Assimilation for Muslims and Jews?

by Reza Aslan and Aaron J. Hahn Tapper
Palgrave Macmillan, 2011

As I write, twenty states are considering laws that would prohibit courts from considering any “foreign law” in their deliberations. Tennessee, Louisiana, and Arizona have already passed such statutes.  In January 2012, these attempts suffered a setback as a federal court found one such Oklahoma law unconstitutional. It remains to be seen what the future of such laws will be.

These laws—some of which explicitly mention Islamic Sharia law, and others of which hide their anti-Muslim intentions behind a more innocuous ban on “foreign law”—raise the specter of fundamentalist Muslims turning the United States into an Islamic theocracy.

There is no question that this perceived threat is absurd. And while Muslims currently bear the brunt of this fear-mongering, other groups’ religious practices may also soon fall under the scrutiny of these new laws. The new attention to the role of foreign law in American courts brings to light, for example, the seams in the supposedly flawless integration of Judaism and American life.

American courts today consider religious law in a limited set of cases: business contracts in which the parties have agreed that arbitrations should be carried out by religious judges; marriages in which certain stipulations follow religious law; and cases that touch on religious freedoms, such as the right of prisoners to practice their faith. In cases in which a defendant claims religious motives for murder or other criminal behavior, courts have routinely refused to consider such defenses.

Jews, like other religious minorities, have long taken for granted the right for parties to a contract to turn to a religious body such as a beit din (rabbinical court) for arbitration. In a number of cases, civil courts have upheld agreements made in Jewish and other religious prenuptial agreements. Therefore the Jewish community waxes poetic about the unprecedented religious freedom that Jews enjoy in America.

Most Jews—especially those of us in the liberal camp—assume that there is no conflict between Jewish values and American values.{{{subscriber|2.00}}} We take for granted our right to practice Judaism as we wish, our right to marry and divorce according to Jewish law (however we may interpret such law), and our right not to be coerced into any other practice. But the legislative assault on foreign law—coming in the same year as a failed attempt to ban circumcision in San Francisco—forces us to ask whether Jews really are just like all other Americans.

I thought of this bubbling tension often as I read Reza Aslan and Aaron J. Hahn Tapper’s excellent new anthology, Muslims and Jews in America: Commonalities, Contentions, and Complexities. This collection brings together a fascinating group of voices, including rabbis and imams, those enriched by interfaith dialogue and those burned by it, professors of theology and leaders of Jewish and Muslim communal organizations.

Over and over, the authors of the essays collected here consider whether and how the assimilation of Jews into America should and could be a model for the integration of Muslims into America. As I read, I wondered whether the questions about what it means to be an American Muslim might also inform conversations about what it means to be an American Jew.

In one piece, Rabbi Amy Eilberg describes a planning meeting for an interfaith Passover seder in which Jewish and Christian members of the team jump into an animated debate about how to understand God’s violent actions in the Exodus story. Finally, a Muslim participant jumps in with a complaint: “You are talking about criticizing your sacred text! I do not feel comfortable with this.”

As a liberal and feminist Jew myself, I sympathize with the Jews and Christians in this story who ask why the biblical God sees it necessary to murder Egyptians in order to bring about the liberation of the Israelites. My own family’s Passover Seders have considered this question and many others that some biblical literalists might consider heretical. In all of these conversations, I rest secure in the knowledge that the traditional Jewish interpretive tradition allows for much wrangling with God and with text.

At the same time, I also hear the Muslim participant’s critique, which I would rephrase as, “Do your texts always have to become American?” That is, in the rush to demonstrate that there is no fault line between Judaism and Americanism, or between Judaism and modern liberal values, do we fail to allow ourselves to be challenged by our texts and traditions?

Perhaps even texts that we initially perceive as difficult can teach us something about the limits of modernity. For example, even while we reconsider marriage laws and traditions that seem misogynistic or homophobic, we might also learn from the traditional insistence on monogamy, a challenge to the sexual permissiveness of our own society. Even the violence of the Passover story might teach us real psychological truths about the need to express anger against one’s oppressor.

Since the French Revolution, Jews have managed our integration into various other nations by defining Judaism as a religion and not a nation. Thus, one can be fully Jewish and fully French; fully Jewish and fully British; and, of course, fully Jewish and fully American.

But this insistence that Judaism is a religion just like Christianity downplays the ethnic and cultural factors that make Judaism more than simply a religion. And, for liberal Jews, generations of equating Jewishness with Americanness result in shock when a municipal government questions the morality of circumcision, when kashrut practices are challenged on the grounds of animal rights, and when legislators in Texas question whether a Jew is sufficiently Christian to be the Speaker of the State House of Representatives. The uneven integration of Muslims into America now throws into question the extent to which religious and cultural identity must be Americanized in order for a minority group to become American.

In an especially thought-provoking essay, Taymiya R. Zaman, an assistant professor at the University of San Francisco, wonders to what extent Muslims should look to Jews for a model of how to fit into America. She writes:

The implicit premise that if Jewish people could prosper in America despite blatant anti-Semitism so can Muslims is one that should be interrogated further, especially because it calls for a downplaying of ethnicity in favor of religion…. Is it useful or meaningful to reduce the mosaic of Muslim ethnicities and cultures down to an amalgam of religious teachings and allegiances to America? … I believe that civic engagement between Muslims and Jews should not center only on a model of winning at being American … rather, it should involve an appreciation for the cultural diversity of both communities, as well as an openness to question the structures of power that place Jews and Muslims at odds with one another by making them competitors in a model of assimilation that damages even as it grants privilege.

Zaman writes as a Muslim searching for the right way for her and her students to be American without losing their ethnic identity. As a Jew, I read this essay as a question about how Jews can reclaim the ethnic identity that we surrendered in the rush to become American. Perhaps the public integration of Muslims into U.S. society will open up space for Jews, Hindus, and others to recreate our own identities, which will be fully American yet not consumed by America, and which might even, at times, challenge America.

Crafting a new American Jewish—or Muslim—identity means first acknowledging that our identities cannot be reduced to what prayer services we attend, what holidays we celebrate, or what we eat or don’t eat. Second, we need to identify the moments of discontinuity between Jewishness and Americanness. In each of these areas, we can then ask: In this particular case, do we want to be more Jewish or more American? And are there cases in which we might push America to be more Jewish?

For example, Jewish law includes strong language regarding the responsibilities of an employer toward his or her employee. These laws include an expectation that even someone working a low-wage job will earn enough to support his or her family. How, then, do Jews function in a society in which employers are expected only to pay minimum wage, and in which some small business owners feel that they can compete only by paying low salaries? There are a few options: One possibility (and the most common one) is that Jewish employers will decide not to bring Judaism into the workplace, but instead to hold themselves only to American standards. The second option is that Jews will hold themselves to a different standard than the one common to America. The third option is that Jews will push America to be more Jewish by guaranteeing everyone a living wage.

In some cases, such as engaging in ritual practice or reviving multiple aspects of our cultural heritage, embracing Jewish identity fully may not involve any discontinuity with America, especially in this age of multiculturalism. In other cases, we will have to choose between being more Jewish or more American, or between pushing Jewish values in public and keeping them to ourselves.

In one essay, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf writes, “Some Muslim and non-Muslim leaders have attempted to separate their ‘Muslim-ness’ from their ‘American-ness,’ rendering an increased interpretation for one identity to be a direct threat to the other. Yet despite these and other impediments, similar to the history of American Jews, Muslims in the United States are fostering a burgeoning American Muslim culture and identity, drawing from the diversity of its immigrant and African American backgrounds.”

American Jewish identity and American Muslim identity already are, and will continue to be, different from Jewish or Muslim identity anywhere else that Jews and Muslims have lived. Judaism and Islam will change as a result of their practice in America, just as both traditions have been influenced by life in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere. And I also believe that America will change as a result. Does this mean that foreign law threatens to take over America? No. This means that America is a country enriched by a continued infusion of people with different backgrounds, ethnicities, religions, and experiences, as well as one whose laws and values benefit from an ongoing conversation with these “foreign” influences.

(To return to the Spring 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)


Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the executive director of T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. Her most recent book is Where Justice Dwells: A Hands-On Guide to Doing Social Justice in Your Jewish Community (Jewish Light, 2011).

Source Citation

Jacobs, Jill. 2012. "Assimilation for Muslims and Jews?" Tikkun 27(2): 52.

tags: Books, Islam, Judaism, Reviews   
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