‘Satanic Verses’ and Rabbinic Law Cross Paths at Yeshiva University

By Gabriel Sanders

Published November 19, 2004, issue of November 19, 2004.
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It was a meeting of minds as congenial as it was unlikely.

Author Salman Rushdie, a secularist critic of religious fundamentalism, paid a visit to the main New York campus of Yeshiva University, the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy. He met with a small group of students in the afternoon and then delivered a lecture to the university community as a whole in the evening, becoming the first person of Muslim origin ever to address a Y.U. audience, school officials said.

Looking a bit like a rumpled assistant professor, the author, in his lecture, moved easily between matters literary and political, returning often to the subject of his own life and particularly to the death order, or fatwa, issued against him by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989 for the crime of “blaspheming” Islam with his 1988 novel, “The Satanic Verses.” It became immediately evident that in their mutual antipathy toward Islamic fundamentalism, the Y.U. crowd and the author were in complete harmony.

“In regards to my little dispute with the Ayatollah,” the author said at the outset of the November 10 lecture, “let me point out that one of us is now dead.”

The capacity crowd in the university’s ornate Lamport Auditorium, which can hold as many as 1,000, erupted with applause. In 1998, after Rushdie had spent nearly a decade of living in hiding, the government of Iran formally repudiated the Ayatollah’s 1989 fatwa, or religious edict, allowing the author to appear in public more frequently (although a private Iranian foundation continues to have a $2.8 million bounty on his head).

Rushdie’s visit to Y.U. came as part of the Yeshiva College Book Project, an effort designed to promote intercultural understanding established in the wake of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination. Each summer the project, which is headed by English professor Elizabeth Stewart, assigns a book to all members of the college’s incoming class. Discussions of that book — and, if possible, a visit by its author — are then offered throughout the academic year.

In a small departure, the Book Project assigned two books this year: a collection of essays by George Orwell, and Rushdie’s 1995 short story collection, “East, West.”

Although both he and his audience might identify an enemy in Islamic fundamentalism, Rushdie generally seems focused on the “fundamentalism” part of the equation, while members of Y.U.’s community seem most concerned with the “Islamic” half.

During his talk, Rushdie said that America needs to concern itself with “religious radicalisms” threatening America not only from outside, but also from within. In theory, such a remark should pose no offense to Y.U.’s Modern Orthodox set, which views itself as the enlightened flank of Jewish traditionalism, dedicated to upholding Torah and pursuing secular knowledge. But in recent years, the community has been roiled by critics who accuse its rabbis and institutions of having moved significantly to the right, under the sway of what some would call a Jewish brand of fundamentalism.

One audience member, a woman wearing a head covering, noted that rather than a single-minded embrace of enlightenment values, Modern Orthodoxy faced the challenge of balancing these secular principles with what she termed “received wisdom,” or religious ideals. It was the one moment at which Rushdie seemed at a loss for words.

But, interestingly, what seemed to cause most uneasiness among the audience — as gauged by the intensity of its applause — was less the author’s views on religion and more his distaste for the sitting U.S. administration. When Rushdie criticized the mullahs of Iran, the audience response was enthusiastic, but when the author turned to the Bush administration’s close relationship with the House of Saud, its reaction was markedly less so. As university administrators are quick to point out, Y.U., on the whole, sits to the right of most other university communities. (For anecdotal confirmation, one need look only so far as the the coffee shop two blocks from the lecture hall, and see that its television was set to Fox News Channel.)

And as open and frank as the lecture and the ensuing question-and-answer session were, there was one topic of discussion — and likely point of disagreement — notable in its absence: Israel.

But to dwell on the fault lines between Rushdie and his audience is perhaps to miss the point, for, on the whole, the evening was a roaring success. The Y.U. crowd seemed thrilled to have so notable a personage as its guest. And one only had to look at Rushdie’s face, as he surveyed the audience before taking the stage, to see that he, too, was excited by the change of environment.

The warm and enthusiastic welcome extended to Rushdie sits in stark contrast with the continuing internecine feuding on many campuses over Arab-Israeli matters.

Not that Y.U. is immune to controversy. Earlier this year, the campus played host to a delegation of Roman Catholic cardinals. Some of the university’s rabbis, citing a precedent stipulating that Jews are not to engage in theological discussion with adherents of other faiths, were incensed. But according to one university official, in the case of Rushdie’s visit, the only rabbis who were upset were those not invited to the pre-lecture dinner.

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