It has been a quarter-century since Christopher M. Leighton, executive director of the Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies, set out to disarm religious hostility.
“I didn’t realize there would be such job security in that field,” said Leighton with a slight chuckle.
Talking with the JT just before the final program celebrating the ICJS’s 25th anniversary, Leighton said his job was first determining the “real issues” that divide the Christian and Jewish communities and then determining strategies to respond to the “distortions embedded in our cultures.”
“The challenge to develop pedagogical strategies is so vast, and the opportunities that came our way were so varied, that the job was never the same from one year to the next. There was always a new tactic, a new project to pursue,” he said.
And now the organization is expanding its role, reaching out to deal with the question of Jewish and Christian relations with Muslims, too. A lecture last week brought in New York’s Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf, who offered a Muslim perspective on the conflicts that arise in a religiously plural world and how these conflicts demand the attention of the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities.
A recent study published by the Pew Research Center found that Jews continue to make up only about 2 percent of the American population, with around 6.8 million people; with Jews in Israel and the rest of the world, that number is around 13 million. In contrast, Muslims and Christians are extremely large religious cohorts. According to Leighton, there are roughly 1.6 billion Muslims and two billion Christians in the world today. Predictions are that by 2050, 65 percent of the world population will be either Christian or Muslim. Mistrust, lack of understanding and/or dismissiveness run deep into the threads of each of these religions.
Leighton said that when he started with the ICJS he was unaware how deeply etched anti-Judaism is within the Christian tradition, and this was a “very sobering realization.” He explained the long, deep-rooted pattern of establishing Christian identity over and against Judaism and the Jewish people.
“To realize the hymns we sing, the great church theologians we read, the sermons that are given, the Scriptures that we read, the art that we see, the architecture — there is no corner of the tradition that doesn’t bare the stain of this anti-Judaism,” said Leighton. “To own up to, to come to grips with that problem, it was a truly remarkable experience … that led to a really broad cross section of the Christian community realizing the magnitude of this issue.”
He said it was, first, the process of confronting the enormity of the challenge and, second, engaging a cross section of the Christian community from around the country to wrestle with these matters. And then it was engaging Jews in the dialogue, who in their own right are “enormously dismissive of Christianity.”
ICJS has worked closely with the Baltimore Jewish Council, said Dr. Art C. Abramson, BJC executive director, to tackle these issues. Abramson described a vibrant exchange of ideas, which ultimately helped faith leaders in both communities learn more about their own religions and the religions of those of differing faiths. He noted that the relationships that have been established between lay and religious leaders of both faiths have been “invaluable.”
For the last two years, the ICJS, in conjunction with the BJC, an agency of The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, has traveled on a mission to Israel, where leaders can view the Jewish state from the perspective of the other.
Leighton said he is bringing Muslims into the dialogue because he has increasingly come to the realization that “Islam is a much more complex and varied tradition than most of us understand or appreciate, and Christians and Jews have important ins-ights to gain from seeing how the Muslim community wrestles with challenges in this country and around the world.”
He explained that while the conflict of which most people in the United States are acutely aware is the one between Arabs and Israelis, there are countries in which Christians and Muslims are butting up against one another, such as in Africa, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan, among others.
At the Oct. 3 lecture, Imam Rauf stressed the importance of learning about each other’s faith. He said many people believe interfaith dialogue is a new thing, that they have discovered this secret. But interfaith dialogue “has been going on forever. Muslims engaged with non-Muslims during the time of the prophet
[Mohammed]” and adapted many of their practices from the cultures in which they lived.
“We have collective amnesia,” said Imam Rauf. “The role of interfaith dialogue and education is to remind ourselves of the richness and the wealth of the other cultures. It is to engage in these issues of importance. Islam has become one of the most important questions to deal with — but it is shaped as much by events as by the writings of influential people.”
He also noted that one behaves as he is treated, and when you expect violence, this is what you get.
“How do you reframe the discourse?” he asked, noting that he feels that within the Islamic world the fundamentalists have been “edging out the moderates.” He said the fight in the Islamic world is between moderates and extremists, and the Islamic people need the help of moderate Arabs, Jews and Christians.
He also said that in America, the Muslim community is tasked with defining itself. That just as Jews grapple with the question of Jewish American or American Jew, so too do Muslims. He said that his community needs to move from being Muslims living in America to being American Muslims.
“In America, we need to re-create Islam in the context of American culture,” he said. “The task of shaping that is a work in progress. It is something that is happening right now.”
What will the next 25 years look like for Leighton and the ICJS?
Said Leighton: “I hope that our organization will be out there on the cutting edge with [Muslim-Jewish-Christian relations], as it has been with Christian-Jewish relations, that it will be on the forefront rather than passively sitting back.”
Maayan Jaffe is JT editor-in-chief — firstname.lastname@example.org