I have, friends, been asked not long ago about the halachic backing I may have for my, at times, researching the sacred texts and histories of religions outside the Judaic realm. This would also be a follow up to the previous post (although it is, in fact, in a different language). The truth is that, as it happens, I’m quite happy to find opportunities to review my opinions, since it has generally been my habit to come to conclusions about things, and later find that I cannot recall the reasoning on which I based my former change of opinion or action. It is beneficial, therefore, for me to regularly review what my ideologies and theology are actually based on.
Firstly it must be said that before any attempt to understand other religions we must fully understand our own, and be fully rooted in its literary sources and traditions. Secondly, before speaking of the diversity of other religions it is quite worthwhile to discover the diversity within our own religion realm, and the practices and beliefs of its myriad of different factions.
To some it is clear that it is pointless to delve into the texts of other religions since religion is a subjective study; in all other sciences one can benefit from amassing knowledge through the true, objective research of people in the past. Yet by the subject of religion, if one religion is founded on certain principles, studying the teachings of other religions, which are usually based on principles that, to the other are nonsensical, seems not only utterly pointless, but prohibited by halacha.
Let's start by the beginning (but get through this quickly because I haven't got much patience): In the first era the Torah introduces a "Mono-theistic" ideal to challenge the great Pagan ideologies that were prevalent everywhere in the world up until then. The Torah is fully opposed to idolatry and even commands us to break Pagan icons we may encounter. Certainly books about Pagan theology would be out of the question. In the next era, Monotheistic religions based on Judaism (Christianity and Islam) took control of most of the Pagan world, until they threatened the very existence and validity of Judaism itself. This would seem to be a replacement which, to us, is not much of an improvement from the original.
As a result of this expansion, a question recorded in the Responsum of Maimonides; someone asks him how it is possible for Judaism to have become such a minority among world religion if it is, in fact, the true religion. The Rambam replied with an innovative idea by saying that the expansion of these religions was in fact a manifestation of the biblical principle that all the nations of the world will, in the future, come to worship (one) G-d. Obviously then he felt that these religions were an extension of Judaic principles in the world, and not opposing them.
So, first of all, it is important to remember that they are far from being “idolatrous”, rather they are a manifestation of our own religion being transferred into the general (gentile) world. All the religions that came to be during and after the Second Temple era (most prominently, of course, the two monotheistic religions that still exist) were extensions of Judaism, and in us can their beginnings and principles be found. Their early histories as well are an outgrowth of, and mingle with, our own history. It is, in fact, impossible to study the story of the development of Judaism in the 1st to 10th centuries without studying the beginnings of Christianity and Islam. What better reason to study comparative religion than to study about how our own religion influenced numerous religious groups in the past, and in time, most of the world’s populace, to follow religions that were directly based on our own? We must reconsider the prominence Judaism had in influencing world religions instead of keeping it a despised religion, kept only in the shadow.
The banning of knowledge for the sake of religion, has, historically, been a generally Christian phenomenon. Yet this phenomenon has come to influence Ashkenazi Jewry due to their proximity to the Church. But it was not the second-hand influence of Christian dogmatism alone that incited the suspicions of the Ashkenazim towards such studies, but also the poor relations the Christians of Europe traditionally had with the Jews (let’s just say it was the kind of problem that couldn’t be remedied by the likes of Dr Phil). Since that time, the Jews of Europe have generally become quite afraid and suspicious of the Christians, and for very good reason. Yet these suspicions lasted with them too long, and to their detriment. Take for example their being idle from the study of G-d’s word on the night that the Christian messiah was supposedly born; perhaps in Europe it seemed unfathomable to study Torah on that night, but to abide today by such a practice is nothing but silliness. The same is true to a much larger extent in regards to knowledge of other religions and the examining of their sacred texts; it would be incorrect t for one to refrain himself from gaining important knowledge due to these religious biases of his forefathers.
In the general world the prejudices of the dark ages have subsided, and people can now pursue knowledge freely. Now that the dogmatism on the church has subsided, and with it it’s influence on the Jewish community, we can once again explore all knowledge in our pursuit of G-dliness during our stay upon this earth, as our ancestors in Spain once have. No more does our understanding of our religion have to be through the ignorance of isolation. Today we are free to explore G-dliness not only through G-d’s word but through G-d’s world. Not only through G-d’s world but through all of G-d’s people, not only through G-d’s people but throgh their religious innovations, and not only through their religious innovations but trough their religious innovations that were directly based on G-d’s word can we come to know G-d and the nature of our place in the world.
Now that our shackles are freed, then, we can explore the academic study of "Comparative Religion", even with "religious intent", for in the eyes of "true Judaism" no knowledge that can broaden our religious consciousness can possibly be considered a negative knowledge. This is an idea which, as stated, was true up till the age of Spanish Jewry, and was reinstituted with the ideologies of Mendelssohn and Hirsch.
But more importantly, unlike the recent past of our religion, we currently live in a very multi-cultural and multi-religious society. In my eyes that is yet another reason to be at least reasonably aware of some of the religions outside Judaism. For how would we feel if others were living in absolute ignorance and hatred about Jews and Judaism? Has Hillel notttt said “what is hated upon you do not unto others”?
Studying other religions also reveals their theological weaknesses, something important to keep in mind for when they attack our own religion (for example one of the mainstays of Christian theology is that “the Law” can’t possibly be properly kept—it’s good to know their opinions so as to reflect upon our own. Thus is the essence of halachic polemics as well). A similar benefit can be reaped from studying Judaism in an academic outlook; to see what aspects of our own religion are up into question by others, so that we may defend it.
An understanding of the majority religion of one’s country of residence is also important to understand that culture in a more thorough way, especially considering that the prevalent culture of a country usually ends up affecting the way Jews in that country think as well.
It’s also good to be aware of the positive aspects of other religions. The teachings of Jesus, for example, as they’re represented in the Gospels are not very different from the beginnings of the Chassidic movement.
And again, the lack of this knowledge causes one’s very logic in what comparative religion one does dabble with (since everyone has somewhat of an opinion on it). For example Christian “proofs” for the veracity of Christianity considers the fact that such veracity is attested to in verses of the Christian bible to be proof enough, which of course is ludicrous. It is therefore important for us not to fall into similar logical traps.
Now, these ideas are also not devoid of Talmudic legitimacy: I think it’s fairly agreed upon that the true translation of that which it says in the Talmud that it's prohibited to read "external books" is, in fact, not discussing books of secular knowledge, but referring to the books of the Jewish Apocrypha. Not only the ancient apocrypha (paralleling the Tanach), but more importantly (what was then) “contemporary apocrypha”; for example the kinds of writings that were found at Qumran; the writings of the Essenes the Sadducees and the Jewish-Christian sects. There was a fear, perhaps, among rabbinic authorities, that people would confuse these books with the accepted books of the Tanach, but not that they meant that they should not be read altogether. We must consider what “reading” meant in Talmudic literature; in the language of the Mishna things are ‘read’ in a religious sense only; as in ‘reading’ the sh’ma, a “religious recital” if you will. What this rabbinic ban meant then, is that these books shouldn’t be recited religiously in the sense that they should not be incorporated into our body of sacred texts, but not that it is forbidden for us to be aware of the words they contain.
Even in regards to the study of Paganism itself, it is important to consider what the Torah was up against when it tried so very hard to deflect the Pagan Ideal, where the Israelites were coming from ideologically and what opinions they were surrounded by.
There is, in fact, an entire tractate of Mishna ad Talmud that discusses the intricacies of paganism in detail, so that we should know how to interact with them in reality in a manner complacent with halacha, and “who is greater to us than the Rambam” that relates having read treatises on pagan practices in his “Guide”.