Religious practices are important to study in anthropological terms. Not only can cultural relativism offer a solid approach to the study of religion, but religion itself is a useful vector in understanding important cultural shifts and changes. This sample comparative religions essay provided by one of the world class writers at Ultius discusses conservative Judaism and Islam and their respective religious practices.
Comparative Religious Study: Conservative Judaism and Islam
Religious practices are ways for people to come together to observe rituals in a way that builds community, provides a source for moral decision making, and liminal events. Anthropology provides an excellent approach for observing cultural phenomena as expressed through religious practices. Cultural relativism and a good balance of postmodernism are critical tools for an ethnographic review of religious practices. Using the tools outlined in our review of anthropology, we’ll take a look at the religious practices of two religions: Conservative Judaism and Islam. Both religions have prescribed and proscribed practices and religious expressions. These expressions are examples of the several dimensions of religion outlined by rituals and liminal events and the cultural significance of the practices of these two religions and their similarities in the anthropological context will be identified.
Cultural relativist and postmodernist approaches
Evaluating the religious practices from an anthropological perspective invites the critical observation and analysis of such practices in a culturally relativistic and postmodern perspective for the anthropologist. Cultural relativism requires that observations are taken without the bias of the cultural and religious ideas of the anthropologists own culture ideas. Observing religious practices is also enhanced by the idea of postmodernism. Postmodernism is another tool used by anthropologists and sociologists as a way to take valid and unbiased observations in ethnography.
“The value of postmodernism for anthropology has been to reinforce the idea of multiple ways of seeing the world—that there is no one right way to think or to do things” (Stein, 11).
Adhering to the postmodern approach, properly balanced against its extreme literalism which implies that there is no frame of reference for anything. The extreme of postmodernism prevents any frame of reference in ethnography. The postmodern view limits the impact of historical views as definitive in analyzing cultural or religious phenomena. Properly employing both cultural relativism and postmodernism reduces the potential for bias on the part of the researcher, in essence taking things as they are without presupposing.
Rebbeca Stein and anthropology
Rebecca Stein outlines that an anthropologist must be free of ethnocentric interpretations in understanding cultures. The proper work of ethnographers is to accept people as they are and to keep personal biases in check as it taints the validity of observations.
“Anthropologists realize, however, that a true understanding of other peoples cannot develop through ethnocentric interpretations. Thinking of other people as primitive [et cetera] only colors our observations. The goal is to study what people believe, not whether or not what they believe is true” (Stein 10).
Using the tools of cultural relativism and postmodernism, the observance of religious practices and rituals speaks well to a particular group of people understanding of their role and meaning on this earth and is often the focus of religious specialists. In evaluating religious practices Stein recounts five approaches to evaluating religious practices:
- Psychological (Stein, 17-21).
Regardless of the interpretative approach one choses the standard evaluation of religious practices will evaluate Ninian Smart’s six dimensions for religion including the following:
- Institutional (organization and leadership)
- Narrative (myths, worldview)
- Ritual (rites of passage)
- Social (group activity binding people together)
- Ethical (moral code and customs)
- Experiential (experiences of sacred reality)
Combining these elements, a proper evaluation of religious practices would consider Smart’s six elements evaluated in a method consistent with one of Stein’s five evaluative approaches.
The value of ritual in religious study
Employing any of these approaches observing the six elements of religion is most apparent in observing the rituals practices of religion. The value of rituals is outlined by Pam Myers-Moro,
“Ritual is of crucial significance to all human societies, and since the nineteenth century it has been a major focus for anthropologists interested in the study of religion. There are numerous definitions of ritual, but nearly all emphasize repetition, formality, the reliance upon symbols, and the capacity to intensify bonds within a community. Ritual is action” (Myers-Moro, 87).
Rituals then have profound insight into the activities and beliefs of a particular culture. Some anthropologists consider rituals as theatre. The comparison to choreographed enactments of people as sort of actors in the expression of their religious practices is tempting but Myers-Moro resists this temptation by stating,
“Outwardly, the similarities between ritual and theater may appear strong, but the differences become clearer if one considers the goals and internal experience of participants” (Myers-Moro, 88).
Here Myers-Moro is reminding us that unlike theatre, religious practices have internal meaning for both the “actors” and the “audience”, containing a poetry to their performance. Religious exercise is the outward expression of internally held beliefs and it would be prudent for the observer to accept rituals as having more meaning than just performing. In many instances, rituals can be forms of liminal events.
Liminal events in religion
A liminal event is an activity that separates the participant from the rest of the group for a particular purpose or occasion. The liminal or marginal state is a place of transition, and all rites of transition have their phases,
“All rites of transition are marked by three phases: separation, margin (or limen), and aggregation. The first phase of separation comprises symbolic behavior signifying the detachment of the individual or group either from and earlier fixed point in the social structure or a set of cultural conditions (a ‘state’)…” (Stein, 92).
Therefore, during the liminal event, the individual or group is temporarily separated from others during a point of transition. This point of transition is expressed whenever one engages in a religious practice. Religious practices separate those who are of the religion from those who are not. Further, in some religious practices there is a formal process marking significant points in a person’s religious expression. For Jews, an example is a bar/bat mitzvah, and for Muslims it is the purification that comes from committing to the Islamic faith and surrendering to Islamic law.
Conservative Judaism and reform
Conservative Judaism is the moderate sect seeking to avoid the extremes of Orthodox and Reform Judaism. For conservative Jews, Orthodoxy is far too strict while reform Jews include less ritual in their observances and practices. Conservative Jews seek to preserve the traditions of Judaism and Jewish history while accommodating reasonable modernization of Jewish practices. Like all Jews, conservative Jews observe the Sabbath and dietary laws. Unlike orthodox Jews, women are allowed to become Rabbis after the same amount of extensive training. Conservative Jews:
- Support the study of Hebrew and Zionism (nationalism of the Jewish religion and culture and race)
- Offer their synagogues as places of worship and education in the facets of the religion
- Support and adhere to Halaklha (Jewish law) in their daily lives
- Observe the laws of Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath) and Kashrut (keeping kosher)
- Practice of thrice daily prayer
- Observe Jewish holidays
Conservative Jewish belief arises in part because actions (good deeds, mitzvah) over beliefs are more important than adherence to a strict Jewish religious life.
The temple is the central gathering place for worship and religious education. The building is usually ornate with a sacred worship space (sanctuary), central altar with a lectern for the rabbi and a microphone for the cantor who sings, leading the congregation in prayer. Toward the back of the altar there is a large box containing the Torah that is symbolic of the Ark of the Covenant. A typical Jewish worship service is held in the temple or synagogue and involves a very ordered and structured recitation of standard prayers appropriate for the time of year. A cantor sings and the congregation actively participates in the intention of prayer.
All males are required to cover their heads with a kipa or yarmulke. Women may cover their heads with a Tichl. When one is reading from the Torah, a pointer called a Yad is used. During the services the congregation will stand at times of transition from prayers. Some Jews wear a tallit (prayer shawl) as a cloak of the comfort of God.
Jewish prayer and the Sabbath
Recitation of prayers is a central characteristic of Conservative Jewish worship. These prayers are found in the siddur, or the traditional Jewish prayer book. Some Jews rock back and forth during the recitation of the prayers (shokeling). Proper concentration is considered essential for prayer because it represents the intention of the prayer out of respect for God. Observant Jews pray three times a day:
- In the morning (Shacharit)
- In the afternoon (Mincha)
- In the evening (Ma’ariv)
There are specific prayers to be recited at each prayer time. This can be done privately or in a temple. Most importantly, however, is observance of the Sabbath which begins on Friday and calls for attending services at temple. Friday Shabbat services begin with the afternoon prayers and the Song of songs. Observant Jews also attend temple on Saturday mornings and evenings. For each time of day there is a standard program of hymns and readings. The Jewish liturgy outlines the order and sequence of the readings.
Mosques in Muslim Worship
Similar to the Jewish temple, a mosque is the Muslim house of worship. It is also a very ornate building with a sacred space, though can frequently be, as seen often in the U.S., simple yet practical spaces as well.. Upon entering a mosque, a Muslim is asked to purify their spiritual intentions for entering and reciting the prayers. The sanctuary is a large open space with chairs only along the back wall for non-Muslim visitors or those who cannot sit on the floor. Upon entering the sanctuary, Muslims remove their shoes and cross the threshold leading with their right foot. Women are expected to wear their head dress. Men and women are usually separated in the sanctuary.
The Friday midday prayer service is of special importance to Muslims. The process of prayer in being clean both physically and spiritually and greatly affects the Muslim world view. It is suggested that one bathes in the morning on Friday and dresses modestly. Women should wear the head scarf. The congregants offer a standard prayer to greet the mosque, answer the call to prayer, and then sit and listen to the qutba or sermon. The qutba is a teaching by the imam, during their qutba there is a pause for short silent prayers then the qutba resumes. At the conclusion of the recitation of memorized prayers is performed, the congregants then rise and stand shoulder to shoulder with fellow congregants forming a straight line in the direction of the holy land Mecca. While standing, ritual prayers are recited and the congregants greet fellow congregants, and on their way out are expected to leave a donation for the mosque.
Similarities between Judaism and Islam
In observing the religious practices of these two religions, we can identify a number of similarities from an anthropological perspective. Both Conservative Judaism and Islam meet all six of Smart’s dimensions for religions:
- They have some organization
- The rabbi or the imam are leaders
- The Torah and the Qur’an provide narrative richness
- They gather in worship and education
- Both religions teachings have moral customs
- The act of worship, fasting, and other expressions provide an experiential consistency among the observers of either religion
The liminal experience is observed in both religions by the first simple principle that they have identified members who gather at specific times for specific purposes. This alone separates them from all the others who are not gathered.
Similar ritual structure
Additionally, internal to each faith are rituals and experiences that are intended to transport the members spiritually from one state of consciousness to another. This expansion of consciousness promotes a connection to each other who practice the same rituals. Consistent with both religious practices is a very formulaic deliberate liturgical practice of recitation of readings and prayers. It’s interesting to observe that in the religious practices described here by these two religions, there is heavy emphasis on reading and reciting prayers that are already outlined in the Torah, Qur’an or other books.
It would seem the purpose of gathering is to review this material. More so in Islam, the imam offers a sermon and a teaching on the material for the day. However, the sermon is short and focused on the readings of the day. For both conservative Jews and Muslims, gathering at the mosque is a focusing event on reverence before God or Allah by engaging in simple rituals in preparation for religious practice. For Jewish men, they don the yarmulke and prayer shawl. This is religious clothing that helps focus their attention on god. Muslims will remove their shoes and women will cover their heads. Complying with these rules shows reverence for their practice and their sacred beliefs.
Holy lands and sacred places
In both religions, regardless of where they are, they are always mindful of their sacred holy lands. For Jews, this is the Temple in Jerusalem, each synagogue or temple is considered a sacred place, but more symbolic of the most holy place. Muslims hold Mecca as their sacred place and encourage a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a life time. These great journeys are signs of devotion to God or Allah.
Both religions also have a history of war and violence surrounding these holy lands. From an anthropological perspective, the differences in the religious practices between conservative Jews and Muslims are those of doctrine. Considering that both religions practices meet the criteria for evaluation outlined here, the only method to evaluate their differences would be to conduct further inquiry into their separate doctrines. Such an inquiry would not be appropriate without violating the important bias preventing tools for inquiry specifically cultural relativism. Simple observation draws far more similarities between these two religious practices than differences.
We have concluded that the religious practices of both conservative Judaism and Islam are, from a relativist perspective, quite similar. Both religions offer liturgical grounding in their religious services and demand discipline and spiritual intention in reciting prayers, offering little tolerance for secularism. The similarities are more prevalent than their differences. For cultural relativism, the practices of conservative Jews and Muslims are essentially identical.
Both religions include elements of ritual and appear to have the same consistencies of other religions. This conclusion is based on a full appreciation of relativism as well as postmodernism in the sense that the practices alone were evaluated rather than the content of the religious edicts. This is an important distinction because the purpose of an anthropological analysis is to observe with as unbiased as an eye as one can muster, the natural tendencies of cultures or groups.
Myers-Moro, Pamela, and James E. Myers. Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2010. Print.
Stein, Rebecca L ,, and Philip L. Stein. The Anthropology of Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft. Upper Saddle River, N.J.; Harlow: Pearson Education, 2011. Print.