On Wednesday, May 3, 2023, Yeshiva University’s Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs and Bernard Revel Graduate School of Judaic Studies, in conjunction with the Mohamed Bin Zayed University for Humanities, hosted a historic event bridging cultures and religious identities at the Crossroads of Civilization Museum in Dubai.
Titled “Interacting Philosophies, Shared Friendships,” the program began with opening remarks by Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori, the museum’s founder. Citing the Quran’s teaching “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another” (49:13), Mansoori explained that fostering relationships with different cultures and religions is a foundational principle of the Islamic faith and that the conference was a reflection of this value.
Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern then offered words of greeting on behalf of both the Office of the Provost and the Straus Center. Describing the Jewish practice of Sefirat Ha’Omer, the counting of 49 days from enslavement in Egypt to Revelation at Sinai, he explained that we count up to 49, as opposed to down to one, to symbolize aspiring towards greater heights while remaining faithful to our roots. “We stand here tonight,” he said, “in appreciation of the history that has come before us as we, the Jewish and Islamic communities, embark on a brighter future together.”
Following greetings from the deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, Revel dean Dr. Daniel Rynhold offered the program’s first lecture. Discussing “Maimonides and the Parable of the Sultan’s Palace,” he offered a contextual analysis of how the parable, found at the end of Maimonides’ major philosophical work, The Guide for the Perplexed, likely reflected Maimonides’ own balancing of his busy medical and communal work with divine contemplation. MBZUH’s Dr. Ibrahim Burshashen then delivered a talk in Arabic on the strong influence the Islamic philosopher Ibn Rushd had on Maimonides’ Guide. Dr. Burshashen’s colleague, Dr. Haider Hussain, followed with a discussion of “The Role and Impact of Islamic Civilization on Jewish Philosophy: A Look at the Joint Interaction, with Moses Ben Maimon as an Example.” He stressed the great appreciation and humility one gains in studying the interactions of Jewish and Islamic cultures, ending with the commendation, “God bless Maimonides. Every person who serves humanity is a blessing from God.”
The last two speakers from Yeshiva University were Dr. Ronnie Perelis of the Schneier Program and Dr. Shira Weiss from the Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership. Dr. Perelis spoke about “A Global Society: A Cosmopolitan History of the Jewish-Muslim Encounter.” His talk examined how, from Baghdad to Basra, Arabic was the conducive language of connection and consumerism for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Dr. Perelis then related how Judeo-Arabic not only immensely affected Jewish understanding and participation in Arabic culture but also transformed Jewish literature, grammar, linguistics and poetry. “I look forward to more transformations coming about through our encounters,” he concluded, “through our coming to listen to the other, to appreciate the other on their own terms and to share our own journeys, our own struggles and our own questions, and to find solutions together.” Dr. Weiss concluded by offered an analysis of “The Influence of Ibn Rushd on the Philosophy of Joseph Albo.” Highlighting Albo’s The Book of Principles, Weiss credited Ibn Rushd with inspiring the Jewish philosopher’s articulation of three major principles of Acknowledgment of God, the Truth of Prophecy and Reward and Punishment.
Receiving widespread coverage in both local and international press, including the Religion News Service, Jewish News Syndicate, I24 News, the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel, the occasion was groundbreaking, and the three Straus Scholars and two Schneier Program students in attendance, as well as the faculty, were honored to play a role. It was an additionally edifying experience to visit Abu Dhabi the day following the conference. There the group toured the newly built synagogue in the Abrahamic Family House, met officials at the Ministry of Tolerance and attended the first-ever celebration of Israel’s Independence Day in the UAE. As Straus student Ruchama Benhamou put it, “The Straus Scholars Program has been instrumental in expanding my intellectual horizons and providing unique educational opportunities that have shaped my perspectives on ideas and empowered me in my religious and academic pursuits. The UAE experience was truly transformative, and I am immensely humbled to have participated in events that will fashion the future for positive Muslim-Jewish relations.”
As Dr. Weiss concluded after the trip, “YU’s conference with Mohamed Bin Zayed University offered members of both universities, as well as those in attendance from Dubai’s Muslim and Jewish communities, an opportunity to share philosophies, build relationships and develop future collaborations. Beyond the conference, visiting the Ministry of Tolerance and the Abrahamic Family House in Abu Dhabi, which includes a mosque, church and synagogue, followed by the Israeli Embassy’s celebration of Israel’s 75th, provided an incredible glimpse of the emerging possibilities in the UAE.”