The pope’s recent visit to a New York City synagogue has put a spotlight on interfaith relations. Here at JTS, interfaith programming, outreach, and social service activities have been important for decades.
Since 1938, the Louis Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies has maintained an innovative interfaith and intergroup relations program. And Louis Finkelstein himself, as chancellor of JTS when amicable, formal dialogues between Christian and Jewish organizations and leaders were still very unusual, also reached out to Muslim religious leaders. The Finkelstein Institute advances this mission by organizing conferences, lectures, and discussions, such as the two recent conferences “Uneasy Allies?: Evangelical and Jewish Relations.” An essay collection, Uneasy Allies?, was published in 2007.
Reaching out to others is rooted in Judaism’s oldest teachings. “All through Genesis we see Jews entangled in a web of relations with non-Jews,” notes Chancellor Arnold Eisen, one of the two JTS faculty who met with Pope Benedict XVI in Washington DC just before Pesah this year. “Jews are not meant to be a people off to the side, talking only to God and one another; they are meant to be out in the world, doing good things for the world.”
Over the decades, JTS has hosted many non-Jewish religious leaders and scholars, including the rector of the thousand-year-old Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the world’s most prestigious Islamic institution of higher learning; imams from Qatar and Saudi Arabia; Buddhist monks from Burma (now Myanmar); and Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
While relations between Jewish and Muslim groups are often strained these days, Chancellor Eisen has emphasized the need “to use this place [JTS] to make sure that Jews can talk to Muslims, that Muslims can learn about our tradition and we can learn about their tradition.” In that spirit, on March 27, Imam Shamsi Ali, of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York (96th Street Mosque), came to JTS to speak on “Muslim and Jewish Relations in New York City and the US.” On April 11, Dr. Burton Visotzky, JTS Nathan and Janet Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies, who also accompanied Chancellor Eisen in Washington, spoke at the 96th Street Mosque.
“This is a religious obligation: that we have to live in peace with our neighbors,” Dr. Visotzky, who was ordained at JTS in 1977, says. “Someone asked me at the 96th Street Mosque, ‘Why are you here?’ My response was that simple: ‘Because you are my neighbor.’ ”
Dr. Visotzky highlights possible activities that go beyond dialogue. “Feeding the hungry is a basic mitzvah in both Judaism and Islam. This fall, people from JTS and from their mosque will go down to the soup kitchen so we can do just that. We can get to know each other while doing God’s work.”
Buddhist Monks from Burma (now Myanmar) are welcomed to JTS, 1959. Photo by Maurey Garber, Ratner Center, JTS.