Comparative World Religions Final Exam

As with the midterm exam for this course, for the final exam, we had a choice of an in-class random selection of 2 or 3 questions, or a take-home answer 10 out of 15 questions.


In what ways did the rise of Islam influence Jewish life?

After the destruction of the second temple, Jews began to disperse and settle outside Israel. They carried with them the canon of scripture, allowing their tradition to live on despite apparent defeat. The diaspora led Jews to places like Spain and Iraq, which were far from Israel, but where Islam was prominent. Islam was (and is usually) very tolerant of Jews and Christians since they are all part of the same family of religious thought—they are the “peoples of the Book.” This tolerance made it such that Jewish thought was allowed to continue to flourish.

From Jewish academies in Babylonia we get the creation (c. 600 CE) of the Babylonian Talmud—which is a collection of material including Biblical laws and applications and commentaries on them—was written. The Babylonian Talmud is second only to the Hebrew Bible in terms of significant Hebrew literature. The process has continued through time with additional commentaries successively added, making it essentially a “large encyclopedia.”

Along with the Babylonian Talmud, Hebrew scriptures were also translated into Arabic to make the material more accessible to a wider audience, including the non-Jewish Muslims who also resided in these areas. Many Jewish scholars flourished in the receptive environment. One of the significant thinkers who made use of Arabic to communicate his message was Moses Maimonides, who said that Judaism was a religion based on rationality and that faith does complement reason. Maimonides also wrote (in Hebrew), a religious code which summarized the Talmud and wrote of the basic principles of Jewish belief.

In broad terms, what impacts did the dominant Christians have on European Jews?

Throughout history, Christianity has had a degree of prejudice against Jews. Medieval European Christianity, which was the dominant religion, accented many of these prejudices. Jews were not seen as loyal. Christians were suspicious of what went on during Jewish religious practices—many of which took place, not in public, but at home. Jews were forced to live in ghettos and excluded from owning farmland.

Economic as well as religious motives in the late Middle Ages forced Jews into exile. Many Christians resented the fact that they owed money to the Jews, who were the only ones allowed to lend money with interest. Christianity proscribed usury. Exiling the Jews would free the borrowers from their debt. Jews in Spain were offered the option to convert to Christianity or to leave. This period of time is significant since it was then that Judaism underwent a great cultural division that resulted in Sephardic Judaism and Ashkenazic Judaism. Sephardic Judaism took root in Mediterranean regions and mixes Latin, Spanish and Hebrew in its language. Ashkenazic Jews were those who eventually settled more towards central Europe. They spoke Yiddish, which was a combination of medieval German mixed with Hebrew, written in Hebrew.

Another major shift for European Jews (and Christians) came during the Renaissance, which produced another split in the Judaism—this time on traditional rather than cultural grounds. One direction taken was that of traditionalism, which emphasized the rules of the Torah and the Talmud. The other direction was that of modernization, or Reform, in which Jews began to become more integrated into society, in the process loosing some elements of traditional Judaism.

Finally, in even more recent times, European Judaism was faced with almost complete destruction in the Holocaust, when Ashkenazic Jewish tradition almost came to an end.

List five practices or beliefs that distinguish Orthodox Judaism.

Until the Reform movement, which began to incorporate Jews into society at the sacrifice of some tradition, all Jews were Orthodox since all Jews were traditional. With the Reform movement, the Orthodox movement began with the intent of retaining traditional Jewish practices and beliefs. Orthodox Jews are reluctant to change anything about their traditions, especially practices mentioned in the Torah.

One of these practices is that services are conducted completely in Hebrew by male rabbis. This, of course, separates those Jews who may have adopted foreign languages, such as Arabic or Ladino (Sephardic Jews), for the sake of either communicating the Jewish message on a larger scale, or as a mean to help their culture survive discrimination from other members of society.

A second practice that distinguishes Orthodox Judaism is the act of keeping social roles for men and women strictly separate. The woman’s place is at home, while the men go out to work—to be the breadwinners. In relation to this is a third distinctive practice: men and women are separated in Orthodox Jewish synagogues.

Orthodox Jews also stick closely to the strict laws about diet which value cleanliness and care in food preparation. These practices were originally developed for hygienic reasons, but through time, became “rules about ritual purity,” or as the Jews would say, Kosher practices.

A fifth practice held by Orthodox Jews is the strict observance of the rules concerning the Sabbath. No work is to be done by anyone, man or animal, on the Sabbath. Food cannot be cooked, and fires can’t be built. In modern times, Orthodox Jews now also refrain from driving cars or using telephones on the Sabbath. In fact, to further separate themselves from Conservative Judaism, which follows the many of the practices of traditional Judaism, Orthodox Jews, won’t even turn lights on or off on the Sabbath.

To many Orthodox Jews it is not difficult to observe these strict practices. Rather, the practices are seen as devotionally fulfilling, with “every moment consciously devoted” to God.

Briefly summarize the development and practice of Reform Judaism.

With the harsh treatment of Jews throughout history came the desire to become integrated into society. Reform Judaism was an attempt by Jews to leave the ghettos in Germany and incorporate themselves into mainstream European culture. It did so with the hopes of survival of Judaism in the world. This has undoubtedly led to some loss of traditional Judaism.

Moses Mendelssohn, in the late 1700s, called for religious tolerance, and for the embracing of the European Enlightenment. An acceptance of the European Enlightenment, which included such ideas as secular education, equality, individual liberty, and scientific development, made Jewish beliefs and practices open for question.

This has resulted in a change in the way Judaism is practiced. Some of the major changes is that men and women sit together in synagogue worship, traditional dress has almost disappeared, and service is conducted in both Hebrew and the native language, thus increasing acceptance and effectiveness. One of the most significant changes brought about through Reform Judaism is the change in the traditional gender roles—equality is now greatly encouraged. One change in practice that is related to the Reform point of view is that girls now also have a coming-of age ceremony, bat mitzvah, which proclaims them “daughters of the commandment.” Thanks to Reform Judaism, the position of rabbi is no longer reserved for males only.

Paul is said to have defined the relationship of Christians to Judaism. Summarize the significant teachings of Paul in this regard.

Much of the early growth of Christianity has been credited to the missionary Paul (Saul), so much so that he is occasionally called “the cofounder of Christianity.” Much of his popularity arose from the accessibility of his interpretations of Jesus’ teachings.

Paul was born and raised under traditional Judaism. He initially opposed the Christian movement, until Jesus came to him in a vision. When he had this vision, he was baptized, and spent several solitary years learning about Jesus. It was then that he decided that he would spend his life spreading the belief in Jesus.

Paul chose not to expend too much effort trying to convert Jews to Christianity, and was not always well received by Jews. Like the first Christians, Paul was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for. Not all Christians, however, came from Jewish backgrounds, and the question about differentiation between Judaism and Christianity arose. Much of the controversy and debate centered on whether Christians should keep Jewish religious laws, such as circumcision and dietary practices. Paul felt that one of Jesus’ messages was one encouraging freedom. He felt that laws hindered freedom too much and that they often “hurt more than they helped.” Furthermore, Paul said that it was not through laws that we strengthen our relationship with God, but rather faith and acceptance of Jesus and the love of God. He argued that this did not exempt us from moral rules since the laws of morality are really based on an interior force. This difference of opinion defined a major difference between Judaism and Christianity, and had a fundamental impact of separating their relationship quite early on.

Identify the two key Christian sacraments. Describe the beliefs and practices associated with each.

One of the key elements of most religions is ritual. The most important rituals in Christianity are called sacraments. The two key Christian sacraments are baptism and the Eucharist.

Baptism is the universally used initiation rite in Christianity, and is a cleansing with water. This practice was derived from the Jewish notion of ritual bathing as a form of purification. Some forms of Christianity allow sprinkling of water on the head, instead of immersion of the body in water, as sufficient for the ritual. The early ritual of complete immersion was a symbolic one, letting us recall “the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.” It is also seen as a sign or repentance and of moral purification. Many forms of Christianity perform the ritual on infants, but some forms of Protestantism feel that baptism should be a voluntary ritual, thus making it a ritual for adults ready to make the choice of initiation.

The Eucharist, or Lord’s Supper, began with early Christians as a Passover meal imitating Jesus’ Last Supper. The act is a symbol of sharing the life and death of Jesus through the consumption of wine (Jesus’ blood) and bread (Jesus’ body). Some groups take the representation of wine and bread as the blood and body of Jesus quite literally, with some metaphysical transformation, called transubstantiation, taking place while ingestion takes place, if the person’s heart is fully with Jesus. While others simply partake symbolically, all forms of Christianity have this ritual.

What kind of person was Muhammad? How was he viewed by his family, by his followers, and by those who opposed him?

Muhammad saw himself as the last of the prophets to speak God’s word to humanity. His followers felt the same. Although he was an instrument of God, and was seen as the “ideal human being,” Muhammad was not divine.

Muhammad was born in 570 CE in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, where among other local religions, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity were practiced. The local religions had a “supreme God,” Allah, who was the creator of life, but not involved in everyday concerns. Allah was not the center of faith and worship in this society, which also paid reverence to many other tribal gods and goddesses. Through his job as a caravan driver, Muhammad was exposed to many of these religions, learned a lot from them, but also noticed major differences within them. He noticed the division between Jews and Christians concerning God and Jesus. He also noted the widespread worship of nature spirits.

Muhammad spent much time meditating and pondering religion. He received his first revelation at the age of 40, but initially doubted the nature of it, attributing it to perhaps madness or hallucination. However, he was urged by his wife to accept the revelation as direct communication with God. After additional revelations came to him, Muhammad decided to share his revelations first with his family, who then became the first Muslims—”people who submit” to Allah.

His open proclamation of his revelations was often not well received. In addition to the insistence that only one God, Allah be worshiped, and the worship of other gods forbidden, Muhammad also had revelations which threatened business people. For example, the lending of money with interest was forbidden by Muhammad’s revelations. Also, the destruction of pillars of worship to the many tribal gods meant a loss in revenue that would normally come in with the many pilgrimages to the shrines in Mecca. The social content of his revelations challenged the existing order, preaching a very democratic message.

Muhammad’s controversial, unwelcomed ideas eventually forced him into exile. He managed to set up a mosque some distance away from Mecca, but always had the intention of returning to Mecca. Eventually, Muslims managed to take control of Mecca and Muhammad was able to return to his homeland.

Describe the Qur’an and its place in Islam.

The Qur’an, or “recitation,” is the sacred book of Islam. The book’s title represents both the origins of the scriptures (the recitations of Muhammad), as well as the way the scriptures should be communicated. The Qur’an which is said to be God’s word delivered through Muhammad in his sermons, was written down during his lifetime (570-632 CE), and completed in an authorized version in 656 CE. The book is read literally and is thought to be the most accurate revelation of God’s will. The Qur’an succeeds where the Old and New Testaments failed, since it accurately records all of the Truth, and since the Old and New Testaments were “partially corrupted in transmission,” as can be seen with the discrepancies which occur between them.

The Qur’an, which has 114 chapters (suras), covers stories from the Jewish and Christian Bibles, tells about events in Muhammad’s life, and gives advice about topics in everyday life. The book is not divided into stories or segments, but within each sura, different topics will be combined. The topics concerned with Muhammad’s life often concern religious matters, such as fasting, divine judgement, and pilgrimage. Topics concerning everyday life include rules about marriage and divorce, money, and property rights.

Passages from the Qur’an are often used in artistic expression, utilizing creative cursive Arabic lettering to embellish and contrast with intricate geometric designs. In addition to the appearance of the written text, the language in which the Qur’an is written is also supposed to have a high degree of fluidity and hypnotism associated with it. This can be attributed to the original nature of the Qur’an—originally commonly a memorized set of Muhammad’s suras.

How does science view the universe, the earth, and human beings?

From the beginning of progress in modern science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, science and religion have always been in some form of conflict or another. Religious people say that science is trying to undermine notions such as God and morality. To them, science basically often comes into conflict with its worldview. Scientists point out that science is a way to better understand and appreciate our universe—that it helps give us a better picture of reality.

Science finds most things to be quite material and quantifiable. It offers a theory about the creation of the universe—although there are still questions about what preceded the universe—and about the current place of humans in this universe. Furthermore, the universe is no longer unfathomable, but rather we can make good estimates about how many galaxies it contains. We can also look back in time to the moments just after the creation of the modern universe and see what was happening.

Science can explain the formation of the earth through time—the gradual process of heating, cooling, life formation, destruction, revival of life, and the influence of humans on the earth. Every physical thing can be broken down into sub-atomic particles and analyzed. Scientists can make claims to knowing “the building blocks of life.” Many natural phenomena, such as lightning and storm formations, can be explained through scientific experiment rather than relying on faith.

One of the major problems that some religions have with science is human evolution. If we have evolved, for example, how can we also say that we are created in God’s image? Another concern by the religious community is that sometimes scientists may be seen as “playing god,” using medicines to alter our states of being and work against the forces of nature.

Marxist Communism has shown a number of parallels with religions. Explain.

Marxist Communism, which is an atheistic philosophy, has occasionally been called a non-theistic religion. Some people even refer to Communism as “the God that failed.” Many of the key characteristics of religions are present in Marxist Communism. It offers us a worldview, telling us our place in society (social classes), and helping explain why we are there (exploitation), and how we can get out of such a situation (unification and a social uprising representative of the will and belief of the common man).

Religions and Marxist Communism also offer us a social setting—a community—to offer us comfort. Both are also supposed to try to help care for elders and disabled members of society. This implies also that ethics is present as a characteristic of Marxist Communism, and certainly with the notions of exploitation and unequal distribution being clearly wrong, the characteristic fits well.

There is also a level of sacredness concerning the words of many past Communist leaders. Chairman Mao’s “little red book” can serve as an example. Moreover, it is not just the words that are held sacred. Lines of people wait to see the preserved bodies of Mao and Lenin. Taxi-drivers in China have photos of Mao on their dashboards as good luck charms. Marx, Lenin, and Mao are often portrayed as deities in artwork, with rays of light shining from behind them. Karl Marx’s writings are still very prominent in the minds of anyone studying society and economics. The only reason that his God failed was that the economics could not help make it a reality.

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