Here is a noticeable trend in interreligious discourse in our world, which has even found its way into the pages of this newspaper. One person, pointing a finger at another of a different religion, says, "how can you claim to be in support of (positive value such as peace, righteousness, etc.) when your sacred text (insert name of text here) says (inflammatory quote from text taken out of context without explanation)?"
The same is true of those who don’t identify with a religious tradition, who point the finger at religion in general, “How can religion be a force for good when (insert religion here) believes that (again, inflammatory quote from text taken out of context without explanation).
The targeted religion is then accused of hypocrisy, hatred, spiritual violence, and more.
The problem with these arguments is that they for one, do nothing to advance any form of dialogue or understanding among religious traditions.
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The second is that they assume a fundamentalist reading of sacred text that may or may not be truly reflective of how a religious tradition approaches that text.
The third is that they lead to discrimination and suspicion of the other based on false impressions and misinformation.
We see this most recently directed toward Muslims – whether it be about the building of the mosque in New York City or about Islam in general – a lack of understanding and knowledge leading to senseless hatred and discrimination.
As a Jew, I look to the Torah – the first five books of the Bible – as the main sacred text and the foundation of the Jewish canon. The Torah serves as the basis of a chain of interpretive literature. Indeed, within the Jewish tradition one can not read the Torah without the interpretive literature. When I am speaking about Judaism I often say that Judaism is not an Old Testament religion. That is, while Judaism is based in the Torah, the Torah is not the definitive expression of how Judaism is practiced today. To read it as such would lead to a misunderstanding of what Judaism is about.
Thus to understand other religious traditions, we can not merely look at the sacred texts and pass judgment, we must have an understanding of how those texts are read and understood by those within that religious tradition. We do this through learning and engagement and dialogue, through which we are able to truly grow and connect with others.
Sacred texts say a lot of things about a lot of things. This is because they are complex, nuanced and reflective of the human condition and search for meaning which can be irrational and inconsistent.
For example, death penalty opponents point to Scripture that reads “you shall not murder” while ignoring the fact that the Torah upholds capital punishment for myriad offenses. (It is through interpretation, rather than dismissing the text, that the ancient rabbis in the Talmud are able to minimize the death penalty.)
We overlook this complexity and nuance at times, opting instead for an easy fundamentalism.
This happens in religion; this happens in politics; it happens in other avenues of life.
We would much rather be able to divide our world into distinct categories: good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, winner vs. loser. But this fundamentalist reading of the world only results in division and discord. We would be better served if we accepted that life can not be divided into such simple categories, and instead embraced the fact that we as humans are messy, and thus what we create: political systems, communities, religious institutions – are going to be messy as well.
In a few days the Jewish community will gather in celebration of Rosh Hashanah – the New Year – and Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement. These are days set aside to recognize this messiness of life. That we are all good and bad, right and wrong. That there are things we do well and things we need to improve. That we are complex, not able to be reduced to easily misread words on a page.
Rabbi Seth Goldstein is the rabbi at Temple Beth Hatfiloh, Olympia. Perspective is coordinated by Interfaith Works in cooperation with The Olympian. The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily endorsed by Interfaith Works or The Olympian.