Emory Report
July 5, 2005
Volume 57, Number 34


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July 5, 2005
Conference transcript

BY Eric Rangus

Presenting conference papers is part of a professor’s job. And conferences, while often excellent opportunities both to highlight one’s own work and to discover the innovative angles researched by others, are rarely memorable beyond the podium or hotel-meeting-room conversations.

That wasn’t the case with the Third International Conference on Human Rights, which took place May 14–15. Late last year, Michael Broyde, professor of law and academic director of the Law and Religion Program, was invited to present a paper there. Co-sponsored by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the conference would be a prestigious speaking engagement.

Themed “Identity, Difference and Human Rights,” the conference appeared to be an ideal opportunity for Broyde to showcase his work in Jewish law, making it even more attractive. What wasn’t necessarily attractive was the conference’s location: Mofid University in Qom, Iran.

“My wife thought I was insane,” said Broyde, who accepted the invitation quickly although he readily admits he is not sure why he was invited. (Broyde is being modest. His research areas of Jewish law and ethics, family law, and comparative religious law fit snugly within the conference’s themes.)

An American academic’s presence at a conference in Iran is story enough. When that American is a Jew, the story gets bigger. When that Jew is a rabbi, the story becomes remarkable.

Broyde earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Yeshiva University in New York. Later he was ordained as a rabbi by that same institution and he earned his law degree at New York University at roughly the same time. He long has wanted to keep one foot in law and the other in religion, which is what led him to Emory in 1991 and its Law and Religion Program (soon to merge with the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion). He has served as rabbi for the Young Israel of Toco Hills synagogue since its founding in 1994.

Broyde is a well-traveled man, and his experience on the road has given him a pragmatic view of the places he goes. “My rule of travel is that, in dictatorial societies, you’re very safe,” said Broyde, who has traveled throughout the Middle East as well as the rest of the world. “They make the decision as to whether they want you before you get there.

“I’m always much more scared traveling in Western democratic cities because they’re confusing and it’s easy to get lost,” he continued. “There is a great deal of freedom, [but] there also is street crime. There is no street crime in Tehran. My experience in all the dictatorships I’ve ever been to is that there is no street crime.”

Still, it’s not like Atlantans are flocking to go to Iran. Traveling there is not an easy process. First, Broyde needed a new passport. Admission to Iran is refused for holders of passports containing a visa for Israel—a trip Broyde has made many times—so he needed to submit a fresh one 90 days in advance. The Iranian government held the passport for three weeks while Broyde was investigated.

Government agents called several times to confirm Broyde’s background, identity and reasons for going to Iran. Once they were satisfied, he was issued a visa. Upon arriving in Tehran, Broyde wasn’t cleared to leave the airport for several hours. He couldn’t say if he was watched while in the country, but the government does keep a file on every foreigner who enters Iran.

Qom, which hosted the conference, is a city of about one million people 80 miles south of Tehran. It is the country’s religious center; not only is it home to Mofid University, but Iran’s largest religious university, Howzeh-ye Elmieh, is located there as well. The conference was sponsored by Mofid University’s Center for Human Rights Studies, which was created following the Second International Conference on Human Rights in 2003.

Broyde’s paper, “Freedom of Disassociation and Religious Communities: A Jewish Model for Associational Rights,” explored the legal basis of how Jewish law treats excommunication (the exclusion of someone from a society, be it religious or otherwise) and also encompassed related secular issues, such as minority rights and tort law.

“There is a great deal of curiosity about Jewish law and Jewish ethics,” said Broyde, discussing some of the conversations that followed his presentation. The majority of the conference presenters were Western, but the vast majority of the attendees were Iranian. Those who weren’t students were imams, and all were understandably interested in Broyde’s subject matter.

“I sat with many Islamic scholars talking about Jewish law and how it compares with Islamic law,” Broyde said. “Islamic law has many features that are related to or even derived from Jewish law. We could point to a mother/daughter relationship between the two, in the sense that Islamic law starts developing from Jewish law around the year 1000. There is a clear interrelationship.”

Academics on both sides agree on this relationship—both Islamic and Jewish law are committed to being full religious systems, regulating not only religious practice but commercial and family relations, for instance.

But like every mother/daughter relationship, to use Broyde’s description, the two don’t always agree. To take Broyde’s paper topic as an example, Jewish law’s views on excommunication differ from those of Islamic law. In the latter, excommunication is a form of punishment. Jewish law views excommunication as a form of social regulation. This distinction spurred a great deal of discussion both during the conference and in its downtime.

Broyde didn’t speak much with Mofid University students. There were language barriers and he characterized the students as reserved, but Broyde added that everyone felt like they were being watched. He did have very robust conversations with imams who, contrary to some media images in this country and elsewhere in the West, were hardly fanatic. They did have strong opinions, though, which made for spirited and probing discussion.

“There is a difference between how one views faith as an academic and how one views it as an insider,” said Broyde, adding that he came away with a much more detailed view of Islamic law.

“This had been my first interaction with Islamic scholars deeply rooted in their religious faith. It was a good experience seeing a faith-based community from the inside.” Since Broyde is both a rabbi and an academic, that comment has several levels of meaning, and part of his experience in Iran focused on exploring all of them.

Broyde spent five days in Iran, and he used his time wisely. In Tehran, he visited with that city’s Orthodox Jewish minority. Numbering about 10,000, the community makes up a sliver of Tehran’s population, and while they live in the seat of government in an Islamic republic, they are not oppressed, Broyde said. They own businesses, speak Hebrew, and are relatively free to practice their religion—but they are not allowed to have religious teachers. Rabbis are not present in the community, and they are not permitted to be flown in.

Broyde went, though. For some of the Iranian Jews, he was the first rabbi they had ever spoken to. They had many questions for him—some cultural, most of them religious. “It is a community that is thirsting for further education and more study,” Broyde said. “So we had many different issues to discuss.”

Broyde wasn’t alone in his travels; he was accompanied by his 11-year-old daughter, Rachel. “I travel more than I should. One of the ways I deal with it is that I take my children with me,” said Broyde, adding that one of the most significant cultural experiences for her was that she was required to cover her hair throughout the trip. Father of three children, Broyde said he rotates their travel; Iran was Rachel’s turn.

“That way travel isn’t something that’s distracting,” he said. “It’s entertaining.”

“Entertaining” is probably a word few Americans would use when describing a trip to Iran, but from Broyde’s viewpoint it seems to work.