What part does language study play in religious practice?

By Kent Annan & Jamie Aten

Learning the language of a religion is often part of gaining knowledge of it. 

However, through prayer and worship, words may help the mundane connect with the heavenly. For many people, gaining a more profound knowledge of religion involves acquiring a new language and studying its theological and philosophical tenets. 

Jewish and Hebrew

After the passing of her parents, retiree Anne Evans decided to take Hebrew classes to reconnect with her Jewish roots. The Holocaust survivors from Lithuania passionately upheld their Jewish customs despite not being very religious. She enrolled in a Hebrew course at the Spiro Ark School for Jewish Education because she wanted to do something that would help her feel more connected to them.

She argues that language plays a crucial role in comprehending religion since word stems can contain the entirety of a philosophical system. Consider the term "bar mitzvah," for instance. The phrase, which refers to a Jewish boy's coming-of-age ritual, literally means "son of the commandment." The word "mitzvah" has more profound significance when used alone, alluding to the seven rabbinic commandments that were subsequently introduced and the 613 commandments revealed to Moses at Mount Sinai in the Bible. It can also be used to describe a noble deed.

When repeating the Hebrew prayers for Passover that Jews have memorized and said for hundreds of years from Russia to Afghanistan, Evans is overcome with a feeling of history: "That has made me truly proud to be Jewish, and not just because I'm a devout Jew," the speaker said.

The Spiro Ark school's director, Nitza Spiro, reports a significant increase in persons desiring to learn biblical and contemporary Hebrew. According to Spiro, language is essential to Jewish identity and its tenacity. "Books meant our spirit, hope, outlook on life, morality, and ability to argue about issues which are higher than the daily mundane things," claims Spiro. Without it [Hebrew], you lack the knowledge to comprehend what it is to be a Jew.

Islamic and Arabic

Arabic has been used for ages to convey the Islamic intellectual, legal, and social history, much as how Hebrew has assisted in maintaining Jewish religion and culture for decades. All Muslims must memorize at least a portion of the Qur'an for prayer and worship and recite their daily prayers in Arabic.

Shafiur Rahman, an imam in London, thinks knowing the language will help stop any potentially harmful misinterpretations of the holy text. Although some passages in the Qur'an are subject to interpretation, Arabic scholars have created disciplines of grammar, syntax, and rhetoric that guard against misinterpretations by readers. For instance, the word "jihad," which is sometimes translated as "holy war," really means "struggle" or "survive."

Despite the value Islam places on knowing Arabic, Rahman asserts that there is a significant gap between the current generation, particularly in the West, and this history.

He claims that if more Muslims learned Arabic, there would be a more excellent grasp of what Islam is, how the initial community surrounding the prophet Muhammad understood it, and how succeeding generations refined their knowledge by context and circumstance.

Buddhism and traditional Tibetan culture

Lydia Polzer is a Tibetan Buddhist who has made studying a foreign language a central aspect of her spirituality. After taking meditation classes at the Kagyu Samye Dzong Tibetan Center in London 10 years ago, Polzer initially developed an interest in Eastern culture. What began as an interest in mindfulness' advantages rapidly turned into a deeper participation in some of the more intricate Buddhist ceremonies.

With the establishment of the Kagyu Samye Ling monastery in Scotland in 1967, Tibetan Buddhism first became established in the UK. Western monastics and lay practitioners still choose to recite prayers during these activities in the mother tongue of the tradition.

Even though a transcription of the Tibetan alphabet is given, Polzer claims that she wished for the strange language to flow naturally off her tongue and for others to comprehend what she was chanting without looking at the English translation. She began studying the language with other motivated students by taking seminars in classical Tibetan with a native speaker at the center and taking online Skype courses for colloquial speaking.

She explains, "For me, it's about respecting the Tibetan teachers who come here and appreciating the culture." "I don't want to rely on translators; I want to understand directly."

There are several reasons why people study a foreign language, including the desire to travel, improve work opportunities, and have romantic relationships. However, for many people, it presents an opportunity to engage with their culture and values at a deeper level, leading to the development of knowledge that they believe goes beyond language and speech.


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