Judaism is a harsh, exacting faith condemning rebellious children to death by stoning. Islam exhorts Muslims to kill nonbelievers.
Neither statement, according to many Jewish and Muslim scholars, is true. But they are among the most persistent charges laid at the feet of Judaism and Islam by those who are unfamiliar with the basic holy texts of the other's faith.
Hampered by such ignorance, how can Jews and Muslims engage in real interfaith dialogue?
A new graduate-level course in Berkeley, billed as the first of its kind, aims to rectify this failing, at least for the 40 or so students enrolled.
"Madrasa/Midrasha: Muslim-Jewish Text Study," a nine-week course spearheaded by the Progressive Jewish Alliance and run by the Center for Jewish Studies and the Center for Islamic Studies of the Graduate Theological Union, introduces students of both faiths to the methodologies and foundational content of the Quran, Torah and Talmud.
Each session is co-taught by a Jewish and a Muslim scholar. The course also is open to the public.
The field of Jewish-Muslim dialogue and engagement is growing fast. According to a not-yet-published survey by the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement in Los Angeles, 13 of 18 groups involved in this work were launched in the past seven years, and six of them in the past two years.
The new Berkeley program stands out from the pack by its focus on rigorous text study. While 50 percent of the interfaith groups surveyed indicated they would like to do comparative study of sacred texts, experts in the field say very few actually engage in such work beyond one workshop, and none do so at the graduate level.
"This Berkeley program is very special," says Rabbi Reuven Firestone of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, which two years ago partnered with the University of Southern California and the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Foundation to form the Center for Muslim-Jewish Engagement.
In January 2009, Firestone co-taught the text study section of a pilot program in joint text study and interfaith relationship-building run by the center and NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change. The joint text study was conducted similarly to the new Graduate Theological Union course, although it was not part of a graduate level program.
The center is looking for funding to replicate the course for other institutions. Neither Firestone nor organizers of the Berkeley course know of similar initiatives elsewhere.
Instructors in both courses say that bringing together adherents of both faiths in text-centered dialogue defuses some of the tensions that typically crop up in interfaith groups by focusing attention in a third direction: the page of a book.
"The experience of reading a Torah story we know as it appears in the Quran, seeing where it overlaps and differs, is very moving," Firestone says. "It elicits questions. Your dialogue partner becomes the representative of a deeply fascinating religious tradition" rather than someone you're trying to persuade of the rightness of your cause.