Clergy Column | Rabbi David E. Ostrich

February 22, 2014 

I recently received as a gift the sacred scriptures of a religion not my own. The hope, as expressed in an accompanying letter, was that I would read the holy book and come to understand and appreciate this different religious path. The goals were knowledge, respect and friendship — not conversion.

I appreciate the gift and the hope for friendship and mutual respect.

Knowing about other religions is an important part of being a good neighbor and a good citizen.

I believe that the different religions need to learn to live and work together. Though we may disagree on some issues, we should all agree that God wants us to be nice to each another.

Like I said, I appreciate the gift and the thought, but there is a flaw in the logic. No matter what I read in the book, the fact is that there are often disconnects between sacred texts and the ways that they have been interpreted over the years.

It is certainly true in my own religion.

The Judaism of the Bible is far different from the Judaism of 2000 years ago or 500 years ago, and the Judaism of today is not unanimous.

There are a number of very different versions of Judaism that are practiced today. All Ten Commandments are still in effect, but worship is conducted differently, laws and ethical mandates have developed through the ages, and new prayers and practices have been added as Judaism has grown, developed and improved.

The same can be said for other religions. Within Christianity, the Protestant faiths are, historically speaking, fairly young — the Reformation occurred only 500 years ago (1,500 years after Jesus), and some denominations — such as the Latter Day Saints and the Assemblies of God — were founded within the last two centuries.

They all base their religious views on ancient documents, but there are significant distinctions between these ancient texts and the modern religions practiced today.

In the case of Islam, there are and have been a number of different interpretations of the faith the Quran teaches.

Some of these interpretations go back 1,400 years to the origins of Islam, and some are fairly recent — like the Wahabi/Salafist movement, founded less than 300 years ago. Modern groups may base their approach on older sources, but their particular brands of Islam are both unique and still developing.

When learning about a religion, the question is not only what the ancient text says, but also how it has been interpreted and applied in our modern world. So, no matter what I read — either “good” or “bad” — in a Bible or Quran or Pali Scriptures or Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures or the Book of Mormon or the Bhagavad Gita, it will only tell me the base of the religion that has developed from it over the years.

The things that I read in my neighbor’s holy scriptures could be part of the modern religion, or they could be ancient issues that have been resolved or altered or massaged over the years — as experience and the ever-present spirit of God influences us to behave in more and more holy ways.

Ancient and sacred texts are a precious source for our various paths to God, but we should realize that they do not tell the complete story of our or of our neighbors’ modern religions.

For the complete story, we need to get to know each other and the ways our religions guide our lives.

David E. Ostrich is rabbi of Congregation Brit Shalom in State College and can be contacted at

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