The Jewish Theological Seminary last week appointed its first Muslim visiting scholar. Yasin Meral, assistant professor of history of religions at Ankara University, will conduct post-doctoral research at JTS this year. Meral, whose Ph.D. dissertation was on “Islam and Muslims in the Writings of Maimonides,” has done post-doctoral work on end-times issues in the Jewish and Islamic traditions. The Jewish Week interviewed him by email. This is an edited transcript.
Q: How does a Muslim scholar from Turkey come to have a connection with a Jewish rabbinical school in New York City?
A: I was an MA student at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome in 2005-2007. During that time, professor Burton Visotzky of JTS came to Rome as visiting professor. I took his course and we kept in touch. Last year, I was searching for a qualified institution in America for my post-doctoral study, [and] professor Visotzky invited me here.
Do you have ties with Turkish Jews?
Yes, I know the Hakham Bashi (chief rabbi), secretary-general of Hakham Bashi and some rabbis from the bet din of the Chief Rabbinate in Istanbul. I was taught Jewish religion and Jewish culture by Rabbi Yehuda Adoni of the Turkish Chief Rabbinate in Istanbul for one year. He is a member of bet din of the Chief Rabbinate there. I have also some friends from the Turkish Jewish community.
How comfortable will a Muslim like you be in an intensely Jewish milieu?
I spent two years in Jerusalem, so I am familiar enough with a Jewish milieu. At JTS, I can learn about another aspect of Jewish community, namely American Judaism. For instance, I attended a Sukkot service in Ansche Chesed synagogue. I had the chance to witness Torah readings, circumambulation of the ark and chantings of the siddur there.
What will you be studying and teaching at JTS?
My research is a part of long-term project entitled “End of Days in Jewish and Islamic Studies (A comparative study).” I will examine eschatological and apocalyptic issues such as Gog-Magog/Ya’juj-Ma’juj, Messiah-Masih (Mahdi), anti-Messiah figure-Dajjal and some other common elements in Jewish-Muslim traditions.
You’re an expert on Maimoinides. How does his life serve as an example of Jewish-Islamic coexistence?
Maimonides spent his entire life in Muslim lands. He cured Muslim patients. To my knowledge, Maimonides is also the first Jewish scholar who clearly expressed that Islam is not idolatry. In one of his responsa he states that “The Muslims are not idolators, idolatry has long been cut off from their lips and hearts, and they maintain the proper oneness of God, yihud ha-Shem with no blemish!” His assessments of Islam were highly influental on later Jewish scholars. He was indeed a part of Muslim society.
Many Jews despair of building bridges between the Jewish and Islamic communities. Are you the outlier, or is there a critical mass of “moderate” Muslims open to dialogue?
Jews and Muslims have much in common. I encourage Jewish-Muslim dialogue in my native country to build bridges between the communities. In the thelogy faculty of Ankara University, I teach Hebrew, Basics of Judaism and relevant courses. I believe that Jews can find many Muslims who are open to dialogue and vice versa.
I see that political problems can ruin every kind of favorable efforts for Jewish-Muslim dialogue. Each side should leave the politics aside in their dialogue activities, as I always do. Otherwise, every side would try to convince the counterpart — that usually is pointless discussion.
Learning about Judaism or Islam either via the Internet or even unbiased scholarly books can not be compared with meeting of religious others. Sitting around the same table letting the politics aside and sharing knowledge is the most easy, practical and lasting solution in the long run for Jewish-Muslim dialogue as far as I have experienced.