Podcast: Jewish Values, Jewish Interests

Ruth Wisse

This was easily our most provocative event to date.

On Monday, December 5th, Prof. Ruth Wisse and Rabbi Joy Levitt joined BJPA Director Prof. Steven M. Cohen at the NYU Law School for a wide-ranging, passionate, broad discussion of how the Jewish community should relate to the outside world.

After a brief ceremony honoring Gail Chalew for her 20+ years as editor of the Journal of Jewish Communal Service (the digitization of which on BJPA was the impetus for the event), Rabbi Levitt spoke of her decisions, as Executive Director of the JCC in Manhattan, to reach out to non-Jewish poor and minority communities, as well as the Muslim community leaders affiliated with the Cordoba Center / Park 51 "Ground Zero mosque" now known as Prayer Space. Prof. Wisse spoke of Israel under attack and an American Jewish community lacking in moral confidence, and judging Judaism based on liberal standards instead of liberalism based on Jewish standards. Our fearless leader, Prof. Cohen, acted as moderator, but without setting aside his own positions on the issues.

Click here to listen.

David Elcott on Interfaith Mideast Peace Work

Prof. David Elcott discusses the decline of interfaith work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Part of our Office Hours series.)

David Elcott on Interfaith and Interethnic Coalition-Building

For the latest installment in our Office Hours series, Prof. David Elcott discusses his experiences working with leaders across boundaries of religion and ethnicity to build meaningful interfaith and interethnic coalitions.

 

Gov. Christie: Shari'a Concerns Are "Crazy"

The video below demonstrates that not every popular Republican has jumped on the anti-Islam bandwagon. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, best known for his (to put it mildly) bluntness, reacts to criticism of his appointment of a Muslim judge to the state bench:

We've had something of an anti-anti-Islam theme going on this Jewish policy blog for the past few weeks, but I think that's appropriate. It's not only that Muslims and Jews share key values, as the JTA reported this week. It's also, naturally, that American Jews have a strong communal knowledge of what it's like to be a vilified religious/ethnic minority. The fact that our two communities are so bitterly divided over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and related issues makes it all the more important to recognize these and other points of commonality.

Background:

BJPA Publications on Islam
BJPA Publications on Jewish-Muslim relations
BJPA newsletter on Jewish-Muslim relations, September 2010

Other recent Islam themed blog posts:

July 18
July 28
August 1

Publications for Ramadan

Hodesh tov, it's Av. And Ramadan mubarak, it's Ramadan.

Here are a few highlights from our publications relevant to the Muslim community and Jewish-Muslim relations:

See also Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's Ramadan greeting:

Cain's Incomplete Apology, and Religion in Politics

After offending Muslims (and at least one Jew) last week by saying localities have the right to ban mosques because Islam includes the concept of shari'a law, Herman Cain has now met with Muslim leaders and released an apology:

...While I stand by my opposition to the interference of shariah law into the American legal system, I remain humble and contrite for any statements I have made that might have caused offense to Muslim Americans and their friends. I am truly sorry for any comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution and the freedom of religion guaranteed by it. Muslims, like all Americans, have the right to practice their faith freely and peacefully.

As I expected, we discovered we have much more in common in our values and virtues. In my own life as a black youth growing up in the segregated South, I understand their frustration with stereotypes. Those in attendance, like most Muslim Americans, are peaceful Muslims and patriotic Americans whose good will is often drowned out by the reprehensible actions of jihadists...

Cain's apology is unsatisfactory for two reasons. First, he ought to have stated specifically that he now realizes that localities do not have the right to ban mosques, if in fact he has come to that realization.  If he has not, and he still believes localities may ban mosques, then his apology for causing offense is utterly hollow. If he has changed his position, then he should say so directly; dodging the specific issue just leaves him looking weaselish. (Speaking of weaselish, see also the phrase "..any comments that may have betrayed my commitment to the U.S. Constitution...")

Second, Cain again makes the problematic assertion that shari'a has no right to "interfere" in the American legal system (see the first sentence excerpted above). It is actually quite tricky to pin down what this might mean, and once again a glance at parallel concepts in other American religions is instructive. Does Cain believe that shari'a should be held to a different standard than Jewish halakhah and Catholic canon law? If so, he continues to favor bigotry. Even if this is the case, I can't imagine he'll be up front about it, so let's assume he would say he believes that religious legal systems should all be held to the same standards. How, then, would Herman Cain define interfering, and how precisely would he seek to curb it?

I have emailed the following questions to Herman Cain's campaign:

  1. Should shari'a law be held to the same standards or different standards than Jewish halakhah or Catholic canon law?
  2. If a Muslim citizen believes shari'a law reflects God's will, and that shari'a prohibits gay marriage, and so votes for a candidate who opposes gay marriage, does that count as "interference"?
  3. If a Jewish citizen believes halakhah reflects God's will, and that halakhah requires a middle ground between the standard pro-life and pro-choice abortion positions, and so votes for a candidate who is centrist on abortion, is that "interference"?
  4. If a Christian citizen believes Jesus commanded socialism, and so votes for a socialist candidate, is that "interference"?
  5. When anti-slavery Christian pastors preached that God insisted slavery be abolished, was that "interference"?
  6. When, in the 1950s and '60s, Archbishop Joseph Rummel of New Orleans threatened pro-segregation Catholic politicians with excommunication, was that "interference"?
  7. When, today, pro-life Christian clergy instruct their flocks that God wants the United States to protect unborn life by force of law, is that "interference"?
  8. Please provide a clear, specific hypothetical example of something that would be "interference": an example for shari'a, for halakhah, and for canon law.

We'll have to see whether or not some campaign staffer sends answers.

(As I mentioned last week, the gold standard for addressing these questions, in my opinion, is Prof. Stephen L. Carter's God's Name in Vain: The Wrongs and Rights of Religion in Politics.)

Herman Cain Would Ban Mosques; Why Not Synagogues?

Herman Cain

"Let's  go back to the fundamental issue," said Herman Cain, while arguing that localities have a right to ban mosques. "Islam is both a religion and a set of laws -- Sharia laws. That's the difference between any one of our traditional religions where it's just about religious purposes."

Mr. Cain, does traditional Judaism count as "any one of our traditional religions"? If so, you've got a problem.

Cain apparently defines "religious purposes" as being inherently different from legal purposes. This conception of religion, however, carries a blatantly Christian (not to mention Protestant) bias. For many religious believers, true religion requires submission to Divine law, and for these groups, establishing a religious community requires establishing local religious courts.

This is certainly true of traditional Judaism, in which Halakhah (Jewish law) regulates every detail of Jewish life -- ritual, ethical, economic, civil, and quotidian. Not a single moment of the traditional Jew's day, no matter how seemingly trivial, is free from countless strictly defined mandates. Since disputes are bound to arise, the rabbinic court (bet din / beis din / beth din; pick your transliteration) has been a central institution for thousands of years. This has held true even in modern America. While the separation of religion and state has required the abandonment of the European model of state-supported rabbinic institutions, rabbinic courts operate on a voluntary basis in all American cities with significant Orthodox Jewish populations, and many Orthodox Jews make use of such courts to settle disputes within the community in accordance with Halakhah. The New York-based Beth Din of America, for example, handles not only ritual and family issues such as conversion, marriage, and divorce, but also civil and economic cases, all in accordance with Torah injunctions.

Nor do these institutions operate with complete independence from the secular legal system. Parties to rabbinic cases can enter into binding arbitration agreements, mandating compliance with rabbinic decisions by force of secular law. New York and Maryland have both instituted secular laws intended to help Jewish women avoid becoming agunot-- a problem which exists only within the framework of Jewish law -- "wall of separation" notwithstanding.

In the first half of the 20th Century, some Jews sought out rabbinic courts specifically in order to avoid prejudice in the secular legal system. That was an era during which being Jewish was seen as being foreign, and Jewish religion was seen as inherently sinister. Today it is Islam which is seen, quite unfairly, as being inherently foreign and sinister. (Yes, Islamic terrorism is a real problem, but lumping the world's billion Muslims in with a tiny, extremist fraction is foolish.) At a time when Presidential candidates score points by demonizing Islam, some American Muslims must see local Shari'a courts and local Islamic communal institutions as being more necessary than ever.

Prof. Stephen L. Carter of Yale Law School has written that "If the religious community cannot define itself, cannot set rules for membership, including rules of behavior, then it is not, in any realistic sense, a religious community. This implies that protection of religious freedom requires a high degree of deference to the definitional process within that community..." (God's Name in Vain, 176.) Herman Cain and others who support anti-Islamic legislation are free to argue that Prof. Carter is wrong, and that religion must be prevented from operating as a legal system in any form. But if they wish to maintain that their position is not motivated by an unfair demonization of Islam, then they must apply this principle consistently, across the board. They must be willing to take a stand against Jewish legalistic practice and Jewish legal institutions as well. They must protest outside the Beth Din of America, and rail against rabbis sneaking Halakhah into the secular legal system.

If they will not do so (and I cannot imagine that they will), their supposed concern for the separation of religion and state will stand revealed as a fig leaf for simple prejudice.

Yom Yerushalayim / Jerusalem Day

Jerusalem

Happy Yom Yerushalayim! On this day in 1967, Israel captured and reunited Jerusalem during the Six-Day War.

 Here are just a few of many BJPA publications having to do with Jerusalem:

Muslim-Jewish Relations

Our September newsletter focused on Muslim-Jewish relations, and if you've not had the chance to see it yet, it's definitely worth checking out. It gives an overview of our sources on topics from Muslim antisemitism in Sweden, to Jewish-Muslim cooperation, Jewish opposition to the proposed WTC mosque, the ongoing impact of 9/11 on Jewish-Muslim relations in America, memoirs of Jews from Muslim lands, and, of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - and much more.

On a related note - the following public statement, written by Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer and cosigned by a group of Rabbis and Jewish educators, was recently released:

As inter-religious educators who work with rabbinical students from all denominations, we are deeply dismayed by some of the ignorance and confusion we have heard expressed in the national conversation surrounding the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” We are especially concerned when we hear such ignorance and confusion coming from within the Jewish community. Whatever happens with the proposed community center in lower Manhattan, the controversy has highlighted a question that, in the post 9/11 world, comes enmeshed in strong emotion: Is the American ideal of religious liberty—an ideal fundamental to the health of our democracy—expansive enough to include Muslim Americans? We urge rabbis across the country to speak out against the bigotry that has been unleashed by this controversy, and to assert leadership on the issue of religious pluralism. As Jews, we know all too well the destructive power of hate speech. We should be in the forefront of efforts to ensure that religious minorities can practice their traditions freely.

We encourage our students and colleagues in the rabbinate—Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and independent—to consider using this September 11th, also Shabbat Shuva, as a time to reflect with our communities on our own fears and prejudices, on the need to educate ourselves about Islam, and on the role Jews might play in helping to create a more inclusive and just society. Of course, this is not to preclude any memorial prayers or other ways of remembering those who were killed on 9/11.

We are posting resources of general interest on www.multifaithworld.com. We are also developing a collection of sample sermons. Please be in touch with one of us if you have a contribution you would like to share.

We look forward to hearing your responses.

L’shana Tova,

Rabbi Justus Baird Director, Center for Multifaith Education, Auburn Theological Seminary

Rabbi Reuven Firestone Professor of Medieval Jewish and Islamic Studies, HUC-JIR/Los Angeles Senior Fellow, Center for Religion and Civic Culture, University of Southern California

Rabbi Nancy Fuchs Kreimer Director, Department of Multifaith Studies and Initiatives and Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

Rabbi Or Rose Associate Dean, Rabbinical School of Hebrew College Co-Director, Center for Interreligious Leadership Education

Raquel Ukeles, PhD Golda Meir Fellow, Hebrew University of Jerusalem Academic Director, World Leadership Program Jewish Scholar, Luce Retreat for Emerging Muslim and Jewish Religious Leaders

Rabbi Burton Visotsky Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies and Director, Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies, Jewish Theological Seminary of America

"Why not build a mosque at ground zero?"

The sentence quoted in this post's title is not related to the ongoing fracas about the Cordoba House initiative to build an Islamic community center three blocks from Ground Zero. In fact, this quote is from 2001, in an article written for CLAL by Rabbi Daniel S. Brenner entitled "A Religious Shrine at Ground Zero?"

 Some highlights, which (in my humble and non-BJPA-representative opinion)  are quite relevant to the current kerfuffle:

"Religious groups and organizations were among the first to respond to the attack. Moreover, in the days following the attack, Americans flocked to their synagogues, churches and mosques in record numbers...

"But while those services were articulations of America’s common spirit, they also spoke to our religious particularities. As an American I listened intently to all the clergy who spoke, but as a Jew, I cared most about what the rabbis had to say. I imagine that this was the case for Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and Buddhists, all who were represented in those services. America is great because we not only allow for the freedom of religion, but we have a public square that can encourage our religious diversity at the right moments.

"For this reason, I would ask, why not build a mosque at ground zero? And a church, and a synagogue as well? Why not erect a vast inter-religious center on the premises as a supplement to the secular, cultural, and artistic elements that will figure in the blueprint for the site’s reconstruction?...

"Building a mosque on the site would also send a message to the Islamic world about America, and our commitment to the freedom of religion... Maybe a few misguided Muslims would go there to praise Allah for his great victory in destroying the towers - but I imagine the vast majority of American Muslims would go to simply offer prayers of gratitude that Allah, in his mercy, has created a place called America, where both freedom and faith can flourish."

 I think there is a lot of merit to Rabbi Brenner's argument. (And I'm not just saying that because he wrote on his blog that "NYU Wagner's Berman Policy Archive Rocks!")

It is worth noting, however, before anyone decides to deputize Rabbi Brenner's argument into the Cordoba House wars, that there are some differences between this proposed center and Rabbi Brenner's vision. The vision was an interfaith center, which would be (to my mind) the best possible repudiation of the jihadist ideology; the actual proposal here is only Islamic. Though its primary concerns will be culture and community rather than religious practice, it will not be a pluralist institution. Then again, neither will it be at Ground Zero; it will be near Ground Zero, and not even overlooking Ground Zero. Of course, neither is its proximity to Ground Zero accidental.

I do not intend to advance a position on Cordoba House here; only to call attention to the (limited, but substantive) applicability of Rabbi Brenner's 2001 argument to the current Ground Zero Mosque Affair.

And to use this question to launch a larger question: what are the limits of pluralism? What does it mean to hold both universal and particular identities? And if our particularist commitments are real commitments -- if they are worth our very lives -- then how, in any context, can we embrace pluralism? This is a question to which I hope to return very soon with a blog post focusing on Jewish community day schools and interdenominational Jewish relations. Stay tuned.