Temple Har Shalom Scholar-in-Residence to discuss Islam and democracy

Dr. Reuven Firestone, an expert on Muslim and Jewish relations, will give two presentations this weekend as part of Temple Har Shalom’s Scholar-in-Residence program.
Courtesy of the Jewish Institute of Religion

Dr. Reuven Firestone 6:30 p.m on Friday, Feb. 22; 9 a.m. on Saturday, Feb. 23 Temple Har Shalom, 3700 Creekside Ct. Free

After 11 people were killed while attending services at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last October in a hate crime, the Park City Muslim community started a crowdfunding campaign that raised $240,000 for the families’ victims.

Rabbi David Levinsky of Temple Har Shalom said the Park City Jewish community also received calls and support from the Salt Lake Muslim community.

“We felt very supported by and connected to them,” Levinsky said. “They called and asked if they could do anything for us to help us deal with what happened across the country.”

Temple Har Shalom will help further the relationship between the Jewish and Muslim communities with a talk facilitated by its Scholar-in-Residence program this weekend.

The speaker will be Dr. Reuven Firestone, a professor of Medieval Judaism and Islam at the Hebrew Union College of the Jewish Institute of Religion, which has facilities in Cincinnati, New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem.

Firestone, who has authored more than 10 books on Muslim and Jewish relations, was recently named as a Newground honoree for his work in Muslim-Jewish relations. Newground, a nonprofit, works to replace suspicions surrounding Muslims and Jews with trust and partnership, according to its mission statement.

Firestone will give two presentations, Levinsky said.

The first will start at 6:30 p.m. during a Friday night service at Temple Har Shalom, 3700 Creekside Ct. The second will start at 9 a.m. Saturday morning at the temple. Both sessions are open to the public.

“On Friday, Dr. Firestone will talk about Islam and democracy,” Levinsky said. “He will address whether those concepts are compatible, and, if so, how.”

After the Friday services, the congregation will participate in a Q and A session, according to the rabbi.

The Saturday service will center around an “intensive study of the Bible and Quran,” said Levinsky, who considers Firestone a mentor. “Dr. Firestone will do some readings and compare the two scriptures,” he said.

The purpose of Temple Har Shalom’s Scholar-in-Residence program is to find new ways the local Jewish community can interact positively with the larger Utah communities, Levinsky said.

“We are living in a time of great divisiveness, and that’s what we try to face head-on with these conversations,” he said.

Firestone, whose interest in Jewish and Muslim relations started in 1970 during a solo trip to the Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter and who has written extensively on the concept of jihad, agreed to an email Q and A with The Park Record from Jerusalem. The correspondence follows:

Park Record: What is your goal with this presentation?

Dr. Reuven Firestone: I don’t want to give away the store, so to speak, but no religion is “more” or “less” inclined toward democracy. The scriptural monotheisms relate to the source of their authority, beliefs and practices, as a perfect divine being (i.e. God!). That is, the ultimate dictator. No religious community can vote against God. Yet for some reason, many people in the West mistakenly believe that Christianity or Judaism is somehow “democratic,” while Islam is not. There are democratic trends in religions, certainly, but religion is not “democratic.” We will consider how Islam can (and in some cases does) live with secular democracy, and we will also consider how democracy can be possible even within a political system in which there is not a clear separation between church and state.

P.R.: What are some misconceptions followers of these religions have about one another?

R.F.: Unfortunately, Muslims, Christians and Jews are all burdened with the legacy of misconceptions applied to them by other religions and also those applied by them to other religions. One of the issues we may consider is how this has come about and why.

P.R.: You are also known for your writings about Jihad. Will you address the concepts and misunderstandings about Holy Wars?

R.F.: That topic is not on the agenda, but I’m not opposed to discussing it. I teach a course at University of Southern California Los Angeles called “Holy War and History: Jews, Christians and Muslims,” in which we study how the three religious communities justify mass killings and war that are believed to be authorized by divine authority. We observe Jewish, Christian and Muslim “holy wars” in history from a variety of angles, and we observe counter positions of peacemaking within all three religions. We bring the topic up to the present day.

P.R.: What misconceptions might Westerners have about jihad?

R.F.: One of the biggest misconceptions is that Muslims are supposedly commanded to make war on Jews and Christians until they convert to Islam. That is simply not true, neither in the (Quran) nor in the Hadith or in the legal literature of Islam. Another misconception is that all Muslims think alike, obey their “masters” and function as some kind of unified whole. That has never been the case. Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam has a variety of positions on virtually every topic.

In the high Middle Ages, letters from European Jews described Christianity as an evil, violent, hateful religion because at that moment in history, that is how they experienced Christians. They did not describe Muslims and Islam that way at all. If you were to read Jewish writings on the blogosphere today, you might find that lots of Jews experience Muslims as evil, violent and hateful. It is of course not “Christianity” or “Islam” that are evil or hateful, but individuals who are so and who ascribe their anger and hate to a divine authority.

P.R.: What do you think it will take for the religious community to find common ground?

R.F.: There is plenty of common ground between people or communities that differ over fundamental issues. In all situations there are things about which individuals and communities can agree, and things about which they cannot agree. That is also the case in reference to those who support Islamic governments and those who support democratic governments.


Skate with Santa at the Park City Ice Arena 

Santa Claus returns to the Park City Ice Arena on Tuesday, Dec. 12, from 5 to 7 p.m. for the annual Santa Skate! Don’t forget to bring your ski or bike helmet to wear while you’re on the ice. Complimentary skating and rentals. 

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