Synagogue program will explore the role, history, and politics of Islam

Synagogue program will explore the role, history, and politics of Islam

Rabbis will focus on relations between Islam and Judaism

During one of his High Holiday sermons this past year, Rabbi Ben Shull invited members of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley to help the congregation learn more about Islam.

“I started talking about the [proposed] mosque and culture center at the tip of Manhattan and my observations about it,” said the religious leader of the Woodcliff Lake synagogue. “I said I would be appreciative if members of the congregation could assist me in forming a committee to help explore the intricacies of this issue.”

The committee, he said, would look at Islam in the world today – not only abroad but in the local area as well. Eight people volunteered.

Rabbi André Ungar, left, Rabbi Ned Soltz, and Rabbi Ben Shull

Would-be committee members were “fairly passionate” on all sides, said Shull, noting that some believe that Muslims constitute a threat, while others see Muslims as a mistreated minority. The committee met several times before deciding “what and who” to put before the congregation, he said. The resulting program – A Shabbat to Consider What Every Jew Should Know About Islam – will take place on May 13 and 14 and will feature presentations by Rabbis Ned Soltz and André Ungar.

“Having both rabbis was OK with both sides,” said Shull, referring to the divide between those who “are more skeptical and those more willing to dialogue. We discussed the possibility of bringing in a Muslim speaker to dialogue with us,” he said, but it was not clear who should be invited.

“I had hoped we would bring this to the fore more with the rabbinic community,” said Shull, indicating that questions such as who to speak with and what to say should be tackled communally. “Given the large and growing Muslim population here, it’s something we should be doing. We have yet to tackle it as an organized rabbinic community.”

Some groups that have reached out to Muslim speakers “feel a bit burned,” he said, noting that some of those Muslims who have been invited “had questionable ties.” For example, said the rabbi, when he held a pulpit in Florida, the founder of an Islamic think tank at the University of South Florida was later found to be raising money for Islamic Jihad.

“We’re not dealing effectively with this,” he said, “but maybe there’s no easy answer.”

Shull said Soltz – a Reform rabbi who lives in Teaneck and is part-time religious leader of a New York Reconstructionist synagogue – has spoken twice on the subject at the North Jersey Board of Rabbi’s “Sweet Taste of Torah” program. The rabbi has been asked to discuss the tenets of Islam, how it developed, and “its basic faith fundamentals.” Ungar, rabbi emeritus of the Woodcliff Lake synagogue, is charged with comparing and contrasting Islam and Judaism.

“I’ve always been interested in Christianity and Islam and in the relationships of [those religions] to Judaism,” said Soltz. After the Sep. 11 attacks, he added, he intensified his study of these subjects, developing a presentation on the issue.

“I began my own process of study and understanding,” he said. Using as his sources the Koran and Hadith (a compilation of Muslim texts) as well as late rabbinical and responsa literature, he will explore Islamic views of Judaism and Jewish views of Islam.

Soltz said he will explore what Jews were able to achieve, and not able to achieve, under Islam, “letting texts and historical interpretations speak for themselves.”

“I’ll mention the status of Jews as dhimmis,” non-Muslims living in Islamic countries, he said, but he will also raise the question of whether Jews fared better under Islam than Christianity. In addition, he will explore the rabbinic conclusion that Muslims are not idolators, looking at the halachic implications of that decision.

Calling Islam “one of the daughter religions of Judaism,” Ungar pointed out that there are many similarities between the two religions.

“The monotheism is almost identical,” he said, as is a commitment to ethical values. In addition, “many of Islam’s ritual traditions are patterned on our own,” he said. “The great difference is the fact that we are a religion focused on one people, and while we want to set an example for the world in ethical and spiritual values, we don’t want to convert it.”

Islam, on the other hand, “is meant to be universal, and the theological hope is to make the world Muslim, as it was supposedly meant to be.” Also, he said, while conversion should ideally take place through persuasion, if need be, Muslims believe it can be done by military force.

“There’s also the question of determinism, a strong element in Islamic philosophy,” he said, citing the belief that everything that happens is the will of God. “Human freedom plays a minor role, while we are committed to human choice.”

Ungar said that “with the political events happening today, knowing the ‘other’ is very necessary.”

The program is free and open to all interested members of the community. For more information, call the temple office at (201) 391- 0801 or visit

read more: