Rabbi Burton Visotzky, professor of Midrash and interreligious studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, was on foreign but familiar ground recently. A veteran of interfaith discussions with Muslims around the world, he was among three rabbis — the others were Jack Moline of Alexandria, Va., and Gerald Serotta of Chevy Chase. Md. — who took part in a panel discussion at the Islamic Society of North America’s 46th convention in Washington, D.C. Their topic: Muslim-Jewish Dialogue: Building a Peaceful Society Here and Abroad.” Some 30,000 Muslims attended the gathering.
Q: Many members of the Jewish community would consider “Jewish-Muslim dialogue” an oxymoron. Why don’t you?
A: Any and all interreligious dialogue is, by definition, with an “other.” This means there will always be a divergence of viewpoints and motives. In Jewish-Muslim dialogue we unfortunately are starting from a relative low point in the historic relationship between the two communities. Yet Islam and Judaism share a great deal in common — in our minority status in the U.S., in our approaches to food and prayer, in our devotion to Scripture and study, in our monotheism, and in our dedication to help the needy of our communities.
What are the limits of Jewish-Muslim dialogue?
The limits are the extent to which either of us may be convinced by the narrative of the other. Still, virtually all Jews and Muslims of good will want the same thing for both Israel and Palestine — peace in the region and an opportunity for our children to grow in an environment free of hate.
What’s the upside for the Jewish community of such dialogue, and the downside?
The upside is better relationships with our Muslim neighbors in the U.S. and the formation of potential alliances for neighborhood and other religious issues. Internationally, there is potential for confidence building measures that will help Israel live at peace with her Muslim neighbors and citizens.
The downside is hard to imagine — perhaps there are some who imagine that we might be deceived by those with whom we engage — but that is a form of conspiracy thinking that we in the Jewish community abhor when it is applied to us, so I can not embrace it.
You and a few other rabbis were among 30,000 Muslims at the Islamic Society Convention. Daniel in the lion’s den?
I wandered through the “Bazaar” at the convention, viewing the wide range of books, clothes, toys and food for sale. I was wearing a yarmulke, as well as a nametag identifying me as a rabbi, which obviously made me stand out. The universal reaction, without exception, was “Salaam Aleikum.” Most added, “We are honored you have joined us here, thank you.”
The convention took place shortly after the aborted attack — by members of the Islamic community — on two Riverdale synagogues. Was that mentioned at the convention; was it condemned?
Yes, it was mentioned. ISNA condemned the attack the day it was revealed. They have gone on record repeatedly condemning all forms of terrorism. They are friends we can count on.