Parents who care deeply about Judaism and create a “Jewish” home have always been key to assuring a vibrant Jewish future. Nowadays, Jewish intermarriage rates in the United States stand near 50% and only half of Jews in America feel that being Jewish is very important to them.* Continuity has thus become a primary anxiety among leaders of a community now numbering 6.4 million or 2.2% of America’s population. * Despite a broad range of interventions, worries about the community’s prospects remain, and indeed a new one has arisen.* Will the American Jewish community turn inward and diminish its historic commitment to tikkun olam, mending the world?
With over two billion Christians worldwide, anxiety about passing on our tradition focuses less around our survival than around the kind of Christian we aim to educate and form. The critical question is how we pass on a compelling Christian identity—that is, a keen and profound sense of what it means to be a disciple walking the Way of Jesus Christ—in a world of diverse religions and cultures. How do we shape persons in the particularities of Christian life while also preparing them to live in a pluralistic world? How do we form persons to live by the values of the Gospel in a largely secular culture? How do we help persons resist simplistic answers to complex religious questions?
Similar to the Jewish community, Muslims living in the West and in America are living with double anxiety: first, of their children’s losing their religious and cultural identity, and second, with the fear of persecution. Since 9/11 this anxiety has increased because of Islamophobia. Finding such an environment unhealthy for raising children, some, including Bosnians and Turks, have returned to their homeland. Others take their children to their country of origin in the summer to reorient them with parents’ culture and religion. Others enroll them in summer camps in America for intensive religious education. Most mosques in America have either a full-time Islamic School or after-school program, as well as weekend Islamic schools. It is not surprising to hear Imams, or religious leaders, raising concerns in their Friday sermons about children’s losing their religious and cultural identity, and admonishing parents to practice their faith and inculcate it in the next generation. There is more emphasis on childhood education than on adult education.
Study of Torah — not just the Five Books of Moses, but the entire body of writings it has spawned — stands as a central pillar of Judaism. When a prospective convert asked Hillel to teach him the Torah while standing on one foot, the sage famously answered, “What is hateful to you, don’t do to your neighbor. The rest is all commentary. Now go and learn it.”* Maimonides summed it up this way: “Of all the commandments, none is equal to the importance of study of the Torah. Indeed, the study of Torah is equal to all of them, for study leads to practice.”* The bond between study and practice — practice of ritual and ethics — remains crucial. Consider the training of children to become a bar or bat mitzvah (literally, a son or daughter of commandment). It includes Jewish study as well as projects devoted to tikkun olam, mending the world.
Over the millennia Judaism placed great value on study well beyond Torah. As the Talmud suggests, much could be learned about God’s wisdom from the study of nature. “If the Torah had not been given we could have learnt modesty from the cat, honesty from the ant, chastity from the dove, and good manners from the cock who first coaxes and then mates.” Thus, many of Judaism’s most influential scholars of religious subjects were experts in other fields. Maimonides (1135-1204) and Nachmanides (1194-1270) were famed physicians. Levi ben Gerson (1288-1344), and Judah Lowe ben Bezalel (1525- 1609), the Maharal of Prague, were mathematicians and astronomers. In modern times, Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903-1993), the great Modern Orthodox teacher and scholar, received a doctorate in philosophy from Berlin’s Friedrich Wilhelm University before he immigrated to the United States. Adin Steinsaltz (1937- ), editor of a groundbreaking new edition of the Talmud, studied physics and chemistry at the Hebrew University.
Still, the confrontation with modernity has posed more than a few challenges to Jewish learning. Modernity opened the way for large numbers of Jews to obtain a secular education, but it also ushered in a steep decline in the study of traditional Jewish texts. The reaction in Eastern Europe was to expand the world of traditional learning, to create schools, yeshivot, that would exclude secular education completely. Such schools are flourishing in ultra-Orthodox communities in the United States, Israel and elsewhere. An Orthodox scholar pointed to the philosophy behind this position, “Let goyim [a term for non-Jews that actually means “nations”] be physicians; for a Jew there is nothing else but the study of Torah.” A life devoted to full-time study had long been a possibility for only a few of a community’s most talented students. Today, in Israel, it has become the norm among ultra-Orthodox men, only about 30 percent of whom work. Opponents of this cite the Mishnah, Judaism’s first law code:
The study of Torah together with an occupation is an excellent thing, for the pursuit of both of these [together] keeps sinful thoughts from arising, while any study of Torah without some kind of work must fail in the end and is conducive to sin.*
In certain circles, the wisdom of the Mishnah has apparently been superseded.
Christians differ significantly in understanding what constitutes knowledge and how important learning is to religious leadership. A debate early in our nation’s history illustrates one dimension of the issues at stake. During the First Great Awakening (1730-1760) the question arose as to what qualified a person to be a minister. On one side were those who argued that experience of God represented the prime criterion: “If they [ministers] have not Experience, they will be but blind Guides, they will be in Great Danger to entertain false Notions concerning the Work of Conversion.”* On the other side of the debate was the claim that “the plain Truth is, an Enlightened Mind and not raised Affections, ought always to be the Guide.”* The famous divine Jonathan Edwards offered a moderating perspective: “Holy affections are not heat without light; but … arise from some information of the understanding, some spiritual instruction that the mind receives, some light or actual knowledge.* Tensions exist not only about the role of intellectual knowledge, but also about how much emphasis is placed on critical reason in relation to religious authority. Modernity remains a challenge. This is evident in those traditions of Christianity that resist evolutionary theory because it conflicts with biblical accounts of creation. It surfaces as well in Roman Catholicism when thinkers perceived as moving beyond the boundaries of traditional formulations of doctrine are sanctioned. In other traditions, greater acceptance of modernity has also meant a diminishment of a distinctive religious identity.
Fundamentalist Christianity has a distinctive theory of knowledge grounded in Scottish common-sense realism, which is based on the assumptions that God’s truth is revealed in a single, unified order and that all persons of common sense are capable of knowing the truth. Although fundamentalism is a multi-faceted phenomenon, it is grounded in the conviction of unchanging truth that is knowable by true science and common sense—and in a militant opposition to those whose understanding of truth seems too abstract or ambiguous.* Whatever differences exist among Christian traditions, all hold that self-knowledge is extremely important. Practices that encourage introspection and reflection are part of the rich heritage of Christianity, such as lectio divina, contemplative prayer, and modes of discerning God’s will (e.g., the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola).
The Qur’an uses the word ‘ilm (pl. `ulum) that is translated as knowledge, but has much wider meaning. ‘Ilm is all-embracing and refers to all aspects of education, both religious and secular. “There is no branch of Muslim intellectual life, or of Muslim religious, social, economic and political life that remains untouched by the all-pervasive attitude toward knowledge as something of supreme value in Islam,” says Sayyid Wahid Akhtar. ‘Ilm and its derivatives and associated words like al Qalm (the pen) and some supports to knowledge such as Iqra (read) and al Kitab (the book) are found in more than 700 places in the Qur’an.*
The Prophet and early Muslims took knowledge seriously as a unit and developed the concept of Tawhidi paradigm, meaning that God is the source of all knowledge and everything emanates from Him and returns to Him. Considering the development of knowledge as a sacred duty from God, the early Muslims endeavored in all its fields, from astronomy to earth sciences and from biology to other physical sciences, to gather knowledge about God and his creation. The early Muslim institutions did not differentiate between religious and scientific knowledge and produced scientists such as Razi, physicians such as Ibn Sina, philosophers such as Ibn Rushd and jurists such as Abu Hanifa. Muslims are proud of these scholars as well as many others.
In the 10th century medieval period, Muslims became divided over knowledge, separating it into Wahy or Naqli (revealed or religious) and `Aqli (rational or non-religious). By the start of the modern era, Muslim power had declined and colonization had begun. The colonial masters spared no time imposing a secular education system, while the Muslim system of education (known as the Madrassah system)* deteriorated. The secular educational system was well-established by the time of independence in the first half of the 20th century and the old Madrassah system became restricted mostly to religious education.
Some Muslim scholars such as Isma`il R. al Faruqi argue that this theory of bifurcation of knowledge was the result of Western influence, causing Muslim political and intellectual deterioration.* Since then there has been tension in Muslim society about who really possesses religious authority in interpreting the Qur’an and the Prophetic tradition. Muslim religious institutions including the Madrassah system are even more divided than Jewish and Christian traditions over the role of reason in religious education. However, the Madrassah system as a whole remains inflexible, following a centuries-old curriculum as compared to Western religious institutions.
The Qur’an and the Prophetic tradition hold great respect and authority among Muslims across the world. In fact all Muslim practices are derived from these two sources of Islam. But ignorance prevails and many Muslims read the Qur’an and memorize all or parts of it for blessing without knowing its meaning and application. This ignorance has given tremendous power especially to the Madrassah (religious seminaries) graduates to control and play with religious beliefs and emotions.
For millennia ritual practice was universal among Jews. Ritual passed from one generation to the next as reliably as children learned the language of their parents. Indeed, ritual was the language of Judaism. With modernity, sectors of the Jewish community began to view ritual selectively. In its 1885 Pittsburgh platform, the Reform Movement announced that “We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its [ancient] national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.”*
Reformers believed that Jewish ethics was worth passing down, but most of Jewish ritual was not. But what is Jewish ethics and how was it to be passed down? First, it turns out that Judaism’s moral laws are hard to differentiate from ethics in general. Second, it appears that the framework of ritual provides an irreplaceable means of inculcating the ethical values we hold most dear. Take the Passover Seder. Seder means ‘order,’ a key ingredient of all ritual. But the Seder’s goal is not ritual for its own sake. The Haggadah explicitly states the goal: “In every generation each individual should feel as if he or she had personally come out of Egypt.” It’s hard to imagine a better vehicle than the rituals of the Passover Seder for teaching the next generation to value freedom and social justice. And if you really want to extend the lesson, observe the rituals further — try not eating bread during the week of Passover and eating only from dishes that have never come into contact with leavened products. It’s not easy, but it creates an indelible impression on children.
Arnold Eisen, now Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, wrote a penetrating study on the role of ritual in the contemporary Jewish community. It happens to conclude with a discussion about the Passover Seder.
A Seder for all its adaptation to changing circumstances, promises (and often delivers) a measure of authenticity unavailable at the steakhouse. It constitutes a traditional framework that links Jews to a history which demands that life be serious. Stepping into the ritual constitutes a statement about identity, particularly when one knows that the Haggadah — like Jewish history — inevitably makes claims upon its Jewish performers. . . . Ritual has always offered comfort and reassurance as much as challenge and reproof. And, arguably, it offers many American Jews more than that.*
Raising children in a home and community where Jewish ritual is a natural part of life may not guarantee that they will pass their traditions down to another generation, but without ritual, the chances are slimmer.
Ritual, a value-oriented, interpersonal and repetitive behavior, is a fundamental dimension of human life. As a medium that expresses profound meanings and values, ritual forms persons in their communal and personal identity. Religious rituals are meant to lead persons into relationship with the sacred and to form community.
Significant differences exist in how ritual is enacted within Christianity. Some church traditions have a minimalist ritual style, giving emphasis to the free expression of congregants — Pentecostal churches, for example. On the other end of the spectrum are the more elaborately choreographed rituals of the liturgical churches that follow a formal structure, such as the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican traditions.
Ritual teaches in a tacit way, especially through the senses—gesture, posture, scent, spoken and sung word. Perhaps a personal example will illustrate. The parish to which I belong, Corpus Christi Church (Roman Catholic) on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has a number of services each Sunday, but the principal Mass is celebrated with great solemnity; there is a splendid choir, fulsome participation by congregants, and stately ritual. One of the most moving moments for me is the prelude to the Eucharistic Prayer in which the presider, the altar and then the congregation are blessed with incense (See Psalm 141:2: “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you.”) After the sanctuary is filled with incense the altar server—an adolescent girl or boy—approaches the congregation. We stand, as the server bows to the congregation; in turn, we bow back. Then he or she incenses the congregation, after which we again bow to one another.
This is all done in silence, but the language of ritual speaks volumes about human dignity. In bowing to that young altar server, we are recognizing him or her as a person made in the image of the Divine; in exchanging mutual blessings, we stand together before God, the Mother and Father of us all.
Ritual is a significant part of every faith. It is a medium for a personal and communal identity, behavior and relationship with God. The Qur’an urges Muslims to worship God, pay Zakat, fast in the month of Ramadan and go for Hajj when they have adequate resources. The Prophet called these rituals the “pillars of Islam.”* Today, observance of the five pillars is more emphasized than ever.
Ritual plays a greater role when an individual or a community is faced with political, social or economic issues, or even an individual or communal identity crisis. Soon after Colonialism, Muslims were faced with ruthless and corrupt Western-educated modern elites. Deprived of participation in the political, economic or social life of the community in their own homeland, many Muslims focused on practice of religious rituals at the family and community level. Having very little freedom elsewhere, the mosque became a center of religious expression and freedom very much like the African-American churches in America. With more focus on rituals, the Muslims differed on how exactly these rituals were to be performed. Like Christians and Jews, various schools of thought emerged among Muslims on this question.
Along with teaching the pillars of Islam, there is also more emphasis on children’s learning to read the Qur’an in Arabic for blessing. Many parents celebrate when their children learn to read the Qur’an. Children are also taught the daily worship in Arabic from the very beginning of their lives. The observance of the pillars of Islam becomes essential when children reach puberty, but parents make sure they learn and practice it while they are even younger.
Muslims in America are fearful of losing their family and communal identity. However, similar to Jews’ attending the Reform Synagogue, many prefer to attend the Islamic centers and send their children to learn the rituals. Muslim professionals with a broader view of Islam and its rituals built many of these centers, where most of the Imams hold advanced degrees. Many of the centers do not represent any specific ethnic group or school of thought, though other mosques in America do represent a majority ethnic group and follow its tradition or represent a specific school of thought. Like Judaism and Christianity, there are all sorts of mosques in America that are teaching rituals and passing down the tradition to the next generation.