Dialoguing Text Study

May 1, 2005
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Reuven Firestone

DIALOGUE, WHICH IS DERIVED FROM two Greek words that mean “speaking across,” is any kind of discourse that involves exchange, oral or written, polemical or harmonizing. Traditional Jewish learning in the style of machaloqet (taking opposing positions on principle and working through them) is dialogical at its core. Dialogue between people of different religions has taken many forms historically, from the swapping of stories about religious figures in market conversation to formal disputation under the sponsorship (and usually, control) of the sovereign. Today, the purpose of dialogue is not to make believers of the dialogic partner, but rather to foster and gain better understanding with the dialogic partner. Jewish-Christian dialogue tends to be structured around theology; Jewish-Muslim dialogue is often structured around “issues” such as war and peace. Some of the best dialogue emerges when two different religious groups or communities engage in action projects of tikkun, repair.

In my experience, the most rewarding and effective dialogue for stimulating thinking about the religious self and the religious “other” is structured around the reading of sacred texts. And there is no more fascinating and positive context for this than Jewish-Muslim textual dialogue. The scriptures, oral tradition, and legal literatures of Islam and Judaism exhibit many parallels, both simple and profound, in form, content, and language. There are plenty of differences as well, and these differences distinguish two separate and independent religious systems. Even the linguistic parallels between Jewish and Islamic religious vocabulary convey subtleties of meaning that encourage discussion and wonder.

Take tzedakah, required giving in Judaism. The word derives from the root tzedek, meaning justice. Islam uses the same word, but for voluntary rather than required giving, and the root meaning in Arabic is closer to “sincerity,” or “truth.” The Islamic term for required giving (paralleling our tzedakah) is zakaat, and its basic meaning is “purity” and “innocence.” The cognate Hebrew word is zekhut, meaning “merit,” or “virtue.” One could write sermons and essays on these subtle differences. But this conversation cannot occur without study of the sacred texts out of which the subtleties of meaning derive.

When dialoguing, I lay out the texts in two columns: original scriptural language in the right column and English translation in the left column.

If the topic is to learn about required giving, I might begin with Qur’an 2:215 and 9:60 with Leviticus 19:9-10 and Deuteronomy 15:7-8. Or Qur’an 3:130 and 2:276-277 with Leviticus 25:35-37. The first set of texts treats the divinely commanded obligation for material giving, the second provides the source texts for the prohibition against charging interest (Hebrew ribit, Arabic riba). When Qur’an and biblical texts are learned together by chevrutot, intimate study groups, the participants encounter not only the texts but also a wide range of critically important related issues including the range of interpretations that participants bring to the discussion. Some of these interpretations are formal, traditional positions; others are absorbed informally, simply by growing up in a particular religious civilization. Studying a text with other Jews, we often fail to notice how we insert meaning into our sacred texts intuitively, out of our natural Jewish contexts. Because the non-Jews with whom we learn do not share our intuitive readings and therefore approach them from a different angle, they offer new insights about our own texts.

Muslims and Jews tend to relate to their sacred writings differently, and noting this can be a profound realization. Muslims tend to be surprised at the level and intensity of argument that Jews display when engaging with their own scripture. They are impressed, but also apprehensive, at the range of meanings that Jews are willing to try out on a text and on the Jewish custom of taking opposing positions. In the Islamic religious context, scripture is revered differently. Jews, on the other hand, are impressed with the profound and unmitigated love and respect that Muslims express to the Qur’an, a relationship-with-text-as-relationship-with-God that has been lost by many Jews.

I do not encourage groups to address difficult or controversial texts until they begin to feel “textually comfortable” with one another, meaning that they begin to really understand and respect the differences as well as the similarities in the texts and in the particular processes each religious system has for unpacking them. I also establish a number of “rules” in the engagement process in order to create a fair and trustful environment. The first rule is that a careful balance is maintained in the choice of texts. That is, if the goal (after getting to know and trust one another over a number of sessions) is to study the war texts of the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an, we take care to choose appropriately parallel texts. We move beyond the obvious blunder of taking peaceful texts from one tradition and warlike texts from the other. We also line up texts that highlight issues that would be interesting to the dialogue partners. While we don’t avoid problematic texts, we engage them in a way that they don’t become polemical. Throughout, we repeat the mantra that the goal is to understand and dignify rather than persuade and conquer.

The second rule ensures that the discourse of dialogue is one of discovery and not accusation. For example, no one is allowed to use the word combination, “you said,” because it may be a false accusation. The choice of words must be, rather, “I think I heard you say…” The third rule mandates study from the English column so that everyone can participate equally, and sophisticated linguistic ability is unnecessary. The original languages are referred to only to clarify particular ambiguities in the translation. The fourth rule guides the reading process. I always begin by having the chevruta partners slowly read one English verse, and then pause. After a few seconds, the next person reads the following verse, and so on. This way, everybody reads everybody’s sacred text. Everyone is equally engaged. In a room with sixteen or more people, four or more tables read to one another, and the room is abuzz.

I serve as a resource to the tables, walking among them and answering procedural or contextual questions. The procedure, I should add, is always a work in process — remaining flexible to accommodate issues as they arise and eventually self-governing. Whenever I engage in dialogic text study between Jews and Muslims, the experience is extraordinarily successful, and participants want to attempt the next layer of sacred text, the oral traditions. This, however, is more difficult because it is harder to locate texts in translation, and the languages (even in translation) and styles are less accessible.

We Jews have learned that the dialogic style of chevruta study is a mode of engaging our sacred texts deeply and with humility. Studying with another forces us to consider our readings very carefully; it keeps us honest. The same benefits of this mode of learning are garnered from dialogic text engagement with religious people of other faith systems. In the course of serious dialogic text study, we not only gain a deeper and more truthful understanding of the other, we also gain a deeper and more truthful understanding of ourselves.

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Reuven Firestone is Professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. The author of four books and dozens of articles on Islam and Judaism, he is currently developing the Institute for the Study and Enhancement of Muslim-Jewish Interrelations. Helpful texts and textual guides for dialogic text study between Jews and Muslims are available on www.shma.com.

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