Student Rabbis and Imams Study Together at HUC-JIR's Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Al Azhar University delegation with HUC-JIR faculty and staff 

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles hosted a contingent of Egyptian Muslim religious scholars to engage with local Jewish religious leaders in a day of text study and social interaction. Through the auspices of the US State Department and the Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation, nine Muslim scholars of Shari`a law and Da`wa engaged with rabbis and rabbinical students in a study of parallel scriptural texts between the Qur’an and the Bible to foster a deeper engagement and understanding of our religious teachings and traditions.

Much misinformation is distributed through various media both in the West and in the Muslim World that sensationalizes and distorts the truth about the religious “other.” The purpose of the program was to gain a fuller understanding and empathy for the humanity and dignity of people of different faith communities. Led by Professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam, Rabbi Reuven Firestone, Ph.D., the delegates and students approached this exercise with the knowledge that it is not religion that divides, but rather real grievances between individuals and communities that can be resolved through discussion and better understanding. 

Imam Muhammad Bashar Arafat, American, discussing the Quran with Reuven Firestone, President Aaron Panken and Rabbi Richard Levy

Samuel Spector, fifth-year rabbinical student, found it an immense honor and privilege to be studying with religious leaders from one of the oldest universities in the world. The meeting was the first step towards building trust. “One of the ways to build that trust is to start out with respect for each other’s faiths and traditions. By going in with the agenda to learn from each other, not to teach each other – that’s where the focus really needs to be,” he reflected.

For Dr. Shaimaa A. I. Mohamed, assistant teacher at the Faculty of Islamic and Arabic Studies at Al Azhar University in Cairo (AUC), one of two Muslim women in attendance, the text learning was important but the dialogue that came from working together was even more memorable. “We lifted so many barriers between us by learning with each other and being together,” she said. Her study partner, fourth-year rabbinical student, Dusty Klass, gained a new appreciation for the Quran:

"Learning Quran with someone for whom Quran is sacred gave me more insight into what we were studying. When we began, I think she thought the language barrier would make our studying together difficult (we were studying texts in English and her first language is Arabic) but it actually enhanced our work. I had to think carefully about questions I asked and the ways in which I pared down the translations into clearer language while still maintaining the intent/essence of the text. We got so excited when we noticed things the two texts had in common, and even more excited when we heard each other 'get' it."

Sheikh Ahmed Wessam, Saudi Arabia, and Imam Mansour Shehta, Cairo, learn about Torah from Professor Firestone 

Studying together was just the beginning for Ahmed Bahall Elidin Mohamed Anis, researcher in the School of Continuing Education at AUC. “The learning today was good but we need more – not just for imams and rabbis to learn together - but with all people.” He is concerned that the dominant image of Muslims in the American media is of terrorism. “It’s either the war in Gaza, or the war in Syria, or the war in Iraq – it is not the only image of us. We need to focus on the good image to change our minds. This is how we can build bridges,” he said.

Dr. Firestone agrees that this is only the beginning. “Muslim and Jewish Institutions in America are in tension with one another. Not fighting, necessarily, but virtually always in tension because of Israel/Palestine,” he said. Firestone is committed to transcending this problem but says that Jewish and Muslim institutions provide the biggest obstacles. When individuals talk with one another as private individuals, they tend to be more open to listening to the feelings and even the grievances of the other.

“But when we don’t talk to each other; we don’t see one another so we cannot resolve anything. God willing, we will continue the discussion and understand that most of us are brothers and sisters working for the same goals,” he concluded.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.