As Appleman Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary and director of its Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue, Rabbi Burton Visotzky wears at least two hats. In books like his latest, Sage Tales: Wisdom and Wonder from the Rabbis of the Talmud, he says he attempts to “crack the code” of rabbinic storytelling. He is also a leader in Jewish-Christian and Jewish-Muslim dialogue, and only last week met in New York with Cardinal Kurt Koch, the Vatican’s chief envoy on Catholic-Jewish affairs
On the Shabbat weekend of Nov. 18-19, he will be scholar-in-residence at Adath Shalom, the Conservative synagogue in Morris Plains. He spoke with NJ Jewish News in a telephone interview on Nov. 1.
NJJN: You’ve said you intend to talk about some of the “good things in the Jewish-Muslim dialogue that nobody talks about.” What are some of those “good things?”
Visotzky: I’ll give you a “for instance.” If I say “Saudi Arabia,” most Jews shrink back in horror and think “Islamic terrorists,” except that the king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, has made significant attempts to reform Saudi practice on this. He has done interreligious outreach here and in Europe. I think he is serious. I have sat with him and heard him put his money where his mouth is. To say the Saudis are reforming and doing interreligious outreach as opposed to promoting Wahabi Islam, that’s news.
If I said the emir of Qatar has invited Jews to an interreligious dialogue, there are some pluses and minuses, but still, the emir is reaching out. Here at JTS I have welcomed imams from probably a dozen Muslim countries.
Also, in the United States, JTS and I have been doing some wonderful outreach with the American-Muslim community, who by-and-large are very good friends of the Jewish community.
NJJN: Why is that? It seems counterintuitive.
Visotzky: Because we are both minorities in the greater Christian culture, and the Muslim arc of integration into the American community is very similar to what Jews experienced 30, 40, 50 years ago, and they know that. And we have things we can learn from them about assimilation and teaching our kids. They want to perpetuate Arabic. We want to perpetuate Hebrew. They want their kids to marry Muslims. We want our kids to marry Jews. We share a lot of common issues.
NJJN: Do you think many Jews in this country share that attitude toward Muslims?
Visotzky: I think there are many Jews who are very comfortable with the Muslim community. Yes, there will always be some frictions, and there will be some exceptions to the rule, and those always get media coverage. But by-and-large, rabbis and imams get along. Fifty years ago you would be asking me whether Jews and Catholics or Jews and Protestants really can get along. Of course, now it’s a given, and I imagine that is where we are headed with the Muslim community, too.
NJJN: Given what seems to be a daily deterioration of relations between Israelis and Palestinians and Israelis and other parts of the new post-Arab Spring world, doesn’t that affect Muslim-Jewish relations here?
Visotzky: My impression is it is not all doom and gloom, and that Israel has lots of positive ties with lots of Arab countries, and they work for common interests, even when they have major disagreements over policy matters.
NJJN: Does it strike you that Christians and Muslims know more about Judaism than Jews might know about either of the others?
Visotzky: I think that may be true.
NJJN: Why is it important for Jews to know about Christianity and Islam?
Visotzky: Two simple reasons. One, because the more they learn about other religions, the more they learn about Judaism and themselves. You learn a lot when you compare yourself to others.
In another way, it is very self-serving. We live in a country that is largely Christian and the fastest-growing religion is Islam, and we have to learn to live well with our neighbors, and we need to know who they are.