If you take only one lesson from Rabbi David Fine’s series of classes on Islam, it should be the meaning of the piece of paper that Solomon Schechter took to New York with him when he left Cambridge University to lead the Jewish Theological Seminary back in 1902.
Rabbi Fine will discuss the piece of paper when he lectures on Maimonides at the Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee on August 2. It’s one of a six-part series that continues on Tuesdays from 12:30 to 3 p.m. through August 9.
It is a letter dictated by Moses Maimonides, “the most famous, most brilliant, most important rabbi who ever lived,” Rabbi Fine said. The letter is in Hebrew, as is the first signature, which Rabbi Fine believes was written by Maimonides’ secretary.
But at the very bottom is Maimonides’s own signature. “It’s probably the only thing in the letter that’s in his own hand,” Rabbi Fine said.
And it’s in Arabic.
“You sign your name in the language that’s most comfortable for you,” Rabbi Fine said.
“In a sense, Maimonides was an Arab. That was his culture. Two of his three major Jewish books” — his “Guide to the Perplexed” and his commentary on the Mishnah — “were written in Arabic, not Hebrew. Clearly it was the language in which he was most comfortable and most of his Jewish public were comfortable in.
“The parallels to our experience are obvious. We are Jews living in New Jersey, who are more comfortable with English than with Hebrew.”
Rabbi Fine will devote an hour-long lecture to Maimonides, and the ways he “identified as an Arab and what that identity meant for him as a Jewish leader, and what that legacy is for us. It’s such a different image of the relationship to Jews in the Muslim and Arab world than we have today.”
Rabbi Fine said that the strangest thing in the history of the Jewish-Muslim encounter “is the distance and mistrust that exists today. We spent a thousand years living together and being so comfortable with each other that the distrust now is completely unexpected. Our cultures are so similar. Our languages are so similar. Every time I teach an Arabic phrase, we can see the cognates to Hebrew.
“I’m hoping that if people understand that the sense of fear and distrust now is strange, maybe it will help us come back together.
“One of the overall questions we look at in the course is that through most of history, Jews were relatively more comfortable in Muslim countries than in Christian countries. That changes with the establishment of Israel. We’re looking to understand why things went the way they are today and how much of that historical relationship is re-attainable as we all imagine a future of peaceful relations,” he said.
Rabbi Fine said the history of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem provides a window into the different ways Christianity and Islam historically viewed Jerusalem.
“The Christians wanted to keep the Temple Mount empty, as a sign Jews had lost the favor of God,” Rabbi Fine said. “The Muslims rebuilt it, made it beautiful, put a shrine there. Part of its importance to them is that it was holy and important to us.”
Rabbi Fine explained that the Dome of the Rock also has significance within the political struggles of the Muslim caliphate. The dome was built in the late 600s, as the Umayyad dynasty that ruled the Muslim world was fighting to hold onto its power. Unlike earlier Muslim leaders, who were based in Arabia, the Umayyad caliphate was based in Damascus. By promoting pilgrimage to Jerusalem — which Mohammed had acknowledged as holy — the caliph was pulling the focus away from Mecca and Medina.
It was also a way to supplant the Christian Byzantine empire, which had ruled Jerusalem for centuries.
If the Ummayad caliphate’s center in Damascus made a lasting change to the Jerusalem skyline, the next dynasty, the Abbasids, made a lasting change to the Jewish library. The Abbasids, who overthrew the Ummayads in 750, ruled from Baghdad.
“The yeshivas around Baghdad found themselves living in the capital of the world,” Rabbi Fine said. “That contributed to their ability to communicate to Jewish communities around the world. The Babylonian Talmud spreads throughout the Jewish world because of the spread of the Baghdad-centered caliphate. In a sense, the consolidation of rabbinic Judaism in the early middle ages was made possible because of Muslim political developments.”
This is just one example of the ways that “understanding Muslim history helps us understand the development of Judaism,” he said. “Because most of us in this country come from an Ashkenazic background, we tend to forget that for much of Jewish history, the majority of the Jewish people lived in Muslim countries, not Christian countries,” he said.
Who: Rabbi David Fine of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood
Where: Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee, 1449 Anderson Ave., Fort Lee
What: Lecture series, “Judaism and Islam Through the Ages”
When: 12:30-3 p.m. Thursdays August 2, and August 9
How much: Free.