By Ruchama Benhamou, Features Editor
On Wednesday May 3rd, 2023, the Yeshiva University Bernard Revel Graduate School of Judaic Studies, in conjunction with the Mohamed Bin Zayed University for Humanities, hosted an impactful event bridging cultures and religious identities at the Crossroads of Civilization Museum in Dubai.
Yeshiva University’s undergraduate centers, including the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, and the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs, participated in cultivating a historic conference upon the vivid influence and overlap between Jewish and Islamic philosophy, truly effectuating its namesake “Interacting Philosophies, Shared Friendships.”
This unique event began with opening remarks by Dr. Ahmed Obaid Al Mansoori, the museum’s director, as well as Rabbi Dr. Stuart Halpern from the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center of Torah and Western Thought. Dr. Mansoori opened with a powerful teaching from the Quran: “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). Dr. Mansoori explained that fostering interfaith relationships with similar, yet diversified nations, cultures, and religions, was a foundational value of the Islamic faith, and that the conference was created to embody this notion. Rabbi Halpern conveyed similar sentiments upon this first primordial conference, through a meaningful message we learn from Sefirat Ha’Omer. The counting of our liberation, to Shavuot, as Rabbi Halpmrn relayed, displays our prudent aspirations towards future events and endeavors, while also remaining faithful to our memories of the past. Memories that have fashioned our nation’s identity, traditions, and faith, that have paved the path to who we are today and who we can be tomorrow. The deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Fleur Hassan similarly expressed this, in her introduction to this conference, by recounting an event in 2020 with Jews and Emirates which fashioned firm and insightful relations between both nations and religions, which honored our ancestors and will continue to revere them in the future.
The first speaker of this event, Dr. Daniel Rynhold, discussed the importance of “Maimonides and the Parable of the Sultan’s Palace” found at the end of Maimonides’ major philosophical work, The Guide for the Perplexed. The parable of the sultan demonstrates the incomprehensibility of God’s true essence and nature to mankind. Maimonides argues, similarly to how the sultan’s true identity is hidden from his subjects, although God’s nature too is enclosed, one can still gain knowledge of God through his actions and attributes. Dr. Reynold understands this notion similarly to the contemporary writer on medieval Jewish Philosophy, Stephen Harvey. He examines this parable and indicates that God is closely related to the human experience and emphasizes the significance of interpretation in comprehending religious literature. Harvey contends that the tale inspires readers to use interpretative strategies that are based on a thorough knowledge of the religious tradition as well as to confront and question conventional interpretations.
The next speaker, from the Mohamed Bin Zayed University for Humanities, “On the Relationship between Ibn Rushd and Ibn Maimon” was given by Dr. Ibrahim Burshashen. Dr. Burshashen discussed the synthesis of Jewish and Islamic Philosophies, particularly regarding the major works of Maimonides and Ibn Rushd, including their shared influence of Aristotelian notions interwoven in their commentaries on religious philosophy as a whole. In Dr. In Burshashen’s insightful lecture, he relays the strong influence Ibn Rushd had on Miamondoes’ work The Guide for the Perplexed. He expanded that this major philosophical work integrated and encompassed the views and ethics of Aristotle and Averroes in clarifying confusion in different names, pseudonyms, and hidden proverbs, which was thoroughly analyzed and deliberated in Ibn Rushd’s works.
Dr. Haider Hussein then provided an in-depth discussion titled: “The Role and Impact of Islamic Civilization on Jewish Philosophy: A Look at the Joint Interaction, with Moses Ben Maimon as an Example.” In his hopes of fashioning this excerpt into a book, Dr. Hussein examines the influence of Islamic philosophy, particularly Ibn Rushd’s thought on the development of both Maimonides and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s works on Jewish philosophy. He highlights the humbling fusion of seemingly contrasting religious commentaries into a vivid harmonization of philosophical creed in the realms of Judaism and Islam. In his speech, Dr. Hussein emphasized the importance of recognizing the interrelation and thus connection between faiths and their ideologies. He stressed the great beauty and humility in learning the humanities and their meaningful overlap, ending with the commendation, “God bless Maimonidies, every person who pursues the humanities is a blessing from God.”
The last two speakers from Yeshiva University were Dr. Ronnie Perelis from the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs, and Dr. Shira Weiss from The Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks-Herenstein Center for Values and Leadership. Dr. Perelis spoke on “A Global Society: A Cosmopolitan History of the Jewish-Muslim Encounter,” in which he examined the influence of not only Islamic rule over various countries, but the impact of Arabian culture and language upon their indigenous peoples. Not only were governmental policies and laws conducted in Arabic, but the Mediterranean trading routes and overall system were also dominated by the language. From Baghdad to Basra, and all places in between, Arabic was the conducive language of connection and consumerism for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Dr. Perelis then relates this to a famous manuscript from Genesis written in the tafsir of Rabbi Saadya Gaon, who realized the importance of Jews speaking in the vernacular, and therefore created a Judeo-Arabic translation of foundational Jewish works and texts. Dr. Perelis underscores the crucial impact of how this Judeo-Arabic dialect not only immensely affected Jewish understanding and participation in Arabic culture, but how throughout the ages of modernity to the present day, these translations have transformed Jewish literature, and the methods of grammar, linguistics, and poetry, obtained through this incorporation, are still being analyzed and utilized in research. Dr. Perelis closed, “I look forward to more transformations come about through our encounters, 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.”
The conference’s last speaker, Dr. Shira Weiss, presented on “The Influence of Ibn Rushd on the Philosophy of Joseph Albo.” Dr. Weiss opens with a pivotal question of whether Judaism has explicit dogma within its creed. She explains that Maimonides was among the first Jewish philosophers to popularize this idea with the formulation of the thirteen principles of faith that he believed were implicit and foundational to living an observant lifestyle. Dr. Weiss then separates these principles into three distinct categories. The first five belong to the Nature of God, the four that make up the middle relay views of prophetic revelation, and the last four relate to retribution and punishment of sin as well as rewards for good deeds. She highlights the Aristotelian notions that are deeply intertwined in the Maimonidean conception of these principles, in that he claims if one were to renounce or disbelieve in a principle, even accidentally, is cut off from the spiritual community of the Jewish nation. Maimonides views this disconnection from the world to come as one of a spiritual and intellectual realm much like Aristotle, and thus emphasizes the importance of retaining this theological basis in the afterlife. This enumeration of dogma, which stemmed from Maimonides popularization of it, influenced many Jewish philosophers to fashion their own system of dogma. The most famous Jewish thinker who was heavily inspired by the thirteen principles of faith, Joseph Albo, established his own set of principles in his major work The Book of Principles. Albo formulas three major principles (Acknowledgment of God, the truth of Prophecy, and the notion of Reward and Punishment) that can be dated back to the influence of Ibn Rushd, who viewed Albo’s principles as inherent to every revealed religion and universally binding as stated in his philosophical commentary The Decisive Treatise. Dr. Weiss concluded that “regardless of such a debate, what is clear is the profound influence that Islamic Philosophy, and especially Averroes’ Philosophy had upon the medieval discussion of Jewish dogma, and this discussion continues to be contested today.”