Jewish Interfaith Endeavors: Abrahamic Dialogue (2004)

The following report is part of a series of pieces written in 2004 investigating the Jewish community’s participation in interfaith dialogue.

Since September 11, 2001, there has been an increased interest in Muslim religious dialogue among Jews and Christians, leading to what many identify as Abrahamic dialogue. This project employs Abraham as a figure that unites all three faiths. Whether the groups address him in conversation or invoke him only in name, Abraham becomes the symbolic father, the common denominator of monotheism. Below is a summary of the various forums in which Abrahamic dialogue occurs.

Salons

The most widespread and well publicized Abrahamic dialogue is the Abraham Salon, an institute initiated by author Bruce Feiler. Abraham Salons are informal grassroots discussion groups held around the country, usually in someone’s home. As a rule, groups of ten to thirty meet for about three hours monthly, but these particulars are at the discretion of the participants. Sometimes the salon is a one time event, and sometimes not all three faiths are represented. Participants use excerpts from Scripture (the Tanakh, New Testament, and Quran) to examine the character of Abraham and guiding questions to investigate what both unites and divides his descendents. The purpose of the dialogue, according to Feiler’s website, is to affirm that diverse religions can, in fact, get along.

Feiler’s book, Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (William Morrow, 2002), explores Abraham’s story and significance in the eyes of the three faiths (as well as those of Isaac, Ishmael, and Hagar), and tries to identify his legacy for the three faiths today. In the book’s final chapter, Foster braves the West Bank to visit Hebron, and the cave said to house Abraham’s tomb. In his epilogue, Feiler urges readers to form salons of their own to continue the conversation, fostering a sense of camaraderie and understanding.

A free salon kit can be downloaded from www.brucefeiler.com. It includes:

  • A letter from Bruce Feiler, explaining where the idea came from and offering some advice, such as speaking from
    personal experience and as an individual
  • Biblical and Quranic passages, mostly from Genesis
  • Salon Discussion questions, organized according to the book’s sections
  • Interfaith Resources
  • An interview with Bruce Feiler about his experience writing the book
  • Recipes to bake for a salon (brownies and baklava)
  •  Salon event flyer

Books

The Abraham Connection: A Jew, Christian and Muslim in Dialogue (Cross Cultural, 1994), subtitled “An Encounter between Dr. David Gordis, Dr. George Grose and Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi,” is the product of pioneering interfaith work performed at The Academy for Judaic, Christian and Islamic Studies at UCLA. The contributors exchange views on the significance of Abraham and the founding figures of each faith (Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad), compare theological views on such topics as scripture and grace, explore the meaning of peoplehood in each community, and reflect on how they have been affected by the dialogues. Dr. Gordis, for example, concluded that one must complement dialogue with worship, and to include the whole community, not just those involved with academics. Dr. Grose expressed the desire to have a dialogue at his funeral.

Karl-Josef Kushel’s Abraham: Sign of Hope for Jews, Christians and Muslims (Continuum, 1995), is described by Booklist as first presenting “a careful historical and theological account of the place of Abraham in each of the three traditions. Particularly helpful is Kuschel’s attention to exclusivist tendencies in each tradition, tendencies that, in times and places of historical confrontation, have transformed relatedness into division.” The second half of the book discusses what Kuschel refers to as “an Abrahamic ecumene,” which found public expression in the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. Based on the proceedings of the Parliament, Kuschel articulates a comprehensive perspective that takes differences into account as well.

Yossi Klein HaLevi’s stunning At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden (William Morrow, 2001) does not deal directly with Abrahamic dialogue, but is nevertheless extremely informative. The book recounts the Jewish author’s personal journey through Israel, trying to find Christians and Muslims with whom to worship and share a love of God. From Jerusalem’s Armenian Quarter on Easter to a mystical zikr dance with a Gaza sheik, the reader is exposed to groups of Christians and Muslims rarely seen. With mutual courage and devotion, the book seems to say, practically any barrier can be overcome.

Muslims in Dialogue: The Evolution of a Dialogue (Edwin Mellen 1992), includes two pieces by Jewish contributors on three faith dialogue, though not under that name. One is a four person conversation on “Jesus in Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue,” and the other, by Zalman Shachter, is entitled “Bases and Boundaries of Jewish, Christian, and Moslem Dialogue.”

Academics

Many Christian and secular colleges have created interfaith courses using the Abraham model:

A two year course at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral seeks “to promote understanding, appreciation, and accord among the people of the three Abrahamic traditions, to recognize the distinctive contributions of each tradition and to reclaim common ground through the study of texts, persons, art, history, and practice.” Portland State University offers credit for the course. Among its national advisers are Karen Armstrong, Diana Eck, and Bruce Feiler.

A course at St. George’s College in Jerusalem, entitled “Abraham, Yesterday and Today,” has been blessed by both the Grand Mufti and Chief Rabbi of the city. It focuses more on the faiths in Israel’s theological and religious history, and is designed to “address the themes of Covenant, Election, Promise, Law, and Faith.”

Cambridge University has instituted the Cambridge Interfaith Programme (CIP), to “sustain and resource engagement between Muslims, Christians and Jews through conversation, study, teaching and research, through involvement with Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities, organisations and initiatives, and through participation in the cultural, scientific, political and economic spheres.” The CIP plans to be connected to similar centers in the U.S. and Middle East and to promote teaching the Abrahamic faiths together at Cambridge University and other institutions.

The Children of Abraham Institute (CHAI) is dedicated “to bringing indigenous religious interests back on the map as essential components of peace negotiations between peoples with a history of intense religiosity.” Founded eleven years ago, the group (whose acronym means “life” in Hebrew), has led to meetings of scholars in the U.S. and England to examine the rules of interpretation and belief that are common to the scriptural traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The effort has resulted in a compilation of overlapping “rules of scriptural reasoning,” which they are currently describing in a series of book publications. The group has recently extended its sphere to religious leaders and academic institutions. Renamed The Society for Scriptural Reasoning in 1996, it now publishes a quarterly electronic journal through the University of Virginia’s electronic text center.

Local Initiatives

“Religious Diversity News” has a number of articles about Abrahamic dialogue and local initiatives. In addition, a website in memory of slain reporter Daniel Pearl features a series of links to mostly Muslim-Jewish dialogue, but salons are also mentioned.

Other articles about Abrahamic dialogue can be found by clicking on the following links:

Israel

In Israel, many Abrahamic dialogues focus on politics rather than faith, on the Jewish-Arab distinction rather than the religious (although there are both Muslims and Christians within the Palestinians who participate). An example of this is the Abraham Fund Initiatives, based in New York and Jerusalem. Founded in 1989, it offers leadership training and research to create coexistence ventures and partnerships “to promote its vision of shared citizenship and opportunity for all of Israel’s citizens.”

Concerns Regarding Islam

Historically, Judeo-Christian dialogue has been much more prevalent than either group with Islam. As a result, in a last three years many preexisting two faith groups have decided to welcome Muslims in, thus becoming Abrahamic dialogues. Such activity points to what many regard as a gap between Muslims and the Judeo-Christian union, a gap demonstrated by some comments by Cardinal Kasper, who mentions Muslims only in passing at his interfaith sermon’s end (note however that Abrahamic dialogue was not the subject of the talk). Muslim scholar Dr. Tarek Mitri expresses concern that such efforts leave Muslims as an afterthought in the dialogue, forcing them to enter a prearranged structure. Catholic scholar Dr. Leonard Swidler argues that the reason for Muslims’ peripheral place in the dialogue stems from their non-Western tradition.