I have recently been asked by various people why I chose to study something called “Comparative Religion,” what it is good for, and what it really means? All good questions, which I haven’t spend all that much time to consider as I probably should, at least not all of them.
Actually I had the discussion on why studying this with one of my professors not so long ago, but I think the what should be answered before the why.
What it is, is actually answered by the term itself, religion(s) compared to itself or other religions. It can for example be what I did with the comparison of textual differences in the Mishnah in Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi respectively, the comparison of practices, accounts of various themes, rules or lack of them, between various religions (or maybe within a certain religion itself, for example, are we talking about one or two Creation accounts in Judaism? And how do it/they come out when analysed?). It can be done in many ways, by textual analysis, focus on the phenomenological meaning of various actions, or a third way. What have so far been favored by me, is analyzing texts on the same theme, finding elements they have in common or where they are differing, and then attempting to figure out what the focus and purpose are with the accounts, as I for example did in the comparison of the Midrashic and Talmudic account of Bar Kamza and Bar Kamzora (or Kamza and Bar Kamza), where we both had a common theme, but two different focuses in the accounts (the reaction of the king vs. the discussion of the Rabbis).
That leads to the question “why?” Well, personal interests most of all. I am a religious being, and I am interested both in my own and other similar religions. And even though I have reactions from people, who are bend on telling me that I’m stupid in finding and/or even sympathizing with a religion like Islam, well, it doesn’t change my interest in what I consider the closest “brother” of religions to my own. And here’s both the issue of being a religious Jews, as well as being an academic student of Comparative Religion. And yes, I am aware that there are anti-Jewish elements in Islam, though not as much as easily can be found in Christianity, and that there are Muslims who would love it no more than dancing in my blood, so are there Christians who would love just that (not only because I am a Jew, I can be rather annoying at times). But there are also Muslims who are standing up for me, calling me brother, considering me part of their own, though differing in how we understand our religions, because they are Muslims, because they let the best in their religion define their way of understanding themselves, the world they are living in, and their role and responsibility in living in this world. And so are there Christians.
But there is more to it than that. I’m curious. I love people, I love how we are living, I love cultures, I love conceptions, and studying these are also part of my study. Actually that might be the biggest part of my study, understanding why we believe what we do, and how we implement it in our lives. For example, when we enter a synagogue today, we would expect that the daily prayer always has been part of the synagogue, but looking back we find out that that wasn’t always so, though always being a place of gathering of learning, the prayer wasn’t always part of it. That knowledge is given by comparing synagogues and accounts on their use between times, for example taking the excavations of synagogues from before Common Era, the first centuries after, and later findings, as well as contemporary accounts, and compare them to each other. Or it can be the comparison of the lives of women in Islam and Judaism in Israel, in Europe, in America or somewhere else. Or just women in Judaism in Israel and the States, and see what they have of similarities and differences in how they understand their religion, their lives, what they focus on and so on, that is, take a more sociological approach, but it is still comparing religions, just not so much what they are saying, but how they are lived and how they influence us.
Okay, fine, that all sounds wonderful and amazing, at least for geeks (or nerds, I’m not sure whether I’m the one or the other), but what can it all be used for?
Well, I think I have at least pointed at the answer. Let’s face it, whether we are religious or not, religion plays a HUGE part of our lives, no matter when in history or where in the world. Even in Denmark, where I am born and raised, and which are considered one of the least religious countries in the world, religion plays a huge role. True, not in the same manner as in for example Israel, but it takes a big impact in people’s thoughts, when we discuss issues connected to society and how we manage our society. Just take the Muhammad-drawings, the role of the Muslim in the Danish society and other related issues. Religion does play a role.
In studying religions, whether it is – as I do – comparing them, their practices, what they are saying, how they are influencing us, or study sociology of religion, anthropology of religion, history of religion, or whatever, we are getting a better understanding of our world, how it is understood, and how people are relating to each other. My goal, at least for now, is to get a better understanding of which role law plays in Judaism and Islam, both on its own in the two religions, as well as in comparison, how this influence their followers relation to the societies they are living in, and how it influences the secular law of the society and the other way around. Of course, I have to be focused, so my focus will be on the role of the women in Israel, which – true – haven’t been very evident yet, but it is only my first semester, and I have to get the basis first of, but already in the next semester will I be writing a comparative study of the woman’s role in learning according to two Islamic schools of law (probably either al-Maliki or al-Hanafi and ash-Shafi’i, or ash-Shafi’i and Jafari, to see the differences of approach in Sunni and Shi’a-Islam). It is my hope that I can move the focus to more recent studies in my two last semesters, but let’s see. Another part of my focus will help me to satisfy another curious thoughts of mine, namely Islam in Israel, which is studies way too little, compared to the number of Muslims living here, and the whole fuss of religion here. So – in case I continue after my Graduate studies – this might be something I will focus on later on.
Anyway, for those of you who asked, and who I couldn’t answer so clear right away, here’s my answer. Or my answers. Hope that gave some more clarity on what I’m doing and why.
All the best