Notebook 7: Varieties of Religious Practice & Belief

Notebook 7: Varieties of Religious Practice & Belief

(As an appendix to Humility is Endless, the seven-part Notebook is a collection of connected quotations from scripture, interpretation, and history, which further illustrates the destructive nature of fundamentalist belief and religious certainty of any kind. My own commentary is the thread running through them all.)

This simple sentence, found in a handful of Hindu texts, is an expression of all that I love about religion: “Two birds, who are companions and friends, nestle on the very same tree. One of them eats a tasty fig; the other, not eating, looks on.”[1]

What follows are only further illustrations of the same point: that both ways (that all ways) are legitimate. This is what I initially imagined Humility is Endless to be about: the unending variety of religious practice, and the ability of religions to adapt and change to various historical circumstances, all without losing the meaning which religion provides. For me, Judaism provides the best and fullest example of this tendency, and so its history will be the skeleton for this section, around which similar quotations from other faiths will orbit.

The essential correspondence here is this: just as it does not matter that Jews have acted in vastly different ways to communicate with their God, and just as multiple ways of being Jewish have always existed; in the same way, the varieties and differences among religious traditions the world over do not matter, regardless of various and competing fundamentalist claims.

There is no necessity for any religious belief, dogma, text, or ritual. No one is less for having lived before a certain religion or form of practice or belief existed, and nor are we any less for living after other religions or practices were changed or superseded. Like email and cellphones and TV in our own day, religious change only appear to be a necessity once we’ve been exposed to them, while in reality we lived (and believed) just as well without them. Meaning is all that matters, and if we have it, we have the world.


1. From Temple to Table
2. The Sabbath Fire
3. A Way Out, and Gods Future & Past
4. Many Others, & Many Reinventions
5. Basic Ideas
6. The Moment They Appear
7. Customs of Our Forefathers


1. From Temple to Table

The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem’s First Temple in 587 BC, and a segment of the population was taken to Babylon. In 540, the Persians sacked Babylon and allowed the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem, and the Second Temple was completed in 515. From at least 1000 BCE to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, however, Judaism had been a religion of animal sacrifice, and from about 700 BCE on, sacrifice had been (nominally) centralized at the Temple in Jerusalem. After 70 CE, however, their basic practice and ritual were destroyed and rendered impossible.

That a people were able to witness such destruction and go on to create the tremendous interpretive tradition that is Rabbinic Judaism (in the Mishnah, Talmuds, etc.), never ceases to astound me. The following excerpts trace this ability in Judaism from the formation of the Torah forward:

Interpretation is directly and indirectly a theme of Deuteronomy (1.5). At many points, the authors of Deuteronomy reinterpret earlier laws and narratives (6:1-3). Moreover, the process of the book’s editing intentionally preserves conflicting perspectives on a full range of key issues central to Israelite religion … There is no facile “air-brushing” away of this interplay of perspectives, which in effect reflects an ongoing ancient debate about fundamental religious assumptions. There is finally, for Deuteronomy, no access to God in the covenant without joining this debate. The reader of Deuteronomy must become, like the authors of Deuteronomy, an interpreter.[2]

During the exile, a feeling of patriotism and the desire to preserve the Israelite literary heritage in the wake of the destruction of the ancestral homeland were probably responsible for a new emphasis on the study of Israel’s scripture. When Ezra returned to Judea, he devoted himself to making the Torah the center of the religious life of his people. But the Torah had one deficiency as a legal text. There were apparent contradictions and inconsistencies between the legal rulings in its various sections. Now something new was called for. How were the contradictions between laws on the same subject to be handled? How were the multiple presentations of the same material to be understood?
The duplications in the Torah begged to be interpreted. Thus was born the method which later Hebrew termed midrash. Essentially, the exegetical (interpretive) technique of midrash can be defined as the explanation of one biblical passage in the light of another.[3]

Surveying the landscape of ancient Judaism from the perspective of the Maccabean times, ca. 150 BCE, we search in vain for the rabbi as model and authority, Torah as the principle and organizing symbol, study of Torah as the capital religious deed, the life of religious discipline as the prime expression of what it means to be Israel, the Jewish people. These definitive characteristics of Judaism as we know it, and as the world has known it from late antiquity, simply make no appearance. In particular, we find no evidence whatever of the rabbi as the Torah incarnate and the human being who shows what it means to be “like God,” “in our image and likeness.” These twin notions define Judaism as it has flourished for nearly twenty centuries, and, as I said, we find no evidence whatsoever that anyone held them much before the first century, if then.[4]

[After the destruction of the Temple,] [p]eople do not worship God any more by bringing animals, killing them, sprinkling the blood on the stones of an altar, and burning up the entrails on a fire, the smoke to please God’s nose. So everything has changed. Yet all the critical constituents of the Israelite system of earlier days remained. What has happened is that they have undergone rearrangement, and, more important, everything has been reworked…. The ancient categories remained. But they were so profoundly revised and transformed that nothing was preserved intact.[5]

Rabbinic tradition, in both its tannaitic and amoraic stages [roughly the first five hundreds years CE], preserved the contributions of some two thousand named authorities and countless others over a period of almost a millennium. For this reason, and because the systematic organization of theological tenets was itself totally foreign to the rabbis of the Talmud, whose beliefs can only be extrapolated from their various exegetical and legal traditions, any attempt to speak of the theology or religion of the rabbis is futile.[6]

“Woe unto us,” Rabbi Joshua cried, “that this, the place where the iniquities of Israel were atoned for, is laid waste!”
“My son,” Rabbi Yohanan said to him, “be not grieved. We have another atonement as effective as this. And what is it? It is acts of loving-kindness, as it is said, For I desire mercy and not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6).”[7]

[Previous tradition held that] as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel. But now a man’s table atones for him.”[8]

In other words, Jews in the Temple periods were not deficient to the Jews who only needed a table. And notice, the verse from Hosea was already more than six-hundred years old, but had ever been used to curb the practice of animal sacrifice: such an idea did not take hold or become official until it was absolutely forced to. The words of scripture do not change, only its interpretation does. As one writer has put it, in the centuries leading up to the Temple’s destruction, it was the interpretations of the scriptures by Jewish scholars that have essentially created the Bible as we know it today:

Interpreters [in the closing centuries BCE] also assumed that the Bible was a book of lessons directed to readers in their own day. It may seem to talk about the past, but it is not fundamentally history. It is instruction, telling us what to do… Ancient interpreters assumed this not only about narratives like the Abraham story but about every part of the Bible. For example, Isaiah’s prophecies about the Assyrian crisis contained, interpreters believed, a message for people in their own time (five or six centuries later). Likewise, when the book of Nahum had referred metaphorically to a “raging lion,” the text was not talking about some enemy in Nahum’s own day, but about Demetrius III, who was the king of Syria six hundred years later, in the time of the ancient interpreters….
Disquieting as it may be, one is left with the conclusion that most of what makes the Bible biblical is not inherent in its texts, but emerges only when one reads them in a certain way, a way that came to full flower in the closing centuries BCE…. The raw material that made up the Bible was written anew not by changing its words but by changing the way in which those words were approached and understood.[9]

…the interpreted Bible (that is, the Bible as explained by the ancient interpreters) was the Bible throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and to a large extent, even up to today.[10]

And what else could suffice to replace the Temple and the sacrifice?

Once sacrifice and the other Temple-centered rituals were no longer possible, study gradually became an act of worship…. [11]

…. Rather, the practice and study of Torah could renew intimacy with the God of Israel and lead to eternal life.[12]

Similarly, another drastic change in religious belief occurs in Buddhism. The Buddha apparently spent a good deal of time telling people to not worship him after he was dead, and in his final sermon, he exhorted his followers to “live as islands unto yourselves, being your own refuge, with no one else as your refuge, with the Dhamma as an island, with the Dhamma as your refuge, with no other refuge.”[13]
Yet even in the Buddha’s lifetime, the triple-formula of taking refuge in the Dhamma, Sangha, and the Buddha [the teaching, the community, and the Buddha], was already there; and after his death, as is well attested all throughout Asia, the Buddha was worshipped, his relics were worshipped, Buddhist texts were venerated, Buddhist saints and other holy persons were worshipped and called on for intercession, as were previous and future incarnations of the Buddha. In Pure Land forms of Buddhism this went so far as to say human effort was completely useless, and that one needed to throw themselves entirely under the protection and influence of one Buddhist deity or another.
Are these notions heresy, or are they just what religions do?
And further: as it spread, Buddhism was blended, either seamlessly or at times with political difficulty, with Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, and the indigenous religions and deities of Sri Lanka, Burma, Korea, China, Tibet, and Japan.
I am reminded of the Buddha’s parable of the arrow,
[14] where a man demands answers to various metaphysical and afterlife questions before he will become a follower. In response, he is told he resembles a man shot by a poisoned arrow who refuses medical treatment until he is told who shot the arrow, what kind of wood the arrow was made from, etc. The Buddha says that the man would be dead before he had answers to any of these questions. And yet, elsewhere, the Buddha not only delved into the metaphysical, but was pretty certain of the entire plan of the afterlife, of various heavens and hells and, indeed, of a science of reincarnation: how many lives a certain kind of person would have to live before they attained liberation, etc., and he could tell you all about his own previous incarnations, going back tens of thousands of years.
Are these notions heresy, or are they just what religions do?


2. The Sabbath Fire

And back to Judaism:
Commenting on Deuteronomy 4:9, where Moses tells the assembled Jews, “But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw [at Mount Sinai] with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live,” it was seen that the “you saw” could not refer to the audience Moses was speaking to. The explanation of this verse is remarkable:

The actual generation of the exodus had died off and been replaced by this new one, who had experienced none of the events here being recounted. This paradoxical structure of thought, whereby Moses addresses those who had not witnessed the events as if they had, while insisting that they inculcate the events to posterity, is central to Deuteronomy’s theology of history. This develops further in postbiblical Judaism to the idea that all Jews, past, present, and future, were at Sinai.[15]

…[on the idea of the] multiplicity of individual readings, a thesis which from the 16th century on was expressed in the widespread belief that the number of possible readings of the Torah was equal to the number of the 600,000 children of Israel who were present at Mount Sinai—in other words, that each single Jew approached the Torah by a path that he alone could follow.[16]

So that contradictions and oddities in the text were fruitful, not errors. Similarly (and sadly, considering Jewish-Muslim relations), Muslim scholars realized almost immediately after the first Quranic texts were collected that there were variant readings and contradictory prescriptions there as well. Their solution was similar:

Since quranic prescriptions were often mutually contradictory, pioneers of Islamic jurisprudence had to exercise considerable ingenuity. Thus, they introduced the theory of abrogation (naskh), according to which earlier legal norms were superseded by later revelations, especially those that legal experts considered to be “more in line with the prevailing customs” of the day. The abrogation theory which, naturally, was justified by references to the Quran (e.g., Q 2:106; 16:101 and 87:6-7), had ramifications beyond the strictly juridical field as it forced Muslim legal experts to establish the relative chronology of the “abrogated” and the “abrogating” verses. This required a thorough knowledge of the history of the first Muslim community in order to determine the time and circumstances (asbab al-nuzul) in which certain verses were revealed. Thus, the exigencies of legal exegesis gave impetus to the production and accumulation of historical knowledge, creating a fascinating symbiosis of legal, exegetical and historical expertise…[17]

Or, back to Judaism:

The contradictions and redundancies [in Exodus], however, had an important effect on later Judaism because they encouraged—in fact, forced—readers to create fine distinctions and nonliteral interpretations to enable them to coexist … thus paving the way in Judaism for innovations in theology and law.[18]

So that, concerning two of the most basic Jewish laws—not to work and not to kindle a fire on the Sabbath—many interpretations have been offered:

You shall not do any work, described by various biblical passages to include gathering food and fuel, kindling fire, agriculture, and business activities. The Rabbis defined more precisely what kinds of work fell under this prohibition, identifying thirty-nine categories (e.g., weaving, hammering, writing) based on the inference that the activities performed in constructing the Tabernacle—forbidden on the Sabbath—exemplified the definition of “work” (Exod. 31:13-17; 35:2; m. Shab. 7:2; b. Shab. 49b).[19]

Notice—the interpretation was not based on a literal reading of the text, but by an “inference.” An inference, followed by the reception and acceptance or denial of that inference by a community, and its inclusion finally in tradition—this is all we have. This is religion. And further:

Rabbinic exegesis holds that this prohibition does not forbid letting a previously kindled fire burn on the Sabbath, so long as it is not refueled on the Sabbath. The Karaite Jewish sect, however, took the law to prohibit the use even of a previously kindled fire and spent the Sabbath in darkness.[20]

Are the Karaites wrong, or were the Rabbis wrong? The answer is neither.


3. A Way Out, and Gods Future & Past

There are numerous instances in Leviticus and Deuteronomy of what I like to call “a way out”—that is, a ritual is described in great and specific detail, and only at the end it is said that, if financial or other circumstances prohibit it from being performed, another version will do just fine:

But if his means do not suffice for a sheep, he shall bring to the Lord, as his penalty for that of which he is guilty, two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a sin offering and the other for a burnt offering….[21] If, however, her means do not suffice for a sheep, she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. The priest shall make expiation on her behalf, and she shall be clean….[22] If, however, he is poor and his means are insufficient, he shall take one male lamb for a guilt offering, to be elevated in expiation for him, one-tenth of a measure of choice flour with oil mixed in for a meal offering, and a log of oil.[23]

And among postbiblical Jews:

Even if the only sacrifice offered in prayer is the sacrifice of the time allotted to it….[24]

Among those women who did not know how to read at all, or found it difficult to do so, only a few somehow managed to learn the prayers by heart. Yet even they did not usually recite the prayers according to the fixed order of service but, as was the custom among Jews of old, in their own language and to the best of their ability.[25]

Or, previous laws were simply discarded by postbiblical Jews:

A law from Deuteronomy (about the necessity of a brother carrying on his brother’s seed with his wife after his death), is said in the Mishnah to no longer be valid in their day.[26]

A law from Deuteronomy (about stoning an incorrigible son), is said in the Mishnah to no longer be valid in their day.[27]

Similar things are also said in Hinduism:

… simply to recite the Gita, or to hear it recited, regardless of how well or badly one understands the Sanskrit, has often been considered “meaning” enough and the vehicle of God’s grace.[28]

[Definition of “Svadhyaya”:] The study of the Veda, considered to be a daily duty for all orthodox brahmins. Usually translated as “study”, or “self-study”, it refers to the recitation or repetition of Vedic mantras, either sotto voce or aloud. For some it comes to be regarded as equivalent in power and effect to performing sacrificial ritual.[29]

Similarly, the Quran is filled with exceptions made for those who, due to travel or sickness, are unable to fast, or to pray the obligatory five-times-daily; indeed, that great pillar of Islam, the pilgrimage to Mecca, is a requirement of all Muslims—but only as long as they are healthy. Such “ways out” are to be found in all religions, but my favorites are those developed by the ancient Egyptians, to insure the deceased were always cared for:

By the end of the Early Dynastic [Period, c. 3150 – c. 2686 BCE], multiple levels of “heaven insurance” were built into tombs. Long after death, offerings of food and other tangible needs of the deceased were supposed to be brought to the tomb by family members, cult priests or other worshippers on a regular basis in order to sustain his soul, but, should these gifts not be forthcoming, the pictures of offerings painted or carved in relief on the tomb walls could substitute for the real thing. The Egyptians believed that even a written reference could substitute for the actual object, so the walls of tombs were not only decorated with scenes of offerings, but also with standardized texts listing food and drink.[30]

In the same way, tomb scenes of huge catches of fish could be “brought to life” for the dead tomb’s owner.[31] There are also numerous instances of bodies being “repaired” for the afterlife: balding women have false hair woven in; hairlines are painted in on foreheads;[32] a replacement eye was put in one woman’s head;[33] once, a woman’s viscera was lost during the mummification process, so the embalmers made false intestines from rope, a liver from cowskin, and other organs from leather and rags;[34] and one lucky man, whose genitals had somehow been lost, was given a substitute;[35] people who lost arms, legs, and other body parts were provided with sticks or wooden pieces, all of which would suffice to give them a real arm on the other side.[36]

Similarly, the following comes from a report on the day-to-day operations of a Greek temple, in the fourth century BCE:

The priest of Amphiaraos is to be present at the sanctuary from the end of winter up to the ploughing season. He is not to be absent for more than three [consecutive] days, and is to remain in the sanctuary no less than ten days in each month. He is to make the neōkoros [attendant/sacristan] take charge of the sanctuary, in accordance with custom, and with those who arrive there. If someone, whether foreigner or citizen, commits some wrong in the sanctuary, the priest should impose with full authority a fine up to five drachmas and take security from the person fined;… more serious cases should be dealt with where the laws dictate in each case…. The priest is to make the prayers over the victims, and place the offerings on the altar, when he is present. When the priest is not present, the sacrificer is to do this.[37]

Notice all the leeway given here: the fine for more serious crimes in the sanctuary are to be dealt with in a case-by-case basis; if the priest is around, he will place the offerings on the altar—but if he isn’t, the sacrificer can do it instead. Another fifth century inscription tells visitors that, “If the priest is not present, one should shout three times in a loud voice, and [if there is no response] then do the sacrifice oneself.”[38]
Indeed, this was possible because Greek religion was largely priestless, and Herodotus was astounded at the Persian need for a priest to officiate an animal sacrifice.[39] Or, it might be better to say, all Greeks were priests, or could be: it was not a professional or separate class. Priests could be men or women, free or slaves, they could be married or unmarried, and have children. (The Iliad, of course, begins with a priest begging the Greek army to return his kidnapped daughter.) One could be a priest or priestess on a specific occasion, day, or festival, or at a certain sanctuary or temple, or even to consecrate a political gathering;[40] one’s term could be brief or long, from a day to a lifetime, depending on the custom of the sanctuary, the temple, the tradition of the god being served, or simply a matter of choice; generally, a male priest served a male god, and a female priestess a female god—yet even this rule was not final.[41]

And what of the practice of those Jews who did not live in Israel?

The Elephantine [in Egypt] Jews, in a temple of their own, practiced a syncretistic form of worship not unlike that of First Temple times, mixing pagan elements with the religion of the God of Israel.[42]

Two thanksgiving dedications were found on rocks at the Temple of Pan at El-Kanais in the desert east of Apollinopolis Magna, present-day Edfu in Upper (Southern) Egypt. They date from either the 2nd or 1st century BCE. It is curious that Jews offered dedications at the Temple of Pan. Perhaps this practice was a result of syncretism, or it is possible that they were required to make contributions to pagan temples.[43]

What can be said of such practices? Was Yahweh mad at them? Were Jews who didn’t pray to Anath or Pan spiritually better or worse off than those who did?
And what of those Egyptians who lived before or after certain gods were worshipped? For instance, an Egyptian god of Night does not occur until relatively late, in the Persian period;
[44] there was no Egyptian god of the sea before the New Kingdom, “when a Semitic god was ‘imported’ for the purpose”;[45] and in Egypt there are no “deities in fish form comparable with the countless gods in bird form. This lack probably reflects a partial and selective taboo on fish.”[46] Were the Egyptians who lived before these new gods appeared any less than those who lived after? Was Egyptian religion handicapped in any way because of their attitude towards fish?
Similarly with Greek religion: in the remains of the palace of Knossos on Crete, whose destruction predated what is now considered “classical” Greece, were found the names of familiar Greek gods, but alongside them are those that were forgotten, in one estimation half of the gods of Mycenae.
[47] Were the Greeks of Mycenae in better religious shape than those of classical Athens, or were they worse off for not having known of those gods which only appeared later?
And the same for Hinduism:

The great gods of later Hinduism, Vishnu and Shiva (in the form of Rudra), make only cameo appearances in the Veda [the earliest Hindu scriptures]. By contrast, the most important gods of the Veda, such as Agni, Soma, Indra, and Varuna, all closely tied to the Vedic sacrifice, become far less important in later Hinduism, though they survive as symbolic figures of natural forces: fire, the moon, rain, and the waters, respectively.[48]

Were those Hindus who worshipped Indra and Vishnu in other forms better off with or without this new belief? What is the answer to such a multiplicity of gods and beliefs, except perhaps something like what the Rig Veda realized a long time ago:

The Rig Veda has a kind of polytheism, but one that already has in it the first seeds of what will flower, in the philosophical texts called the Upanishads, into monism (which assumes that all living things are elements of a single, universal substance). A much-quoted line proclaims this singular multiplicity, in a context that is clearly theological rather than philosophical: “They call it Indra, Mitra, Varuna, Agni, and it is the heavenly bird that flies. The wise speak of what is One in many ways; they call it Agni, Yama, Matarishvan.” (1.164.46). This is a tolerant, hierarchical sort of devotional polytheism: The worshipper acknowledges the existence, and goodness, of gods other than the god that he or she is addressing at the moment. This creative tension between monism and polytheism extends through the history of Hinduism.[49]


4. Many Others, & Many Reinventions

Despite the words of the Hebrew Bible, which purport to tell of the religious practices and laws of the Jewish people prior to the First Temple’s destruction, there is nevertheless no way to tell

[h]ow far the sacrificial cult as elaborated in parts of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers was actually carried out, and whether it impinged upon ordinary people… In the late Second Temple period, Jews living close enough to Jerusalem to fulfil at least some of the requirements about males appearing before YHWH three times a year did go up to the temple. For many others, this was impossible on a regular basis.[50]

What was the fate of those “many others”? And what is to be made of the law in Exodus 20:21, which “permits numerous places of sacrifice,”[51] and the later laws of Deuteronomy, which changed religious life drastically:

Deuteronomy’s restriction of sacrifice to the single sanctuary prohibited Passover from being observed locally (16:5) and required that the observance be redirected to the central sanctuary (16:2, 6-7). Now made into a pilgrimage festival, the older blood ritual in the doorway of the private home—the defining act of the original Passover observance—is no longer mentioned.[52]

But what of those who did not make the pilgrimage festival, and who may have clung to the previous observance? And what of other prohibitions and proscriptions which fill Deuteronomy and Leviticus? How does a believer live with these laws?

Notice that all the natural world is divided just as is human society, into clean and unclean (sacred and profane). Such a division of the world into easily understandable black and white categories is emotionally comforting, because it erases those ambiguous grey areas of human experience that cause so much anxiety. Thus, the Hebrew conceptual grid is very attractive. It has a major disadvantage, however: people who exist within such an ideology—whether as individuals or as a corporate group—do not have much room to maneuver. That is why the process of re-invention becomes so important in the history of covenantal peoples. Re-invention allows the old forms to be given new interpretations, and thus the covenantal peoples escape the moral vise that otherwise crushes in on them.[53]

And what else is this idea of reinvention except the description of Europe from the introduction of Christianity until well past the Renaissance? The last country to officially accept Christianity as the state religion was Lithuania, in 1385. As with the previous thousand years, what could there have been in Lithuania but a mess of changing versions of Christianity and paganism, and blends of the two? Here are descriptions of sixteenth century Germany, France, and Lithuania:

In the earliest surviving text in the Lithuanian tongue, a catechism composed by the Protestant pastor Martin Mazvydas published in 1547, the author thought it appropriate to repeatedly to condemn the cult of the god Perkunas. In a letter written shortly afterwards, to his patron Duke Albert of Brandenburg, the friend of Martin Luther, Mazvydas lamented the irreligion of his flock. They did not go to church, did not abstain from work on Sundays, did not know the Lord’s Prayer, did not receive the sacraments. The sentiments might have been expressed by Caesarius of Arles or Gregory of Tours, by Bede or by Hincmar [a thousand years earlier]. “If I may be frank, they know the true Christian religion as much as infants in their cradles do.”[54]

The lamentations of Mazvydas were being echoed by his contemporaries in Germany, where Christianity had of course been established for half a millennium longer than it had in Lithuania. Investigation of the parochial visitation records of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries has yielded to a modern enquirer evidence of “an adult population on whose everyday lives and thoughts the formal religion appears to have made scarcely any impact” and of “pastoral incompetence so egregious as to be scarcely believable.” A visitation in Saxony in 1584 found that the parishioners were “completely ignorant … they drink brandy all day long on Sundays and are unmoved by warnings and punishments.” Another in 1617 reported that the laity were “like the dumb beasts of the field, without an inkling of the word of God.” Diviners and soothsayers had been outlawed in Saxony by Charlemagne [eight hundred years earlier]; but they were still doing a lively trade in the sixteenth century. Typically, in one parish in 1579, the visitors found “an old woman with a crystal, and people run to her whenever something troubles them.”[55]

Breton villagers made offerings of bread and butter at springs, or of grain round the boundaries of fields. (Martin of Braga had been complaining of such things in his De Correctione Rusticorum in sixth-century Gallicia.) They put stones out as seats near the domestic hearth on the eve of St. John the Baptist’s day so that returning ancestors could sit in warmth when paying a family visit. The wives of fishermen would collect dust from churches and then throw it into the air while muttering charms to secure favorable winds for their seafaring menfolk.[56]

Are we to believe that these people are in hell for their faulty Catholicism? And when the Reformation appeared, and Germany became Protestant, were those in Germany who thought they were good Catholics now just as bad as the half-Catholic/half-pagans? Who will dare to judge? Indeed, who will judge the rightness or wrongness of another, blending of paganism and Christianity, in Macumba, which is defined as

A form of magical religion and spirit worship practiced in Brazil. Related to Haitian voodoo, Macumba is an umbrella term for a variety of practices which are by no means identical. It encompasses African animism and the worship of Yoruba deities; blends spiritism with folk-belief; and also takes on elements of Christianity, correlating Christian stains with African deities. The African slaves who were taken to Brazil in the sixteenth century chose to follow their indigenous spiritual traditions in secret rather than accede to Roman Catholicism and in doing so, they transformed the worship of their African deities, or orisas, into the veneration of Catholic saints in order to avoid persecution. In this way Oxala came to be identified with Jesus Christ, Iemanja with the Virgin Mary, and Oxum with St. Catherine, to give just three examples.[57]

Were these Africans who became slaves damned already, for having never heard of the Church; and were they damned doubly for not having adopted the religion of their enslavers; or, perhaps because of how they assimilated the religion to their own, were they perhaps a third or a quarter less damned, simply by at least using the names of Jesus and the saints? The certainties of fundamentalism make equations of this kind not ridiculous but unavoidable.
Similarly, who will dare to judge those Jews who, after the destruction of the Second Temple, began to migrate through the Balkans and elsewhere, and into Europe, far from any centralized or authoritative Jewish community?

Nobody knows exactly what forms of Judaism had been practiced by the citizens of the western Roman Empire. Most scholars believe that they were very varied, with different communities praying in different languages, celebrating the festivals with greatly different degrees of fastidiousness and obeying the laws of the Torah with widely different levels of scrupulousness—if they even knew what they were.… France’s, Spain’s and Italy’s Judaic population was completely cut off from the great international centers of Judaic thought during the first Christian millennium.[58]

The pioneer Jews would discover to their astonishment that scattered all over this old new world, living in towns and villages, forest clearings and open country, were people with a thoroughly mixed Hebrew, Slav, Greek, even Turkic, ethnic background who claimed to be Jewish, yet had few recognizable synagogues or religious schools, couldn’t recognize a single Hebrew letter and didn’t even know what tefillin were.[59]

And what else is this but a description of what Buddhism and Hinduism both still largely are, in many parts of Asia? Around 250 BCE the Indian King Ashoka is supposed to have sent his son and daughter to Sri Lanka, and converted the entire country, yet outside of its place as the official state religion, Buddhism merely blended with Hinduism and the indigenous religion so well that no boundaries were seen between the three, resulting in prayers such as “May you have the refuge of the Buddha, and the protection of the gods.”[60] Similar situations are found in Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand. In the first, Theravada Buddhism was joined with already ancient shamanistic practices, as well as the belief in local spirits (nats), despite attempts to the contrary. Authorities were

unable to root out folk religion, firmly embedded in popular local festivals. The cult of the Thirty-Six Lords, with Mahagiri of Mount Popa at their head, was dominant, and all Burmese saw themselvse as subjects of one or other of these lords (popularly called nats). Though he demolished all the great public nat shrines, Anawrahta was eventually obliged to adopt the nats into the household of faith, giving them a subordinate position…. [these gods were depicted in pagodas] on the same platform as the Buddha, depicted them as worshipping the Buddha. This set the pattern for Burmese Buddhism….[61]

Elsewhere, Buddhism spread west into Tibet, inheriting the great number of indigenous deities there. [62] In the process Buddhism was adapted to Taoist terminology and concepts, and allowed for the worship of both the Buddha and Lao-Tzu as gods, in part because Buddhist beliefs in reincarnation were incompatible with cultures who practiced ancestor worship. [63]

5. Basic Ideas

Even the most basic monotheistic idea, that Yahweh is the only God, is hardly found in the Hebrew Bible. The necessity for such a belief did not come until later:

When most people speak about God nowadays, they mean the Supreme Being, the Master of the Universe, the one “than Whom none greater can be conceived.” And, quite naturally, they assume that this is who God has always been. But we have already glimpsed that this is not really the God of much of the Hebrew Bible. He is not necessarily supremely powerful or omniscient or omnipresent. He is a specific, definite being; He has a name, YHWH, which like all other person names, apparently distinguishes Him from other, potentially similar, beings. Indeed, especially in earlier books and passages of the Bible, He is explicitly a God among other Gods; “Who is like You among the gods, O Lord?” is apparently, a flattering question in the hymn of Exod. 15:11. In the same book, Moses’ father-in-law declares in evident admiration, “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all the gods” (Exod. 18:11). Similarly, Ps. 135:5 asserts, “For I know that the Lord is great, greater indeed than all the gods.” Ps. 95:3 echoes these sentiments: “For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.” Ps. 89:6 asks: “For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord, or who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord? A God feared in the council of the holy ones, great and awesome above all that are around Him. O Lord God of hosts, who is as mighty as you, O Lord?”
This, of course, is not a happy subject for believing Jews and Christians…. At what point in their history did the people of Israel come to believe and worship Him? What was His nature in those early day? And at what point can Israel’s religion be described as truth monotheism?[64]

“You shall have no other gods” (Exodus 20:3): This is not a theological statement denying the existence of other gods (such as Deut. 4:35-39) but a behavioral injunction ruling out worship of the other beings and objects known as gods.[65]

Similarly, the Hebrew Bible is filled with descriptions of God which were perfectly fine for the people who wrote them, but which made later interpreters uncomfortable:

Because, in this earlier model, God is deemed to have a body, it is no surprise that numerous passages refer to God’s “face,” “hand,” “eyes,” “ears,” “arm,” “fingers,” and so forth. Interpreters have often asserted that these expressions are not to be taken literally, but there is no real basis for this assertion other than the fact that such human body parts did not go well with the interpreters’ own conception of God as bodyless and omnipresent… Indeed, God’s body in these early texts is not only apparently similar to a human being’s, it is also not much bigger. Thus, God speaks to Moses “face to face, as one man speaks to another” (Exod. 33:11; cf. Deut. 34:10) and “mouth to mouth” (Num. 12:8); at one point He “stands next to” Moses and then “passes in front of him” (Exod. 34:5-6). It is difficult to imagine a huge, cosmic deity—or even one significantly bigger than an ordinary man—doing such things.[66]

…since Maimonides [1135-1204] and later Jewish thinkers specifically denied that the Torah attributes emotions to God, and that any mention of God being angry or pleased or the like is simply intended to make things comprehensible in human terms.[67]

In the biblical view, this [God’s self-description as impassioned] is an aspect of His passionate involvement with human beings and no more a character flaw than is human jealousy over marital infidelity. But postbiblical commentators found the implications of divine jealousy troubling, and Maimonides interpreted the term as merely an anthropomorphism based on the necessity of borrowing terms from human experience to describe God based on his actions.[68]

Many well-known aspects of other religions also have a deep history of change and adaptation.
A brief account of mummification in Ancient Egypt runs like this: Egyptian history has been separated by scholars into thirty-one dynasties (and now even further, with recent finds forcing the creation of Dynasty 0, etc.) going back beyond 3,500 BCE. The removal of the internal organs did not occur until Dynasty 4;[69] funerals and funerary processions do not become common until Dynasty 6; it was not until the late Old Kingdom (Dynasties 3-6) that the first fully-wrapped “classic” mummy appears;[70] scarabs (usually in the form of beetles) are wrapped with the mummies beginning in Dynasty 6; [71] the practice of moulding the wrappings into a virtual statue of the deceased ended for the most part by the end of the Dynasty 6, or beginning of 7;[72] during the Middle Kingdom (Dynasties 11-13) the heart scarab (the classic mummy amulet), was introduced;[73] removing the brain through the nose by breaking the ethmoid bone became a standard procedure in Dynasty 18;[74] and so on. Similarly, the oldest religious beliefs in Egypt seem to only allow for the Pharaoh to enjoy any kind of afterlife, but in time what is called the “democratization of death” occurred in Egypt: texts and spells originally carved in the deceased’s pharaoh’s pyramids began appearing painted on the coffins of non-royalty, until finally a scroll of the Book of the Dead could be purchased and placed in any coffin, with a space for the deceased’s name left blank, so that it could be completely personalized.
Here, as elsewhere, there is no original purity to discover. The earliest and the latest versions of anything, simply by existing, justify themselves. Which is why the words of one nineteenth century Biblical interpreter, fired up as he is by the new discipline of attempting to study scripture scientifically, is so mistaken:

Just so the Holy Scripture, as given by divine inspiration to holy prophets, lies buried beneath the rubbish of centuries. It is covered over with the debris of the traditional interpretations of the multitudinous schools and sects…. The valley of biblical truth have been filled up with the debris of human dogmas, ecclesiastical institutions, liturgical formulas, priestly ceremonies, and casuistic practices. Historical criticism is digging through this mass of rubbish. Historical criticism is searching for the rockbed of the Divine word, in order to recover the real Bible. Historical criticism is sifting all this rubbish. It will gather out every precious stone. Nothing will escape its keen eye.[75]

What such a view fails to realize, of course, is that “the debris of the traditional interpretations of the multitudinous schools and sects” and “the debris of human dogmas, ecclesiastical institutions” is religion. Religion is interpretation. Religion is what we make of it.
In the same way, a fleshed-out theory of the Christian Sacraments were not even begun until the fourth century, “and it was not until the Middle Ages that such a theory was evolved.”
[76] And as late as the sixteenth century, the Catholic Church had to declare that a marriage not overseen by a priest was not valid, which suggests that marriages without church sanction were still widespread. There was also a time when Purgatory was a new idea, when clerical celibacy was not only new, but not thought of very well,[77] and on and on.
All of our most basic and cherished religious beliefs, at one point in time, did not exist—and in the future they may no longer exist, having been replaced by or modified into something else. Purity or age is not the point, only meaning is: to the point, even, of not seeming part of the tradition at all. This is illustrated by two Buddhist centers in our own day, which are described like this:

Joko Beck Sensi still clearly leads a Zen center, though on her altar sits not Manjusri Bodhisattva or Sakyamuni Buddha, but a rock. If the students are meditating, but without the rituals, without the statues, without the robes, can one still call their practice Zen? Toni Packer has dispensed with all that and no longer calls her center Buddhist at all, yet she remains the first dharma heir of Kapleau Roshi. So, is she still a Zen teacher? Without reference to the thousand-year tradition of teacher-student transmission of the dharma, without reference to the philosophies that lie behind it, without reference even to Sakyamuni Buddha and his experience, what would be taught and learned and practiced?[78]


6. The Moment They Appear

Here is simply a list of the changes in Jewish belief which occurred in the last centuries BCE, especially after the Jewish world made contact with the Greek world:

…in the religious writings of the later Second Temple period, Yahweh becomes increasingly transcendent…. there is a concern for the problem of evil, both in its origin and also how it eventually is to be overcome…. some of the groups that write religious texts engage the new concept of Messiah…. the idea of resurrection of the dead became increasingly common…. One can see at this point a paradox: generally speaking, Yahweh becomes more and more transcendent—more suitable to a monotheistic religion—while at the same time evil becomes more and more personified. Yahweh withdraws into a cloud, almost into a philosophic haze, while evil descends and becomes encapsulated in the form of various devils and, ultimately, in that new invention, Satan.[79]

Unlike some later Jewish and Christian literature, Genesis does not identify the talking snake with Satan or any other demonic being.[80]

[In Job 1:6] The Adversary, or “the Accuser,” Hebrew “ha-satan,” is one of the divine beings. He functions as a kind of prosecuting attorney, and should not be confused with the character of Satan as it developed in the late biblical (see 1 Chron. 21:1) and especially the postbiblical period, that is, the source of evil and rebellion against God. (Hebrew “ha-” is the definite article, which cannot precede a proper noun, “Satan.”) Later, the idea of Satan developed into the devil, but these associations were not present at the time of [the book of Job, written perhaps 500 BCE].[81]

[The Book of Jubilees, composed perhaps 200-100 BCE] is the earliest documented case of Satan becoming a specific and powerful individual, one who has an invisible army that fights against Yahweh and his invisible army.[82]

…the resurrection of the dead, or a world to come where people are rewarded or punished for their deeds in this world, had not yet developed at the time that Job was written. He thus has, in general, no recourse to these ideas or beliefs in his argument….[83]

The Pharisees accepted the notions of the immortality of the soul and of reward and punishment after death, both of which the Sadducees denied. The Pharisees are said to have believed in angels, another belief which the Sadducees denied. The Pharisees accepted the idea of divine providence, believing that God allowed human beings free will but could play a role in human affairs. The Sadducees rejected totally the notion of divine interference in the affairs of man. To them free will was complete and inviolable. In contrast, the Essenes maintained a belief in absolute predestination, as did the sect of the Dead Sea Scrolls.[84]

What does it mean, being able to see the moment in history when “Satan” becomes a distinct person and personality, a personification of evil who is at war with God? What does it mean, being able to see the moment in history when Jewish people begin to worry about an afterlife, or even a resurrection, or look forward to a Messiah—ideas which, by the time Jesus is born, are much more easily in the air? What does it mean, that people once argued about ideas we take for granted now as true, and correct? What did they take for granted now that we have forgotten or dismissed, and what do we argue about now that will someday be taken as incontrovertible?


7. Customs of Our Forefathers

And here is a scattering of quotations on the prayer-life of Jews, from Second Temple times until now:

The Second Temple period offers the first evidence of fixed liturgical prayers. During this period the Jewish people was gradually turning toward prayer, and it was slowly becoming institutionalized even in the Temple…. Nonetheless, tannaitic sources preserve few actual liturgical texts because prayer remained so fluid in this formative period. It was during the amoraic period that the liturgy began taking on a more fixed nature.[85]

The problem of how to observe holidays and festive occasions in the absence of a Temple must have existed even before the destruction. Many Jews in the Diaspora and even in the Land of Israel did not journey to Jerusalem for festivals like Passover but still celebrated them to the extent possible. Their ritual practices provided some precedent for the transformations that had to take place once the Temple was destroyed.
In the case of Passover, since the paschal sacrifice was no longer possible, the ritual was transformed into a festive Seder meal to take place in the home. For Sukkot (Tabernacles) the requirement to dwell in a booth (sukkah) still applied, but the procession with lulav and etrog (palm branch and citron), originally conducted outside of the Temple on the first day of the festival only, became a week-long ritual (omitted on the Sabbath, however) as a replacement for the Temple observance.[86]

The first known Siddur [prayer book] written by a major authority with the aim of establishing a fixed liturgy was that composed by Ray Amram ben Sheshna Gaon (d. ca. 875 C.E.) in response to a request by the Jews of Barcelona, Spain.[87]

[In the Siddur, some] passages, taken from the Torah and other books of the Bible, hearken back to the earliest history of the Jewish people. Other formulations date to early Second Temple times, while there are prayers and benedictions composed during the mishnaic and talmudic eras. It includes Piyyutim (liturgical poems) of the Middle Ages, sections composed long centuries ago, and prayer formulations created in our very own times.[88]

The existence of different prayer liturgies is analogous to the existence of variations in halakhic practice. Not only did the sages of Israel not attempt to abolish or discard various customs, but they even granted them obligatory status. Every person is to practice the custom of his forefathers, or those endemic to the place where he lives.[89]

What is “the custom of his forefathers” or those practices “endemic to the place where he lives” but a description of all religions, bound by the many knots of tradition modified by historical, social, and geographical contexts?
A similar problem was found in how to properly time the celebration of Rosh Hodesh, the first day of the lunar month, or new moon. It is worth quoting the solution at length:

During Temple times, and for centuries after the Temple’s destruction, the beginning of the new month was proclaimed and sanctified based on eyewitness testimony. People who saw the new moon appear in the sky would come to the central law court—the Sanhedrin—located in the Hall of Hewn Stone in the Temple (and after its destruction, to the city or town that was the site of the Sanhedrin in that period). After cross-examination, and acceptance of their testimony, the court would proclaim the new month and sanctify it.
The lunar month is not a set length; there are differences of up to fourteen hours between the times of the new moon in various months. Also, the new moon (which is astronomically the moment just after the moon, sun, and earth are in alignment) sometimes occurs during daytime hours, when it is impossible to detect it, or, in the winter, when the sky is cloudy. Sometimes the witnesses who saw the new moon were unable to arrive quickly enough. If they did arrive in time, the thirtieth day of the previous month was announced as the first day of the new month. If they were delayed, then the sages would declare the thirty-first day to be the first day of the new month. On certain occasions, two days of Rosh Hodesh were announced.
Knowing when the new month was declared was essential for determining festival days, since they are dates that are set according to the lunar calendar. For this reason, the announcement of the day declared to be the beginning of the new month was hurriedly transmitted all around the Land of Israel before the festival was due to be celebrated. However, transmitting this information abroad was a problem. For a number of generations, it was done by lighting signal fires on mountaintops… Then information began to be sent by special emissaries. However, because of the great distances between the Land of Israel and Diaspora communities (such as the large Jewish center in Babylonia, and those even farther away, in Asia Minor or Europe) and because of travel difficulties, some of the messengers could not arrive in time for the festival. In such places, they could not tell whether the Rosh Hodesh had been proclaimed on the expected day or on the following one.
Because of such doubts, it was decided to celebrate the Yom Tov on two consecutive days, to be on the safe side. In this way the “second Yom Tov of the Diaspora” was instituted…. According to tradition, in 358 CE, the president of the Sanhedrin, Hillel II, published a fixed calendar, no longer based on eyewitness evidence, but on astronomical calculations that established the average lengths of the lunar months.
After the introduction of the new calendar, there was a proposal to abolish the “Second Yom Tov of the Diaspora,” because it was now clear when each of the festivals began. However, the sages of the Land of Israel ruled, with the compliance of the sages of the Diaspora, that those living abroad should “preserve the customs of their forefathers” (Beitzah 4b), and continue to observe the second Yom Tov. This has remained the practice for all Jewish communities in the Diaspora ever since.[90]

In other words, by the time it became possible to determine the new moon with certainty, that certainty was abandoned in order to preserve the customs and traditions that had emerged in the meantime.
This is echoed in its own way by a Hasidic mother living in New York City in the 1980s. When asked if “all her neighbors were as scrupulous as she was” concerning Sabbath preparations, she answered: “Everybody has different ideas about how to do things on Passover. The rule of thumb is, do what your bubbe [grandmother] did.”

James Kugel, himself an Orthodox Jew whose work I have quoted many times here, writes of his own choice of tradition over technical and historical certainty:

Not immediately thereafter [the destruction of the Second Temple], but soon enough, custom and, eventually, rabbinical decree forbade pious Jews from ascending that hill [the Temple Mount, where all that is left of the Second Temple now stands] and walking about, lest by accident their foot defile the place where once the Holy of Holies stood, the place of God’s presence on earth (which could be entered only once a year, and only by one man, the high priest). This prohibition is in force to this day. So every day, pious Muslims and Christian pilgrims and Japanese tourists climb up the steps and walk all around the Temple Mount, but religious Jews do not. I do not.
Now, of course, I have my own ideas about where the Holy of Holies once stood. I think there is every reason to doubt that it stood, for example, in the extreme northeastern corner of the Temple Mount … In fact, I doubt that it was close to any of the edges of the current Temple Mount. So couldn’t I just walk very carefully around on the outer perimeter and stand there, safe in the knowledge that I am not violating the space once occupied by God’s presence? But of course I don’t.[92]

Traditions of this kind are to be found throughout the history of Christianity, but my favorites come from the Desert Fathers of the third and fourth centuries. Living solitary lives in the Egyptian desert, all aspects of their lives (practice, clothing, diet) were constantly being called into question. Here are some of their responses:

There are many different gifts, but it is always the same Spirit; there are many different ways of serving, but it is always the same Lord. There are many different forms of activity, but in everybody it is the same God who is at work in them all. The particular manifestation of the Spirit granted to each one is to be used for the general good.
To one is given from the Spirit the gift of utterance expressing wisdom; to another the gift of utterance expressing knowledge, in accordance with the same Spirit; to another, faith, from the same Spirit; and to another, the gifts of healing, through this one Spirit; to another, the working of miracles; to another, prophecy; to another, the power of distinguishing spirits; to one, the gift of different tongues and to another, the interpretation of tongues.
But at work in all these is one and the same Spirit, distributing them at will to each individual.[93]

“And which is the best,” he asked, “the prayer of Jesus, or the Gospels?”
“It’s all one and the same,” I answered.[94]

“Is it better to speak or to be silent?” The old man said to him, “The man who speaks for God’s sake does well; but he who is silent for God’s sake also does well.”[95]

Temperament does not predestine one man to sanctity and another to reprobation. All temperaments can serve as the material for ruin or for salvation.[96]

[Remarking on the clothes proper to the monk in Europe, a much colder climate than Egypt] But we ourselves should keep only those things that the situation of the place and the custom of the region permit. For the harshness of the winter does not allow us to be satisfied with sandals or colobia or a single tunic, and wearing a little hood and having a melotis would evoke derision rather than edification in the beholder. Hence we are of the opinion that, of the things we have mentioned above, we should wear only what is in keeping with the humility of our profession and the character of the climate….[97]

What are other religions than beliefs taken up in other climates, requiring different clothes, a different diet, a different anything, for one person rather than another? How can we pretend one way is the only way?

And so a uniform rule concerning the manner of fasting cannot easily be kept because not all bodies have the same strength, nor is it, like the other virtues, achieved by firmness of mind alone. And therefore, since it does not consist in strength of mind alone, inasmuch as it depends on what the body is capable of, we have accepted the following understanding of it that was passed on to us: There are different times, manners, and qualities with respect to eating that are in accordance with the varied conditions, ages, and sexes of bodies, but there is one rule of discipline for everyone with regard to an abstinent and virtuous mind. For not everyone is able to prolong a fast for weeks, or to put off eating food for three or even two days…. One person does not feel full with two pounds, while another is surfeited with a meal of one pound or six ounces. Nonetheless there is one end of abstinence in all these instances—that no one, according to the measure of his own capacity, be burdened by voracious satiety.[98]

What are other religions than beliefs taken up in “different times,” with “different manners, and qualities,” depending on “varied conditions [and] ages,” all a measure of one’s own capacity?

And again from Hinduism, this time from the 19th century saint, Ramakrishna:

Truth is one; only It is called by different names. All people are seeking the same Truth; the variance is due to climate, temperament, and name. A lake has many ghats. From one Ghat the Hindus take water in jars and call it ‘jal’. From another Ghat the Mussalmans take water in leather bags and call it ‘pani’. From a third the Christians take the same thing and call it ‘water’. Suppose someone says that the thing is not ‘jal’ but ‘pani’, or that it is not ‘pani’ but ‘water’, or that it is not ‘water’ but ‘jal’. It would indeed be ridiculous. But this very thing is at the root of the friction among sects, their misunderstandings and quarrels. This is why people injure and kill one another, and shed blood, in the name of religion.[99]

In the end, the world’s religions are just this: they are merely different words for water; yet by saying so, the different religions so many of us hold to, and from which so many of us derive the meaning in our lives, are not now some deflated lie, some disappointing simplicity. Rather, the disappointing simplicity is the lie that only one of them can be correct, and the inevitable violence (or just quiet intolerance) which follows.
Technology, science, politics, the arts—all of these, to varying degrees, are as uncertain, conditional, provisional, and far from absolute as religion; but none of them pretend to address the deepest questions of human existence. And so our answer to religion—our reason for accepting or rejecting one or all of them, and how we think we should treat those who believe differently—is also our answer to the rest of life and experience.
There is no greater mirror of the uncertain, inexact, and unreliable nature of life in the world, than the experience of the uncertain, inexact, and unreliable—but nevertheless meaningful—nature of religion. When we pretend that one (and inevitably the other) are certain, exact, and reliable, we open the door to tragedy. To suggest that we can do away with tragedy is also wishful thinking, but I hope these words have at least shone a light on the ways human beings have already developed to live amid uncertainty, to endure the tragedy, to help others do so with our own humility and empathy, and along the way to experience the fullness of love and happiness, too.

[1] Svetasvatara Upanishad, tr. Patrick Olivelle, verse 4.6.

[2] Bernard M. Levinson, in his introduction to Deuteronomy, in The Jewish Study Bible, 361-2.

[3] Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, 47.

[4] Jacob Neusner, “Varieties of Judaism in the Formative Age,” in Arthur Green ed., Jewish Spirituality 1: From the Bible Through the Middle Ages, 171.

[5] Jacob Neusner, “Varieties of Judaism in the Formative Age,” in Arthur Green ed., Jewish Spirituality 1: From the Bible Through the Middle Ages, 175, 196.

[6] Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, 241.

[7] Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, ch. 6, in Jacob Neusner, “Varieties of Judaism in the Formative Age,” in Arthur Green ed., Jewish Spirituality 1: From the Bible Through the Middle Ages, 194.

[8] Jacob Neusner, “Varieties of Judaism in the Formative Age,” in Arthur Green ed., Jewish Spirituality 1: From the Bible Through the Middle Ages, 192.

[9] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, 668, 672.

[10] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, xv.

[11] Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, 263.

[12] Jon D. Levenson’s commentary on Genesis 3:22-4, in The Jewish Study Bible.

[13] “Mahaparanibbana Sutta” 2.26, in the Digha Nikaya; tr. Maurice Walshe in The Long Discourses of the Buddha, 245.

[14] Majjhima Nikāya (Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha), revised translation by Bhikku Bodhi, 230-33.

[15] Bernard M. Levinson’s commentary on Deuteronomy 4:9, in The Jewish Study Bible.

[16] Gershom Scholem, Kabbalah, 172.

[17] Alexander Knysh, “Multiple Areas of Influence,” in Jane Dammen McAuliffe ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Quran, 217.

[18] Jeffrey H. Tigay, in his introduction to Exodus, in The Jewish Study Bible, 105.

[19] Jeffrey H. Tigay’s commentary on Exodus 20:10, in The Jewish Study Bible.

[20] Jeffrey H. Tigay’s commentary on Exodus 35:1-3, in The Jewish Study Bible.

[21] Leviticus 5:7.

[22] Leviticus 12:8.

[23] Leviticus 14:21.

[24] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, A Guide to Jewish Prayer, 39.

[25] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, A Guide to Jewish Prayer, 30.

[26] Martin Goodman, Rome & Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, 212.

[27] Martin Goodman, Rome & Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, 213.

[28] Oxford Dictionary Hinduism, 48

[29] Oxford Dictionary Hinduism, 314

[30] Douglas J. Brewer, Ancient Egypt: Foundations of a Civilization, 177.

[31] Rosalie David, Religion & Magic in Ancient Egypt, 124.   

[32] Salima Ikram, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity, 121.

[33] Salima Ikram, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity, 124, 127, & bot. 127.

[34] Salima Ikram, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity, 127.

[35] Salima Ikram, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity, 129.

[36] Salima Ikram, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity, 130.

[37] Quoted in Emily Kearns, Ancient Greek Religion: A Sourcebook, 247.

[38] Quoted in Emily Kearns, Ancient Greek Religion: A Sourcebook, 248.

[39] Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, 95.

[40] See Emily Kearns, Ancient Greek Religion: A Sourcebook, 175, for an inscription; & Aristotle’s Politics 6:1322b.

[41] Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, 95, 98.

[42] Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, 37.

[43] Introduction to “Dedicatory Inscriptions: Evidence of Jewish Religious Life in Hellenistic Egypt,” in Lawrence H. Schiffman ed., Texts and Traditions: A Source Reader for the Study of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, 196.

[44] Rosalie David, Religion & Magic in Ancient Egypt, 58.

[45] Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One & the Many, 79.

[46] Erik Hornung, Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One & the Many, 79.

[47] Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, 43-48.

[48] Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, 129.

[49] Wendy Doniger, The Hindus: An Alternative History, 128.

[50] John Rogerson, “Ancient Israel to the fall of the Second Temple,” in John R. Hinnells ed., Penguin Book of Ancient Religions, 260-61.

[51] Jeffrey H. Tigay’s commentary on Exodus 20:21, in The Jewish Study Bible.

[52] Bernard M. Levinson’s commentary on Deuteronomy 16:1-8, in The Jewish Study Bible.

[53] Donald Harman Akenson, Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, 102.

[54] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversions: From Paganism to Christianity, 508.

[55] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversions: From Paganism to Christianity, 509.

[56] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversions: From Paganism to Christianity, 510.

[57] Nevill Drury, The Watkins Dictionary of Magic, 174.

[58] Paul Kriwaczek, Yiddish Civilization: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation, 64.

[59] Paul Kriwaczek, Yiddish Civilization: The Rise and Fall of a Forgotten Nation, 83.

[60] Donald W. Mitchell, Introducing the Buddhist Experience, Second Edition, 94-5.

[61] Winston L. King, “Therevada Lands: Burma,” in Takeuchi Yoshinori ed., Buddhist Spirituality 1: Indian, Southeast Asian, Tibetan, Early Chinese, 103.

[62] Alex Wayman, “The Diamond Vehicle,” in Takeuchi Yoshinori ed., Buddhist Spirituality 1: Indian, Southeast Asian, Tibetan, Early Chinese, 235.

[63] Donald W. Mitchell, Introducing the Buddhist Experience, Second Edition, 197-199.

[64] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, 418.

[65] Jeffrey H. Tigay’s commentary on Exodus 20:3, in The Jewish Study Bible.

[66] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, 109.

[67] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, 32.

[68] Jeffrey H. Tigay’s commentary on Exodus 20:5, in The Jewish Study Bible.

[69] Douglas J. Brewer, Ancient Egypt: Foundations of a Civilization, 176.

[70] Aidan Dodson and Salima Ikram: The Tomb in Ancient Egypt, 17.

[71] Salima Ikram, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity, 141.

[72] Salima Ikram, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity, 113-4.

[73] Salima Ikram, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity, 140.

[74] Salima Ikram, The Mummy in Ancient Egypt: Equipping the Dead for Eternity, 118.

[75] Augustus Briggs; James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, 44.

[76] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition 1: The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600), 171.

[77] Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversions: From Paganism to Christianity, 83.

[78] Franz Aubrey Metcalf, “Zen in the West,” in Takeuchi Yoshinori ed., Buddhist Spirituality 2: Later China, Korea, Japan and the Modern World, 507-8.

[79] Donald Harman Akenson, Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, 135.

[80] Jon D. Levenson’s commentary on Genesis 3:1, in The Jewish Study Bible.

[81] Mayer Gruber’s commentary on Job 1:6, in The Jewish Study Bible.

[82] Donald Harman Akenson, Surpassing Wonder: The Invention of the Bible and the Talmuds, 148.

[83] Mayer Gruber’s commentary on Job 14:13-14, in The Jewish Study Bible.

[84] Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, 105.

[85] Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, 237-8.

[86] Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition: A History of Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism, 163.

[87] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, A Guide to Jewish Prayer, 57.

[88] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, A Guide to Jewish Prayer, 5.

[89] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, A Guide to Jewish Prayer, 64-5.

[90] Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, A Guide to Jewish Prayer, 148-149.

[91] Lis Harris, Holy Days: The World of a Hasidic Family, 152.

[92] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, 689.

[93] 1 Corinthians 12:4-11.

[94] The Way of a Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues His Way, tr. R. M. French, 27.

[95] The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, tr. Benedicta Ward, 188.

[96] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, 9.

[97] John Cassian, The Institutes, tr. Boniface Ramsey, 26.

[98] John Cassian, The Institutes, tr. Boniface Ramsey, 119-20.

[99]  Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, tr. Swami Nikhilananda, 423.