Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Scholars see ‘empathy’ in Jews’ study of Islam

Mark Cohen, center, greets Ismar Schorsch and Susannah Heschel before a Princeton University lecture program on the Jewish fascination with Islam. (Photo by Marilyn Silverstein)

Princeton confab recalls historic links between the cultures
by Marilyn Silverstein

NJJN Staff Writer
April 30, 2009

Two leading lights in the world of Jewish scholarship were at Princeton University on April 23 to reflect on the Jewish “fascination” with Islam.

And while contemporary Jewish colloquia on Islam tend to dwell on conflict, Susannah Heschel and Rabbi Ismar Schorsch instead focused on how Jewish scholars helped shaped the study of Islam, and how Islam in turn shaped Jewish self-understanding.

“What Jews brought to the study of Islam and Arabic was empathy,” said Schorsch, chancellor emeritus and the Rabbi Herman Abramowitz Professor of Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. “Jewish scholars had an innate empathy for the study of Islam. Jews loved Islam for what it had offered them in the Middle Ages.”

Schorsch and Heschel, the Eli Black Professor in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, spoke before more than 120 people at the university’s McCormick Hall.

The program — the 31st Carolyn L. Drucker Memorial Lecture — was sponsored by the university’s Department of Near Eastern Studies and the Perelman Institute for Judaic Studies of the Program in Judaic Studies.

Mark Cohen, professor of Near Eastern studies and a founder of Princeton’s Program in Judaic Studies, served as moderator.

During the program, Heschel analyzed the impact of the study of Islam on European intellectuals of the 19th and early 20th centuries. She recently received a two-year grant from the Carnegie Foundation to complete research for a book on the subject, tentatively titled The Monotheistic Triangle: Judaism and Islam in the Modern Christian World.

Schorsch, who retired in 2006 as the Conservative seminary’s sixth chancellor, recounted details of the life of 19th-century German-Jewish bibliographer and Orientalist Moritz Steinschneider, the subject of his biography-in-progress.

“There’s a story to be told,” Schorsch told New Jersey Jewish News as he arrived at McCormick Hall for the program. “It’s a topic waiting to be done, and this is the right venue for it. Princeton has one of the great Near Eastern studies departments in the world.”

In his remarks, Schorsch pointed to Steinschneider’s work in uncovering a wealth of Arabic-language manuscripts written by Jews in the Middle Ages.

“We forget that the vast majority of Jews in the Middle Ages spoke Arabic and wrote Arabic,” he said. For years, Judeo-Arabic works by Maimonides and countless other Jewish writers were stored in archives; they became known to 19th-century Jews only through their Hebrew translations, Schorsch said.

“It was Steinschneider who went into the archives and began to discover this treasure of Judeo-Arabic manuscripts — which put our knowledge of these Jewish classics on a much firmer basis,” Schorsch said. “Steinschneider transformed our understanding of medieval Jewish history.”

Schorsch said Jews were drawn to Arabic because it was part of a “Sephardi mystique,” and scholars of Judaism made a “critical contribution” to the study of Islam.

“The contribution Jews made to the development of this field has yet to be told,” he said.

‘Handmaiden of Judaism’

Heschel’s remarks focused on the work of the German-Jewish Orientalists of the 19th century — in particular, rabbi/scholar Abraham Geiger. Geiger and his colleagues saw Islam as a kind of prophetic Judaism, Heschel told the audience. In their view, Islam was a “handmaiden” of Judaism — one that demonstrated the power of Jewish monotheism.

“The Jewish Orientalists turned to Islam and reconfigured it as…a product of Judaism,” she said. “Early Islam took shape around questions of Judaism and its practices.

“There is a Jewish fascination with Islam, even in our time,” she added. “We see it in Jewish scholarship…and in the use of Moorish architecture in European and American synagogues.… The Moorish architecture of the vast number of our synagogues continues to proclaim that Islam can stand as a signifier for Judaism.”

During the question-and-answer period after the presentations, Cohen responded to a question from NJ Jewish News about the evolution of the Jewish fascination with Islam today.

“In the academy today, both in this country, in Europe, and in the State of Israel, the study of Islam — particularly, the study of Jews and Islam — takes second place to the study of the Jews of Ashkenaz,” said Cohen, who specializes in the study of Jews in the Muslim world of the Middle Ages.

“Of course, today, given the political situation in the Middle East, I can understand why the Jewish fascination with Islam has turned into a Jewish de-fascination with Islam,” he said. “In a sense, Islam has become a subject not of admiration, but of fear.”

Schorsch observed that although the majority of the Jews in Israel today are Sephardim — the descendants of Jews from Muslim lands — the academic world has been dominated by Ashkenazi Jews — Jews of Eastern European descent.

“So you continue to have a preponderance of work done on Ashkenazi-Jewish history,” he said, “but I think that’s changing.”


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