Jews & Muslims on Pilgrimage Together in the 1300s

From Mark Cohen’s Under Crescent & Cross: The Jews in the Middle Ages: An aspect of Jewish-gentile sociability under Islam that seems to lack a counterpart in the Jewish-Christian world is the world of shared popular religious practices… particularly in the joint worship of saints. Here, interdenominational religiosity has its basis in the fact that […]

Primo Levi’s Hardest Thoughts on the Holocaust

From Primo Levi’s 1986 book, The Drowned and the Saved, remembering the concentration camps: On Levi’s own—and others’—guilt at having survived the concentration camps: At a distance of years one can today definitely affirm that the history of the Lagers [from Konzentrationslager, concentration camp] has been written almost exclusively by those who, like myself, never […]

What Scientology Tells Us About How Religions Begin

Lawrence Wright’s recent book on the history of Scientology is an immensely important document for studying how religions begin. While much of it fills the reader with the amusement or horror of a colossal fraud—and a fraud which consciously sought out the money and influence of celebrities—Wright is also honest enough to include sections like […]

A Twelfth Century Love Letter: Heloise Remembers Abelard

An amazing passage from a letter of Heloise to Abelard, those twelfth-century lovers who ended up in a nunnery and a monastery after their affair was discovered. Strip away the contemporary details (their religiosity and its attendant guilt, etc.), and Heloise might be writing a blog today: In my case, the pleasures of lovers which […]

Viking Jesus

To see the ways in which a religion works, one of the best ways is to observe their missionaries and how they adapt stories created in one historical and geographic area, for people and places wildly different. On this point, nothing beats the ninth-century Saxon saga Heliand, which presents Jesus as a chieftain, prayers as […]


To close out a month of posts, here’s the Voluspa, that great bit of the world turning over, from the Norse Poetic Edda. Somehow these bards, in the voice of the Seeress narrating it all, were able to cram into a few pages everything from creation to the apocalypse, and there is simply nothing like […]

Rig Veda

In another life (appropriately enough), I would have been Hindu; in an additional other life, at the very least I would have started studying Indo-European at a young age. As it happened, whatever brief time I’ve been able to devote to Hinduism has no doubt been saturated with the romanticism of a novice who is […]

Zen (Favorite Passages)

Along with my excerpts from Ramakrishna and the Desert Fathers, the following favorites from Zen Buddhism constitute just about all the religious wisdom I need. In one way or another, they are all expressions of humility and empathy, and upend the usual fundamentalist (and simple-minded, arrogant, and certain) approaches to scripture, discipline, knowledge, and to diversity of practice […]

Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, by Erik Hornung (Favorite Passages)

Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many, by Erik Hornung [p. 8:] There is no end to the question of the gods and their meaning. [p. 11:] …one cannot deny that the problem of the gods tends toward the infinite and has no final solution…. Anyone who takes history seriously will not […]

Origins of the Kabbalah, by Gershom Scholem (Favorite Passages)

Origins of the Kabbalah, by Gershom Scholem [p. 159-60, an excerpt from section 105 of the Bahir, commenting on the Sabbath:] [Every day] has a logos, who is its ruler, not because it was created with it, but because it accomplishes with it the effect that is within its power. When all have accomplished their effect and finished […]