Jewish-Muslim dialogue should happen in public
Occasionally, a member of the Jewish clergy works, to borrow a phrase, in mysterious ways.
Here is a case in point. On Feb. 8, the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis, in what it promoted in its weekly emails as an “historic moment,” held a session of “Conversation and Dialogue between Muslim Leaders and MBR.”
According to the invitation from President Rabbi David Lerner, members of the board were meeting with the senior imam and executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.
It may not have been the momentous event suggested by the hyperbole, but the confab certainly was newsworthy. We are not alone among those in the community curious to learn more about what goes on at the Islamic Society, the area’s largest mosque.
Imagine our surprise, then, when Rabbi Lerner stood up from where he was sitting next to the honored guests – in the midst of their introductory remarks – walked halfway around the room, and showed us the door.
Our protestations that he had invited us, that we had RSVP’d, and that our name appeared on the official, printed sign-in sheet at the door were met with accusations of duplicity on our part.
Rabbi Lerner, visibly upset, admonished our chutzpah before banishing us from the meeting.
His invitation had noted the imam, Shaykh Yasir Fahmy, and director, Yusufi Vali, would offer insights into the Muslim community, helping Jews to understand its organization and appreciate its challenges, and would welcome questions and discussion.
Given the accusations of divided loyalties by some members of the Jewish community regarding the mosque, this would have been a golden opportunity to convey the perspective of the mosque’s leadership to the Jewish community, had Rabbi Lerner not expelled us. Apparently, he feels the free exchange of ideas is limited to clergy and not their congregants, and only to some clergy, at that.
In October, Rabbi Lerner garnered 100 signatures from a select group of Mass. Board of Rabbis members, Jewish organizational leaders and non- Jewish clergy condemning a rabbi on the South Shore for opening his temple to a quartet of what some considered to be anti-Muslim speakers.
We would note Rabbi Lerner’s criticism of the speakers in October – that they are purveyors of hatred – is the same criticism leveled against leaders of the mosque; and that the only way to confirm or dispel such opinions is to expose the views in question to the disinfectant of sunlight.
In the fall, we faulted Rabbi Lerner for what he himself admitted was the rushed creation and haphazard circulation of the petition. No one, certainly not Jewish religious leaders, we argued, should commit to so serious a statement without ample opportunity to reflect.
With all due respect, we would suggest Rabbi Lerner does the community a disservice by limiting the free speech of those on the right or the left, and by limiting the dissemination of that speech by the independent press.
To encourage free speech and its dissemination, we further suggest, with all due respect, that Rabbi Lerner curb his rash, reactive tendencies and allow for the free flow of ideas.