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he Application of ‘The Six Dimensions of Religion’ to Judaism

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The six dimensions of religion are deeply entwined with eachother, as no person can experience the depth of one dimension without encountering the others. The six dimensions, as described by Ninian Smart, are the Doctrinal dimension, The Mythological dimension, the Ethical dimension, the Ritual Dimension, the Experiential dimension, and the Social dimension. Each one seeks to explain a different aspect, or manifestation of the phenomenon of the religious experience. Scholars and laymen alike can understand, internalize, and synthesize the six dimensions of religion, and find similarity between faiths: polytheistic and monotheistic, proselytizing and non-proselytizing, Reform and Orthodox.

The ‘ritual dimension’ of religion refers to what subscribers to a particular faith do to maintain their adherence to the tenets of the religion. Highly symbolic in nature, it can refer to worship, rites of passage, and participation in regular gatherings, among other things. One could postulate that a purpose of this dimension is to engender a feeling of belonging and pride within the community, and maintain the oral, cultural, and historical traditions of the religion. Rituals often stem from the practice of the followers to re-enact, or remember a significant event within the religion’s history. Attending synagogue, maintaining purity, resting on the Sabbath day, holding a Seder on Passover, circumcising a male infant (as per the covenant Abraham made with God), the holiday of Hanukkah, and bar/bat mitzvahs for 13-year olds are all manifestations of the Practical and Ritual dimension of religion.

A specific example of the ‘ritual dimension’ apparent in Judaism is the Passover Seder plate. It contains six items, specially chosen and arranged to represent significant aspects of the story of the Jews exodus from Egypt. The maror (bitter herbs) represent the bitterness of the Hebrews enslavement in Egypt. The charoset (chopped apples, walnuts, sweet wine, and cinnamon) represents the mortar the Hebrews used to build the pyramids of Egypt. The karpas (parsley, or other vegetable) is dipped into salt water to represent the tears shed by the Hebrew slaves. The z’roa is a lamb shank bone that symbolizes the sacrificial lamb (originally sacrificed in the Temple of Jerusalem). The beitzah, a roasted hard boiled egg, represents the mourning over the destruction of the Temple. The ‘mythological (narrative) dimension’ of religion encompasses many aspects of a religion’s history, ranging from creation to destruction, to divine intervention.

It is omnipresent in religion (no pun intended), as religious teachings have been passed down and shared through oral and written stories, and have even served as entertainment and teaching in primitive nomadic tribes and highly-evolved religions alike. Religious myths are culturally pervasive, and can be found in popular literature, religious and secular alike, as well as peppered into general working vocabulary. Myths (narratives) are used to promote behavior expectations, teach moral lessons, and inspire both pride and atonement. An example of the ‘mythological dimension’ of Judaism is the story that is read out of the Haggadah on Pesach, or Passover. The story is about the Exodus of the Jews from the land of Egypt. It is read both in Hebrew and in English, and can inspire a fierce sense of pride and strengthen the emotional connection one has to their faith, ethnicity, and heritage. The ‘ethical (and legal) dimensions’ of religion are more tangible because many religious and ethical laws were documented in written form.

The Torah, containing over six hundred laws (including those governing diet, worship, purity, and social and familial obligations) comprises the ethical framework for living for Jews, although the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox Jews are the sects most likely to adhere to the Divine Law in it’s entirety. The Ten Commandments, as delivered by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, has served as a reference for behavior for Judaism and Christianity alike. In Judaism, covenants serve as an ethical guide and as a reference for religious law, as they depict the expectations of God and the divine protection offered in exchange for adherence to the contract. God created covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David; all of these provide a moral lesson, or outline religious expectation. Very often, the ethical (and legal) dimensions of religion overlap with the general laws of society. For example, many of the Ten Commandments also reflect laws of the social order (i.e. ‘Thou shall not kill/murder’, ‘Thou shall not steal’, and ‘Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor’ (could be interpreted as ‘thou shall not commit perjury’).

The material dimension of religion is perhaps the most tangible, as it refers the (more-or-less) physical artifacts that embody the practices of
religion. Music, art, architecture, writings, physical places, symbols, and tools can all represent the material dimension.

In Judaism, there are many easily recognized symbols and structures that all contribute to one’s religious identity, and provide a concrete connection with the religion itself. The Star of David, a Menorah (used on Hanukkah), Hamantashen cookies, the Torah, Mt. Sinai, Jerusalem, the Western Wall, and the song “Dayenu” (sung on Passover) are all manifestations of the material dimension of religion.

The ‘social dimension’ of religion describes the social outgrowth of the religious experience, that is, how the many aspects of the religion seep into and affect culture, in both positive and negative ways. Early civilizations benefit from social order, and as they grow, the religious customs act as social glue, engendering a sense of community and belonging, effectively strengthening the community. This is evident in the Ultra-Orthodox communities in Brooklyn, NY, where the community is simultaneously isolated and self-sustaining. Religious activities give the people of a community the chance to develop relationships and strengthen bonds, to network, provide emotional, financial, and spiritual support, and sustain the traditions of a religion, which otherwise might fade through the generations.

Purim, a traditional Jewish holiday has evolved from one of religious observance to one that exists more as a social celebration. While the religious roots of the reading of the scroll of Esther remain intact, the contemporary holiday is based in the social realm, with celebration and charity being the main focuses of the holiday. One partakes in Purim by going to synagogue to listen to the Book of Esther, exchanging gifts of food and drink, giving charity to the poor, participating in public celebration (while wearing costumes and masks), and eating a festive meal. The moral aspect of Purim is evident, as is the social cohesion it engenders. When an interviewer asked Ninian Smart how he would describe his own faith, he responded that he is a Buddhist-Episcopalian.

When asked to elaborate he said: “I like to annoy people who think that a religion can contain the whole truth. No religion, it seems to me, contains the whole truth. I think it’s mad to think that there is nothing to learn from other traditions and civilizations. If you accept that other religions have something to offer and you learn from them, that is what you become: a Buddhist-Episcopalian or a Hindu-Muslim or whatever.” 1 This all-encompassing approach to understanding and appreciating religion requires a sense of humility, and open-mindedness to the similarities of even the most apparently disparate of religions. It is quite possible that every faith contains these six dimensions in their foundation, and in that there is beauty.

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