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Why Comparative Religion?



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


  1. Yacoob says:

    With regard to comparisons, I believe that there are a lot of similarities between Judaism and Islam because the root is the same – Divine Revelation; but just that the revelation came at different times for different groups of people.

    Essentially, Islam sees it like this: There’s one sender, and one receiver. The sender is God (in the pure monotheistic sense – without partners or children), and the receiver is humanity (as a whole – the children of Adam).

    The message is submission: submit to the will of God. That’s what religion is – submission to God’s will.

    Every Prophet – from Adam, Noah, Moses, Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Jesus, Muhammad (peace be on them all) all came with the exact same message – which was pure monotheism, and submission to God. It was only the ‘law’ of each Prophet that differed.

    Which is why Judaism and Islam has certain similar laws (e.g. no pork, modesty / head covering for women) – similar in spirit, but with some difference in details.

    All the best with your research and studies 🙂

    • knowlij says:

      I agree with you Yacoob. Except on one issue: head covering for women.

      The reason you believe this is the case as set out by God’s law in the Qur’an, is because of a willful mistranslation and the corruption of the religion (through Haddith – lies and chinese whispers spread in the name of the Prophet.)

      If you study your Qur’an, you will find inside some detailed ayaats where Allah explains to us that the Jews were given a complete scripture (The Torah), hoever, due to asking trivial questions which were not “need to know”, they were lead astray from the right path.

      The right path is following God’s guidence in the scripture he has provided. However, the Jews trivial questioning lead them to create a man made scripture which they follow now, made up of “traditions” – they are the Jewish equivilent to the Muslim “haddith”.

      Following these “traditions” or “haddith” has lead the majority of Jews and the majority of Muslims far astray. They are essentially making partners with God by following scriptures other than the one’s He provided for us.

      This can be clearly shown in the followers of the religions deep neglect for basic rules. For example: Muslims are commanded by God to glorify God alone, to not make any distinction between the messengers, and not to divide the religion into sects.

      However, due to following the haddith and neglecting the Qur’an, when in reality they should be following the Qur’an and only the Qur’an – all of the above basic rules in the religion have be slaughtered to the point where near nobody practices it.

      Muslims (Sunni) say “peace and blessings be upon him” when talking about Muhammad but only “peace be upon him” when talking about any other messenger – breaking the rule of not making distinction. There are a few obvious examples I could also show you which is also breaking this law.

      Also: you mentioned woman have to cover their heads – this is not the law in Islam. Allah does NOT tell us anywhere in the Qur’an that woman must cover their heads – this is a mistranslation, but it was done poorly.

      If you want to talk more about this, please get in contact – I’m new to blogging and I love talking about comparative religion and establishing truth.


  2. qolyehudi says:

    Salâm Yacoob and thanks for the words

    I too see a lot of similarities, though there – of course – also are differences, but in comparison to other religions, our religions seems very close. Of course one could point to various theories on why this is so, the “stealing Jewish and Christian texts and ideas” is one, but I’m not a follower of that one.

    I think that Judaism and Islam has the same general concept, more or less, at least the part of submitting to G-D, but Judaism sees one people as having special responsibilities, though this doesn’t make it better than other people, though that thought certainly is found in more modern concepts of self understanding, but I ascribe that more to a political situation than a religious.

    But some differences are interesting to view, especially in law. I don’t know how much you are for the academic study of our religions, but Jacob Neusner and Tamara Sonn wrote an interesting book, “Comparing Religion through Law: Islam and Judaism,” which has some interesting studies, which – I believe – are interesting both for the academic and the believer.

    I took a look at your blog, you have some interesting thoughts, so I might leave a comment or two once in a while;o)

    Take care

    • Dreamlife says:

      With regard to duty and superiority, it’s interesting to read the extreme views of some who take the ‘Chosen People’ concept to levels that are rather insulting. For example, I saw this quote a while back from a certain rabbi: “The goyim is like a donkey to the Jews, they exist only to serve and are only allowed by G’d to live a long life because they are the beast of burden the Jews. Were the goyim to stop serving Jews, g-d would end their lives”. I find it hard to believe that the religion of Judaism would teach something like that; and it just proves to me that Islam isn’t the only religion where there are outlandish preachers making weird statements that seem to go against the spirit of the religion.

  3. Olive Twist says:

    Dialogue is so important, and I admire your participation in it! I am going to look up the book you mentioned about Abraham.

    I will post some of my dreams soon.

    Thanks again. More later.

  4. Nelson Rose says:

    Great post and I love that there is a “seeker” in you.

  5. Michael Kay says:

    Hi, I find this topic and what you’re doing very interesting. My sister studies comparative religions, and my girlfriend studies religion in society, and I’m fascinated by these questions as well. You strike a chord with me when you note that what interests you the most is what people believe, and this is also how I feel: very intrigued by what beliefs people hold and why, in religion, in science, in politics.

    I feel one very major difference between Judaism on the one hand and Christianity and Islam on the other is their attitude to proselytising. I have looked into this and compiled a few sources about Jewish attitudes towards proselytising from the Talmud Bavli and also Josephus (I’ll probably write one of my blog articles about it soon), but it relates interestingly to Yacoob’s comment above: whereas Judaism believes in one God, who is the God of all humanity, it does not believe that one religion is necessarily the religion of all humanity, thus not everyone needs to be Jewish to be a good person/achieve salvation. The Chief Rabbi of the UK, Lord Jonathan Sacks, puts this very well in a book which you’ve probably come across (but if you haven’t I’d recommend it very highly), ‘The Dignity of Difference’.

    I would be particularly interested if you have come across any comparison of mourning rituals in Judaism and Islam. I have recently been thinking about Jewish mourning rituals a lot (my recent blog post) and wondering if an equivalent exists elsewhere. I thought Islam might be the most obvious starting point, and might have some similarities, but everything so far suggests that the practices and rules are not as strict or formalised as in Judaism.

    Thanks again!

    • qolyehudi says:

      Hi Michael

      I’m glad that you also find it interesting. What did your sister focus on in her studies?

      I tried to look in my material at home for something on mourning in Islam, but I couldn’t find much. Some sources you might be interested in though could be “A History of Islam in West Africa” by J. Spencer Trimingham, who deals with the subject to some extent. Another one is “The political economy of mourning A study of practised Islam and gender in urban Iran” by Angela Jane Sahraee-Smith. I haven’t read either of them, so I don’t know how much they cover exactly what you need.
      There is, I was told, a good essay in the book “Bible and Quran: Essays in Scriptural Intertextuality”, called “Depaganizing Death: Aspects of Mourning in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Islam” by Fred Astren. The book is rather expensive, but maybe you can find the essay on its own somewhere. It sounds like that’s what you’re looking for:o)

      I’m going to take a course on conversion next semester. Though it’s not on proselyting, it is connected. If it is of interest I will share my studies with you.

      All the best


      • Michael Kay says:

        Hi Shmuel, my sister is studying many different religions over the course of her undergraduate degree, including Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. Thanks for the book references, especially that last one, might be very interesting indeed… I look forward to hearing more about your studies, especially regarding conversion; as I said, I’ll be writing an article for my blog on Talmudic attitudes soon. Lots of other things I want to put up first though. 🙂
        Take care!

    • Olive Twist says:

      I am very curious about this book The Dignity of Difference, and I am glad you mentioned it here! Shalom.

    • Dreamlife says:

      With regard to my statement about religion – the Islamic perspective is basically that the different prophets came to different groups at different times. And each ‘law’ was for that particular group. So Judaism was specific to the Children of Jacob/Israel. Jesus, peace be upon him, was of this group too –and his role was not to start a new religion, but to return the Children of Israel to the purity of their existing religion – which had, apparently, decayed to some degree (as is the case in any belief system – time can erode its purity away so that the later adherents are not on the same level as the earlier ones).

      In Islam, Muslims believe that Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the final of all the prophets and messengers sent by God. And that his ‘target audience’ was not just his people – his society (Arabia); but that his message and ‘law’ was intended for all of humanity. This was the case because there were no other prophets to come after him – so this was God’s final revelation to humanity; the final religious code which was now intended to unify all of humanity under belief in pure monotheism.

      Like I said – the message was always pure monotheism, but the laws differed from prophet to prophet. And the Islamic manifestation of religion is seen as a culmination of all the prophets and messages that came before it – into one, universal way of belief and life.

      As such, muslims are encouraged to invite others to Islam – but never forcefully, and never in a way that insults other religions or beliefs. And ultimately, Muslims believe that the only thing they can do is give the invitation and encourage – but it’s God alone that guides a person to the faith, so results are not in our hands at all.

      If you need help with the ‘mourning’ rituals research, let me know.


      • qolyehudi says:

        Hi Yacoob

        Interesting enough there are elements which I feel we have in common in that regard as well, except on the position of Muhammad. The concept of different prophets being send to different people is not strange to Judaism, and many, if not all, Jews who accept that Muhammad was a/could have been a prophet, is that he was sent to the Arabs. I know that that is still less than what Muslims sees him as, but still. Personally I am of the believe that he, if not being sent with a message, then at least was inspired from the Divine source, encouraging a more or less total polytheist people to accept the One G-D, and as such I appreciate him and his mission. I would even go so far as saying that Islam was the first religion integrating the seven laws of Noah, and thus becoming the religion of/for the non-Jews. There has been monotheists accepting these seven commandments before the time of Muhammad, but none that institutionalized them.

        Anyway, it is – to a certain extent – a subjective opinion and speculation, but if there is interest I could try to spend some more studies on the subject.

        There are many Jews who are annoyed by the attempts by Muslims and Christians to convert people. I’m not one of them, though I do find some methods used by some missionaries (mostly Christians, I haven’t seen them used by Muslims) questionable. My opinion is that if your religion really is true and strong, then it can stand the “test” of others challenging it.
        And when I write “missionaries” I’m not thinking of forced conversions, of course.

        Besides that, Judaism also had its time of proselytizing and even forced conversions, but we have stopped doing that today, since the main thing was the acceptance of One G-D, and we aren’t the only Monotheist religion anymore.

        About the chosen people and the view on others. I agree with you, and I don’t quite get why people allow themselves to take this approach to others. But I guess that it’s a normal psychological reaction to various circumstances, feeling fear or insecurity maybe.

        The thing is that there is a notion of the other nations being there for the Jews, though my way of understanding this is far from the one you presented (and that certainly is an approach taken by some rabbis, at least here in Israel, but probably also by some of the more extremist groups outside). My understanding of the idea, is not one of the nations being “servants” (or slaves) to the Jewish people, but that their existence and well-being is a perquisite for the ditto of the Jews. I can point to R. HaKohen Kook,Z”L, who expressed his idea on the three loves, the one of the Creation, the one of the Humankind and the one of the Jewish People, where the two first has to be established before the last, if the last should have a possibility to be loved at all.

        Being chosen in Judaism has nothing to do with being better, on the contrary, the Midrash explains us that when G-D gave us the Torah, He hold the mountain above us saying that the whole purpose of our existence is the Torah, and if we didn’t accept it, we might as well be destroyed. I can point to various thoughts on the Torah, which underlines this idea/concept, and which I find pretty interesting in this regard. In Pirqei Avot we are even told that if (it should be “when”) we study Torah, we shouldn’t make a thing out of it, since that is the purpose of our creation. So when some Jews feel that they are better than non-Jews, just because of the Torah, I would say that they should study and understand the whole idea behind us receiving it. Furthermore there is also the fact that we have been in exile for 2,000 years (and still is, though some do see Israel as the beginning of the redemption), a situation caused by our sins.

        Anyway, I’m not a rabbi, so I can’t tell you that this is and that isn’t the correct theological understanding in Judaism (even a rabbi probably couldn’t do that), but I can point to Jewish sources and tell you why I – as a religious Jew – can’t agree with other Jews, be they religious or not, who feel that it’s a Jewish understanding to feel better and even encourage disdain to non-Jews.

        All the best

      • Michael Kay says:

        This is an interesting discussion, and there are one or two things I feel I could contribute. Firstly, the notion that those who are not Jewish have been created to serve Jews is abhorrent to me, and should be shocking to anyone if it is being derived from the idea that the Jews are the chosen people. I will again cite Rabbi Sacks (I believe it was in “Radical Then, Radical Now”) who said that the idea of the Jews being a chosen people is supposed to say more about God than it does about the Jewish people. I take this to mean that God chose the Jews to make a point about Himself and his attributes: He rewarded to a massive degree even one person (Abraham) who recognised, knew, and loved Him, thus demonstrating the extent of His own love, He took a small nation from the clutches of a larger nation, freeing slaves from captivity and thus demonstrated justice, and showed infinite patience when that small people complained against Him and repeatedly went astray, demonstrating His infinite capacity for mercy. When we read in Genesis that we are made in God’s image and are supposed to try to emulate His attributes, I believe these are some of the features we should have in mind. This is my God.

        I must confess that I do find the desire to convert others a little distasteful, but I recognise that, when someone believes that what they do or are is best, it can be seen as a kindness to show another the beauty of their way. Nevertheless, I prefer to lead by example by doing what I believe to be right, and not expecting anything else of others. Shmuel, you mention that Judaism had its period of forced conversions as well, and this is true (it was during the Hasmonean dynasty, following the Maccabees), but this was primarily political, and not religious (stemming as it did from the conjoining of political and religious power, the first from the kingship and the second from the high priesthood, combined together in one office by the Hasmoneans). These actions were I think largely condemned by the rabbis of the Talmud, and, indeed, this was the dynasty which gave rise to the horrible Herod of whom the rabbis famously did not approve at all. If you can think of more recent examples I would be very interested to hear them.

        And I think that’s me done. 🙂

  6. qolyehudi says:

    Hi Michael:o)

    First of, thanks for the links, I really appreciate them.

    It seems like we are worshiping the same G-D;o).

    Regarding the desire to convert people, then I think it depends on the approach. A person standing on the street, handing out flyers, doesn’t seem like the aggressive missionary sometimes experienced knocking on our doors;o). As long as they are honest, and they accept a no, then I don’t mind them, not even coming and knocking on my door, which doesn’t happen much here though.

    The Pharisees did have their time under Hasmonean rule, though most of the Hasmonean rulers preferred the Sadducees. John Hyrcanus first preferred the Pharisees, but then switched to the Sadducees, whom also were preferred by his son Alexander. His widow, Alexandra, on the other hand, was pro-Pharisaic.
    I agree with you that it probably was more political than anything else, but so can it be said about forced conversions under Islam and Christianity. Nevertheless, when we read Jesus complain about how the rabbis are gathering proselytes, then I don’t think that it’s taken out of the blue, most likely being a normal practice, though not forcibly. Also the stories about how the non-Jew approaches first Shammai and then Hillel, Z”L, seems to be a hint of Jewish practice of proselyting, why else would he even have the idea that they would be interested in converting him.

    I’ve been trying to think of more recent examples, but I could only think of two examples, which might not tell us so much again, the one being of the Khuzarim, the other being the Jewish Yemenites kingdom. What the attitude to Jewish proselyting actual was in these two cases, I don’t know. I know that there has been found material covering Yemenite Jewish Midrashim, but I haven’t read it myself (yet), maybe that could give us an idea about the practice in Jewish Yemen.

    All the best

    • qolyehudi says:

      Btw, there’s a book called “The Jews: Their History, Culture, and Religion,” edited by Louis Finkelstein. In it is a long essay by Judah Goldin, called “The Period of the Talmud,” which gives a pretty good description of the second Temple period.

      • Michael Kay says:

        Interesting stuff, as ever; of course no-one likes an aggressive missionary (except maybe their spouse or parents), but while I can concede that a lot of forced conversions in Islam and Christianity may have strong political elements, the difference between them and a Jewish example is that it is not a Jewish ideal that everyone be Jewish. It is not necessary to be a good person and achieve salvation, and we know “the righteous of all nations have a place in the world to come”. The ideal human state as viewed by a Christian or Muslim from their theology is actually being Christian or Muslim respectively. You raise an interesting point about the new testament account of Jewish proselytising, and I confess I’m not familiar with the text. However, I wonder whether as a historical account it can be accepted at face value given the interactions between the Jews and the Christians at the time. Mind you, the same thing could be said about the rabbinical accounts of the Sadducees, after all the Pharisees won and wrote the Talmud.. So we must be reflexive about these things..

        The Hillel and Shammai episode is more a story about Hillel’s remarkable patience than anything else, I feel, but it may be circumstantial evidence; the three non-Jews of the story are generally understood I think to have been a little disrespectful, but the fact that Hillel did teach them is certainly portrayed as a positive virtue at the end (“Shammai drove us away, but Hillel brought us close”). Maybe see an article I found on JStor: Jospe, Raphael, ‘Hillel’s Rule’, in The Jewish Quarterly Review, new series, vol. 81, no. 1/2 (July-October 1990), pg. 45-57. The Khazar kingdom is interesting, and I’ve been meaning to read the Khuzari for some time, there’s a nice new edition with a good translation which I hope to get my hands on some time. As for the Yemenite case, I know even less about that. Was there a large scale conversion there?

        Thanks again for the reference!

  7. Olive Twist says:

    Michael, thank you for the links regarding “The Dignity of Difference” and all of the controversy. It’s fascinating to read about. I am going to look for the original version online, just in case I get lucky. Thanks!

  8. […] have earlier talked a little about why I chose to study religion, but the other day I was asked why I chose to […]

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