Parshat Vayeshev

Torah Reading for Week of December 11-17, 2011

“A Vehicle for Communal Learning”
By Hazzan Paul Buch, ‘05

Back in the ‘90s I was a regular attendee at the then new Los Angeles International Film Festival.  One of the most memorable films I saw there was a retelling of the Joseph story produced by an Egyptian Muslim filmmaker, that told the tale through the eyes of the wandering Ishmaelite who had purchased Joseph and rescued him from the pit where his brothers had abandoned him.  The film’s story line basically covered the same timeline as this week’s Torah portion Vayeshev and next week’s portion Miketz, beginning with Joseph’s problems with his siblings and concluding with his eventual rise to power as Pharaoh’s trusted minister.  Before seeing this film, it had never occurred to me that the Joseph story was really relevant to anyone but Jews, or perhaps to Christians who may have seen the musical or film Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  But I’ve come to learn since that the Yusef (Joseph) story has profound meaning to Muslims as well.  It is said to be the most detailed narrative in the Quran, and includes many aspects of the story not found in the Hebrew Bible though quite a few turn up in our Midrashim. This story also serves as an Islamic proof text for the Quranic idea that great prophets such as Adam, Moses, Joseph, Jesus, and Mohammed, share the experience of having had difficult childhoods which shaped their character, and that these men are linked also through their dedication to act righteously under G-d’s direction when faced with the reluctance of humanity to follow the holy way.  Reflecting back, I believe that viewing this film was an important catalyst moving forward my desire to know more about Islam, especially how it relates to our fundamental Jewish texts.

Not long after I graduated AJRCA and became Cantor at Temple Beth Israel in Pomona, CA, I began to participate in local interfaith activities there, especially in the nearby city of Claremont where my family had moved to following ordination.  I was warmly welcomed to the local Claremont Ecumenical Council and got to know the representatives from the area’s Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Quaker and other Christian faiths, who had been gathering monthly for years.  A Jew had not been a regular participant for a long time, but, in keeping with the broadening vision its then leadership had, not long after I began attending they altered the name of the group to the Claremont Interfaith Council.  However, when that name change took place, about six years ago, there were no Muslims at the table.

Around the time of the name change though, I was invited to attend the first meeting of a new group that took place in the boardroom of the Claremont School of Theology.  This gathering was initiated by a United Methodist Church pastor, who had just returned after many years in Jerusalem and who had been deeply involved in building a three-way dialogue with the local Jewish and Muslim community there.  It was her vision that a similar group in our area could also serve a vital purpose, and so the Claremont Interfaith Working Group was born, comprised of members of all three faiths who trace their origins to Avraham Avinu.  We presented our first major event in the fall of 2006, a three-day symposium on the prospects for peace in Israel and Palestine, and we have continued to present regular events ever since then, such as an annual Interfaith Walk, an Interfaith Seder and the recent Interfaith 9-11 Commemoration.  But our group is more than just a vehicle for public information.  We have been able to model locally that which we pray will also come globally- relationships of respect, trust, cooperation and intellectual engagement, especially (though certainly not exclusively) among Christians, Jews and Muslims.  We believe the work we’ve undertaken, and the way we’ve gone about it, has been a significant factor motivating Claremont School of Theology President Jerry Campbell to envision the newly established Claremont Lincoln University, a groundbreaking institution dedicated to “finding the common threads among religious and ethical traditions.”  The Academy for Jewish Religion, California is a founding partner in this unprecedented venture.

As we know both from Tanakh and the Quran’s version of the story, Joseph is a dreamer, someone who, inspired by the Holy One, can look toward the future and receive a clear vision of what’s to come.  It gets him in trouble sometimes, sure, but in the long run he is heralded as a seer and prophet.  As a text that’s so richly developed in both Jewish and Muslim sources, what a wonderful vehicle this story can provide for communal learning. Though I’ve yet to personally engage with my Christian and Muslim neighbors in this particular study, I’m grateful to be involved building frameworks that make that kind of transformational engagement possible both academically and communally.  And that’s no dream.  It’s happening right now and we in the AJRCA community are part of it.

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