Some vague and open-ended musings on Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
There are also a handful of Philosophy of Language issues that deal with whether it is, in fact, possible to translate between languages. (The people who assume you can seem to do a lot better than the ones who assume that it’s impossible, for some reason.) With that in mind, it seems notable that Islam is still reading its religious book in the original language. Even as they translated it into English on the Qatari radio station, they explained “You really need to go back and experience this in the original Arabic.”
By comparison, Judaism has several different attitudes toward learning Hebrew but (sweeping generalization) the ones who are reading their holy books in the original language tend to be more Orthodox than then ones who speak Hebrew the way that I speak Spanish.
By comparison with that, Christian holy books are translations of translations of translations of translations. English translations of Latin translations of Greek translations of Hebrew or Aramaic. (And some of those translations are translating King James’ English into Modern English and so that’s another level of translation going on there.) There are constantly new translations coming out and they brag about how there’s only one level of translation going on rather than two or three or four. (And when I start thinking about the translations of the King James Bible into other languages, my head really starts spinning. I wonder if there are translations of the King James into Hebrew or Greek…)
The more translations you allow, the more malleable the thoughts about the concepts can be. In practice, this has been used as one heck of an effective evangelism tool. Odds are, the differently-languaged culture has a handful of local concepts and idioms. Shrugging and saying that “you ate the goat’s egg” is the equivalent of “you jumped the mill and dug under the stable” (two idioms that I only just now made up and feel that, yeah, they sound translated) is a great way to get people who might not be receptive to any given concept to think “Hey, we do that too!” when, really, they might not.
The tradition of prayer that I grew up with was that The Lord’s Prayer was a basic template for how prayers ought to be: Open with a greeting, acknowledge the awesomeness of God, point out that you’re still on board with the overall plan, make a handful of requests, point out that you’re even yet on board with the overall plan, close. But it was a *TEMPLATE*… so most prayers were some mixture of personal and formal, like you were firing off an email to a particularly good manager. “Hey, God. Hope everything is going the way you want, I have a status report and a list of suggested action items, A, B, and, of course, if A and B are unacceptable, plan C is always for me getting more understanding of the overall goals of the organization. I remain your devoted employee. Expect another status report in an hour or so,”
Heck, some prayers were more like texts. “G. @skool, pop quiz, pls send memry, thx, <3”
Explaining this to, erm, one of the folks I know who grew up Catholic got me an explanation of how this is not how the Catholic tradition goes. I’ll try to paraphrase the best I can: Catholics have a handful of situationally appropriate prayers. When you find yourself in any given situation, there’s a prayer (or, more likely, a handful of prayers) that will work. Hail Mary, Our Father, The Act of Faith, The Act of Hope, The Act of Love, prayers for morning, prayers for evening, prayers for mealtime, prayers for bedtime, and so on and so forth. Sure, sometimes prayers could be personal prayers written on the fly… but the tradition of prayer was a TRADITION. Each of these prayers is a prayer that has been prayed trillions of times by billions of people
Which got me thinking about Muslim prayer. Was it of the hyper-evangelical Protestant tradition? Was it of the traditional Catholic tradition? My perfunctory research tells me that it’s a lot more Catholic than Protestant. The point is to do things as people have done them for centuries and centuries… but step three (“Standing with hands folded over chest, recite the first chapter of the Qur’an in Arabic. Then recite any other verses of the Qur’an that you would like.”) seems to allow for a little bit of improvisation (within some fairly strict guidelines, of course) according to personal taste.
Edit: I forgot to add the paragraph on Jewish prayer. I’ll add it here now:
My experiences with Jewish Prayer for many years came from Fiddler on the Roof. There were two kinds of prayers: the official ones that were highly ritualized (as seen in the scene where Tevye was praying while his wife wanted to talk to him and he kept signalling “one moment” as he took his sweet time as she knew that she really wanted to have a conversation with him but she also knew that he had standing to make her wait as he was going through his prayer ritual) and the highly personal ones in which Tevye was talking to God on a very personal level and kept talking to God throughout the day. (Exemplified in the wonderful little scene where Tevye says “Dear God. Was that necessary? Did you have to make him lame just before the Sabbath? That wasn’t nice. It’s enough you pick on me. Bless me with five daughters, a life of poverty, that’s all right. But what have you got against my horse? Really, sometimes I think, when things are too quiet up there, you say to yourself, ‘Let’s see. What kind of mischief can I play on my friend, Tevye?'” And his conversation is interrupted by his wife and Tevye says up to God “I’ll talk to you later.”)
LeeEsq pointed out recently that Christians worship God, Jews argue with God. I’m wondering how this relationship differs among the Orthodox, the Conservative, the Reform, and so on and how their sub-cultures have evolved in their relationship to God based on having both these kinds of prayers.
Assuming, of course, that I can use Fiddler as a template here. If I can’t I’m pretty much going to have to re-write my entire concept of Jewish prayer.
And that makes me wonder how attitudes towards the holy documents and prayer can shape a culture. To what extent does speaking the same language as one’s ancestors change one’s attitudes toward the world? To what extent does the hyper-personal result in tolerance for heterogeneity, if at all? To what extent does the hyper-formalized contribute to homogeneity, if at all?