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Religion Panel Seeks Fresh Inroads Into Comprehending the 'Other'

March 20, 2008 By:
Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg, JE Feature
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The interfaith panel (from left): Khalid Blankinship, Susannah Heschel, Reuven Firestone and Peter A. Pettit
It's a truism that countless wars have been fought over religion. But still, it has always troubled thinkers and the faithful that something by nature so peaceful and spiritual should so frequently result in stirring up murderous passions.

One way to overcome this, according to a diverse scholarly panel, is to develop a deeper understanding of and respect for other religions, specifically, the three Abrahamic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

"There is a need to develop and make accessible" various sources so other religions "can learn about each other," asserted Reuven Firestone.

A professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, Firestone was one of four panelists who analyzed "Interfaith Encounters: Reading and Writing the Other" on March 12. The moderator was Rena Potok, senior acquisitions editor at the Jewish Publication Society, which sponsored the event as part of its 120th anniversary programming.

The discussion was held in the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City and was cosponsored by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Germantown Jewish Centre.

The other panelists were Khalid Blankinship, professor of religious studies at Temple University and the imam of the Muslim Society of the Delaware Valley; Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College; and Peter A. Pettit, director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding at Muhlenberg College.

The panelists discussed the tenets of the faiths, and how followers of these religions interacted over time. They suggested that believers read the scriptures of other faiths to help chip away at the barriers.

"We tend to relate to our own scripture as insiders," explained Firestone. It's "natural," he continued, for each religion to view "the other" with skepticism. He noted, though, that it's possible to get beyond such thinking and see other perspectives -- even though some religious passages, seemingly anti-Semitic in nature, are "imbedded in the text."

Pettit pointed out that texts of other faiths are not something "at the fingertips" of those attending seminaries, and a truer picture of followers of other religions is something he's trying to develop. He's in the midst of creating a resource guide for Christian leaders to learn about Jews.

For example, Pettit said, themes a preacher might use during a sermon could extract "gems from the Judaic tradition," showing Jews as positive figures instead of as the enemy. He cited a passage regarding the exodus from Egypt "that writes Judaism into the story in a constructive way from Jewish sources."

The panelists noted that, in today's pluralistic society, particular sensitivity is needed to establish effective interfaith partnerships and foster future dialogue among the three faiths.

"We will always have 'others' in our lives," said Heschel. "The question is, how will we deal with them?"

Women Look at Femin​ism's Effect on Faith

Heschel continued the theme of interfaith dialogue later that day when she discussed women and gender in Islam and Judaism with noted Islamic-feminist and scholar Amina Wadud.

Wadud gained attention in 2005 when she led a public, mixed-gender Muslim prayer service in New York City, which riled conservative Muslims who said she violated centuries-old tradition.

The discussion drew a diverse crowd of more than 200 people to Germantown Jewish Centre and was cosponsored by RRC's department of religious studies, Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women and Gender Studies at RRC, and the shul.

The two feminists recounted their individual upbringings, and the experiences and struggles that led them to want to speak out about the restrictions placed on women in their religions.

Heschel spoke of her Chasidic youth in New York as the child of the famous Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and noted how she would be cooking while boys in other rooms studied.

"I thought, 'Things have to change.' "

She said she found it difficult to retain the piety expected of an observant female Jew when she realized how much she was forced to give up by "not being a son." It was especially difficult that, even as an only child, the Chasidic community wouldn't let her say Kaddish for her father.

Wadud said she could relate completely and described the limitations placed on her by Islam.

While no laws exist to prohibit women from studying the Koran, no "women's voices" are in the text. Wadud said she used her training to interpret the holy text for women, and has penned books outlining "a women's perspective of the text."

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