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“Literal Meaning” and the Humanity in Religions

This guest post by Mendel appeared as a comment in the thread below

You can point to moves similar to the Islamic appropriation of Christianity and Judaism within both Christianity and Judaism, and within the tradition prior to the Jewish-Christian divide. Is Deuteronomy a revisionist appropriation of earlier Mosaic traditions for the sake of its own monarchist agenda? In fact the idea that all previous prophets were muslims is a replay of the precessionist move made in Second Temple texts such as Jubilees: all previous prophets secretly held the very view about the solar calendar over which there was — at the time of Jubilees’ promulgation — a major dispute.

When you discover that your own religious tradition has a complicated history that involves rewriting the past, and that it isn’t just the dictated word of God, you can either give up or grow up. Yes, religion is the work of humans too, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t also the work of God. Rabbi Louis Jacobs used to say, when asked how he could reconcile his faith with his acknowledgement of the historicity of Judaism, that when Jews make the blessing over bread, “Blessed are You, Hashem, who brings forth the bread from the land”, we don’t mean that God produces baked loaves without any human input.

Now, what happens when you discover that religions other than your own are historical and open to reinterpretation? Well, again, you can act like a child or a grown-up. You can bash the other religion, interpreting it in the least charitable way possible, criticising it for every symptom of human involvement, and generally applying to it a standard that you wouldn’t apply to your own. Or you can grant the other religion the right to be human too, and you can acknowledge that believers in other religions can be grown-ups, without of course endorsing everything in their religion.

Islam is entitled to its humanity. Some of its believers don’t acknowledge this. Some of them do. If you don’t believe in Islam, this doesn’t prevent you from acknowledging its humanity. You don’t have to infer that, if it’s not divine, then it must be satanic. You don’t have to read it in the least charitable way that occurs to you. Religions are made by people living in communities as well as books, and while the books inform the people, the people can also reinterpret the books — often they can best reinterpret them when they don’t say that’s what they are doing, when they understand themselves as unveiling the “original intention”.

I’m suspicious of the idea of “literal meaning” as it’s used by fundamentalists. And this is the very idea that Edmund Standing — whom I admire in many other respects — is using. The meaning of a scriptural text is partly constituted by the people who live it. You can’t tell me that “Eye for an eye” literally – and therefore REALLY — means that we have to blind someone who is guilty of blinding someone else, when the text has been read differently by Jews for thousands of years. And it is equally ridiculous to say that you know what the Quran REALLY says, and to object to some pluralistic interpretation of it.

Also, it’s counterproductive. I, for one, would be delighted if a pluralistic version of Islam became more prominent. And I could want this for entirely pragmatic reasons. What is the point of non-muslims insisting that pluralistic Islam is wrong? Who made them the guardians of Islamic fundamentalism? Same question for the atheists.

Frankly, the “I am a Jew” stuff sounded a bit weird to me too. But then I thought that there was simply no reason to interpret it uncharitably. It was a start. And it was a good one. Rauf was putting himself on the line by saying that. And I welcome the gesture, even if it’s only the beginning not the middle, let alone, the end of a conversation.

Edmund Standing adds:

I have written a response to this post which can be read here: On Religious Texts and the Modern World.

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