry should not only be condemned when it applies to one's own particular religion. It should be condemned when it applies to any religion. Jews should not simply condemn or focus on anti-Semitism and Muslims on Islamophobia, but we need to be united in speaking out against bigotry and extremism wherever it occurs."

Moved by an historic trip to Auschwitz and Dachau last summer, eight influential U.S. imams realized that dialogue, and condemning Holocaust denial, are necessary but not enough. It was this trip that inspired Muslims and Jews to take dialogue further.

And it did so this week. Even though not everyone was willing to publicly acknowledge their attendance at the event, illustrating that clearly this unprecedented effort is in its infancy, they showed up and they openly engaged. For example, one of the issues that confronts both religious traditions has to do with re-conceptualizing the role of women; these issues were not avoided but were explicitly discussed.

The first step has been taken.

In these times, with the rise of Islamophobia and the proposals to ban sharia, dialogue is urgent. Understanding the commonality and differences in our foundational texts will go far in explaining why attacks on sharia cannot be separated from attacks on religious law in general. Attacks on religious freedom must be rejected.

For further information about the Muslim Jewish Scholars Conference, contact:
Prof. Marshall Breger, Catholic University of America: breger@law.edu

The Muslim Jewish Scholars Conference was sponsored by the Center for Interreligious Understanding (CIU), the Catholic University of America, and the Muslim Chaplains Association with generous support from S. A. Ibrahim and the Olender Foundation.

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