Monday, November 17, 2014

Social Science lenses on religion

Some random thoughts before getting to work.  It is amazing how religion looks when evaluated through anthropological, sociological, and historical lenses.  That is why I minored in Religious Philosophy as an undergrad.

  • ·         There is a Hebrew phrase that is often mistranslated.  The real meaning is “a smart pupil of a great scholar.”  It is often mistranslated as “a smart person.”  As a professor who has taught hundreds of students over the past 25 years, I find this intriguing.  Many of my students think of themselves as smart for various reasons.  Sometimes because they get good grades (which BTW doesn’t always mean you are smart).  Sometimes because they are surrounding by smart people and deep thoughts, regardless of how they are engaged themselves.  Sometimes because they sit at the feet of brilliant scholars (the Talmudic analogy that the phrase in question comes from).  Sometimes just pure self-delusion.  So I wonder if the mistranslation occurred over time because of the preponderance of students who assume that studying from a smart teacher makes you a smart person by osmosis.

  • ·         In the Talmud, the discourse (and sometimes vigorous argument) reveals as much about the personalities of the scholars as it does about the laws.  Kind of like oral arguments in front of the Supreme Court, I think.  Different scholars have been described as “a store stocked with everything,” “a peddler’s box,” a pile of walnuts,” “a secret treasure,” and “one who knows more when he doesn’t answer your question.” I think these metaphors are great examples of the different kinds of scholars. I have many colleagues that could easily be described in these same terms.

  • ·         The terms for “teacher” and “scholar” in everyday usage became synonymous over the thousand years between the Romans and the modern era.  It happened faster in the Middle East, where civilization was a lot more advanced during those centuries.  In Middle Ages Europe, teachers were the village level rabbis who were more engaged with the common folk.  Scholars were the few who had the opportunity to dedicate their lives to study.  In the Middle East, both lived in the big cities where their roles blended together.