Religion 101

One might expect that many if not most Americans would have at least a passing familiarity with the basics of Judaism.

After all, about 80% or so of the American public self-identifies as Christian, and Christianity and Judaism are inextricably intertwined. Both are Abrahamic faiths, making them closely related religious siblings; the Christian Old Testament is (basically) the Jewish Bible; Jesus and his disciples were all Jewish; the U.S. is home to the single largest domestic Jewish population anywhere in the world, other than Israel itself (and with 5.5 million U.S. Jews compared to 6 million Israeli Jews, the U.S. comes in at a pretty close second place); it is even frequently observed that ours is a “Judeo-Christian” culture, based upon “Judeo-Christian” values.

And yet, a significant percentage of the U.S. public seems to actually know surprisingly little about Judaism itself.

This is often brought home to me in my own community college world religions courses. Community college students are a varied and diverse lot, and as such probably represent a pretty fair sample of the population at large. When we begin the study of Judaism each semester, I am often rather surprised at how unfamiliar some of my students (not all, but some) are with the fundamentals of Jewish belief and practice.

Some students occasionally express surprise at hearing, presumably for the first time, that Jews and Christians worship the same God. Others often had no idea that the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible is essentially the same set of scriptures as the Old Testament of the Christian Bible.

Still others simply assume that Jewish worship as depicted in the pages of scripture corresponds with contemporary forms of Jewish worship, and so imagine that rabbis today perform animal sacrifices in neighborhood synagogues.

Some are confused by the diversity which exists within modern Judaism, puzzling over the differences between Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews, and wondering why some Jews dress in certain characteristic ways (the distinctive garb of Hasidic Jews, for instance), while other Jews do not do so.

Many are frankly startled to learn that the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) prescribes not just the familiar Ten Commandments, but in fact a far more extensive total of some 613 commandments, all of which are incumbent upon Jews to observe, and which cover everything from ritual observances to civil laws (and which include, among many other things, the well-known kosher food laws).

And a fair number remain puzzled as to why “Jews don’t believe in Jesus,” as they themselves often phrase it. They are often unaware of the fact that, even though the term Christ is indeed simply Greek for the Hebrew term Messiah, Jews and Christians actually use these terms in very different ways — assigning very different meanings to this same single term, within their own very different religious contexts.

So, when it comes to teaching about Judaism to students who may possess little to no previous background knowledge of the subject, these are some of the matters which I often find myself spending a lot of time clearing up.

(To be continued, in Part Two.)







As I discussed in my previous blog entry, the Buddhist religion maintains that not only is there no eternal Creator God, but also no such thing as an eternal soul. If that is so, many non-Buddhists wonder, then just exactly what reincarnates?

The basic Buddhist idea is that the “soul” (or any sort of enduring core “self”) simply does not exist, per se, and is really nothing more than an artificial construct.

According to Buddhism, what we think of (and call) the “self” or “soul” — as if it were a permanent “thing” — is actually nothing more than a fleeting combination of constantly changing qualities and characteristics (awareness, emotions, memories, attitudes, ideas, preferences, etc.), a merely temporary and loose assembly of ingredients that are themselves in constant change, and constantly coming and going.

This temporary and constantly changing aggregate of qualities and characteristics has no more solidity, stability, permanence, or even identity than, say, a swirling cloud of gnats. There simply is no “solid core” to such a swirling cloud; nor likewise is there any sort of bedrock foundation to the “self” or “soul.”

These “gnats,” like our own personal qualities and human characteristics, are in constant motion, with each one of them also constantly changing, and with many of them coming and going all of the time, so that this “cloud” which they constitute is not really even the “same” cloud from instant to instant. Yet superficially, we look upon it and perceive what seems to be a somewhat stable, enduring, and even identifiable “cloud of gnats” (or an enduring “self” or an eternal “soul”).

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t really a swirling cloud of gnats (or of qualities and characteristics) there — it certainly exists — but it does mean that such a cloud is by no means some sort of inherently stable and unchanging permanent self or enduring eternal soul, per se.

None of these individual qualities or characteristics are themselves permanent or unchanging, and none of them individually or even collectively constitutes a “soul.” Nor do they have any sort of solid or stable central core or “kernel” around which they congregate or orbit, which one might take for a soul, either. There’s just nothing there which is truly at all substantial, or enduring. It’s “empty,” as Buddhists say.

This can be a slippery concept to wrap one’s mind around at first, so let it all sink in a bit. Remember, all of those multiple component features and elements which make up the personality (which I’m here comparing with an insubstantial and unstable swirling cloud of gnats) are themselves also in constant change — a merely temporary aggregation or momentary conglomeration of so many separate and distinct qualities and characteristics, each of which is also itself individually likewise in constant change.

We are thus literally not the same person even from moment to moment, insofar as we are in a constant state of change, however subtle it might be over shorter spans of time (although it becomes quite obvious just how radically we really do change when we look at ourselves over longer spans of time — in what sense is the infant I once was still really “me”?). It’s kind of like the old adage about how you can never really step into the “same” stream twice, because all of the water will always be different, replaced every instant by fresh water constantly flowing downstream. And so “we” at least seem to endure, as our “selves,” across time. But do “we” really?

Now, how does all of this relate to the question as to what reincarnates? Well, since even such a constantly changing and ultimately “hollow” cloud of gnats, or a similarly unstable and temporary aggregate of human qualities and personal characteristics, does at least superficially persist as such (and seemingly as the “same” cloud, though of course it really isn’t, since its components are always coming, going, and changing themselves) from instant to instant, moment to moment, hour to hour, day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year, and even decade to decade, then why not also from lifetime to lifetime — or from rebirth to rebirth? Where is the disconnect here?

Viewed thusly, rebirth across successive lifetimes or “reincarnations” can occur as surely as we seem to persist as “ourselves” merely from moment to moment or year to year, even though (according to Buddhism) no “soul” is involved, and no fixed, permanent, enduring core “self” actually exists.

It’s a tricky concept. But understanding it is key to correctly understanding Buddhism.






As I discussed in my previous blog entry, the Buddhist religion often stretches the very limits of what some of my students of comparative religion (and other newcomers to Buddhism) are typically used to regarding as some of the absolutely essential, even defining qualities or characteristics of a “religion.”

How does a religion function, many often wonder, which feels no need to invoke the existence of a Creator God, and which also lacks any belief in the existence of eternal souls?

Like Hinduism, Buddhism believes that humans (and other sentient beings) are caught up in an endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (known as samsara, the “wheel of rebirth”), but that ceaseless cycle of endless rebirths can be broken — and doing so represents the ultimate religious or spiritual goal. According to Hinduism, the cycle of rebirth terminates only when one’s eternal soul at last attains either union or communion with God or the Divine (variously conceived of and understood by different sects or branches within Hinduism).

However, in Buddhism, there is no God to attain any such union or communion with. (Nor is there any such thing as an “eternal soul,” either.)

Instead, nirvana in Buddhism refers to a state or condition that is so radically transcendental that it even transcends all human concepts and categories of thought (including even the concept of “God”). When one attains nirvana, one is thereby forever freed from the shackles of the otherwise-endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth; however, nirvana is simply not conceptualized in terms of union (or communion) with God or the Divine. In fact, nirvana is so fundamentally different from anything and everything that human beings are capable of talking about, or thinking about, that it’s pointless even to try. Words fail, and concepts fall short.

The Buddha himself discouraged metaphysical speculation or discussion about the nature of nirvana as useless and irrelevant. It was much more important, he emphasized, to get on with the business of actually attaining nirvana, rather than to waste time engaged in futile efforts to describe or comprehend that which so radically transcends any such description or comprehension.

The Buddha compared such pointless and unfruitful human attempts to grasp or discuss the elusive nature of nirvana with the plight of a victim injured by a weapon who foolishly insists upon first understanding who had shot him, why they had shot him, the nature of the weapon used, who manufactured it, and so forth, instead of getting on with the far more urgent business of seeking immediate first aid. Instead of foolishly insisting upon first obtaining an intellectual comprehension of nirvana (which is fundamentally impossible, since it is simply so radically different from anything we know or can imagine), seek instead to pursue and attain nirvana itself, and the blissful release from rebirth that its attainment entails.

To those who still insisted upon attempting to discuss, debate, and otherwise comprehend the nature of nirvana, the Buddha in turn insisted that such efforts were forever doomed to failure. Did nirvana represent a form of existence, they persisted in enquiring of him, or did it instead refer to some form of non-existence? The Buddha’s response was tellingly paradoxical: nirvana, he said, was neither existence, nor non-existence (nor, for that matter, both or neither, either)! Nirvana fundamentally forever eludes conceptual capture; it just won’t fit into any of our human, rational, logical “boxes.”

So, nirvana cannot be “union (or communion) with God,” either, since that is after all at least to some degree a humanly conceivable idea or concept, and nirvana simply does not correspond to any humanly conceivable idea or concept. That’s just how radically transcendental nirvana really is!

So, whatever else it might or might not be, non-theistic nirvana simply isn’t thought of in the same sorts of terms that, say, theistic (or even monistic) Hindus use when they talk or think about release from rebirth. God simply plays no role in Buddhism. Whereas divine creation myths are plentiful in Hinduism and in other theistic religions (and notably so in Judaism and Christianity, with its Genesis creation accounts), such mythic accounts are rather conspicuously absent in Buddhism.

No Creator God (and no “Creator Buddha”) set the universe in motion via an act of special divine creation; instead, the cosmos is simply an everlasting and intricately complex web of interlocking and interwoven causes and effects, a beginningless and endless merry-go-round of cause/effect or action/reaction (e.g., of karma) locked in a ceaseless dance of mutual interplay. Instead of fruitlessly pondering the possible origins of such a state of affairs (into which we are perpetually born back into, reincarnating into it over and over again), the Buddha pointed out that it was actually vastly more profitable to instead set about simply transcending it altogether, and once and for all, by attaining the infinite and eternal bliss of the otherwise-incomprehensible (and emphatically non-theistic) nirvana.

But if Buddhists say that not only is there no eternal Creator God, but also no such thing as an eternal soul, then just exactly what reincarnates — or attains nirvana?

(To be continued, in Part Four.)



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