19 Sep 2023

medieval jewish thought and emergence of ‘religion’

Is it too pat a thing, where we are today, to observe that religion isn’t really so simple a category — that, say, religion isn’t ever at any point in history, past or present, something that can just be cleaved off from prevailing accounts of the political existence or the economic, &c.? My feeling is the contrary. We’re a long way yet from hearing this observation expressed often enough or widely enough.

I don’t mean to suggest that attempts, in Christian Europe and its colonial excrescences in the wake of Reformation and conflicts of the era, to restrict religion by definition, to designate for religion its own (receding) place and lines in the interest of achieving rationalistic re-founding of the whole of social and civil order, are so much mere deprecable bunk. Not at all.

But this is not a post for sorting all that out! Below, a lecture given at venerable (by U.S. reckoning) Jesuit institution Boston College last week. One thing usefully illustrated in it is the thorough dependence on Arab-Islamic civilizational attainment of what with us today it’s still all too common to think of as global culture whose arrival in our time is just Western evolution manifest, ‘Judeo-Christian’ at stem. That prior and accompanying Arab-Islamic world civilization is where much of what’s most potent in Jewish life and thought, continuous from the early medieval into the modernity we struggle to make sense of around us, was first nourished and able to flower. Central chapters of the ‘Judeo-Christian’ story are written in Arabic.

[UPDATE: Adding here, directly below (before video), a link to quite a different listen featuring Decter, a Theatre Dybbuk podcast interview throughout which voice-actor readings from translated medieval verse narrative are woven in. Something for getting perhaps a little of the flavor of the distant time and place Decter studies.]

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