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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: March 5, 2006
Latest Update: March 5, 2006

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Index of Topics on Site Using Illocutionary Discourse to Compare Religions

It's Sunday morning. Well, almost Sunday morning, 12:15 p.m., to be exact. I got up a tad late. There is a fascinating article in the New York Times this morning on the experiences of an Imam in Brooklyn. It reminded me of my discussion with you last Wednesday on how I planned to be a Rabbi when I retired. Some of you missed the story, so I thought I'd post it briefly here.

Many years ago, when our daughter was young, we picked her up for her weekend visit. (She's my step daughter, though I dislike that label. She's just as much my daughter as one could be.) She proudly showed us the ring she had found in her school yard. We were dismayed. "Didn't you turn it into lost and found?" "Why? Finders keepers."

Oops! Parenting can be daunting. We tried a legal explanation, that the True Owner has a better claim to property than any other claimant, making it imperative that one make the best possible attempt to return found objects to the True Owner. But she was a little girl, and those are code words for adults. In desperation, I, who had been raised in a Convent, searched for Sunday schools for Jewish children, where she could learn our shared Ten Commandments. And on Sundays when she was with us, we took her to a Temple Sunday School.

It was fun, and she enjoyed it. She turned the ring into lost and found at her school. And Arnold and I nestled in with our Sunday paper while she experienced a fortuitous encounter with the Ten Commandments whenever they came up.

But, as in all blended families, peace and assurance in her learning were soon interrupted by everyday conflicts. Her mother did not attend a temple, and would have none of Sunday school. Well, I was sure that alternate weeks at Sunday school would suffice for the Ten Commandments. Not to worry.

Hmm . . . the best laid plans of mice and men. The Sunday school, being an institution created before the day of "blended families," paid little heed to alternate weekend visits. We soon discovered that on Sundays when she wasn't there, they'd introduce Hebrew words or phrases, then use them later the next week or weeks after. "Could you please catch her up to date, since her mother refuses to take her on "her weekends?" I asked ever so gently. "Well, we really have no means for providing such make-up lessons. Perhaps a tutor . . . , but the tutor wouldn't have been in class and wouldn't know . . ."

So I took a class in Hebrew at a local Temple. Solved our problems. I could teach her the prayers and the alphabet, and how to read a few words. She was happy. And we were back safely within the realm of the Ten Commandments.

Then, of course, there were the Yom Tov, or Holidays, celebrated by the Sunday school, but way beyoond my experience and understanding. And no, the tutors weren't in Sunday school class, so I enrolled in a class at the University of Judaism. I learned about the Holidays, and came to know the major Hebrew book dealers. And, of course, I could never resist books.

Sunday school meant joining a Temple and taking her with us on alternate weekends. And that led to my complaining to the Rabbi that there was no provision in any of the temples for "blended families," which led to my not knwoing how to prepare home celebrations of the Holidays. The Rabbi invited us over for dinner; The Rebbitsin (his wife) taught me how to prepare the meals for Yom Tov.

And so it seemed quite natural to take Hebrew at the University of Judaism. And as long as I was there, a class on Biblical interpretation. Arnold called home one day in the summer, and I answered with laughter in my voice.

A: "What are you doing?"

Me: "Reading Genesis."

A: "Genesis?"

Me: "Yes, the first verse: 'God created the world.' Rashi, the Twelfth-Century commentator of the Torah, asks 'Now why should the Bible start with that? Because one day someone will challenge that God elected the Jewish people as His Chosen People. This verse allows us to say He created the world; He can give it to whomever He wants to.' [Not a quotation - just from memory.] Isn't that wonderful? I like this guy."

With such an introduction to Rashi, I had to know more. By then I had lots of books. I discovered that Rashi was a French farmer, who spent most of the year in hard physical labor on his farm. But when crops were in, he travelled to a famous Schul (Religious School) in France to pursue his beloved study of the Talmud. I've long thought of him as a peasant; he certainly wasn't landed aristocracy; but I don't imagine he was a peasant either, for he managed several months away each year to study in Germany, and later, in Spain. He must have fit somewhere in the middle range of the feudal system.

In the Twelfth Century, there were no books, except those laboriously copied by religious scholars. Gutenberg hadn't invented the printing press yet. So the way that the Talmud was studied was by narrative. Stories were told, and the morals and commentary were learned by heart. The material was told and retold until it was slowly mastered. But Rashi had to leave his studies to return to his farming responsibilities in France. And so he missed out on much of the learning.

One year, when he could get away, he went to Spain, where he studied with the Moors. They taught him their Islamic system for writing. When Rashi was later able to return to Germany to study, he took notes on what he was learning, after what the Moors had taught him. Then, when he returned to France to farm he could continue to study.

One year, when he returned to Germany to study, he discovered that the entire Schul had been wiped out by a pogrom. No one was alive to continue the teaching. But his notes permitted much of what had been known by those masters to be passed down to the present day.

Now with that story, you will understand why I leapt upon the chance to take a course in Rashi. Never mind that it required that I read Twelfth-Centruy Hebrew. I'd been studying Hebrew all along. And I'd studied Old Provencal in French. Twelfth Century Hebrew would be a breeze.

And so I had a whole semester of Rashi. I really did like that guy. What a wonderful way he had with making an explication de texte into a riotous commentary on our world. It wasn't until halfway through the course that I discovered all the other students were in the UJ Rabbinical program. Oops.

Maybe it was Rashi that led to my fascination with the law. At UCLAW I spent many a lunch hour with the Rabbi from Hillel and a few other law students talking about Jewish law and modern social issues. None of us had the great inspiration of Rashi for solving social issues so neatly and with such good humor. Perhaps it was then that I decided that when I retired from teaching I would finish Rabbinical school and spend my later years as a Rabbi.

Denise asked last Wednesday if I ever finished Rabbinical school. No. This is the first semester I've been fully retired, and I can barely keep up with No Child Left Behind. But I don't think I'll go bac to Rabbinical school. I'd like to meditate quietly on puzzling issues and resolve conundrums that puzzle and confound us all, but I think in 2006 we need forums like transform_dom more than we need Rabbis. The Rabbi, much like the Imam of a Mosque, or like the Priest or Minister of a Church, is a symbol of faith, faith that we are right to believe. That is important to all of us humans.

But over the last decades I have developed different skills, skills of translating theory and critical thought to practical terms that can guide ordinary folks in solving the social and criminal justice issues that are a part of all our lives, every day. I like working with real folks, folks who have a vote, have a role in governance in this country, and need to understand that role and understand the issues that are increasingly presented to the whole world, not just us. Maybe that's a version of what Rashi was doing. Taking his learning, and interpreting it for others, so they could make practical decisions that would lead to more loving and loveable lives.

I hope that by the end of Fall Semester 2006, CSUDH will have a functioning liaison with our local communities that will take forums like transform_dom to whole communities, and will make much that we know from long years of scholarly research available to all who would learn and take responsibility to make ours a better world. And maybe UWP, too.

Twenty years ago, being a Rabbi seemed like a fitting way to achieve these goals. But those twenty years have higlighted the need to extend the outreach of our educational institutions to the whole community, bar none. Besides, you know how I can't resist exploring new alternatives. love and peace, jeanne

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is the story of someone considering a religious career important to an understanding of comparative religions?

    Stories are an age-old means of teaching and sharing memories. Read carefully. I never converted to Judaism. And yet, I seriously studied in Rabbinical courses. None of you asked about that when I told the story of Rashi. You accepted at face value that there would be no obstacle to my studying for the Rabbinate. I'm not sure I know what to make of that, but I find it fascinating.

    Perhaps this helps explain why I find transform_dom more appropriate now. Religious leaders are expected to represent the ideal of the religion. I have a hard time thinking of anything in terms of belonging (which automatically excludes those who don't belong) and excluding. I find that especially hard when thinking on spiritual matters. God chose the People of Israel. ALL the People of Israel. Who am I to exclude then, in spiritual matters?

  2. How is laughter linked to spirituaity?

    Read The Coyote and the Marshmallow Biddha by Reverend Don Southworth. Given February 10, 2002, at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Atlanta, GA. I wish Rev. Southworth had finished the story of what his seminary teacher said when he told him of his guided meditation: "The picture I had of myself as a minister was that of the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man." In terms of theory I would take us back to discussions of our code words of "humility of knowledge" and humility of "religious belief." Arrogance is not a good thing, especially when we mistakenly aver that we "know," be it factual information or belief. We are not omniscient. Laughter and not taking ourselves to seriously reminds us that humility is appropriate.

  3. In what strange way are Christianity, Judaism, and Islam all tied together in this piece?

    Consider that Rashi was Jewish, Spain was Catholic, though home to the Moors, who used knowedge from Islam to teach Rashi how to write, that he might save the Jewish learning he brought to France from Germany.

  4. What plausible explanation is there for the sense that we may need to reach out beyond the religious community itself to bring about ameliorative social, political and economic change in the world today?

    The global community is being created within a secular civil infrastructure. That means that confining our efforts to the religious communities today will fail to reach the folks that are not part of these religious communities. One alternative, as Greg earlier proposed, is that the religious communities in power impose their views on others. Since citizens of our global community are much much more numerous that those of any single given religion, that would mean repression and a denial of answerability. Not acceptable if we seek a democratic infrastructure. Not acceptable in the US under the Constitution that our administration is trying not to live under.

  5. What characteristic does repression have the most devastating effect on?

    One plausible answer is creativity. When we're all forced to follow the rules of any group that can grasp adequate power to enforce its rules, the free spirit of those who would search out and risk alternative paths will be frustrated, and much that is new may be lost for a very long time.

    And it looks like this effect on creativity may start at a very young age:

    Relationship between creativity, repression, and anxiety in first graders.

    "by Strauss H, Hadar M, Shavit H, Itskowitz R.

    "The present study dealt with the extent to which creativity may be identified in 71 first graders and raised the question of whether and how creativity is related to anxiety and repression at this young age. Furthermore, correlation of 0.62 was obtained between creativity and decrease in repression. The various subtests and the four dimensions of creativity were separately analyzed in relation to anxiety and repression, and the results were discussed. No relation was found between intelligence and the dynamic variables of anxiety and repression."

    PMID: 7290875 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]" Consulted on March 5, 2006.

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