With an open heart and critical eye, the future of liberal Judaism is interfaith, especially between Jews and Muslims, and Christians, especially between Jews and Muslims. That’s what’s important, and difficult. A big crowd came out this past Shabbat at Ansche Chesed in New York to hear Sister Mary Boys from Union Theological Seminary and Imam Abdullah Atepli from Duke University. The event drew not just synagogue regulars but people from across the larger community, also young people. A lot of interfaith skirts around points of difference and conflict in order to arrive at an easy consensus based on false assumptions. In contrast, the event with Antepli and Boys touched upon discord and pain. The energy was focused and intense, the feeling very sharp. It seemed as if organized around the idea of telling American Jews what “we” need to hear from Christians and Muslims, which is a good start but only goes so far.
On Friday night, Boys and Antepli told life-stories about Jews and Judaism, New York and America and how these form part of their story as a Christian or Muslim. Boys came from Seattle in the 1960s to Boston and then to Union Theological Seminary across the street from JTS. Antepli was born in Turkey to a family marked by radical secularism and anti-Semitism; he is now at Duke University and helped establish the Muslim Leadership Institute that brings American Muslim movers and shaker to the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel, not to whitewash the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but to learn about it from the inside from what for them clearly constitutes the other side. Both speakers spoke about the opening up of worlds, trans-continental and trans-Atlantic, cross-over stories woven and weaving into each other. On Saturday, Boys, Antepli and Rabbi Kalmanofsky workshopped scriptural texts from all three traditions, some that promote the best ideals of peace and social justice, and some that promote the worst form of violence directed against others.
Antepli was, of course, the center of attention of the event. There is a palpable in not desperate hunger among liberal Jews to both hear from and support Muslim Americans, not just because of Israel and Palestine, but also because of Iraq and Syria and the horrible unraveling in the Middle East today. Antepli words suggests that American Muslims need to hear from American Jews, and there is the strong sense that “they” need “us” as much as “we” need them.” Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are not some abstract things. My own sense is that members from both communities need to dial back the toxic animosity surrounding the question of Israel and Palestine. Not to ignore the conflict, the occupation, Palestinian dispossession and statelessness, anti-Jewish terrorism, and anti-Jewish hatred in the Muslim world and in Muslim communities in Europe, can American Jews and Muslims work toward a more just and more amicable future both here at home with an eye to over there?
As a university scholar, I want to add this. It turns out, the synagogue, mosque, and church might be where this kind of work is more likely to happen than in the university classroom. Particularly because of his work taking community leaders with the Muslim Leadership Institute at the Hartman Center in Israel, Antepli has been excoriated by university scholars in Islamic and Middle East Studies and by activist groups like Students For Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace for violating the terms of the BDS movement, including its “anti-normalization” plank. You can read about that here. As a university academic, I find it sad to say that among academics and students that on-campus dialogue across the religious and political divides separating Jews and Muslims is rare indeed, or that when it does happen, it does so only sotto voce and in private. I do not ever expect to see an event like this in a public university space, where the drift tends to be overwhelmed ideologically by a dogmatic anti-Zionism, dressed up as anti-colonialism, dressed up as anti-racism, and which does nothing but stoke inter-group antagonism. In this environment, Jews feel increasingly put upon, but my bet is that Arab and Muslim students will be increasingly isolated as activist groups put them in an impossible political position vis-à-vis a larger and predominantly indifferent campus community, in which the two communities that care most about the conflict are driven further and further apart from each other by polemical rancor.
So much of current left academic politics is based on a firm friend/enemy distinction with very little mutual understanding across that divide. In contrast, what I found unique about Boys and Antepli was their genuine comfort with Jewish liturgical settings, Jewish religious texts, Jewish turns of phrase, and a Jewish sensibility. No doubt Boys and Antepli represent unique perspectives within their own respective faith communities. In my own experience, I think it would be right to say that this profound familiarity with Islam is rare among rabbis or scholars of Jewish Studies. We read very little about it and talk very little about it beyond headlines and clichés. Liberal Jews always ask where the moderate Muslims are, as if everything is so one-sided. As far is it goes, the question is as unfair as it is fair. After the Friday evening talk, it was suggested to Antepli by a member of the congregation that at some point when he addresses the problem of anti-Semitism that he return the question as well. The question is not just “where are the moderate Jews?” who stand out against the worst abuses in the West Bank and against more garden variety Islamophobia in the Jewish community. More to the point, leaders like Antepli need to tell liberal Jews what they can do and what they have to do in order to help them.
Anyone can assemble a religion of hate and violence out of a complex historical tradition, or can caricature a religious tradition as such by narrowly focusing on its most ambiguous or dubious expressions and its worst political actors. All of this was out in the open. The takeaway from the event at Ansche Chesed was anti-apologetic and anti-essentialist. All the slogans about Judaism and justice, Christianity and love, Islam and peace were all left at the door. Instead, the speakers and congregation grappled with open traditions, including hard stories and difficult texts, in order to address questions about religion on human terms. At the end of the session Friday night, Antepli received most of the questions. Again, I have to speak as a university scholar. Between Jews and Muslims there is simply so much that needs to be said both inside and outside the synagogue and mosque that are not and cannot be said nowadays, openly and honestly, in university settings. The last word was by Boys and it concerned the kind of transformational religious and moral leadership personified by Pope Francis, about which there was broad if not unanimous agreement.