The wonderful conference was the culmination of an ongoing academic relationship I have been cultivating with a group of Israeli academics. I’ve done so with a few intentions in mind.
Firstly, I aim to increase the intellectual and spiritual exchange between Israeli and Diaspora scholars that has been challenged recently by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, especially the arm of the movement that calls for an academic boycott of Israel. Secondly, it is essential that we collaborate across our Jewish spheres on academic projects that will shape the future thinking of Judaism and monotheisms more broadly. Thirdly, to further the awareness and integration of these collaborations, I hope to publish and disseminate gleanings from the ongoing exchanges taking place in Israel, Europe, and America.
Aside from having the gift of focused time to present, listen, reflect, question, and dialogue with each other for uninterrupted hours on end, this was a unique meeting of scholars and philosophers of religion from many walks of life, all sharing a passion for what I call Critical Judaism and Critical Religion. To be able to interrogate the core of our respective monotheistic religions in freedom without fear of persecution is a relatively recent modern phenomenon. On the one hand, this gathering recalled the medieval, magical moments of Convivencia during a golden age of Spain (if not the one usually spoken of), when philosophers of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam were in constant fruitful exchange and allowed each other’s theological thinking to challenge, influence, and inspire each other. On the other hand, as Irish philosopher Dermot Moran commented, my theological investigations (which coincide with his research on Dionysius and Don Scotus) put me in the good company of Baruch or Benedict de Spinoza and Giordano Bruno, both of whom were excommunicated for their heresies from their modern communities. Alas, today we live in a very different world. Such accusations of heresy would demand a kind of caring and religious literacy that seems to be rapidly dissolving, especially in the religious spheres of America.
Over these days we were blessed to spend together, I came to realize the gift of scholarly exchange from my vantage point as a scholar-rabbi, especially with Israeli colleagues, living both in Israel and in the European Diaspora. They all equally appreciated my perspective, especially when it turned to questions of the future of religious institutions and applications of critical thinking. The quality of conversation and the feeling that our reflections about God, the world, and humanity matter could not be more urgent and inspiring. At this juncture, being in Ireland, presenting in English, and thinking through all the layers of monotheisms, beginning with the Hebrew Bible, rabbinic literature, mysticism, Hasidism, and its abiding influence on the big questions in philosophy of religion like ethics, justice, cosmotheism, conversion, and doubt will continue to resonate with all of us as we part ways. After a year of planning, we all experienced a light that only appears when scholars from across religious and philosophical boundaries come together in free exchange.
I am grateful as well as for my training at the Center for the Study of Religions at University of Toronto, which really paved the way for this kind of exchange. One of the most remarkable moments for me came in reuniting with a colleague from graduate studies at the Center for the Study of Religions, Mahdi Tourage, (an Iranian refugee to Canada in 1986) to see how decades later we both remained attuned to so many parallel theological concerns in our respective traditions of Jewish and Islamic mysticisms. It was both inspiring and alarming that Mahdi’s courageous paper could only be accepted at a forum like this one given that his insightful, critical thinking remains on the margins of the Islamic academe. Ironically, as we discussed this situation at length, he shared with me the struggle that even renowned Jewish scholars of Islam like Aaron Hughes experience with their remarkable critical scholarship, most recently, with Islam and the Tyranny of Authenticity. Clearly, the more opportunities there are to normalize and disseminate this kind of critical discourse on the philosophy of religions, especially in Islam, the better the world is poised to enable the evolution of monotheisms.
Gathered outside the conference center in the top photo (left to right) are: Ward Blanton (University of Kent), Itzhak Benyamini (University of Haifa), Rabbi Aubrey Glazer, Dermot Moran (University College Dublin), Maeve Cooke (University College Dublin), Mahdi Tourage (University of Western Ontario), Raphael Zagury-Orly (Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design), and Joseph Cohen (University College Dublin). Elad Lapidot (Humboldt Universitat, Berlin) and Maureen Junker-Kenny (Trinity College, Dublin) participated, but were already off to other conferences by the time of this photograph.