I feel passive and sluggish right now because of the cold weather. I’d prefer to snuggle in my futon with a book while I watch the Everybody Loves Raymond reruns on my DVR, but I have committed myself to writing a post each day about my reading. So here we go!
The point that stood out to me in yesterday’s reading of Howard Eilberg-Schwartz’s The Savage in Judaism concerned whether we should note similarities among cultures. “Why’s that controversial?”, you may ask. The answer is that two things may appear to be similar to each other, when actually they mean something quite different within their own cultural contexts. Here’s an example: My mom once taught religion at a private Catholic school. When she mentioned a Hindu triad of gods (or something like that), her students immediately thought about the Christian trinity. But my mom informed them that the two concepts are not the same: the Hindu triad carries a meaning for the Hindus that is quite different from how Christians conceptualize the trinity.
Eilberg-Schwartz (ES) is open to noting similarities among cultures, however. One reason is that he believes people throughout the world respond to similar challenges, so the issues underlying their common motifs may not be all that different. ES also says that looking at concepts within their cultural contexts is an integral part of comparison and contrast, so there should really be no dichotomy between comparing cultures and respecting cultural context. Moreover, ES also states that one cannot look at another culture without some degree of comparison. When I study a culture that is not my own, I need to translate its concepts into something that makes sense to me, and often that means connecting it with my frame of reference. And that’s what comparison is, in a nutshell!
It will be interesting to see how ES puts these principles into practice. I saw some previews in yersterday’s reading. He said, for example, that the division of the animal in Genesis 15 (God’s unconditional covenant with Abraham) “represents an act whereby kinship relations are severed” (100), on the basis of “comparative inquiry.” I’m open to this, since Abraham did sever ties with his family and his father’s house (Genesis 12:1). But does the division of animals always have to mean this? When King Zedekiah promised to free the slaves and walked between the pieces of an animal as part of that covenant (Jeremiah 34:18), was he severing himself or others from his family?