Karl Shapiro, “The Alphabet”

Karl Shapiro, “The Alphabet” The letters of the Jews as strict as flames Or little terrible flowers lean Stubbornly upwards through the perfect ages, Singing through solid stone the sacred names. The letters of the Jews are black and clean And lie in chain-line over Christian pages. The chosen letters bristle like barbed wire That hedge the flesh of man, […]

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Will the Real Psalm 23 Please Stand Up?

Probably the most lucid example of how religions both change drastically, and yet remain meaningful, is right here in James Kugel’s two pages on Psalm 23. Kugel, himself an Orthodox Jew and an astonishing scholar, shows that the life of any scripture precludes its being owned by any one religious, interpretive, or scholarly community. In this case, the real Psalm […]

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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 the Qur’an honors biblical figures […]

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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 fathomed them to the bottom. […]

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A Working Definition of Yawheh

After rattling off the usually long list of reasons why the God of the Hebrew Bible is everything from in a bad mood to gleefully sadistic, Donald Akenson provides one of my favorite paragraphs from any book on the history of religion, and the great difficulties of belief: But not liking Yahweh is irrelevant. The reason the god of the […]

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Scholarly Peace: Muslim, Christian & Jewish Translators in Medieval Spain (essay)

  In the year 949, among the palaces and gardens of Madinat al-Zahra outside the city of Cordoba, a conference was being held. The host was the caliph of al-Andalus, Abd al-Rahman III, and his guests were representatives from the Christian emperor Constantine VII, who had just arrived from Constantinople. Only two centuries before, the first Abd al-Rahman had fled […]

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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 the following, where he summarizes […]

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Kafka’s Great Fable: “Before the Law”

From Kafka’s novel The Trial: Before the Law stands a doorkeeper. A man from the country comes to this doorkeeper and requests admittance to the Law. But the doorkeeper says that he can’t grant him admittance now. The man thinks it over and then asks if he’ll be allowed to enter later. “It’s possible,” says the doorkeeper, “but not now.” […]

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The Great Myths #7: The Tree of Souls (Jewish)

God has a tree of flowering souls in Paradise. The angel who sits beneath it is the Guardian of Paradise, and the tree is surrounded by the four winds of the world. From this tree blossom forth all souls, as it is said, “I am like a cypress tree in bloom; your fruit issues forth from Me.” (Hos. 14:9). And […]

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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 […]

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Notebook 6: Suffering & Justice

Notebook 6: Suffering & Justice (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.) One of the largest obstacles to belief in a […]

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Notebook 5: All Religions Act This Way

Notebook 5: All Religions Act This Way (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.) For insight into how much suffering is […]

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Notebook 4: Religion Against the World & for the World

Notebook 4: Religion Against the World & for the World (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.) The first way for […]

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Notebook 3: Religion as Mystery, & the Limitations of Knowledge

Notebook 3: Religion as Mystery, & the Limitations of Knowledge (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.) Near the end of […]

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Notebook 2: Religion & Originality

NOTEBOOK 2: RELIGION & ORIGINALITY (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.) One of the ways in which all religions justify […]

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Notebook 1: God’s Will & Interpreting History

NOTEBOOK 1: GOD’S WILL & INTERPRETING HISTORY (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.) As an addition to this essay, here are more instances from history where, to our peril, various contemporary events were interpreted as obvious manifestations of divine action. While the superficial justification for anti-Semitism has always been a variation on, “[Because] Jews suffered proved that Jews deserved to suffer,”[1] this is also generally true for everyone at some time or another: it is always assumed there is an obvious, divinely sanctioned correspondence between our religious or political or civic affiliations, and the fates of those religions and nations, even though there rarely is. Even worse, throwing such explanations on the sufferings of others allows us to ignore that suffering entirely, or even grin in assuming that it is deserved. The refrain is this: there is simply no reliable or coherent way to ever interpret material or political events of any kind, and of anyone, as the result of divine pleasure or displeasure. And so there is no basis for judging people of other political or religious persuasions when things go good or ill for them, or for us. Each of the following quotations suggests the folly, and attendant […]

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