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It has been some time – as usual – and I am as always terrible sorry for it.
The war is on break for now, people are back to normal, or at least as close you can come to normal here.
The studies are going on as usual as well, stressing me and leaving me with a lot of pressure, as well as a son soon to be born, BE”H. But I am grateful, very grateful.
I have been thinking about the comparative study, and how we teach about religions. One thing that has struck me is that we often teach about the religions for themselves, that is, instead of comparing some interrelated fields, we study them unrelated to each other. Take for example philosophy in religion (or religious philosophy). When we study Jewish philosophy, most often it is only rarely related to Islamic or Christian philosophy, but in order to get a good understanding of Jewish philosophy we need to relate it to other players in the field. Maimonides, for example, is influenced by a number of Islamic philosophers (as well as Greek), and has himself influenced both Christian and Muslim philosophers.
Another example is the role of central figures and how to understand them. Often we are told that Muhammad is to Islam what Moses is to Judaism, but is that really so? I have more and more thought about this issue, that we need to have the comparative element integrated into the general study and teaching of religions, in order both to understand the religions in and of themselves, as well as in their relation to other religions. I will try to give a small example on how this can be done in the following:
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are all three religions based on one or more central figures. In all of them one person stands out of centrality compared to other central figures. In Judaism Moses is of great central importance, in Christianity Jesus has the same centrality, and in Islam it is Muhammad. What is interesting in this respect, is not so much how these characters are viewed and understand in the other respective religions – though that certainly also is of importance – but how they are central in comparison of other central figures in the respective religions, as well as how they are understood in comparison to how the central characters are understood in the other religions.
Moses, for example, is far from the only central character in Judaism, we can easily mention both Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Isaiah, David, and Salomon as examples on other very central characters. And that is just in the Bible itself, would we expand our focus to other Jewish materials, then we would find Hillel and Shamai, Yehudah haNasi, Maimonides, and so on. And furthermore, though I believe that Moses is the most central character in Judaism (except God Himself, of course), I am not sure of how strong his centrality is compared to the centrality of the other characters. For example, where Moses is very central and of crucial importance when it comes to the implementation of law in Judaism, he doesn’t hold the same level of importance when it comes to the establishment of Israel as a people. There Abraham might be of greater centrality. Or Moses compared to David in the establishment of the kingdom of Israel. And so on. Yet, I still believe that Moses overall is of greater central importance than other characters are.
We see the same with Christianity, where Jesus is far from the only central figure. Take characters like Paul, Peter, and John. Or the various church fathers. Or even Luther. In both these cases, though there would be no Judaism without Moses, and no Christianity without Jesus, their central importance is to some degree matched by other characters, though the two religions might have existed in some form or another without them.
It seems to me that Muhammad enjoys a much greater centrality and importance when it comes to Islam. Though references are abundant to other characters in the Qur’ân, Muhammad is still the receiver of the Qur’ân, and in the early times he was the leading figure when spreading Islam, at least till his death. In this context we don’t see Moses or Jesus spreading their respective religions, which can be part of the reason that Muhammad is more central in Islam than the two in their respective religions. Of course there are other important characters, the four righteous caliphs, the founders of the legal schools, the philosophers, and so on, but put notice on how Muhammad is in focus, both when it comes to the role as the receiver of the Qur’ân as well as when it comes to the Hadith-literature. In comparison, the Mishnah is not ascribed to Moses, and the letters in the New Testament is not ascribed to Jesus. Where Moses mostly is of crucial central importance to the written Torah in Judaism, and Jesus plays somewhat the same role in Christianity, neither of them are ascribed to the “oral tradition” (the Mishnah/Tosefta in Judaism, and the letters in Christianity), while this is the case for Muhammad in Islam.
This is one aspect. Another aspect is how we view them, how we describe them. This can teach us a lot about how the followers of the respective religions understand their religion and their role as followers of the religion in question. I am not going to too much into how followers are relating to them, just use the most used examples.
Moses is – by Jews – described as “teacher”, Moshe Rabenu. This is very crucial for the Jewish conception. He teaches us and we learn from him. He has a role not unlike the rabbis, as the chief rabbi, and this – I believe – has left its mark on Jews, who generally have been very occupied by the focus on study.
Jesus, on the other hand, is described as savior. This is something we often see in how Christians describe themselves, as being saved.
Again we see Islam somewhat differ here. Muslims see themselves as submitted to God, not so much describing Muhammad as God’s submitter, but rather in describing themselves as such. Where Jews today are named after a tribe, Yehudah – earlier named as a people, Israel – Christians are named as followers of Jesus, the Christ, and Muslims are named after their relation to God, as people submitted to God. But Muslims are neither taking their name after a role perceived in relation to Muhammad, nor after a role described him. Nevertheless, in one incident we do see Muslim self-perceiving based on Muhammad, namely as the final group of believers. Muhammad is the final prophet, therefore those who are following him are the right group of believers. In Judaism as such Moses wasn’t the last prophet to come, and it wasn’t unperceivable that other religions would form, though they wouldn’t have importance for Israel as such, and in Christianity we also see the spokesman, the holy spirit, would come after Jesus.
All this more or less describes an idea I’m working on, which could be interesting to follow in the future. I don’t know if anything will come of this or what it will end with, but if any of you out there have any suggestions, then please share with me, I would be very interested in hearing about what you have on mind.
I also know that there are many conceptions and thoughts, which could have been explained better, for example when I talk about strength of centrality and the like, but again, this is mostly sharing thoughts.
Looking forward to hear from you.
All the best and Hanukkah Sameah!
Being a religious Jew and an academic student of religions, can sometimes present you for some interesting reactions, especially when you live in a society like the Israeli, where the idea of various religious groups living together is okay, but studying each other religious texts are less normal (it does happen though).
One reaction I’ve gotten a couple of times is based on a mishnah in the Mishnah, Tractate Sanhedrin, which states that:
“… these do not have a portion in the world-to-come: One who says, ”Resurrection of the dead is not from the Torah,” and ”the Torah is not from Heaven,” and an heretic apikoros. Rabbi Akiva says, Even one who reads external books…” (Sanhedrin 10:1 – Kehati translation)
The problem being R. Akiva’s statement. According to the people reacting to when I tell what I study, what I study is contrary to what is allowed from the Mishnah (and the Mishnah is considered holy, also by me). The Hebrew is “af haqore bisfarim haḥitzonim” (אף הקורא בספרים החיצונים), the “ḥitzonim” meaning something external, that is, outside the accepted tradition, which would include any religious (or non-religious) book you can imagine, which is not either part of the Canon or Rabbinical of nature. Or does it mean this?
Let us take one Jewish commentary, before we delve into some of the interesting aspects of Talmuds and manuscripts, that of R. Yitzḥaq Alfasi, who states that these books are books of heretics who interpreted the Biblical texts according to their own opinions, rather than to follow those of the Rabbinical Sages, z”l. From this we can learn that external texts are not so much connected to non-Jewish religious texts, as they are connected to Jewish religious heretical texts. This will also be clear from the following discussion.
First I want to relate to the Babylonian Gemarrah on the Mishnah, which is found in Sanhedrin 100b. Here we can read (differences of wordings is caused by the use of a difference translation, the Hebrew is the same):
“R. Akiva said: Also he who reads uncanonical books, etc.” A Tanna taught: This means the books of the Sadducees. R. Joseph said: It is also forbidden to read the book of Ben Sira.”
So here we see that the books thought about, as understood by a Tannaic rabbi, as well as the later Amorai, R. Joseph, are Jewish books. They don’t relate to, e.g., Greek or Persian religious writings, only Jewish – in their eyes – heretical writings.
In the Yerushalmi we can read the following on the same mishnah (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 28a):
“R. Akiva adds: one who reads the outside books such as the books of Ben Sira and the books of Ben La’aga. But he who reads the books of Homer and all other books that were written from then on, is considered like one who is reading a secular document… (here is a quote from Ecclesiastes 12:12)… Hence, casual reading is permissible but intensive studying is forbidden.”
Also here we see that it is related to other Jewish writings (Ben Sira and Ben La’aga both being Jews) as being problematic, as far as they are considered heretic, while Greek texts, and texts written after that particular time are not.
The question is why this is the case? What is so bad about the Jewish heretical writings, which is not found in the non-Jewish religious texts? The answer is found in the discussion following R. Joseph’s statement in the Talmud Bavli. Basically – to sum up – the problem lies in the fact that the Jewish heretical writings are too similar to the canonical Jewish writings, that is, the Canon of the Bible and the sayings of the Rabbinical Sages, z”l. One – particularly an unlearned – can easily confuse the two (as an example try to read the writings of Ben Sira and compare them with, e.g., Ecclesiastes), while this is not the case with non-Jewish religious writings (compare, e.g., the Torah and the Quran). Also, since they at this time, of the Mishnah, did have a canon, when it came to the Biblical writings, then it would not be a problem with later texts, since we would know that they are written too late to be part of the Biblical canon.
According to the Sages, z”l, what we are dealing with is a question of accepted texts being part of the canon, and therefore holy, or heretical texts proposing themselves as being holy texts, part of the canon.
There is also the question of which words were used about the texts in questions. We find differences depending on which manuscripts we are reading. As we saw, the Tanna taught that what was meant was “books of the Sadducees,” but some manuscripts have “minim” (מינים) instead of “Sadducees.” This word is used about heretic Jews, particular Christian Jews – which most likely also is why “Sadducees” have been inserted in some manuscripts, since Christians in the Medieval times didn’t take so lightly on what could be considered an affront to Christian dogmas and teachings.
But all in all we get a picture of a statement, which most likely was primarily concerned with the confrontation between canonical Holy Texts, and heretic writings, which might have been confused with Holy Scripture, rather than a statement against the study (even more the modern academic study) of non-Jewish religious texts, which – as we saw – were considered on level with secular writings, and as such would not be object for the same intensive study, as would be the case with Jewish Holy texts.
What can we learn from this, besides the already explained? Well, that when we are dealing with religious texts, particularly when they are found within a religious tradition (and most religious texts are, not surprisingly), then we need to get into the details and expand the reading if we want to really understand their meaning. Just reading one text artificially, and then believe that we get the full picture from that, is simply misleading. Unfortunately many religious people today seem to read their own religious texts that way, something which damage and bring their religion down on a level, rendering it without meaning or purpose. Religions, whether it be Judaism or other religions, are not afraid of the critical study of their texts, on the contrary, they demand it. They want the believer to understand what the religion is about, not just based on a shallow reading of one or two text, for then to believe that the answer and solution is found, based on that inadequate reading.
The summer is over, but it hasn’t been spent on vacation – on the contrary, I have been busy with exams and new job, which is why I haven’t written anything for quite a long time now. I’m sorry, but I haven’t had many free moments, and the few I’ve had – besides those spent with my wife and the kids – have been spent on struggling with stupid administrational and economical things caused by confusion and misunderstandings. It is amazing how much mess such things can create.
Anyway, I originally had five tests, four of them written assignments on around ten pages each, and one seminar paper on around 30 pages. I had to cut one of them of, since I simply couldn’t manage it. I hate it, but I have to accept my limits at times.
Anyway, those subjects I did write about was spread over subjects such as questions related to the medieval Jewish exegesis (which I already got a result from, an A, yeah!), an assignment on Augustine and his reaction to Pelagius on the concept of Original Sin (I’m not expecting much from that one), on the Quranic conception of the Biblical Scriptures (following a rather fresh approach by Gabriel Said Reynolds), and finally the seminar paper on a comparative study on stoning in Judaism and Islam, in order to find any possible influences (close to none).
I will probably write more about them in the coming, but not in this post.
I was also asked to write an essay on Amutat Wagner Israel for HaAretz, something I got really excited about, but I’ve never got a reply on it, so I take it that it wasn’t of interest anyway, unfortunately. That essay I might also post in the coming, I need to find out what happened.
As said there hasn’t really been any vacation, so I haven’t experienced any crazy interesting things, so all I would have to tell you about is my studies, and that’s more or less as it use to be I guess. But a few words of what will come. In the coming semester my focus will be more contemporary. I’m going to follow courses in how to understand the current trends in the study of religion, which basically covers all subjects within this theme, as well as a course in the history of Islam research (two different curses, but connected in theme). There will also be a course in religion and politics in a comparative perspective, which will focus on the interrelationship between religion and politics, as it is understood and perceived from the view points of religions, as well as a course in the structure and changes of the modern Middle East, also somewhat connected in theme but not related to each other besides that. That means that I will be focusing on more modern themes and subjects, as well as taking a step a little outside the religion. Where I earlier focused on what any given religion said, I will now be more focused on how we study what any given religion says. It will be rather refreshing I think.
So, that’s it, I think. More or less for now at least. In the coming I will be sharing a little from my assignments and studies, particular the stoning will be mentioned, since I spent quite a lot of time on that one.
Take care all!
The finals for this semester are closing in, and it provokes the inevitable question: What am I going to write about in my assignments?
This summer will present me for five finals, which all need a written assignment, one of them being a seminar paper, so there will be a lot of writing, which is fine, I do love to write, but it also takes a lot of extra reading. Nothing to do about that, besides to read.
What is nice about this semester, contrary to the last, is that I have more freedom to choose subjects, so the subjects will be more interesting for me. Anyway, as far as I have decided the subjects I am going to write about are:
The Use of Quranic Verses in Umayyad Architecture: In the course Archaeology and History of Muslim Jerusalem I have been wondering where to put my focus. Since the course mostly focused on the archaeology, and not so much in the history (well, it is part of it), I wondered how to combine it with my study of religion. My decision fell on the use of Quranic verses, which seems to be have very widespread during the Umayyad Caliphate, e.g. in the Dome of the Rock, so I thought that it could be interesting to see how the Quran was used as part of architecture and whether it was meant as some sort of educational tool, as was the case with other expressions of thought, e.g. in mosaics.
Christian Thought on Free Will: In the Early Christianity and Late Antiquity we have dealt most of this semester with studies on Augustine. In one of the classes we dealt with another Christian and contemporary of Augustine, Pelagius, who did provoke some controversy, among other thing on the question of free will and original sin. I found the thought interesting, especially from a theological point of view. Do we really have free will? If not, is God then Just? And if so, is God then All Powerful? It’s going to be interesting to see what these two thinkers thought of it.
Abraham ibn ‘Ezra’s response to Muslim Polemical Arguments: In the Medieval Jewish Exegesis we have dealt with the commentaries and methodology of four great Jewish commentators from the medieval Western Europe, namely Rashi, his grandson Rashbam, Abraham ibn ‘Ezra, and RaMBaN. Since I am mostly focused in the meetings between Islam and Judaism, I have decided to focus on ibn ‘Ezra and possible answers against Muslim attacks on the Jewish faith. I have to admit that I’m not too sure whether he really did deal with it, so I might change focus to his answers to the Karaites instead, in order to keep my focus on the Muslim world.
The Jewish Convert’s Attack on Judaism, and the Jewish Thinker’s Responses: The Battle over the Bible has really been an interesting course, where I’ve learned a lot of new things concerning approaches to the Bible as text and as phenomenon, both concerning Jewish, Christian and Muslim attitudes. Especially one Muslim caught my attention, the 12th century Jewish convert, Samaw’el al-Maghrabi, who wrote a polemical work against the Jewish faith called Ifham al-Yahoud, Silencing the Jew. This work apparently did become rather known, since we see a lot of later responses to it. One who responded rather early is Maimonides, though not on all of the Ifham, and probably not directly on it either. In his Iggeret Teyman, Letter to Yemen, he responds on some of the claims which is being brought forth in the Ifham. It could be interesting to see how the two view the Bible, and how Samaw’el’s approach differ from earlier Muslim approaches to the Bible.
Jewish Influences on Early Islamic Jurisprudence: This is one I’m really looking forward to, and which I have spend a lot of time considering. In the Early Islamic Texts and the Formation of the Muslim Community I have chosen to write my first seminar paper. I did decide from the outset to focus on Islamic law, since I feel that there are a lot of similarities between law in Islam and in Judaism, both in rules but also in methodology and attitudes. It is going to be a challenging subject though, leaving me with four problems to choose between. The first is the obvious comparative study of Jewish and Islamic Jurisprudence, where I wondered about whether there are any Jewish influences in the way early Islamic scholars approached the deduction of laws. One reason why I think so is the contrast in method there existed between the two earliest schools of law in Islam, al-Maliki and al-Hanafi, the former being situated in Medina and Mecca, and traditionally focused on tradition, based on the logic that since the prophet lived there, then he would naturally correct people who did things incorrect as well as showing the people the correct ways, whereas the latter, situated in Iraq, was much more inclined to relate to logical reasoning, something they might have learned from the many great Jewish scholars which had their ancient dwelling there, namely in the old Babylon. It wouldn’t be totally weird for the early Muslims to have relations to the Jewish scholars of Iraq. This doesn’t mean that there was influences or that they were total in so far as there were. The problem is how to relate to the matter, do we choose to make an external or internal study, do we compare the apparent similarities or do we go in and focus on the approach and outlook.
The interest in this particular subject was raised by two articles, one by Judith Romney Wegner, “Islamic and Talmudic Jurisprudence: The Four Roots of Islamic Law and their Talmudic Counterparts,” and one by Joseph E. David, “Legal Comparability and Cultural Identity: The Case of Legal Reasoning in Jewish and Islamic Tradition.”
In Islamic Jurisprudence there are four sources traditionally, two revealed sources, Quran and the Sunnah of the prophet (as it is found in the Hadith-literature), as well as Ijma, which means consensus, as well as Qiyas, which means analogical reasoning. The two first sources are agreed upon a hundred percent by all four schools, where as the two latter sources are subject for discussions.
Wegner, in her article, argues that the four sources are influenced by Jewish sources in the Talmud, the Quran being the Islamic answer on the Written Torah, the Sunnah on Oral Torah (written down in what is called Mishnah, which root is close to the root of sunnah), the consensus of the Ulamah, the learned Islamic scholars, being the Islamic answer on the consensus of the Sages, and Qiyas, legal reasoning being the answer on the Talmudic reasoning, two forms of reasoning which seem pretty similar, at least from an external point of view. And it is here where David comes in with his article, where he deals with different approaches to the comparative study, attempting to present a new approach, “jurisprudential consciousness”, based on the conscious ideas, principles, concepts, beliefs and reasoning of the jurist, which contrary to Wegner’s approach is a much more internal approach, leaving a different impression than the first.
An example is in its place, taken from David’s article. In both the Talmudic reasoning as well as in Islamic reasoning there is an understanding of judicial error, that is, a judge who makes a faulty decision. There are two categories under this subject, those faults which are based on lack of knowledge or understanding of the revealed sources, and those which is caused by flawed legal reasoning. In both Judaism and Islam the former has to be corrected, whereas the latter is accepted. And in both religions the former is based on precisely the same criteria, going against the revealed sources (in Judaism the Written and the Oral Torah, and in Islam the Quran and the Sunnah), where is the criteria differs in the latter case. In the Talmud the flaw based on legal reasoning is based on the wrong choice of two differing opinions, which have never been dealt with. It can be the case of two Tannaim (Mishnaic Sages) or two Amoraim (later Sages from the Gemarrah) who have a disagreement which was never solved. A later judge might then base his decision on one of the two opinions, whereas the general practice follows the other opinion. It is a fault, since he should have followed the normal practice, but it is still accepted. In case of Islamic thought, at least according to Shafi’i, the fault is caused based on flawed legal reasoning based on the principle of qiyas, analogy, not on the judge deciding the wrong of two differing opinions. And here we see a contrast between Jewish and Islamic legal reasoning.
But this is only the first of the four possible problems I might choose among. That is, how much similarity or difference are there between Jewish and Islamic legal thought, and can this be a sign of Jewish influence on early Islamic legal thought? The next problem is to establish connections. Namely, are there any Jewish converts who had influence on early Islamic law? If not, can we then assume that early Muslim legal scholars met with Jewish scholars and discussed with them? That is also an interesting question, a question which demands a different approach, focusing on historic accounts on interfaith meetings between Jews and Muslims within the first centuries of Islamic time.
The third question deals with the reasoning and methods of the “ahl al-ra’y,” the people of reasoning, the early Islamic scholars in Iraq, an important step in understanding the way the resonated in their dealing with legal questions. The reason for the importance of this, is obvious. If Shafi’i, a third century AH Islamic scholar, can be said to be influenced by Jewish thought, whereas the earlier Islamic scholar in Iraq differ strongly, then the question is how much Jewish legal thought influenced Islamic legal thought, and if at all.
The fourth problem is the already mentioned difference in approach found in the Meccan-Medinan legal thought, as expressed by imam al-Maliki, and the Iraqi legal thought, expressed by imam abu Hanifa, and their disciples. There are differences and the root and cause of these differences can be hinting to some Jewish influences on the one of them, so far as we can point to any similarity in the legal thought of the two religions.
My problem is to choose only one of these for problems, not having room or time enough to deal seriously with all of them. And I am in doubt which one of them to focus on.
So, there you are. This is my program for next two months. I’m looking forward to share thoughts and progress with you.
I’ve begun reading a book called “Trialogue: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Dialogue,” by Reuven Firestone, Khalid Duran, and Leonard Swidler, a book which attempts to define and guide to a dialogue among the three religions. I haven’t read that much yet, but it seems promising.
It wakes some interesting thoughts. The first and most obvious being “what is dialogue?”
Most of us have probably tried to be talked to, where the talker definitely didn’t want you to respond. Two people, or more, being involved but only one being allowed to talk. That definitely isn’t dialogue. The word dialogue comes from the Greek word ‘dialogos,’ meaning ‘conversion’ or ‘discourse,’ consisting of the two words ‘dia,’ meaning ‘through’ or ‘across,’ and ‘logos’ meaning ‘word.’ This is a word that signifies a conversation taking place from both sides, both being attentive to the other as well as taking part in the conversation. A person denying you the right to be heard, is certainly not conducting a dialogue.
But what about two persons fighting? Both having something to say, that must be a dialogue, no? Well, considering that neither of them probably aren’t that attentive to what the other person has to say that probably wouldn’t be considered a dialogue either. The teacher teaching his students rarely do dialogue, merely teaching them, or at least this is an example from the book, though I have to say that most teachers I have been studying with, certainly have paid attention to their students and participated in dialogue with them, as well as many authors of non-fiction books describe how they learned from their students, somewhat telling me of some kind of dialogue.
Dialogue is when two parts, two persons, have a conversation where they are attentive to each other, not having it as their premise that they are correct and the other part wrong, but rather that they are interested to have added nuances or knowledge to what they already might know, or even not know. Dialogue is established when we give up the need to be right, when we want to relate ourselves to what the other has to say. But dialogue can only appear where both parts have this premise. Many people today talk nicely and polite, but still with the premise that they have to convince or persuade the other part. No matter how polite one will speak and behave, this still isn’t dialogue.
In the meeting between religions this is also an important premise, that if we really want to be able to live next to each other, with each other, then we need to open up for each other, get to understand each other. But that won’t happen as long as the premise is to make the other believe as myself. Sure, I understand that some religions have a commandment or expectation to proselyte people, but still. We are in an age where there is so much material on all the religions, where people are more curious than ever, where it is almost impossible not to do some kind of “proselyting” in the meeting with people, so it really isn’t needed. Actually, the need to proselyte might actually just push some people away.
No, if we want to live with each other we need dialogue. And dialogue between religions is not based on the idea that “I already know so much about your religion, now you have to learn about my religion,” but rather “how do you experience and live your religion?” Dialogue is not to define others, based on one’s own perceptions of their religion, but rather allow them to define themselves in context of their religion, as well as how they experience their religion. Dialogue between religions is not necessarily to recognize one’s own religion in the other, nor to find all the overlaps, but rather to get insights and understandings of how the other religion also can be experienced by its practitioners. This can certainly also be achieved within the religions themselves. No religion is at it was when it was created, and today most religions hold several streams, meaning that there are different ways to practice and understand each religion. For example, if you take a Wahabi and a follower of Hazrat Inayat Khan, then you get two different forms of Islam, but both being Islam. The same goes for most religions. We need to be attentive to how people experience their own religion and their own world, that way we might learn a little more about both.
One of my goals for this blog, as well as my studies, is dialogue. I know that I present a subject, which I explain about, but I never want it to end there, I want to involve you out there. Even if you feel that it is above you, or you don’t know enough about the subject, then you still should take part in the dialogue. Many things are discovered by fresh eyes and odd thinking (compared to what is established thinking), and only by opening up for those who think different than ourselves, can we get new insights, which we otherwise may have been ignorant too.
So, do you have any good experiences with dialogue?
Lately I have been spending some times diving into the Jewish-Muslim polemics, mostly focused on attitudes to the Bible, but also in general. I do want to keep it more actual, that it, focus on the polemics of our days, but interestingly (though not so surprising) enough most of the polemics going on between Jews and Muslims today is focused on the Israel-Palestine issue, more than the religions themselves. Or that is, the religions are within the scope, but the conflict takes the main focus in the polemics.
Not so in the medieval times, where the religions, their faith, and especially the status of scripture and prophets were in focus. And, of course, there were no Israel-Palestine conflict back then. Most of the Muslim polemics were actually focused on Christianity and their religious claims, though they often also lead to reactions to Judaism and the Jews. See for example Ibn Hazm, who is one of the more known polemicists.
One who focused mainly on Judaism, and who – as far as is known – wrote the first polemic work directed against the Jews alone, is the Jewish convert, Samaw’el al-Maghrabi (also spelled Samau’al). He was born in Baghdad in 1126 (though some traditions puts his year of birth in 1130 – I have chosen to follow Moshe Perlmann here), the son of a Jewish rabbi who moved there from Northern Africa. He was taught in mathematics and is mostly known for his works on that subject, especially his al-Bahir fi’l-Jabr, but after his conversion in 1163 he began to write his polemic work against the Jews, Ifham al-Yahûd (Silencing the Jew). That book was rewritten in a new version four years after with some additions.
His conversion was done with the rabbi who taught him, and his fellow studen Yitzhaq ben Avraham ibn ‘Ezra, who is generally believed to be the son of the great commentator and poet, Avraham ibn ‘Ezra. But while the rabbi converted in an old age and died shortly after, and Yitzhaq apparently regretted his conversion, attempting the rest of his life to correct it, Samaw’el embraced Islam fully, seeing it as the only answer.
What is interesting about Samaw’el is that he lived contemporary with the great Jewish philosopher, Maimonides, though they probably never met. And while Samaw’el wrote his Ifham al-Yahûd in 1163, rewritten in 1167, Maimonides wrote his Iggeret Teyman (Letter to Yemen) in 1172, where he deals with some of the points in Samaw’el’s Ifham. It is possible that Maimonides had read the Ifham, but his answer to the Yemenites was not based on this, but rather on another Jewish convert, who used Samaw’el’s arguments against the Yemenite Jewish community. It is not weird that later Muslims, especially Jewish converts, took use of the Ifham, but this happened relatively early after it was written, hinting at some early popularity (as far as it wasn’t just a coincidence, but many of the points being raised seems to similar for it to be a coincidence).
The Ifham is indeed a classical Islamic work of polemics, points from it even being raised by Muslims today, but while the Jews, who converted to Islam in the Medieval times, understood the context of their polemical arguments, and therefore brought a high level of discussions forth, Muslims today seem to lack this understanding, only repeating these arguments without really understanding them. This points to the fact that not many Muslims really are studying Judaism on its own terms, but rather – when they study it – in terms of disproving it. This is not wrong of them, many Christians who study Judaism or Islam, or indeed Jews who study the two other religions, have the same approach. I have to point out though that these are examples outside the academic world, where such approaches generally are put aside, and a more open attitude are taken. But even within the academic world we see that there are not many Muslim scholars in Judaism, while there certainly are quite a high number of Jewish scholars in both Islam and Christianity.
I wish it was different. I am sure that we, in the academic study of Judaism and Christianity, could benefit from serious Muslims scholars, who dedicated themselves to the study of the two other Abrahamic religions. Until we see more Muslim scholars in Judaism and Christianity, we have to settle with the polemics of the Medieval times.
First some commercial: If you’re on Facebook and you’re interested in interfaith discussions between Jews and Muslims, which are conducted with a good and respectful attitude, then I encourage you to visit the group “Jihadi Jew.” I can’t emphasize enough how important it is with a respectful dialogue between Jews and Muslims, and how rare it is to find a place offering it. Jihadi Jew does just that. It is created by a Jew, Lee Weissman, and moderated by two Muslims, Heshke (who occasionally comments here, even though I’m not so good at responding lately, sorry Heshke), and Marc.
Please check out the group (You can find it here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/jihadijew/)
I’m not making commercial for it without reason though. There is an ongoing discussion in there on the question of state and “church” (church more being synagogue or mosque in this discussion), and one of the participants asked me for my opinion. I promised an answer earlier, but I have to admit that I’ve simply been pondering on it for some days now, not feeling that I could formulate an answer clearly, which would express my thoughts, without it getting way too long for the thread in there.
So I’ll try to formulate an answer here, BE”H, since it might also interest some of you out there.
First off, my premise for dealing with the world and other human beings is based on two ethical teachings, both being expressed by the Jewish rabbi, Hillel, Z”L, though at least one of them (known in differing forms, by the name of “the Golden Rule”) has been expressed by other spiritual teachers as well.
The first is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a, being presented as an answer to a man partly wanting to mock him by requesting him to recite the whole Torah while standing on one leg: “What is hateful to you, don’t do to others!” The whole sentence includes “this is the Torah, the rest is commentary, now go and study!”
My approach in context of my expectation to others and my behavior in the meeting with my fellow being is based on this, not to act in a way or demand things, which I in return wouldn’t appreciate from the other person. And this is indeed Torah, as Hillel states, but it is also a very basic wisdom of life, which I believe that all should accept and strive for. True, I’m not perfect and I at times act in a way, which I wouldn’t appreciate very much myself, but not being perfect doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t strive to get better.
The second sentence is found in Pirqei Avot (1:14): “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” He teaches us to take responsibility for ourselves, for if we don’t do it ourselves, then who will? We need to be focused on our own needs, to attempt to improve our lives and our manners. But if we only focus on ourselves, then what are we? We can’t stop with the self, we also have a responsibility to relate to our fellow human beings (don’t do to others what is hateful to you, don’t ignore the needs of others, when you yourselves would hate to have your needs ignored. We are not alone in this world, human is a social being). And we need to act now, in this moment. We don’t know what the next moment will bring.
These are the basic teachings in my relation to the world. I keep them as guiding principles, attempting to follow them in each choice I take. Another teaching of his I also attempt to follow, but which isn’t so crucial for the understanding of my approach to the question of synagogue and state, is “Be among the disciples of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and drawing them close to Torah!” (Pirqei Avot 1:12).
When I consider the question of synagogue and state, then a number of opportunities come to mind. By now I have lived in two countries who both have official religions, Denmark and Israel, the one Christian (Lutheran) and the other Jewish. The extent of the religious influence is way bigger in Israel than in Denmark, where religion at times are shunned by the population, and where the population are deciding for the religion, more than the religion is deciding for the population, whereas it is the opposite in Israel.
I wonder how it is to live in a country, where the church and the state is totally separated? I don’t know. In Denmark it seems like the religious are beginning to ask for this, at least some of them (when I say “religious,” I’m thinking about the practicing Christian part of the population), though that definitely isn’t consensus yet. The motive behind this wish for separation is a wish to keep the state out of church matters, something that I fully understand, since the state is basically trying to define theological questions. And it isn’t without a sense of irony that it has to be pointed out that the minister for the ministry of the church is a Hindu, who is trying to force the church to accept homosexual marriages. Whether I’m for or against this is not the issue here, personally I don’t care much for church matters, but the motive behind this attempt is clear. The church is a popular church, a church for the people, and since the people isn’t only consisting of practicing Christian heterosexuals, then it should not only be for them. That is the motive, it is not necessarily my thought.
In Israel it’s the opposite. Since Israel is a Jewish state (whatever that means) then it is in the belief of the ministers of religious affairs, that Judaism (rabbinical Judaism) should be the defining norm, relating a range of questions to the matter of Jewish religious law (Halachah). And since the Jews in Israel are citizens in a Jewish state, then they are also (more or less) forced to accept this law. Whereas the church of the people in Denmark is defined (to a certain extent) by the people, then the synagogue of the people in Israel is defining the people.
It has to be said here that non-Jewish citizens are under the authority of whoever is accepted/elected as their representatives. In that matter Muslims are not married according to Jewish religious law, but rather according to Islamic law and practices. The same goes for Christians and so on.
But this mean that if a Jew and a Muslim is falling in love (a Jewish man and a Muslim woman) and want to get married, then they have no opportunity to get married in Israel, unless he converts to Islam or she converts to Judaism, no matter how secular and irreligious they might be. Whether they are spending their Shabbats in front of the television, the nights getting drunk, and they are eating pig for dinner, then they still have to be married either as Muslims or Jews. Of course, they can go to Cyprus and get married there, a marriage which then is accepted by the Jewish state (though not by the religious authorities). And you can forget being a homosexual wanting to be married here.
Let me point it out very clear for everyone: I am a practicing Jew who believes in the Torah. I accept the Oral Tradition and believe that it goes back to Moshe Rabenu, A”S, as well as I believe that we should follow Halachah (we being the Jews). But I also believe in the ethical teachings of R. Hillel, Z”L, and therefore I don’t want to do to others what is hateful for me. I don’t want to force rules or laws on people, which isn’t decided by the general population (there will always be those who disagree no matter the law or decision). Therefore I don’t believe that Halachah should be forced on people who don’t believe in its higher level of spirituality, compared to secular law and our own faulty decisions. Yes, I do believe Halachah to be Divine, and I do believe that the perfect society would be following Halachah, but it would do it from an understanding of the necessity of the Halachah, not because they are forced. And – to be honest – by establishing a Halachic society with Torah as the foundation, we would need a true righteous leader, one who would be the example for the others to follow. And he simply doesn’t exist, his time hasn’t come. And since that is the case, then I can’t support any state as being lead by Halachah, but rather want to encourage each Jew to accept it in his or her life for themselves. Only by acknowledging and accepting it themselves, would it be able to fulfill its Divine purpose in our lives.
That said then I do believe it needed for the societies to offer the opportunity for people of any faith, to live according to that faith, as far as they participate and accept the laws of the country. We have an expression in the Talmud, Dina Malchuta Dina, the law of the land is the law (Bava Kama 113a, Bava Batra 54b-55a et.al. The extent of the principle is discussed among the Rishonim (the medieval rabbis), some stating that it is only related to financial matters, where others state that it is in general where the law doesn’t go against the Torah), at least so far as it doesn’t force people to go against the Torah. For example, should ritual slaughter be prohibited in Denmark, it wouldn’t mean that the Jews in Denmark would have to eat unkosher meat, though it would make it hard for them to find and achieve kosher meat.
So, to conclude, I’m not for a state synagogue. I am for a secular society where there is room for the believers of each faith (or lack) to live and fulfill their religious beliefs.
Michael Kay, at “Thinking through my fingers” (visit his blog, he is seriously an amazing writer and brilliant thinker), wrote a post where he reflected on the Jews as a “Chosen people.” I found it highly inspiring and felt the need to let it out on him, so I wrote the following as a response (which I also posted there):
And thank you for a wonderful and inspiring post:o)
I have some reflections to share, I hope it is okay with you. Unfortunately I’m not at home, so I can’t give precise sources every time I will be using them, but I will get back to it, bli neder.
I really do love R. Sacks and his attempts to connect our modern way of thinking and Judaism. In that sense I believe that he follows the tradition of many other historical Jewish thinkers, though whether he is on the same level always can be discussed (I don’t believe that he is on the level of a thinker like haRaMBaM, Z”L, nor do I expect him or any other today to be).
I believe though that the answer is found in each of the three categories, though mostly in the two latter ones. But we do find examples on the Jewish nation being something exemplar to the other nations in some Jewish traditions, one place is the Babylonian Talmud, tractate ‘Avodah Zarah, where God more or less makes a fool out of the nations, leveling Israel above them. That is one of the few examples on this though, the more dominant approach being the Biblical approach in Deuteronomy 7:7-8, quoted by you, expressing that Israel “were the fewest of all peoples.” If number or greatness of a people would be the deciding factor, then Ishma’el would be more likely, as we see that God will bless him “and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation” (Genesis 17:20). In this respect is it also interesting to consider the midrash on the giving of the Torah, how God had to hold the mountain over the Israelites, threatening them by destruction, since the sole reason for their existence is Torah (something also repeated in the Quran).
The Jews are chosen, not to be superior, at least not in might, that one seemed to go more to Ishma’el and ‘Esaw, but to be a light to the nations, and as a student of the Torah. You mention that “there is the problem of the Jew who abandons their responsibility and assimilates into the surrounding culture,” and that is – I believe – also reflected in the Torah, in the story of Dathan and Aviram, refusing to “go up” to Moses, and instead were swallowed by the earth. I read in this the consequence of assimilating, refusing to “go up to Moses,” that is, staying “loyal to the Torah.”
Our role as a “light unto the nations,” is not fulfilled by being perfect observant, but by spreading (Jewish) values to the world, not by hiding in a ghetto, but by taking part in the world, while still staying true to the Torah. By relating to our brit with God do we show God’s intentions for all of us, that is, not necessarily by not eating milk and meat together, nor by not mixing materials in our clothes, wearing tzitzit (that us more for our own sake) and so on, that is mostly in order that the world may realize that we are Jews, and by that seeing our – hopefully – examples as related to God. And then there are some of our commandments which carry in them a deep ethical understanding, where the sole fulfilling of the commandment is giving a light, such as the already mentioned not eating meat and milk together. Think on Rashbam’s commentary to the verses dealing with not cooking the kid in its mother’s milk, and how he points out that it is deeply unethical to kill something and then enjoying it with its life source. The giving of tzedaqah, as contrasted to charity, is showing that caring for those in worse situations than ours is a plight, a duty, not something we are doing to feel good about ourselves. And so on. And the more we interfere with the world and get out there, the stronger this will stand. It is obvious that by hiding in the ghetto we, first and foremost, won’t experience much challenge (just doing what everybody else is doing), and, secondly, we are actually being “lights for the world,” not merely “lights.”
And it certainly speaks miles about God, that He would want to choose the Jews as His people. History have shown again and again that we have failed. Even today we find it hard to show our gratitude to finally having a country of our own (as well as others also, we shouldn’t forget that), but yet He stayed loyal through it all, even when we – in general – did not. Sure, He punishes, but more than that does He forgive, care, and love.
I think that we should have a double understanding of the choseness, not only talking about a chosen people, but also of chosen individuals. Abraham, more than anyone, allowed him to act in pure trust, going against the ways of his people. Abraham, though bringing a household with him, acted as an individual, for that he was rewarded, but he also became the example for each and every one of us.
Finally, I think that much of the bad reactions we get from Christians and Muslims, when they react to us being “chosen,” is projections. Both Christianity and Islam work with an understanding of choseness themselves, such as only having Christians being saved, as well as the Islamic Ummah being the perfect Ummah. They transfer understandings of these concept to how they believe Jews view the idea of being “chosen.” And maybe, probably, many Jews actually are viewing the notion of being Jewish and “chosen” the same way. But all in all that is something that is far from the Jewish thought (and not the thoughts of Jews).
Again, thanks for an inspiring post:o)
All the best