Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Sam Fleischacker - Jewish/Muslim Studies Initiative

My admirable friend Sam Fleischacker is a philosopher by trade, and one with more social, cultural, and historical sensitivity than many academic philosophers. This perspective has led him to write, among other things, valuable books on The Ethics of Culture and A Short History of Distributive Justice as well as a series of important works on Adam Smith as a moral and socio-political thinker, including A Third Concept of Liberty and On Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations": A Philosophical Companion.

Sam is also, unlike me, an observant Jew. His religious commitment has inclined him to be more, rather than less, open to other religious traditions. Over the years, he has been impressively persistent in pursuing practical efforts at inter-faith dialogues with Christian and Muslim groups, despite repeated tensions and disappointments. In addition, he has now launched an effort to promote intellectually serious and rigorous comparative study of Judaism and Islam through a Jewish/Muslim Studies Initiative (at the University of Illinois in Chicago and Chicago-Kent College of Law). To quote from a recent article about this initiative:
Professor Sam Fleischacker had a vision.

"Imagine Jewish and Muslim students poring over a sura of the Koran together or a page of the Talmud," he wrote in a statement about the new program he is launching at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "Imagine them learning together about the influence of Islam on Judaism, and vice versa ... Imagine them discovering the similarities in Jewish and Muslim conceptions of law and of Scripture, in theology, or in their experiences as minorities in the West, both in the past and in the present day."

Fleischacker's ambitious dream is now a giant step closer to realization. Beginning with the new semester in January, UIC, along with Chicago-Kent College of Law, is establishing a Jewish/Muslim Studies Initiative; its centerpiece is a course available to students at both institutions. Public lectures, one of which has already taken place, and a theatrical performance will augment the academic program in its first year. [....]
Fleischacker, a professor in the philosophy department, has long envisioned just such an initiative, he said in a recent phone conversation. "I've been concerned with Jewish-Muslim dialogue for many years," he said. "I think that Judaism and Islam in many ways are closer than Judaism and Christianity. They both share a strong monotheism, and they shared a very good history until the early 19th century."

Today, he said, as is well known there is tremendous anti-Semitism and hostility towards Israel in the Muslim world, yet "one on one I've had very lovely interactions with Muslims, and they are very interested to know more about Judaism." Especially since Sept. 11, "I thought such interactions were crucial, yet I haven't found very many venues where it takes place," he said. An exception is Chicago's Interfaith Youth Corps, where high school students of many religions work together on social justice projects.

Yet, Fleischacker said, he was looking for a different type of setting. "Because I'm a professor I believe in intellectual work," he said. "Dialogue breaks down because people have terrible misimpressions of each other, false views about the Talmud, about the Koran. I think universities can contribute something that you don't necessarily get outside of universities."

Last year, Fleischacker chaired the UIC Jewish Studies program after another professor left and his idea for the initiative began to come together. "We have a very large Muslim population and also a significant Jewish population, and I thought it might be an appropriate, interesting thing to do," he said. With help from the Jewish Studies program, the school itself and Chicago-Kent, the idea for the program quickly came together.

Fleischacker's ultimate vision is "to bring Jewish professors to teach Islam and Muslim professors to teach Judaism--well-trained, scholarly people with a deep interest in the other tradition, and who are not prejudiced. It would provide them with an opportunity to learn the tradition itself more than they would ordinarily do and provide an incentive for scholars in the two disciplines to get to know each other."

For students, he said, "it would provide a wonderful opportunity for Jewish and Muslim students to work on each other's traditions together. It will be interfaith dialogue in a scholarly setting. [....]"
From an intellectual and scholarly point of view, there is no question that this is an excellent idea that deserves serious imitation elsewhere. Sam hopes that it may also have practical benefits.
The benefits of that will be great, he believes. "Among the most serious rifts in the world today is the one between Jews and Muslims," Fleischacker said. "Universities can play an important role in enabling dialogue, fostering understanding and developing cooperative relationships."
Maybe. We should all wish him luck.

(For further information, see HERE, HERE, and HERE.)

--Jeff Weintraub