Rabbi Burton Visotzky

Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies Louis Stein Director of the Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies of JTS Director of the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue of JTS MA advisor, Midrash

There’s a rabbi and professor of rabbinic literature who exchanges blessings with the pope and dialogues with Muslim leaders all over the globe. He decides to write a historical novel about Jewish–Muslim relations—and relationships—in the Mediterranean society of a thousand years ago, a world where Jews and Muslims lived in harmony. The rabbi lives and writes in New York City, and while he’s about halfway through the first draft of the novel, which mixes a medieval author of rabbinic literature and other historical figures with fictional characters, terrorists attack his city. This isn’t metafiction, it’s the life and work of Dr. Burton L. Visotzky, rabbi and professor at JTS.

Dr. Visotzky serves as the Nathan and Janet Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at JTS, where he has been on the faculty since his ordination in 1977. In the world outside 3080 Broadway, he’s been a visiting faculty member at Princeton University, Union Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College, the Russian State University of the Humanities in Moscow, and the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He’s also brought his expertise on religion to the mass media, including serving as consultant and a featured on-screen participant in the Bill Moyers television series Genesis: A Living Conversation and consulting for the animated feature film Prince of Egypt. His most recent book is his first novel: A Delightful Compendium of Consolation: A Fabulous Tale of Romance, Adventure, and Faith in the Medieval Mediterranean. Set in the eleventh century, the story mixes fiction and fact—including the real-life religious figure of Rabbenu Nissim—in its recounting of the forbidden love between Jewish Karimah and her Muslim boyfriend and the interplay of Jewish and Muslim cultures.

You’re active in Jewish–Christian–Muslim dialogue here in New York and also around the world, in capitals like Washington, Rome, Cairo, and Doha, Qatar. How is that connected to your academic work?

The ancient rabbis who did biblical interpretation were often called upon to explicate the Bible and debate it with the scholars and clerics of other religions. Midrashic literature reacts to Christian and Muslim interpretation. It incorporates the surrounding culture and Judaizes it. So when I was a doctoral student at JTS, I was already going across the street to Union Theological Seminary to study New Testament. Later, during my first sabbatical from JTS, I was at Oxford and Cambridge and did work comparing Rabbinic literature with that of the church fathers. Because I did that and had a scholarly reputation, people presumed I knew something about modern Jewish–Christian relations. I got involved in interfaith activities and I also started dialoguing with Muslims. My rabbinate became this kind of very public engagement with everybody.

You were about halfway through the first draft of your novel when the attacks of September 11 occurred. How has that affected your work?

Particularly since September 11, I’ve become much more involved in Jewish–Muslim dialogue. The irony is that my working with the Muslim community beforehand is what led to the novel. I chose to set the story in eleventh-century North Africa because that was a time when Jews and Muslims lived in harmony with one another. In Cairo, the prime minister to the Muslim khalif (caliph) was a Jew, and in the exact same era, in Grenada in Spain, the prime minister to that Muslim khalif was also a Jew. Politically and religiously, there was a lot of recognition of commonality. Even though they lived under Muslim rule, the Jews flourished in that era.

In the end, 9/11 made me more determined than ever to engage actively in Jewish–Muslim dialogue. It bothered me to see Muslims marginalized in our society. Jews are supposed to have a memory. We have to speak up. So I became more prominent in speaking out about mistreatment, and in engaging with the Muslim community. In the summer of 2005, I was in Qatar as a guest of the emir, participating in the first-ever dialogue in Qatar between Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

Here in America, Chancellor Eisen has been very supportive of these efforts and of JTS’s long history of interfaith dialogue. Working with the State Department, we’ve welcomed imams from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia. Shortly after the Saudis sent their imams here, they had their own peace plan, and now the king of Saudi Arabia is calling for an interfaith conference. JTS has really played a seminal role, going back to Louis Finkelstein’s years in the 1940s.

The novel addresses contemporary interfaith issues as well as those from the eleventh century.

The book speaks to a very contemporary Jewry because it opens with a Jew’s daughter who runs off with her Muslim boyfriend, and it talks about how, eventually, she finds her way back to a Jewish identity and how she struggles to negotiate that. I think that’s what we all struggle with, our kids and our own generation, how do we find our way to our Jewish identity?

You’ve also met the pope, in Rome and during his recent American visit, and you’ve spoken at the 96th Street Mosque in New York and many other non-Jewish venues. How does all this affect your own Jewish identity?

One of the things I’ve found is that the more I am required to represent Judaism, the more clearly I can define my Judaism. The more I engage in dialogue, the more I come away with insights into my own Judaism. To engage with other religions, first we have to know who we are as Jews, to not only represent Judaism well, but to strengthen our faith. There’s this famous early rabbinic text—it’s in the Mishnah and in the Koran too—that asks, why did God create the world with one person at first? So we all know we have a common ancestor and so we all know that we are all created in God’s image. It sounds like pabulum, but if people really knew that: dayenu! To know that so you live it, so that with every person, you see that you share something in common, and you have to treat them with dignity, that they have the claim of being made in God’s image. To do that makes the way we treat everyone very different from our normal discourse. I’m sappy, I’m a romantic, but I’m a Jewish romantic, and it’s actually a mitzvah to see the world that way.

Burton Visotzky