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The Religious’ studies of Religion

BS”D

 

I am presently working on an interesting article by Qadi Iyyad Zahalka on the question and status of Shari’a Courts in Israel, which I look forward to sharing with you, but first I really need to answer a comment by Herdian, to an older post by me.

 

Herdian asked:

“Maybe this is a semantic problem. Perhaps you meant that Jews are forbidden to study other religious texts in the same way that they study the Torah i.e. by pondering it, taking it into heart, and applying it to one’s own life. But scholarly studies of them are fine to certain extents.”

The question relate to the post, where I speculate on the claim that I, as a religious Jew, am not allowed to study the texts of other religions, based on the reading of Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1, where I related to a number of Talmudic verses in order to nuance the verse and claim in question.

What Herdian states in his question actually is how I understand the reading of the Talmudic verses, that those pre-Mishnah texts, which are very similar to the Holy Jewish Scripture, are not allowed to be read/studied, while other texts after the time of the Mishnah (and the canonization of the TaNaCh) are okay to read, since they would be read as “one reads a letter”, that is, one would know that they are not part of the Holy Texts, and therefor one would’t subscribe them the same value or learn from them in the sense of “holy learning”. That is, studying them is not part of a spiritual process, but rather being a secular affair.

Herdian’s following comment is interesting:

“The age of Enlightenment is an interesting phenomenon. All religions in general will never be the same after passing through that age. It is a change of attitude towards life, which in some ways are in conflict with religious outlooks. And the battle still continues to this day. Religious people sholdn’t ignore what the Enlightenment has to say about religion, although they don’t agree with it. Rather, they should study it seriously, scholarly, intensively, and critically if they want to maintain their (intellectual) integrity.”

Herdian, I agree with you, at least in the general.

I’m not sure that the Enlightenment is of bigger importance than other historical schisms, for example the coming of Christianity and Islam, which – I believe – played a huge role for Judaism, just as the destruction of the two Temples did, as well as Holocaust and the establishment of the modern state of Israel. At least these events are deciding for Judaism and the Jewish people, both in self-awareness and development.

That I relate to a number of great events, and not the Enlightenment alone, probably also is the reason that I don’t see Herdian’s criteria (studying their religion seriously, scholarly, intensively, and critically) in order to maintain integrity. Basically, when I view some Jewish groups and movements who have taken upon themselves to study their religion according to these criteria, I am not so sure about their integrity, but that is just my personal opinion.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t agree with Herdian, indeed, the critical and scholarly study of Judaism, among learned Jews, has been an important element. I just need to mention people like Yehudah HaNasi, Sa’adya Gaon, Maimonides, Ibn ‘Ezra, and in more recent times, R. Soloveitchik and R. Yosef Qappah, to point to the important element of scholarly and critical study in Judaism.

More important, I believe, we should be aware that Religion, as other in other cases, is a product of the reality it exists in. Progress and developments in religions are reactions to what happens around them, and these reactions are left as historical imprints, being viewed and understood as something close to a revelation for the followers afterwards. Let me take one example to illustrate.

In Halachah it is not allowed for Jews to eat the food of non-Jews, since they might intermingle too much and marry their children to the children of the non-Jews. This prohibition is Talmudic, and there are discussions on whether one may eat food cooked by non-Jews, as long as the fire is lit by a Jew. For a more extensive discussion on this, see the following three discussions:

Foods Cooked by a non-Jew

Restaurants which employ non-Jewish Cooks

Legumes Cooked by a non-Jew

From the reasoning in these three discussions, we see the argument being that “[t]here are two reasons for the why our Sages decreed that a Jew may not eat food cooked by a non-Jew: The first is since a Jew may not marry a non-Jew, if Jews are accustomed to eating with non-Jews and mingling with them, this may cause intermarriage between them […] The second reason is because our Sages were concerned that the non-Jew may place non-kosher ingredients in the food and feed it to the Jew.”

See also Talmud Bavli Yevamoth 46a and Avodah Zarah 59a.

The prohibition is clearly based on a reaction to assimilation in Babylon. Based on the fear that the Jews would intermingle and become to friendly with the non-Jews, and from that marry their children with each other, the Talmudic Sages, z”l, saw to it to create boundaries which would make this intermingling difficult.

This is a decision taken, in order to protect the Jewish minority against the non-Jewish majority, and I wonder – had this been in the opposite case – whether they would have made the same decision, if they didn’t see the Jews marrying non-Jews.

Today in Israel – as is witnessed by the three discussions linked to – we are experiencing the aftermath of these rulings, but this time in the opposite situation, now in a state, where the Jews are the majority, and the non-Jews are the minority, as well as the consequences of this change. We see for example, in the discussion on legumes cooked by non-Jews, that there is leniency on canned legumes, since the danger that Jews intermingle with non-Jews does not exist in this case, and therefore there isn’t a problem in eating canned legumes, even when they are cooked by non-Jews, though other authorities do differ on this, relating instead to the chance that there might be non-kosher elements in the food.
And relating to the discussion on restaurants employing non-Jews, we see that as long as the fire is started by a Jew – in case of Ashkenazim – then the food is accepted, even if a non-Jew places the food (making the rationale be that the one starting the fire is the one cooking the food), whereas other – Sfardic – authorities rule that as long as the Jew does not place the food, then it is not kosher (relating the question of who cooks the food to who places the food, rather than who turns on the fire), though having R. Ovadyah Yosef, shelita, establishing the leniency that as long as the restaurant is owned by a Jew, and hence being under halachic authority and having to follow kashrut, then it is enough that a Jew lights the fire.

What this means in practice is, that the decision of R. Ovadyah Yosef, shelita, makes it possible for Jewish restaurant owners to survive in Israel, something which would be harder, had he not adopted this leniency, which again shows development being a reaction to developments in the society the religion exists in. Had we been in a society where the vast majority had been Jews, and only very few workers in a restaurant would have been non-Jews, making it a fact that there always would have been Jews in the restaurant, then I doubt that we would have seen this decision.

This leads us back to Herdian’s criteria. I don’t believe that his criteria alone is enough for integrity. Rather, the religious scholar need also understand the demands of the followers, the situation the religion exists in, as well as relating all his decisions to traditional rulings, as well as relating to Herdian’s criteria. But this has been the historical reality for those Jewish leaders, who managed to gather the Jews and strengthening the acceptance of the Jewish Rabbinical tradition, relating to the incidents and reality of their time, also before the Enlightenment.

That way we see that Ezra, a”s, related to the Jews’ return to Jerusalem, Yehudah HaNasi, z”l, relating to the need of conserving the Oral Tradition, Sa’adya Gaon’s understanding of a number of factors, Maimonides need to help the unlearned Jews having an easier time finding rabbinical rulings (as well as the general need of being an attentive and empathetic leader), and so on.

 

I hope that gave a more full picture of my thoughts on the issue.


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