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The Question of Religion

BS”D

One of the things I have been wondering a little about, since I began my new studies and met a lot of interesting new people, is what religion really means for us. One thing is how to define “religion,” which apparently isn’t such an easy thing to do[1]. Some understand “religion” as they understand “faith” or “spirituality,” or somehow mixing the three, but it isn’t necessarily so. The understanding of the meaning of the term, has also changed through the times, seeing it as a ” state of life bound by monastic vows,” or “conduct indicating a belief in a divine power” from around 1200, which is derived from Cicero’s understanding of it being something “redone,” as seen in the “conduct,” which is repeated, showing “a belief in a divine power.” Later on it was interpreted as a “bond between humans and gods,” derived from the word “religare,” signifying “to bind fast,” and as such seeing religion as a kind of obligation between the human and the divinity, contrasting the redoing a certain behavior, showing a faith or belief in this divinity.[2]

But what is it then? I have a feeling that that answer isn’t so clear, either switching between the two or even mixing them at times. For example, if one was to observe me in my daily routines, washing my hands in the morning, praying three times daily, never work on the seventh day, and so on, he would surely say that my religion is a set of routines, based on my belief in a divine power. And it would – I believe – also be true. I do these thing, because I believe that this is what G-D want from me, and had I – for example – been a Christian or a Muslim, then this might have been a fully covering description. But maybe not quite so for Judaism, which doesn’t hold that all should observe the Jewish Law and/or rituals. So – as the convert I am – why am I doing this? Why did I choose to do this? Well, here we would have to explain it as a “bond” I made between me and the Divinity in which I believe, “binding” myself to Him. But – one might interfere – why is that different from the Muslim and the Christian, who – if converted, or at least at a stage where they accepted the notion that there is a G-D, who governs all man – also bound themselves to Him (sort of speaking). The difference lays in the attitude between Judaism, on the one hand, and Christianity and Islam on the other. The two last religions are more totalitarian in their approach to converting people (which should not be understood negatively here, the same term can be used about Judaism in other regards), so it is not so much that they believe in a G-D, which they then decide to bind themselves to, though knowing that it isn’t necessarily demanded from them, still being viewed as “accepted,” should they choose not to do it, but more that they believe in a G-D, which is expecting them to act in a certain way, bond or not, acceptance or not.[3] And of course, should we relate to other religions, such as Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, or whatever have we, the picture might even become more obscure.

That aside, what is the difference on religion and, say, spirituality or faith? Well, the religion is public, it demands – as we have seen, whether understood as the redoing of rituals or the bond between human and the divine – a public approach, something to be seen. People can observe my actions, and my religion – as with most religions, I believe – is even influencing the norms of how to interact with other people (in the Jewish example we can point on the showing of respect for the elder, which surely also exists in other religions), so religion does interfere with the general behavior in society. Not so with faith, which is existing on a personal level. I don’t expect all Jews, not even all religious or Orthodox Jews, to share the exact same faith as me. Of course, we do have commonalities, sharing the general belief in G-D as being One, which we also share with, e.g., Muslims, but also as seeing the Torah as the highest Divine revelation, Moshe Rabenu, A”S, as the biggest Prophet, the sanctity of the Shabbat, and so on. But for example, what about my faith in the ethical aspect of Judaism being more important than, say, the ritual aspect? Or what about my faith in the Mishnah as being part of the Torah, something that isn’t shared by the Karaitim or the Samarians? These difference might and might not mean so much in the general regulation of society, though it might mean a lot on the personal level, even regulating how we understand us selves in the society (religious or not).

 So to sum up. Religion and the understanding of religion is a subject that probably need deeper understanding in relation to religious minorities’ role in and approaches to their wider societies, and our understanding of how the religions understand themselves and their status as being religions, is also of great interest, whether the religious minority exist within a religious or secular majority.

 All the best


[1] Especially not in the Religious and Anthropological studies, where, e.g., Clifford Geertz describe religion as a “cultural system,” where as Talal Asad describes it as an “Anthropological Category.” The difference might not be so obvious, but whereas the former understand “religion” as being a “culture,” the latter understand it as part of a “culture.” See Geertz’ “Religion as a Cultural System,” and Asad’s “The Creation of Religion as an Anthropological Category.”

[2] See Online Etymology Dictionary for further clarification: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=religion

[3] As some people would know, and probably interfere, Judaism isn’t totally without lack here either, just think about the Seven Noahide Commandments. But a non-Jew would not be required to observe as detailed a level of Commandments as the Jew is, converted or born as a Jew.


1 Comment

  1. James 1:27 Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

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