Originally published 11/11/2013 on the Times of Israel:
Each year, my congregation, Temple Beth El, honors the memory of our founding Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky through the Swarsensky Scholar-in-Residence Program. This year the Scholar-in-Residence was Temple member Charles L. Cohen. This past Friday, Professor Cohen gave the D’var Torah during Shabbat service. It was great how he referenced from so many sources to give a commentary about Jacob. It made me feel like I was in a college lecture. It isn’t surprising since he is a professor at the University of Wisconsin. He teaches and writes about colonial British North America, American religious history, and the braided histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He is Founding Director of the Lubar Institute for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions (LISAR), whose mission is to create better understandings of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam by encouraging ongoing discussion of these traditions and their interrelationships among scholars, members of those traditions, and the general public.
On Sunday Professor Cohen gave a keynote speech to the congregation titled “Jewish Identity in Interfaith America” that was quite interesting. In about the mid-twentieth-century United States, the term “Judeo-Christian” came to signal Jews’ acceptance into mainstream American culture, though some Jews attacked for, among other things, homogenizing Judaism and Christianity. In the early twenty-first century, it seems problematic for additional reasons, including its omission of Islam as a religion with important theological and historical ties to its predecessor monotheisms. Professor Cohen spoke about this and pondered to what degree should Judaism, Christianity and Islam now be considered elements of the “Abrahamic tradition,” and what might such consideration mean for understanding contemporary American religious culture? I really wish I had an audio recording of it because, like the D’var Torah he gave on Friday night, it was wonderful.