White House spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters in June that President Bush believes “Islam is a religion of peace,” but apparently that position did not square with the views of three panelists at a recent interfaith symposium at Temple Emanu-el in Manhattan.
At the end of the daylong program, titled “The Challenge of Evil to our Faith Traditions,” panelists representing Christianity, Judaism and Islam all seemed to agree that the issue indeed is Islam itself.
They said there are core issues imbedded in Islam underpinning a perhaps irreconcilable global confrontation with the non-Islamic world, and these issues are not so easily dismissed as the ravings of a minority of evil militant Islamists.
Some of the more important insights came from Marius Deeb, professor of Islamic studies at Johns Hopkins University and a Lebanese Christian (that he was not a Muslim was a sore point for several Islamic members in the audience of 150).
Deeb spoke plainly about the clash of civilizations, citing the need for Muslims to live in a state ruled by Islamic law to fulfill their lives and to be free from Western domination.
“Only in a state which is Islamic could Muslims aspire to live in a just society,” he explained. “Justice cannot be executed without sha’ria [Islamic law] reigning supreme.”
And perhaps more important, he added: “The influence of these ideas are beyond Muslim fundamentalism. Those who are not fundamentalists and who believe Islamic sha’ria should really reign supreme have become the majority. That’s the reality.”
Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, president of the Jewish Life Network, criticized the failure of Islam to confront modernity and its leaders to condemn violence and suicide bombings, especially as the violence is clearly in the name of the religion.
“Enough of the terrorists have been Muslims, and enough of them have claimed they’re doing it on behalf of Muslims, and enough of the religious leaders have given them support as Muslims, to make that [Muslim terrorists] a legitimate description, even if it has a risk of tarring people who are innocent,” the rabbi said.
Rabbi Greenberg added: “Islam has a major challenge ahead of it. It is very weak in pluralist thinking, and pluralism is inescapable in a world of dignity.”
Father Richard John Nehaus, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life in Manhattan, warned of the increasing levels of anti-Semitism in the Muslim world as “the new rising of the face of evil.”
One audience member, Maria Ashmawy, a Muslim whose family is known for interfaith work, was “very saddened by the fact there is not a Muslim representing my faith here.”
Temple officials later told Interfaith Affairs they could not find a suitable Muslim theologian to speak.
A Painful Closing
After 30 years, the Vatican is closing its Ratisbonne Institute for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, prompting concerns from Jewish interfaith experts about its timing and future implications for interfaith studies in Israel.
The Vatican said it intends to bolster the Judaic studies programs at the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome after closing Ratisbonne in September.
“Severe, intractable and increasing financial problems,” declining enrollment and “serious academic concerns” were cited for the decision, according to a published announcement co-signed by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.
Some Jewish professors fear the closing is a signal the Vatican is distancing itself from Israel at a time of continued political tension. But Baltimore’s Cardinal William Keeler, who was instrumental in the decision, told the Catholic News Service that Israel’s political situation “only incidentally” affected the decision.
“Because of the present situation, those coming to Jerusalem to study are very few in number,” he said, adding that “a major impetus” for relocating the program in Rome came from “an Israeli Jewish leader.”
“The fact is that Rome is the center of Catholic Christendom,” Cardinal Keeler added.
Dr. Eugene Korn, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, called the closing “a deep setback.”
“It’s hard to see politics not being a factor,” he told The Jewish Week.
Korn said the experience of Ratisbonne, with its connection to Jerusalem, cannot be duplicated in Italy.
“It’s a tragedy that it is moving out of Jerusalem because that’s where the Jewish people are living and breathing,” he said. “Now is the time the Roman Catholic Church should be strengthening its ties with Israel, not pulling back.”
Ada Spitzer, a Jewish instructor at the institute, told CNS, “For me it is a personal loss. I was able to build a relationship with Christians, not only in my classroom but I also invited them to my home on the Sabbath.”
But Israeli interfaith leader Rabbi Ron Kronish told The Jewish Week that the “the closing of Ratisbonne is being misinterpreted.”
“The Vatican intends to keep Ratisbonne open and to develop new ways for it to be used,” he said. “Also, the new center in Rome will support academic initiatives in Jerusalem.”
The American Jewish Committee is partnering with the Catholic Theological Union for joint research and programs, including studying and expanding interfaith dialogue in Catholic and Jewish high schools.
AJCommittee interreligious director Rabbi David Rosen, who is Orthodox, offers a spirited argument for expanding theological interfaith dialogue with Christians, rejecting the 40-year-old “ban” on such conversations from the late Orthodox scholar Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. “It seems to me to be quite artificial to make a distinction between social and political issues on the one hand and theological on the other,” Rabbi Rosen contends. In fact, he calls theological dialogue a divine obligation. His essay can be read at www.jcrelations.net
Essays debating the value of “Dabru Emet,” a landmark Jewish document responding to Christian entreaties to Judaism, can be read at www.bc.edu/cjlearning. Brooklyn College Professor David Berger (Orthodox) raises reservations about Dabru Emet, while Notre Dame Professor Michael Signer (Reform) defends it.