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Meeting Of Minds

By Steve Lipman
Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week

In medieval times in the Middle East, translators in synagogues would render the reading of the weekly Torah portion from Hebrew into the vernacular Arabic or Aramaic.

Something similar took place in Manhattan this week.

As Burton Visotzky, professor of midrash at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, read the biblical story of the binding of Isaac in English to a group of prestigious international religious leaders in the Women’s League Seminary Synagogue of JTS Tuesday morning, members of the audience translated his words into Arabic -- for the sake of the Islamic clerics who were part of the group.

Visotzky explained the ancient Jewish translation tradition to the ecumenical visitors. “We’ll do the same thing,” he said.

In the seats surrounding the bima, a few dozen Jewish, Islamic and Christian members of the clergy -- part of the first Summit for Interfaith Respect sponsored by the New York-based Institute for Middle East Peace & Development -- read the photocopied texts of the Akeidah, as the scenario of the near-sacrifice of Isaac at the hand of his father, Abraham, is known in Jewish circles. The texts included a midrashic account of the Akeidah, a Christian perspective on the Torah’s story, and the Koranic version, in which Ishmael instead of Isaac is the son offered up by Abraham.

Scholars on both sides of the Jewish-Muslim divide respectfully offered their own interpretations of their respective texts.

“We are three religions with high respect for the text,” said Visotzky, who showed the visitors a Torah scroll from the synagogue’s arc. “In all three religions the story of sacrifice holds a central place.”

In a post-9-11 atmosphere, a study session about the faith’s comparative positions on holy writ was a “positive development,” said Steven Cohen, president of the 25-year-old institute, which was founded by Israel’s Moshe Dayan, Egypt’s Butros Butros Ghali and the United States’ Cyrus Vance. The institute, now independent, formerly was affiliated with the CUNY Graduate Center.

But the identity of the participants was even more noteworthy, Cohen said. Among the 50 people who took part in the weeklong conference, which began in New York City this week and will end in Boston Tuesday, were Ahmed Al-Tayeb, rector of the prestigious Al-Azhar University in Cairo; Most Rev. Ekonomos Nabil Deeb Al Sleiman Haddad, executive director of the Jordanian Interfaith Coexistence Research Center and head of the Melkite Catholic Church in Amman; Hamid Bin Ahmad Al-Rifaie, president of Saudi Arabia’s International Islamic Forum for Dialogue; as well as the Vatican’s permanent observer to the United Nations and a few dozen American religious leaders.

Speaking through an interpreter, Al-Tayeb said he “encourages the dialogue between the followers of the religions” and cooperation on such issues as poverty and the homeless.

The summit marked the first time that high-ranking representatives of the three major monotheistic faiths have met in such a religious dialogue, Cohen said. “It’s never before been done... that they study the texts together on the same issues in the Koran and Torah.”

“This is a strong recognition that we all live under one God, on one earth,” Cohen said.

While Jews and Muslims often see themselves as opponents because of the ongoing violence in the Middle East, the participations of Jewish and Islamic leaders this week demonstrates that they are committed to finding common ground, he said. “These people are genuinely interested in trying to live peacefully in this world.”

For many of the Islamic leaders, it was their first time in a Jewish institution.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to have this type of interfaith dialogue,” said Rabbi William Lebeau, dean of the JTS Rabbinical School, who greeted the group. “It provided the Muslim clerics with an opportunity to see the institution that trains rabbis and cantors.”

The visitors, walking around the Morningside Heights campus without a visible security accompaniment, asked questions about such topics as head coverings in synagogue and the symbolism of the menorah, saw a demonstration of ancient artifacts in the JTS Library’s Rare Book Room and shared a lunch at which they continued the morning’s discussion. Several of the Islamic clerics ducked into a corner of a lounge for their afternoon prayers.

Later that day the group went to the Drisha Institute.

The group’s itinerary here included stops at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, two Protestant seminaries, and the Islamic Cultural Center of New York. In Boston they will participate in forums at Harvard University.

The participants will report their experience in open-minded dialogue to their religious communities, and help “educate the next generation of religious leaders,” Cohen said.

The institute holds a regular series of forums and workshops in the U.S. and the Middle East.

Sheikh Ahmed Dewidar of the Islamic Society of Mid Manhattan, called the JTS study session “an opening” for further meetings between “knowledgeable scholars” from the Jewish and Muslim communities. “This will open us to better understanding of each other.”

Sheikh Dewidar said he will give a report on the dialogue to members of his mosque. “I’m going to tell them it was a good experience.”

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