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The Hindu Jewish Dialogue [Part 2/4]

Jewish Text Part 2

Characteristics of Hindu-Jewish Dialogue

An overemphasis on the 'absolute" (as a metaphysic or as an
experience) tends to predetermine the outcome of interreligious
dialogues, often distorting the religious traditions
represented.  Underlying this search for the absolute is the
tacitly Christian assumption which values orthodoxy over
orthopraxy.  Most Hinduisms and most Judaisms, on the contrary,
value practice over doctrine, and the primacy of orthopraxy over
orthodoxy is the first characteristic of Hindu-Jewish dialogue.

The second characteristic of Hindu-Jewish dialogue is that it is
symmetrical.  In an intriguing study, Israeli anthropologist
Shalva Weil characterized the relations between Christians and
Jews  in the south Indian state of Kerala as symmetrical, a
"pattern of relationship between Christians and Jews in India
whereby two communities or ethnic minorities developed along
parallel lines in a similar geographic area both in terms of
history and tradition and in terms of group image." (Weil,
1982:179) In this respect, Jewish-Christian relations in Kerala
are unique in the world; everywhere else Christians have held a
higher social position than, and therefore power over, Jews.

Hindu-Jewish relations, especially outside of India, are
symmetrical.  As Indian-Americans and Jewish-Americans begin to
discover one another in the work place and in the public arena,
one of the first discoveries is of their similar social
position, their symmetry in the context of American society.
Such symmetry bodes especially well for dialogue.

Hindu-Jewish dialogue is quite different than Hindu-Christian
dialogue.  While concepts of and practices leading to the
"absolute" are part of Hindu-Jewish dialogue, these aspects tend
to recede into the background.  Foregrounded are
historically-rooted realities.  This means that many of the
problems which have bedeviled Hindu-Christian dialogues have no
relevance to the Hindu-Jewish encounter.  For example, as Indian
Catholic theologian and self-professed Hindu, Raimundo Pannikar,
has observed, "the Hindu-Christian dialogue has never been a
round-table conference, not merely a theoretical exercise in
brahmodya (theological disputations).  It is embedded in
particular socio-political circumstances and takes place within
a certain elusive myth.  The first phase was that of a tiny
minority finding its own identity: Christians dialoging with the
Hindu majority in order to establish their own identity.  No
wonder the dialogue was not one of great theological
speculations, as it has been noted.  It was the Christian
dialogue with Hinduism.  The second phase reverses the roles.
Demographically, the Hindus were the majority, of course, but
the power was on the other side.  Hinduism had to establish its
identity, and awaken from an alleged slumber that had permitted
first the Muslim and later the Christian conquests.  The
so-called Hindu Renaissance is witness thereof.  It was a Hindu
dialogue with Christianity." (Pannikar, 1989:xvi)

The symmetry which characterizes the Hindu-Jewish encounter is
not only an issue within the context of India, but within the
world at large.  While Hindus were and are obviously more
powerful than Jews in India, and the converse would be true in
Israel, more significant is the relative lack of power of both
groups during the five hundred years of European ascendency in
world politics and economics, the age of imperialism.  This
point, too, is best illustrated by a story.

As fate would have it, one day I found myself in Rome in the
company of a good friend from Thailand, a leading Buddhist monk
at the royal monastery, Wat Bovoranives in Bangkok.  We decided
to visit the Vatican's Museum of World Religions.  The museum is
arranged according to a Christian hierarchy of religions: first
were the pagans, then the Hindus and Buddhists, then the
Muslims, the Jews, and finally the non-Catholic Christians.  As
we came to the displays of Buddhist art, my companion stopped
short.  His eyes widened and nostrils flared as he stared at a
large Thai Buddharupa (image of the Buddha).  Inquiring as to
his obvious distress, he stammered: "That rupa was stolen from
my monastery.  For years I had heard that some Christians had
taken it, but I never believed that story.  What kind of person
person would steal a sacred object from a temple?  But here it
is." And he pointed out the Thai inscription beneath the rupa,
identifying it as from Wat Bovoranives.  I commiserated with his
pain, and after a time we continued our tour.  Then it was my
turn for shock.  In the Judaism section of the museum, we saw
Torah scrolls displayed.  One of them was identified as
originating in the Great Synagogue of Budapest, which was the
home of my mother's family on both sides.  Quite possibly, my
own unknown cousins who had been slaughtered in the Holocaust
had read from that very scroll.  I knew more deeply what my
Buddhist friend had experienced when confronted with the
'stolen' Buddharupa, just as he understood the anguish this
display of a Torah scroll prompted.

This too is part of Hindu-Jewish dialogue.  This too is the
symmetry between our religions, a symmetry occasioned by the
religious oppression meted out against our peoples.

The symmetry which characterizes the Hindu-Jewish encounter
exemplifies another commandment of Swidler's 'dialogue
decalogue', the seventh which holds: "Dialogue can take place
only between equals, or par cum pari, as Vatican II put it."
(Swidler, 1984:3) While Swidler was not referring specifically
to socio-political equality so much as an equal openness and
willingness to learn, nevertheless this more historical aspect
of symmetry cannot be overlooked; it is a necessary
component--perhaps a starting point--for the contemporary
Hindu-Jewish encounter.  

The Issue of Idolatry

Before describing an agenda for Hindu-Jewish dialogue, there is
one preliminary concern which must be mentioned, and this is
entirely an internal Judaic issue: idolatry.  While an analysis
of Judaic attitudes towards Hinduism is well beyond the scope of
this paper, the issue of idolatry is, for Jews, a necessary
preamble.  Put in traditional terms, the question is whether
Hinduism conforms to the seven Noachide mitzvot (commandments)
as articulated in rabbinic literature.  There should be no
difficulties with the five ethical Noachide mitzvot--to
establish courts of justice, to practice sexual morality, and to
avoid bloodshed, robbery, and tearing a limb from a living
animal.  As far as ethics go, there can be little doubt that
Hindu traditions exceed Judaic requirements.  But what of of the
two doctrinal mitzvot --avoiding blasphemy and idolatry?  Is
there a way to reconcile the Hindu use of images (murti) with
the avoidance of idolatry?

David Novak  recently summarized Judaic views on purported
idolatrous practices among gentiles: "the rabbis.  .  .
insisted that the ban on idolatry was binding on both Jews and
gentiles, [but] they recognized a difference in degree.  Thus
the important third-century Palestinian authority Rabbi Yohanan
ben Nappaha...  stated that 'gentiles outside the Land of Israel
are not idolaters but are only practicing ancestral customs.' .
.  .  [T]he key to understanding this statement of Rabbi Yohanan
is his choice of the scriptural proof text.  The heavenly bodies
are called 'signs'; that is, the nations of the world approach
God through the mediation of nature, even through the
symbolization of created nature in images.  Israel, because of
its unique historical relationship with God, must approach him
directly through revealed commandments.  Here we see the
beginnings of the notion.  .  .  that the difference between
Israel and the rest of the nations of the world is not that
Israel worships the one God and the gentiles worship other gods
altogether.  Rather, the difference is that Israel worships God
directly, for the covenant makes that direct relationship with
God the only acceptable one for them.  The nations of the world,
being outside this direct covenant with Israel, are not wholly
separated from God but are farther removed from him.  Therefore,
they are justified in approaching him through visible
intermediaries, which are now seen as functioning symbolically.
.  .  Philo prohibited Jewish ridicule of pagan cults because
their ultimate intent is not in essential opposition to
monotheism." (Novak, 1989:40-41).  In summary, Novak held that
".  .  .if gentiles are permitted to acknowledge God through
mediation, then as long as God is the ultimate object of their
concern, they may swear by these intermediaries and not
transgress the Noahide prohibition of idolatry." (Novak,
1989:47; cf.  Katz, 1991a:45)

Apart from this specifically Judaic concern about idolatry,
there is also the secular issue of imposed definition vs.
self-definition: Swidler's fifth commandment that only a Hindu
can define what it means to be Hindu, while the rest of us can
only describe it from the outside.  (Swidler, 1984:2) In other
words, how could we know whether Hinduism were idolatrous a
priori?  Wouldn't that understanding only emerge out of
dialogue, not prior to it?  A traditional Jew who is serious
about interreligious dialogue must avoid imposing his or her own
definitions on the dialogue partner, and "idolatry" surely is
not the way anyone would describe their own religion.  Even if
we do not wish to be so liberal-minded as Novak's rabbinic
sources, at a minimum we should be able to agree that the
question of whether or not Hinduism is idolatrous must be
bracketed, since any authentic answer could only emerge out of
such a dialogue.

This being said, I can relate a conversation with a swami
resident at Kataragama, the sacred complex in southern Sri
Lanka.  Hoping to understand better my own tradition, I asked
the swami his view of the Judaic abhorrence of idolatry.  Much
to my surprise, he replied that he agreed with it "one hundred
percent." In his view, the use of the rupa or murti was an
unfortunate concession to popular Hindu religiousness, and that
Hindus would do better to adore the formless and transcendent
than the incarnate.  Therefore, he concluded, Hindus should pay
heed to Judaic chastisements!  The swami's unanticipated comment
was very strong evidence for Swidler's sixth commandment: "Each
participant must come to the dialogue with no hard and fast
assumptions as to where the points of disagreement are."
(Swidler, 1984:2) 

An Agenda for Hindu-Jewish Dialogue

If Hindu-Jewish dialogue is not the same as Hindu-Christian
dialogue, what it is?  What is the agenda?  Based on my own
experiences over the past twenty years, I offer the following as

1.  The Hindu-Jewish dialogue is about the absolute and
practices which lead to the absolute.  To maintain, as I do,
that it is a mistake to focus upon orthodoxy to the neglect of
orthopraxy, so too is it a mistake to neglect doctrines and
mysticism entirely.  For example, an important aspect of the
historic Tibetan-Jewish dialogue in 1990 was about mysticism and
meditation.  While the Dalai Lama and most Tibetans had long
viewed Jewish exile and return after two thousand years as a
model for their own experience, he was surprised to learn about
Judaism's rich esoteric traditions.  At the conclusion of the
intensive dialogue, the Dalai Lama commented, "As a result of
our meeting, to speak quite frankly I developed much more
respect for Judaism because I found there a high level of
sophistication." (Katz, 1991a:43) As I wrote of that encounter,
and as I continue to believe, "[Jewish esotericism has] a
crucial role in this dialogue.  Tibetan Buddhism is a tradition
especially rich in esotericism, and Tibetans suspect that a
religion which is not likewise esoteric might be superficial.
Much of the overlap between our traditions lies in esotericism.
.  .  " (Katz, 1991a:39)

It is not only in the domain of mysticism that comparative
studies of religious ideas should be undertaken.  We need more
along the lines of Arnold Kunst's study of Talmudic and Hindu
logic, Barbara Holdrege's book on how scripture is understood,
and Hananya Goodman's forthcoming edited volume on Hindu and
Jewish religious concepts.  However, this type of research is
most often not dialogical but individual.

2.  The Hindu-Jewish dialogue is also about something so
apparently mundane as dietary laws.  As traditions which
emphasize orthopraxy, it should not be surprising that the area
of dietary laws has actually been on the forefront of
Hindu-Jewish religious interactions in America.  Any number of
enterprising Tamil restauranteurs in New York City sell "kosher
doshas," proudly display hechshers from the Lubavitcher rebbe,
and in fact Hindu "brahmin" restaurants afford a kosher dining
alternative for the most scrupulous Jew.  Not only that, one
often finds the latest in kashruth research in newspapers which
serve America's Hindu community.  (For example, see The India
Times, July 15, 1992, p.  13).  While Hindu and Jewish dietary
codes do not coincide, they do overlap, and these are areas in
which communication and cooperation can be developed.  A
faithful Hindu is as concerned as is the observant Jew about the
chemistry of rennet, or the presence of lard in baked goods, and
therefore would be interested in learning about the mysterious
code of O-U and Kof-K, and of Fleishig/Milchig/Pareve, as well
as in supporting kashruth research.

The issue of diet is also a spiritual issue, although it's not
usually recognized as such.  Divine dietary codes are about the
sanctification of food, the archetypal mundane issue.  Food can
be kosher, just as it can be prasadam, and a study of Hindu and
Jewish reflections on the meaning of food regulations would
itself be worthwhile, beyond the practical issues of hechshers
and food research.  (Shimmel and Adhikari, 1990:90)

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