Cutting the Confusion From Religious Texts
Published: Friday, January 17, 2014
Updated: Friday, January 17, 2014 02:01
Director of Muslim Chaplaincy Imam Yahya Hendi and Director of Jewish Chaplaincy Rabbi Rachel Gartner discussed the difficulty of interpreting religious text and their societal role in an interfaith dialogue entitled “That’s What God Said: Torah and Quran,” held in McShain Lounge on Tuesday evening. Fr. Pat Rogers, S.J., served as the discussion’s moderator.
Hendi spoke about how ambiguity can lead to different interpretations of scripture.
“When people talk about the right to kill, people refer to scriptures, or why they have to refrain from killing, people refer to scripture. So what scriptures are we talking about, the same or different?” Hendi said.
He stated that the Quran has two types of verses, encompassing those that are clear and cannot have multiple understandings and those that are ambiguous. In regard to the latter, there is ample opportunity to debate and change interpretations.
“I mean verses that hold within their words or wordings or sentences or format, the possibility of different, multiple interpretations. The Quran acknowledges this fact, giving Muslims the right to debate on those verses and also giving Muslims the right to redefine those verses as time moves on,” Hendi said.
On the other hand, Muslim interpretation of the Quran is unambiguously limited by certain rules, or what Hendi calls the “Bill of Rights of the Quran.”
“Muslims develop what’s called guided general rules for what the Quran wants you to know about Islam, about God, about the human rights, social ethics, financial ethics. If you follow these general guiding principals, move on, interpret things as you wish, but we never violate those guiding principals,” Hendi said. “No one can come up with a rule that violates any of these rules.”
Gartner spoke of the important interpretive role of rabbis in deciphering Jewish faith.
“In a sentence, the source of authority for Jewish life is the Tanakh as read through the ancient and contemporary rabbis,” Gartner said, referring to the Five Books of Moses, accompanied by writings from later prophets. Like the Quran, interpretation of Jewish texts is similarly limited by Rabbinic interpretation.
However, she acknowledged the complex nature of authority in Judaism.
“We are looking back at the text, and we are looking at each other and we are looking inside, but where authority lies is somewhere in the mix. You can never leave out the rabbis,” Gartner said.
Gartner further emphasized the Jewish notion of understanding the text through the past and present. The rabbi mentioned a Jewish saying that says, “don’t call yourselves children, children inherit; call yourselves builders.” She explained that due to the lack of vowels in original text, the word for children and builders were both possible interpretations. “We inherit and we build. And there is a celebration of that building,” Gartner said.
Neither speaker explicitly addressed the relationship between textual interpretation and the sectarian rifts that exist within their respective faiths.
Devika Ranjan (SFS ’17), who is part of the Interfaith Student Association, enjoyed how the talk managed to highlight both similarities and differences between the faiths.
“There are always a lot of questions as to how Judaism, Christianity and Islam especially correlate and there is so much tension between them, so I think this talk showed really well how they can come together in that way and how they really are not so dissimilar while highlighting that there are some contradictions between them,” Ranjan said.
Rabbi Gartner also addressed the acknowledged differences.
“To me, what’s beautiful is what is different,” she said.