Sunday, November 07, 2010


It's an old joke. It goes back at least to Felix's exposition of it in "The Odd Couple". But the point is always worth repeating. Assumptions are the ruination of all good research and thinking.

We are burdened when we write about religion. Centuries of inherited assumptions weigh us down. We assume way too much. Just calling it religion means we have ideas about it that get us ahead of ourselves. Before we even look at the evidence, we're off and running. Our ideas (about God, worship, rituals, superstitions, and on and on) interfere with looking at the evidence. I have come to prefer the term culture because it is more neutral, less packed with preconceived notions.

I did not get it for a long time. Wolfgang Stegemann once said to me (in an email) that he doesn't like using the word religion for ancient Jewish (or Israelite) culture because for us Christianity is the paradigm of what we mean by religion, and so calling any culture a religion automatically means we are going to try to make it fit Christian categories. At the time, I didn't think much of this point. I didn't see how speaking of ancient Jewish religion was going to affect my view of it. Now I see.

And it's not just whether Christianity will affect our understanding of non-Christian cultures. We have ideas about religion in general (whether or not they are Christian in origin) and these ideas are distinctly unhelpful in understanding the cultures that human beings inhabit.

We read the Hebrew scriptures and we think: There, all that stuff about the Temple, sacrifices, and the priests, that's the stuff of religion. What about the many comments about justice and kindness to the stranger, the immigrant? That's extra, we think, some bits of morality that were added on to the central part of worshipping God in superstitious fear. But what if we have got it all wrong? Maybe justice is the heart of the "religion" — really, the culture — and the rituals and animal sacrifices were the extras.

What got me thinking about this was paying closer attention to what the rabbis and Pharisees are actually doing in rabbinic literature and how they relate to Hebrew scripture. For them, Torah is not a religious document. Not if you mean by that a document of rules of worship of God that must be obeyed without question and leads to self-righteousness.

They were much more concerned to use Torah to question themselves, or ourselves. If Torah makes you self-righteous, it's not working right. The real point of Torah for the Pharisees and rabbis was to get us to see and feel our own humanity, and to achieve a humble sense of what it means to be human. Flexibility is the key to both Torah and being human. Call that religion, if you want, but I prefer to think of this as their culture and their art.

Torah and rabbinic literature make much more sense as works of art. Pharisaic/rabbinic culture was a story-telling culture more than a Temple cult and sacrificial system. (I discuss this a bit in the new book.) Their stories are often about achieving independence, self-reliance, and concern for a fair, just system of government. Torah was a Constitution that could be used to challenge abuse of power. In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man, said Hillel. That was far more important than rituals.

The culture was also very much about rational debate over the meaning of the Constitution and how to achieve justice and due process. When we do these things in our society, we don't call it religion. I see no reason why we should call it religion for these ancient people.

"Religion" just gets in the way of thinking clearly about what was going on in this ancient culture. It's like Montaigne's traveler who visited many different countries but never learned anything because he always carried himself with him. All he could see was his own ideas. When scholars make assumptions (which is all the time), it is to gain power over another culture. It's imperialism. We carry and impose our own baggage on others.

To study history properly you have to travel light. Drop the baggage, the terminology, the preconceived ideas, our own cleverness. Drop "religion". Pick up culture and you will get to a fresher look at the evidence.

Leon Zitzer

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