A group of rabbis and imams came together last Sunday at Temple Emanu-El in New York to discuss perspectives on the interpretation of foundational religious texts. The all-day seminar, attended by 30 leading scholars of sharia law and halachah was closed to the public, with the exception of an afternoon panel moderated by Rabbi Jack Bemporad of the Center for Interreligious Understanding (CIU), and scholar in residence at Chavurah Beth Shalom in Alpine. The event was organized by the CIU, the Interdisciplinary Program in Law and Education Columbia School of Law, Catholic University of America, and the Muslim Chaplains’ Association.

After visiting Auschwitz with a group of imams last year, Bemporad realized that in addition to interfaith dialogue, leading Muslim and Jewish religious scholars needed to discuss foundational texts to improve relations and to study how those texts impact our lives today.

“It’s also urgent,” said Bemporad. “At least 20 states are seeking to ban sharia, a legalization of Islamophobia. Understanding the commonality and differences in our texts goes far in explaining why attacks on sharia are also attacks on all religious law and religious freedom.

“From the Golden Rule to the Ten Commandments and everything in between, our laws, society, and understanding of each other are guided, and at times held captive, by the ancient texts of the Abrahamic faiths. How they are interpreted today is crucial,” Bemporad said. “The Koran, though based on the bible, is a different story from the one we hold in common with Christians, and it is one we need to understand – along with understanding how these texts are interpreted by Muslims.”

Rabbi David Silver of Drisha, Prof. Josef Stern of the University of Chicago, and Rabbi Shaul Robinson of Lincoln Square Synagogue, all Orthodox, participated in the panel with Prof. Kecia Ali of Boston University, Imam Mohamed Hag Magid of the All Dulles Area Muslim Society in Virginia, and Prof. Ebrahim Moosa of Duke University, who are all Sunnis.

The text under study by Silver was the story of the binding of Isaac (the Akedah) that has a parallel in the Koran referring to Ishmael. Silver sees the Akedah as a place where Abraham puts himself in a sacred space to serve God within the law. “The law is a limitation,” he noted, “and no law book is big enough to cover every contingency. The one thing that law can do is guide us to a place where we know what God wants from us. It is also about submission to God’s will….In the Jewish tradition, both are present, and different communities within Judaism interpret these things differently. The goal is the same, to be a human being fully in sync with God.”

Boston University’s Ali specializes in Islamic religious texts, jurisprudence, women in classical and contemporary Muslim discourses, and religious biography. She outlined how technology, beginning with the printing press, made foundational texts available to everyone. She said, however, that the only way to be allowed to interpret the text was to master it. You have to be trained, otherwise there is hermeneutic chaos. She suggested that audiences be given “better tools with which to judge who is giving out the information. Life experience is also important to bear on text. When you go to Google you get icky interpretations and people need to sort out reasonable answers. This remains a challenge.”

Both rabbis and imams referred to Rabbi or Imam Google through the course of the afternoon, and generated a few laughs from the audience, but like Ali, they pointed out the dangers of pulling information off the net that is already out of context.

Magid examined the Koran as a legal structure that allows people to deal with problems that arise in the modern world – for example, in vitro fertilization and surrogate motherhood, the role of women, ethics as related to law, and vice versa. He described a number of situations in which people approached him by asking about a single verse. “I would ask them, Have you looked as the verses surrounding this text? And have you looked in other places that talk about these things in the text?” His answer resembles that of Hillel to a would-be convert: “Go and study.”

There are texts that are ethically problematic in both religions. Robinson asked, “Do you concentrate on those texts, or do you teach your children to be ethical, compassionate, and value life?”

At the conclusion of the conference, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of the New York Board of Rabbis thanked the organizers. “If Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar would have talked to each other the way we are talking and learning from each other today, we would be living in a different, far better world.”