FaithWorld

GUESTVIEW: Reflections on Jewish-Muslim Engagement

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the author’s alone. The author, Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky, is Professor of Midrash and Interreligious Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and author of the novel A Delightful Compendium of Consolation.

sheikh-and-rabbi-2 (Photo: Muslim sheikh and Jewish rabbi address interfaith meeting in Brussels, 4 Jan 2005/Thierry Roge)

By Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky

Jewish-Muslim engagement in an international context is inevitably more than interreligious dialogue. Muslim representatives, for the most part, do not come from countries that have a separation of mosque and state. Practically speaking, these dialogues are a form of second-tier diplomacy. In the United States, this is made apparent by fact the State Department sponsors Muslim visitors through its Foreign Leadership Visitor Program.

Under the aegis of the State Department, the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS, where I teach) has welcomed imams from Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Imam Shamsi Ali of the 96th Street Mosque in New York has brought the heads of the Indonesian Muslim community to visit JTS. I have been privileged to visit Muslim colleagues in Cairo (2004), in Doha (2005) and Madrid (2008), the latter for the first Saudi Arabian interreligious dialogue, sponsored by King Abdullah and hosted by Spain’s King Juan Carlos.

abdullah-and-visotzky-2As a representative of Judaism at these dialogues, I am often called upon to represent and/or defend the state of Israel. It has been my personal practice as a rabbi participating in such international dialogues to contact the Israeli Foreign Ministry either directly or indirectly in advance of my participation, so that I have the opportunity to hear their views on these conferences (which may not have invited any Israeli representatives). This sometimes leads me to feeling conflicted personally, when our views may diverge.

Did Saddleback “faith quiz” cross church-state divide?

John McCain, Rick Warren and Barack Obama at Saddleback Civil Forum, 17 August 2008/Mark AveryDid Rick Warren’s Saddleback Civil Forum with John McCain and Barack Obama violate the separation of church and state? Was it right for a pastor to ask U.S. presidential candidates about their belief in Jesus Christ or their worst moral failures? Will the success of the Saddleback Civil Forum mean that major televised interviews or debates about faith will become a regular fixture in American political campaigns?

I didn’t think questions like this got enough of an airing in U.S. media before Saturday’s event. The fact that Warren made it such an interesting evening made me think the fundamental question — should there be a televised “faith quiz” at all? — would be crowded out of the public debate. The initial reactions angled on the winner/loser question or the “cone of silence” issue seemed to bear this out. But some commentators and blogs are now zeroing in on the deeper question.

Obama and Warren, 17 August 2008//Mark AveryIn the New York Times, columnist Willian Kristol (Showdown at Saddleback) applauded the event and said: “Rick Warren should moderate one of the fall presidential debates.” That says a lot about the quality of the usual televised debates but little about the church-state question. Ruth Ann Dailey’s op-ed in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put her answer about the church-state question right in the headline: At Saddleback, the wall stands firm.

Euro 2008: do Catholic countries have the edge?

The Euro 2008 flag flutters near Zurich’s Grossmünster church, 25 May 2008/Arnd Wiegmann“Do Catholic countries have better football players?”

I was surprised to see this headline on the Austrian Catholic website kath.net today… and even more surprised to see they seemed to mean it seriously.

“A look at the participants in the final round of the European football championship in Switzerland and Austria suggests this,” kath.net writes in a report from Vienna. “In seven of the 16 participating countries, Catholics are clearly in the majority: Poland (95 percent of the population), Spain (92 percent), Italy (90 percent), Portugal (90 percent), Croatia (77 percent), Austria (69 percent ) and France (51 percent). Only one Protestant stronghold confronts them, Sweden. Of the 8.8 million inhabitants of the northern European country, 80 percent are Lutherans.”

Poland’s team with coach Leo Beenhakker (C) attends Mass in Bad Waltersdorf, 6 June 2008/stringerThere’s no hint of analysis of why this should be relevant, or mention of the personal faith — or lack thereof — of the players on these national teams. This purely statistical view (sports fans love stats, don’t they?) goes on to point out which participating countries have large numbers of both Catholics and Protestants (Germany, Switzerland and Netherlands).

German soccer team shies away from cross on jersey

German soccer blogs are not a place I usually go to for a story about religion, but an interesting one has popped up on the forum of the Eintracht Frankfurt team. The team let its fans vote over the Internet late last year to pick a 2008/2009 season jersey among 16 proposed models. Despite the fans’ enthusiasm for this innovation, Eintracht has ignored the result and chosen to use the runner-up design. As the team explained on its website:

The Eintracht “cross” jerseyAfter a close examination, we have decided that the winning jersey with the cross unfortunately cannot be used because the symbol on the front has a religious background. Inter Milan, an Italian club with a long tradition, has appeared in the current Champions League competition in a similar jersey and been strongly criticised for it. So after careful consideration, Eintracht Frankfurt has gone back and chosen the second jersey, which came in a close second in the vote.

The Eintracht “eagle” jerseyThe runner-up that came out on top has what Eintracht calls “hints of eagle claws on the front and a stylised eagle on the shoulder”. The city’s coat-of-arms has a red eagle that also figures on the Eintracht team logo.