Reform Judaism’s top legislative activist spoke at Temple Rodeph Torah in Marlboro on March 21, culminating a Shabbaton devoted to fostering better relations between Jews and Muslims.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the often interwoven history of Jews and Muslims, while frayed by tensions in the Middle East, can be repaired by “inspired” leaders and communities.
“When you have social interactions and cooperative endeavors, you get to know people,” said Saperstein. “Invite people into your homes and get to know each other and each other’s religion, which builds tolerance and trust and knowledge. Doing things together is the key.”
The previous day, 35 members of the Holmdel Mosque came to the temple for discussions. That same night, temple members had dinner and were entertained by a Jewish-Arab comedy duo.
The synagogue’s Rabbi Donald Weber said the weekend would be part of an ongoing dialogue with Muslims.
“We see this as a priority issue,” Weber said. “We live right alongside them and really don’t know anything about them. We decided we’d like to start a conversation.”
Saperstein has led many national faith-based coalitions during his 30-year tenure at RAC. He was appointed by President Barack Obama to his Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships.
The Reform movement leader outlined the history of Muslim-Jewish interaction, noting that at one point, the vast majority of Jews lived under Muslim rule. In many cases they were “second-class citizens,” but existed in an environment of political, cultural, and religious tolerance that fostered great thinkers like Maimonides, and such seminal works of literature as the Babylonian Talmud.
Eight-hundred-year-old documents discovered in the Cairo Geniza, or synagogue repository, outlined Jews and Muslims living “side by side” and entering into business partnerships with one another. And when Jews were expelled from Portugal and Spain during the Inquisition in 1492, they were welcomed in the Ottoman Empire.
“Our history has been an extraordinary history that neither side knows very well,” said Saperstein.
That historical relationship deteriorated in the 20th century as anti-Zionist rhetoric overshadowed historical ties, he said.
While dialogue is essential, getting the relationship back on track will not come without leaders on both sides “speaking out boldly.”
However, even such interactions will have little effect unless “we expunge the stereotypes” each religion holds of the other. What Jews who engage these Muslim neighbors will learn, he said, is that few sympathize with terrorists.
“In the end, Muslim extremists are best dealt with by Muslims, just as Hindu extremists are best dealt with by Hindus,” said Saperstein.