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A. Introduction to the Content

The idea that sacred literature can be divided into the:

–       the Hebrew Bible (sog. Old Testament; correctly termed Tanach)

–       the Christian Scripture (sog. New Testament) and

–       the Koran

is rather rudimentary. Each of these can and must be subdivided and/or augmented.


The term Tanach is an anagram for the Five Books of Moses (Torah or “Pentateuch”) plus the Prophets (Navim) and other writings (Chetuvim, including the Psalms, 5 scrolls (Job, Esther, Jonah, Ruth, Kohelet), Daniel, Esra, Nehemia, and the historical books). These texts have different qualities and are used and studied differently. Beyond that are text complexes having in themselves different subdivisions and levels: the Mishna (oral Torah) and the Talmudic discussions and the halachic literature, the Midrash proper and the Aggada (anecdotes. parables, legends).


Christian Scripture consists of 4 parallel recitations of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and Acts and Epistles of his followers, the Apostles. It is augmented by texts of the Church Fathers and Edicts of various Councils. Writings by scholastics and mystics form another layer.


The Koran itself is structured quite uniquely: the shortest verses coming last, meaning the earliest revelations to Mohammed come at the end, because they were the shortest. Only one of the books (Sure 12: Joseph) is in narrative form, where a story is told consecutively. The Koran is entirely in verse and it cites rather than recites the narratives known from the other Scriptures. It, in turn, is augmented by the Hadith, traditions of saying or of incidents witnessed involving the prophet Mohammed, and by Fikh (jurisprudence). Study of these is divided into a number of different faculties.

So to refer only to the primary texts is confusing. I’ve called this section “Aggada” because it rests on a Jewish tradition of tales containing moral or theological themes and used for simple instruction, elucidation of a point of spiritual development. I’ve chosen to begin here, because my audience consists of people struggling in medias res.


–       Most of you were not trained for this and have received the impulse or mandate/directive to address this field of discussion often in addition to an otherwise adequately filled agenda – you are going to need something light, that you can address after a full day’s work, but substantial, that gives you sufficient depth to fulfill your tasks with the requisite dignity and respect. Ideally it should nourish your soul as well as your intellect.

–       Your congregations, too, are involved in their own lives, complete with their challenges, joys and tribulations. You are faced with the challenge of motivating them, even as you try to deepen their own anchoring in their own traditions and nurturing from them.

And yet you know that this is an important and timely topic, so you are in a bind.

That is what this part, the “Aggada” is meant to relieve. Ultimately we aim to deepen your knowledge and help you grow and develop in the process, but we shall begin with easy steps.

Most of you will have first chosen overviews written for laymen and been unsatisfied (rightfully so) or else will have gotten beyond your depth in texts that mystified and puzzled you and left you feeling inadequate and estranged. It doesn’t have to be like that. This site is designed to open you gradually, let you develop understanding, not just collect information. And, if it is to be successful, it should put you on a path to deepening your own spiritual development. That’s what it’s about. Dialogue is not something done because one “ought”, it needs to be focused around excitement and curiosity; and, in the final analysis, we are here to find and fulfill our own destiny, so that is what most excites our curiosity.

There will be seven parts to the system (only three will be addressed here):

–       the “Aggada

–       a selection of really innovative overviews, that you may find useful in building bridges, also to your community, and

–       a history of both Jewish and Islamic philosophy, which should be useful for those of you who are doing LER

Together they should form a whole that helps you also integrate both sides of your brain.

Now, before we begin, we should set up a few parameters.

Those of you who are Christians, or who were raised Christian and have converted to one or the other religion, will have to keep reminding yourselves that Judaism and Islam are not, and never were, orthodox – they are orthopraxis, that is, they are almost never concerned with dogma. This is so engrained in your thinking that you will have to be constantly on your guard not to fall back into it. Some of the material, which I have selected for the course, is designed to emphasize this. You, too, have a praxis side and I will attempt to elucidate this to support the process. Indeed behind the whole course you will find an emphasis, not on common values, per se, but on spiritual growth processes and what helps and hinders them. You’ll find this as the red thread.

Now back to the two sides of your brain and to the texts. If you examine the Torah, you will see that it has a clear narrative structure, beginning with Creation and proceeding pretty logically through to the entrance into the Promised Land. The other books are dedicated to special genres, poetry and history, prophets recalling a people back to the essential message, some narratives, Job, Esther, Ruth, Jonah, some wisdom literature (Kohelet/ Ecclesiastes) etc. And, as mentioned above, the Christian Scripture presents four parallel narratives of the life of the founder and narratives, letters and sermons of his followers, also primarily didactic. Both of these have a chronological basis – the one the history of the world, reflected then in the liturgical year, and the other the history of one man’s life, also reflected in the liturgical year. When we turn to Islam, we encounter a wholly different phenomenon. As mentioned above, the form is verse and there is only one long narrative. Nonetheless most of the classical bible stories are referenced in such a way that together they give a brief summary of each, but scattered throughout the Koran. Now the first impression is that the audience knew these stories, they only had to be reminded of them, and they were referenced in a different context. The revelations also were given in response to particular occurrences – the “occasions of revelation”. Those of you who are interested in this should follow the work being done here in Berlin by Angelika Neuwirth’s group at the Academy of Sciences, which is systematically putting this online, s. Corpus Coranicum.

But that is not going to help you have direct access to the Koran. And that can be a serious stumbling block, aside from the fact that it is in verse and translations from the Arabic are highly problematic.

So what to do? This is one solution I found:

I watched people dealing with it and found two basic patterns. One was a group who would cite the Koran to prove a point and their partner in the discussion would cite another verse to prove an almost opposite point. I got the impression that they were using it like a Rorschach test and that their citations told one more about themselves than about the text itself. Then there was another group, often consisting of people who had learned the Koran by heart, who seemed to be using it like a magic-eye picture. They would see the three-dimensional figure hiding behind the confusing surface image. When I told them about that observation, they would at first look puzzled and then sort of nod. This is where dialogue should go: the other sees something about you which you hadn’t seen yourself but which brings you closer to yourself, gives you more understanding. This is the basis on which trust is established, and it is a fragile product, easily disrupted. All too often the opposite occurs, we misjudge the other through our own perceptual parameters and silence him, making him cringe and close up.

So that is the second goal. But let’s get back and finish the discussion of the texts.

You cannot apply the same form of hermeneutics to both kinds of texts. Narration, poetry, history all allow one to ask questions such as: when was it written, who wrote it, for whom was it intended? how are the parts interrelated, do they self-reference? what do they say to us now? To a certain extent one can do this with the Koran – ask questions about whether a verse was from the time in Mecca or in Medina, or about the occasions of revelation, but by-and-large this won’t get you very far, and the Tafsir tend to concentrate on the linguistic aspects. So how does one enter the system? Going back to my observations above, when you look at Arabic culture it impresses one how recursive patterns tend to dominate (s. Gödel, Escher, Bach), both in literature (the stories of 1001 Nights don’t end until another has already begun to weave its thread) and music (which is similarly structured). And, one might ask oneself, whether the breakthrough in architectural grace and the use of rhythmic mosaics might not be only a consequence of the prohibition against depicting human beings, but might also serve the purpose of perceptual training. Could this be an attempt to create the state of mind in which one sees the whole behind the bits and pieces? The question is interesting.

You do not necessarily need the right answer, but you need the right question.

So we now have one more basic premise on which this course is built. Let me summarize them:

Judaism and Islam are not orthodox.

One way to get used to not seeing them as such is to access both sides of one’s brain, the digital and the analog. One cannot apply the same hermeneutics to Islam; it requires the other half of the brain – but ultimately so do both of the other religions, but the initial emphasis is different.

The right question will allow the Other to relax in my presence. He will experience my stumbling efforts to understand him as a caress and not as an intrusion into his world of something strange and foreign.

Concentrating on these will help me develop my own spirituality, which is, let’s be honest, what we’re really concerned with. Perhaps we can learn from one another. But this requires humility.

So beyond that our adventure will be concerned with unearthing transforming properties and different ways of solving the same human developmental tasks.

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