I’m asked all the time why I study rabbinic texts. Sometimes the question is curious: “What value does reading Talmud have for your Christian spirituality?” Or at times it is skeptical, as one of my Christian peers often remarks, “How can that ‘Jewish’ stuff interest you?” I’ll admit that fundamentally I simply enjoy reading other religious texts, and not everyone has to. Whether it is the Jewish Babylonian Talmud or the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, I find interest and inspiration from religious texts. Yet, even if not everyone wants to be a religious scholar, I believe people can find value in learning from other religions. For myself, I happen to love the religious world of Late Antiquity, devouring rabbinic and christian texts with veracity. On a larger scale, however, I believe that listening to the religious texts and experiences of others is a valuable spiritual discipline.
Just the other day I was translating a portion of the Babylonian Talmud tractate Pesachim קטו עא. The text debates whether certain commandments can cancel out each other. The anonymous editors insist that, “Even if someone says commandments do not cancel out each other, this only applies to biblical laws versus biblical laws or rabbinic laws versus rabbinic laws, but in the case of rabbinic laws versus biblical laws— the rabbinic laws cancel out the biblical laws.”
Passages like this get me so excited. Here we see textual evidence of the rabbinic experiment, articulating a means of religious survival following the destruction of the Temple. I find myself asking questions like, “What does it mean to conceptualize a religious framework built on oral law?” “Why is it important for rabbinic laws to cancel biblical laws?” “How does this passage reflect the social conditions, such as the Temple’s destruction, in the rabbis’ lives?”
And for a moment I am confronted with a different religious system, yet with similar values, impulses, and innate drives. For a moment I forget my religious heritage, and I learn from the story of the other. Suddenly the rabbis are not so foreign, strange, or wrong. I can hear in some form the sting of the Temple’s destruction, and the need to culturally reevaluate a religious identity. Suddenly, they are human like me.
This practice of listening to other religious texts and experiences has become more than an academic exercise, but a spiritual discipline in my life. As a discipline, I engage in a dialectical process:
1. My religious identity is firm
2. My religious identity is challenged
This process is important because on the one hand I’m not approaching other religions as a means of conversion or faith exploration. I read other religious texts and hear other religious stories, but never in relation to Christ or my own agenda. I don’t look at the above passage in Pesachim and wonder what Jesus would do with rabbinic commandments. I let the text speak for itself in its own context. I listen without judgment.
Yet, the process will invariably challenge the assumption that “I am right because God and my religious tradition says I’m right.” I am drawn into an exposed plane, where the other’s perspective illuminates the humanity of my spirituality. A space where the dogmatic and clannish tendencies are stripped away to reveal the depths of shared human experience.
By specifically reading other religious texts or learning about other religions, I can experience the impulses we share, the desires we articulate in our shared religious expression. Everyone in some way can make an effort to learn and listen to the religious traditions of others. By perceiving such an exercise as a spiritual discipline, we can allow the dialectic of belief and doubt to sustain an organic religious identity.