Studying Religious Texts

As I continue to try to see Jewish texts devoid of the theological burdens that were inextricably attached to them when I was first introduced to them, a simple realization has emerged.  Institutions that study Jewish (or pertaining to other religions) texts with a religious slant (that doesn’t refer to orthodoxy, but to Judaism) do not generally wish to open the discussion up to denying any and all religious claims that Jewish thinkers have brought to the texts over the centuries.  Similarly, academic institutions with no avowed religious slant — or, more accurately, with an avowed secular slant — tend to avoid opening the discussion up to talking, not only about the religious beliefs that so many have attached to the texts over the years, but also to including those thinkers that are more famous for doing so.  This latter policy strikes me as questionable.  If post-modernism stands for anything, it is that no thinking (as expressed in writing or otherwise) is devoid of a host of biases.  As such, why should academic institutions trying to understand ancient texts as deeply as possible close themselves off from the thinkers who devoted their lives to these texts, even if they did so with a set of religious convictions as their primary motivator?  In other words, just as academics are happy to discuss Spinoza as potentially being the first Bible critic, they should be able to discuss the great rabbinic commentaries, adding their voices to the conversation over what a given biblical passage might be, while stating their biases upfront.

Another way in which this segregation is apparent is in the distrust academic institutions have of students or teachers whose primary education of religious texts was at institutions with a religious slant (and vice versa).  Once again, why?  Unlike most texts studied academically, when a classroom full of people gather to study, analyze, and discuss religious texts, there is no one who has a ‘neutral’ attitude to the text — everyone has an opinion, and most of those who go out of their way to study the Bible and other religious texts have very strongly held, fundamental beliefs and opinions about the texts under consideration.

While the bedrock issues that arise when studying religious texts are obviously touchy subjects, subjects that millions of people’s lives revolve around, I see no reason why the texts cannot be studied by people of all backgrounds and perspectives about the religious implications of the texts.  This is much preferable to having each sect of people, who hold nearly identical beliefs and opinions about what place the texts play in their lives, studying amongst themselves.  The dialogue that can emerge from studying the most important texts in many people’s lives together with people who hold a ‘purely’ academic interest in them is a treasure that I hope to both uncover personally and help cultivate for others.

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