Religion: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Having spent two weeks immersed in interfaith dialogue, one of the biggest takeaways that I expect will impact the way I move forward in the world is just how similar different religions are, especially Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three are such rich depositories of wisdom, and if I was ever looking for proof that there might be objectively valid virtues, I would look no further than the emphasis placed on virtues like love, helping the disadvantaged or Other, and humility, in these three major world religions.

However, I have also come to realize that there is a further similarity between the religions in question, at least relating to form, if not in content. For all of the scriptural warrant for emphasizing virtue and right action, there are major rituals, or aspects of ritual life, that seem to hamper, if not outright contradict, those ideals. Each religion (and subgroups within each) has their own specific examples, but I think this phenomenon exists within all. Given my background, I am only going to refer to Judaism.

We normally think of Jewish commentary beginning with rabbinic Judaism, but that is only because of the higher regard given to the true first commentators in the Jewish tradition, the prophets. Micah 6:8 states: “It has been told to you, human, what is good and what Hashem requires of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (my translation and emphasis). Holding a verse like this up against any of the controversies that have embroiled the Jewish community — be it about Israel/Palestine, women, homosexuality, conversion — leaves me with a deep sense that we have, and are continuing, to fail each other in living up to the ideals of our religion. If anything, the rituals that make Jewish life what it is are meant to give us a framework within which to live as individuals, as families, and as communities. For those rituals to stop us from trying to live by the ethical imperatives that complement those rituals is to destroy their very purpose.

One of the subsidiary benefits of interfaith dialogue has been to show me just how much our concept of beauty or sacredness is tied up in what is familiar to us, and little more. This provides a useful mirror, because if I can see another faith tradition ‘more objectively’, I can reasonably conclude that there are blind spots when I turn my gaze towards Judaism. Therefore, when I have the privilege of cultivating close relationships with practitioners of other faiths, we can do each other the huge favour of helping each other in seeing where we must try harder to bring our ritual practice in line with our higher religious ideals.

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