Professor Pursues Interfaith Dialogue

Hanukkah in Abu Dhabi? That’s indeed where the longtime JTS professor, Rabbi Burt Visotzky, spent the holiday this year, as part of a Jewish delegation attending a Muslim conference devoted to peace. The event was sponsored by the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, founded by the scholar Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah, who Rabbi Visotzky describes as “one of most highly regarded legal and philosophical minds in the Muslim world.”

Bin Bayyah founded the forum in 2014, with the aim of combatting extremism, sectarianism, and terrorism in the Muslim world and what he views as the mis-readings of Islamic texts used to support them. In February 2018, at an interfaith gathering in Washington, DC, the group called on leaders of the “Abrahamic faiths” to collaborate on advocating tolerance and co-existence.

The recent conference in Abu Dhabi was attended by 650 Muslim scholars, clerics, and government leaders, along with 50 Christian and Jewish clergy from various denominations. Rabbi Visotzky moderated a panel on the role of religion in civil society, which included JTS alumnus Rabbi Reuven Kimelman.

As director of JTS’s Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue, Rabbi Visotzky has spent years cultivating relationships with Muslim, Christian, and other religious leaders. He says gatherings like the one in Abu Dhabi offer a chance to find areas of common interest and address areas of concern—in Europe, for instance, working to ensure the availability of kosher and Hallal food, the right to wear head coverings, and promoting the safety of Jewish communities. “By sharing common goals, we learn to become, if not friends, then allies,” he explains.

Still, Rabbi Visotzky says some true friendships are formed through conversations and activities outside formal conference panels. These relationships go a long way in tackling difficult issues or opening doors to important leaders. He credits his longtime friendship with Mohamed Elsanousi, former interfaith outreach coordinator for the Islamic Society of North America, with helping him meet with Shaykh Bin Bayyah. Rabbi Visotzky views the shaykh as a major Muslim leader with whom Jews can be in dialogue.  

He calls the Abu Dhabi meeting “a remarkable forum” that included Jews on virtually every panel. “You go there and there are 650 Muslims—you’re totally outnumbered—and everyone welcomes you. You realize that there’s hope, that we can make progress, that it doesn’t have to be all about fighting with each other.”

Rabbi Visotzky eagerly offers a cell phone full of photos from the conference. One of his favorites: an image of a group of rabbis lighting Hanukkah candles in Abu Dhabi, joined by his “teacher,” Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah.