Rabbi Pursues Shared Stories Between Islam, Judaism, Christianity

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More and more, Jews and Muslims are finding commonalities and seeing each other as allies, says Rabbi Burton Visotzky, Director of the Finkelstein Institute for Religious and Social Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Many of the commonalities between Judaism, Islam, and another Abrahamic faith, Christianity come through shared Scriptures, said Visotzky, and indicate how to see each other.

“There’s a wonderful verse in the Book of Exodus where Jacob comes home after 20 years in exile and he’s terrified that his brother, Esau, will be angry and murder him. But Esau greets him with a kiss – and warmly -because Esau has been able to forgive. And Jacob comments, ‘Looking at your face is like seeing the face of God.’ 

“If we could all get there, in that moment, when we look at another person, even someone we perceive to be our enemy and see the godly in them…That’s the challenge we all face.”

With another example, Visotzky looks at the biblical story of Abraham – or Ibrahim in the Quran – and his son, as a shared story of offering and martyrdom. In the story, God asks him to offer his son, whom he loves. Just as Abraham is about to kill his son, God stops him. Visotzky talked with WSKG’s Monica Sandreczki about the story and how it could influence policy today.

Interview Highlights

On sacrifice and martyrdom:

“Over centuries, the notion of the willingness to sacrifice our children is not only a reflection of the reality that parents and children lived, but a reflection harsh ideology – one that I think we still talk about. We talk about, ‘are you willing to give your life for a cause?’ I think it’s the case when we go to battle that it’s not our lives we give for a cause, it’s the lives of our children, our young men, most often. This is a constant motif.

“The notion of martyrdom comes into play because Christianity, Islam and Judaism all have the experience of seeing members of their religion martyred. So, they want to see meaningful deaths and determine, post facto, determine that they had been willingly giving their lives to God as a sign of devotion.”

On the global relevance of this story:

“The ideology of sacrifice and even martyrdom remains an issue, not just in the religious worldview, but in the political worldview. We have terrorists who style themselves to be martyrs and this is how you can convince someone, through religious argument, to blow themselves up in a marketplace. We talk about the sacrifice of our children when we send them off to battle and the ideology is one that promotes a fascination with death, a dedication to death.”

On the impact on public policy:

“We could argue from the story that devotion and dedication to godly causes is a very powerful thing; it’s a real motivator. If we redefine those godly causes, as the Bible itself does, as loving one another, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the poor, then we could motivate people with the same kind of ideology to do works of lovingkindness, to bring people up out of poverty, to care for one another.”

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