April 9, 2024
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Interfaith Scholars Discuss New Issues at Seton Hall

Muslim-Jewish Dialogue Can Help

South Orange—Father John T. Pawlikowski and Dr. Michael Berenbaum spoke about interfaith relations recently at the Marcia Robbins-Wilf Lecture Series of the Sister Rose Thering Fund for Jewish-Christian Studies (SRTF) at Seton Hall University.  Sister Rose, a fierce fighter against Roman Catholic anti-Semitism, wrote her doctoral thesis about how Catholic textbooks depicted Jews, and was appalled at what she found.

Her study was used by Cardinal Augustin Bea to draft portions of Nostra Atate,  known to many as Vatican II, which declared that “what happened in his passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today,”  adding that “The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God.”

Sister Rose was one of the first supporters of the Holocaust Education movement in New Jersey, helped draft the bill that made it mandatory in New Jersey curricula. In 1987, she traveled to the Soviet Union to protest the treatment of Jews, and was vocal on many issues that affected the global Jewish community. As a faculty member, she established Judaism classes for Christian leadership and teachers at Seton Hall, and during her tenure brought at least 50 student groups to Israel.

Dr. Berenbaum talked about the civility of interfaith discourse and said he would welcome Muslims to have such conversations with Christians and Jews. He believes it is important to have Jewish-Muslim
dialogues, as well as participating in three-way discussions with Christians. Said Berenbaum, “You cannot understand the philosophy of the Rambam without understanding the philosophical milieu in which he worked. This included the Muslim world and Muslim philosophy—he was as influenced by them as he was by Aristotle. The same is true of R’Abulafia and R’ Yehuda HaLevi. Islam was an essential part of their environment and cultural experience, and we have much to learn from each other.”

Berenbaum is currently Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute which explores ethical and religious implications of the Holocaust at LA’s American Jewish University. He said Jews and Muslims have political grievances today, “but if we make them into religious grievances, you take a difficult political problem that might have a solution and turn it into a religious conflict that is definitely unsolveable. When you reject all of Islam, you also reject an additional one billion people who do not have political or religious problems with Jews, especially in countries where Jews and Muslims do get along. Ethiopia is a good example, and we know Israel has good trade relationships with many Muslim countries.”

Berenbaum has a unique solution to the ancient question of who owns the Temple Mount, a central question at the heart of the peace talks. “Since all three Abrahamic faiths consider this the holiest place on the planet, God should be in charge of it, He owns it. The humans can decide who will take care of it—who pays for the maintenance. That makes the issue manageable,” he said.

Dr. John Pawlikowski, Professor of Social Ethics at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, directs the Catholic-Jewish Studies Program at the Cardinal Joseph Bernardin Center and was president of the International Council of Christians & Jews and served for 12 years on U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. He serves on the Governor’s Commission for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Illinois.

He said that while there is a strong support for Israel in the upper levels of the church, the “middle management”—parish priests who set educational policy and points of view for their congregations, local bishops, and laypeople have increasingly been taken on public relations trips to the West Bank and Gaza, and they need to be considered in the conversation. “They are taken to Zone C, where the Israelis have complete military control, and they see how policy impacts on the daily lives of the Arabs.”  He did not add anything further, but the clear implication of seeing those policies carried out forces the visitors to consider the justice of some of those policies.

Alan Silberstein of Tenafly, treasurer of SRTF and an active member of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, told JLBC. “Sister Rose would have smiled to hear Dr. Berenbaum say we need more people who are fiercely moderate. And I was heartened by his evidence of the ways Sister Rose and her supporters succeeded.”

Other persons of note in attendance were Rabbi Eugene Korn of Bergenfield, American director of the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat and Rabbi Alan Brill of Teaneck, the Ross/Cooperman Endowed Professor in the Department of Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall.

By Jeanette Friedman

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