Rishikesh: Israelis, Chabad, and Theology

This one starts travelogue and ends with theology
I arrived at night to the mountainside hotel part of a group of hotels, cottages and flophouses offering a view of the mountains. The hilltop was dimly lit by candle light from the restaurants and the safety light in each unit. Chabad managed to find me in the dim lit street within an hour, a bachur on a motorcycle pulled up and asked in Hebrew “Where in Israel was I from” I answered “New Jersey.” He invited me for Shabbat and then hurried over a few yards to catch the nonstop stream of Israelis headed to their flophouse. Each one brushed him off and said they were not interested; they repeated they were not interested in anything. I was on the Hummas trail and this was one of their comfy hangouts. Everywhere I had been until now was off the Israeli trail.


Along the ‘Hummus Trail’ By Dor Glick Haaretz Apr. 2, 2009 | 7:10 PM
INDIA – It’s 10:30 A.M. at the Pink House in Vatta Kanal – go straight along the road after Chabad House and bear right near the top of the hill – and 10 Israelis are starting the day with a bong on the porch. Someone asks about the chillum – a clay pipe for smoking which is very popular in India – and everyone is feeling blue because the mushrooms, unfortunately, are no longer in season.
The new Israeli colony has injected vast amounts of money in local terms and provides a living for owners of guest houses and kiosks, taxi drivers – and, of course, drug dealers. “Israeli food” accounts for 80 percent of the menus in the local restaurants; Indian food has been displaced by shakshuka, laffa and sabikh.

The transformation of a small village in India into an Israeli zula (comfy hangout) is a direct result of the abandonment of the basic motivation of generations of backpackers- These days, young Israelis go to India to do drugs with other Israelis against the backdrop of a shifting landscape. The result is the “Hummus Trail” – a chain of laid-back refuges in which the sacred tongue rules in loud tones and the de rigueur item of clothing is a T-shirt signifying the conclusion of an army training course. Dialogue with the locals, when it takes place at all, is confined to “I’d like some chai” or similar commands.

“Do you think I could deal with the Indians when I’m sahit [not stoned]?” says A., a 21-year-old woman from Kfar Sava, who has been in Vatta for two weeks, when asked whether she has spent even one day in the country without drugs.

Two hours later, those revelers whose body and mind allowed it, showed up for a well-organized Sabbath-eve meal. The tables were packed with nonreligious Israelis, most in their early twenties. Among the songs that made the windows shake before the challah was passed around was the latest Chabad-style hit for travelers in the subcontinent: “I tried meditations, I met enlightened types, I went down to Goa and starred in movies, but I felt something was missing … I threw out the chillum, bought phylacteries, I started to recite whole verses from Psalms, because the time is short and the work is great – and the righteous Messiah, here he comes …”
Read the Rest Here
Also see the pictures here

Already in 2006, Elhanan Nir published a work Me-Hodu ṿe-ʻad kan : hogim Yiśreʼelim kotvim ʻal Hodu ṿe-Yahadut shelahem documenting the Israeli pilgrimage to India, but except for one or two academics mentioned in the book the conclusion was that the Israeli don’t really engage Indian culture or Indian religion.

In a café in town, there were signs in Hebrew to use your skills learned in India and come work with the Bnai Menashe upon returning to Israel. Also a sign from Yisrael Batenu, who maintain a series of outposts in india. I have been told that Bnai Akiva is also active in some cities.

When I asked Israelis what struck them about Hinduism, I usually got the Sikh Golden Temple in Amritsar as the first answer, with a follow-up that they did not know the imageless monotheistic Sikhs were theologically closer to Islam. As a follow-up, those asked tended to answer something about Buddhism. But mainly it did not interest them.

The Chabad house of Rishikesh is what’s called a mushroom, a non-official Chabad house. The Chabad houses on chabad.org are officially under Krinsky while those elsewhere are separately organized, originally more messianic, and are on Chabadhodu.org. There is a rabbi there who has been there for ten years and impressed me for his sense of the reality of the situation. His two young assistants less so. The first got up and was pouring large amounts of Vodka and told wild extemporaneous miracle tales with details that exhibited his lack of education such as a person going to Malaysia to study Hindu meditation (it is a Muslim country), or a story of a person going to the city of Tazmania where a visiting secular Israeli became the only one who remembered the order of the prayers, or the miracle that the Rebbe could stand for so long greeting people. The other bacher lead davening with frequent interruptions in his davening to tell jokes or sing alternate songs with a stoned Israeli. The bencher had the song mentioned in the Haaretz article above “I tried mediation, Goa,movies et al. and in the end my soul craved Torah and I bought tefillin and became a baal teshuah.” It also had a song about being in the Israeli army envious of one’s officer, but he got killed so I am the lucky one, yechi for my life, yechi for the rebbe.

The shaliach said that he has to be realistic and use the leniencies he can to live and work here. He has learned a lot from and relies on the leniencies from the Yeshivat Othniel, Tekoa, and Mekhon Herzog world. He knew their leniencies about entering Sikh Gurdwaras. And here where every day is a holiday he relies on the position of tosafot that “they are only doing the custom of their forefathers.” Yet, he know that in a city like Varanasi, they have an unbroken tradition of understanding of the ritual. He knows something of the leniency about Ashrams, but wanted to know more. He did not know the teshuvah of Rabbi David Hayyim Halevi permitting TM style meditation. In general, he relied on the Rebbe to acknowledge that Indian wisdom is subtle and that there is what to learn but that he sticks to Rabbi Yitzchak Ginzburgh (and he volunteered to say, despite the political problems).

The Shaliach gave an appropriate dvar Torah based on the Magid of Mezritch that originally all is divine and God converts the Nothing (Eyn) of the world into Something (yesh) by the act of creation. And the zaddik converts the yesh back to the eyn by his worship. Hence, you will reach Eyn here. Through Torah uMizvot. As he finished, I could not help thinking that in three months of chulent, heavy vodka drinking, and wearing tefillin, the adept would not have reach anywhere near the level of three months in an ashram. Empirically, those in the Ashram would have more mind control toward Eyn.

Which reopens up the question that people used to ask: Should Judaism have opened up an ashram? I know people in the 1990’s who thought of it. In the Jewish ashram, you would practice solitude –hitboddedut, study Ramchal, CHabad, Nefesh Hahayim and Ramak, engage in the path of Hayyim Vital’s Shaarei Kedushah or that of Ovadiah ben Avraham ben haRambam. It would also mix in some Rav Nachman calling out to God with an awesome Kabbalah Shabbat. Meaning that the Yeshiva Ashram would only teach and practice the Raja Yogic and Vedanta, and Advaitan parts of Judaism. It would leave all the karma yoga of practice, halakhah, and the study of the laws for the advanced students. Just like the Ashram does not teach its strict vegetarian dietary laws or its Hindu rules and does not worry the students about studying them, even as it practices them. Maybe for certain souls this approach would be better for their souls. The mainstream of Jewish outreach has trouble understanding the basic difference between the spiritual states of raja yoga and Vedanta from the action based karma yoga of mizvot.

There is an online guide to rating gurus based on their empirical ability to help you achieve spiritual goals. In it, they also include the Rebbe giving him a half star out of five stars for the ability to help you spiritually.

Lubavitcher Rebbe M 1902-1994 aka Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson Chabad
Seventh Lub Reb, son-in-law of 6th. “The Master Plan of Creation” page begins: “It is no accident that you picked to read this item. Nothing that happens in our lives is mere circumstance or coincidence.” Org = Chabad. Apocalyptic extreme right-wing Jewish Hassidic fundamentalist. 613 commandments, lots of morality. Anyone for fire and brimstone?

But maybe we should say Torah uMitzvot have nothing to do with gurus. There is a contemporary philosopher of religion Mark Heim who in his innovative book Salvations who criticizes the pluralistic approach that all religions are pluralistically the same. No, rather they are different and maybe offering different goals and ends. There are not only various religions but various kinds of religions, sometimes completely at odds with each other, totally incompatible. And this will in turn lead us to discover that these religions have their own religious goal or religious end. The meaning of salvation actually varies from one to the other. Mizvot and Yoga may be completely different and not even have functional equivalence so there is no competition. Maybe instead of seeing Torah and Yoga as an either/or of two religious paths, we should see them as either having nothing in common with each other or having potential for a synthesis like Torah with most of the humanities. Just say that “there is wisdom among the gentiles” and treat Yoga as a form of wisdom.

Yoga should be returned to its secular role as a physical discipline like tai chi or karate. But we should call it asanas (physical positions) not the broader name Yoga. We should accept the Hindu’s complaint about not calling it TorahYoga or those Americans who say Yoga is not Hindu. But we are only doing the physical elements as they have evolved in the 20th century, the asanas. – see here for links to our prior discussions.

There are two paths in Hinduism, as it is practiced, the life of the householder and the life of the holy man. The householder focuses on ritual, holidays, and worship. The holy man tradition sees himself as above the practices of the householder and does not practice them. The Swamis of Rishikesh will tell you to avoid the street Hinduism and festivals since they distract from the Yogic practice. One can be in an Ashram and never learn anything about householder Hinduism or the gods.

Yoga as taught in Rishikesh is not directly connected to ritual Hinduism or worship even in India, except at the ritual at the end of the training course that takes most of the participants by surprise. It is however connected to the Yoga Sutra and Advaitan thought about non-duality, and the Oneness of Being. I know many Jews in America and Israel who would like a Jewish guide of what is similar to our tradition in Ergas, Ramhal, Chabad, and Nefesh Hahayim and what is not similar or what is the dividing line.

But we have a new problem of those American Yoga teachers from Bayonne or Calabasas, we bring back a random assortment of statues for their studios. They freely pick souvenir statues of Buddha or Hindu deities to decorate their studies. Real Hindu divine images need consecration, an altar, and daily service. These, rather, are part of the eclecticism of the US. They also make up new age narratives such “We are now going to worship the Sun by doing the Sun salutation.” So participants think that they are about to worship an ancient Hindu deity when they are not. Then American newspapers debate these things without checking with the original practice.

At the table at the Chabad house, there were also couples from the Othniel, Tekoa, Gush world who were not looking to the Chabad rabbi, rather they talked between themselves. They were simultaneously committed Jews and incorporating their experiences of India. They are the ones who will most need a guide to Indian wisdom and the one’s most needing to write one.

11 responses to “Rishikesh: Israelis, Chabad, and Theology

  1. Just as a side note, another book to mention- the Hovot HaLevavot: your description of a potential of path within Judaism, focused inwardly and leaving aside detailed concentration on Halakhahic study, matches his message, and in his introduction he argues the point explicitly.

  2. Alan writes:

    > Which reopens up the question that people used to ask: Should Judaism have opened up an ashram? … Meaning that the Yeshiva Ashram would only teach and practice the Raja Yogic and Vedanta, and Advaitan parts of Judaism. It would leave all the karma yoga of practice, halakhah, and the study of the laws for the advanced students.

    It seems to me that this suggestion misses the nature of Judaism.

    In Hinduism and Buddhism, perception is (or leads to) salvation. In Judaism, it’s what you do, not what you think or perceive.

    In Judaism, if you somehow arrive at perceiving the one-ness of God in everything but don’t keep Shabbat, you’re on the wrong path. If you sit in meditation and contemplation all day long but don’t say the Sh’ma at the right time, you haven’t accomplished much. If you sing and dance and feel spiritually connected to God, but eat non-kosher, you’re doing wrong.

    All the spirituality in the world won’t make up for not following the Torah’s commandments. Spirituality can enhance the result of following the Torah’s commandments but it can’t replace them.

    First basic k’dusha, then rukhneeyoot. No?

  3. “All the spirituality in the world won’t make up for not following the Torah’s commandments. Spirituality can enhance the result of following the Torah’s commandments but it can’t replace them.”
    How do you know this so clearly? קדושה is not a given for just observing the מצות.
    As far as “In Judaism, it’s what you do, not what you think or perceive.” that is a very nebulous statement e.g. the qabbalists of בית אל who left their houses after הבדלה and only returned for שבת קידוש.
    So they spent their time ‘perceiving’ either in talmud or qabbalah the entire week- a 6 day ‘ashram’.
    As far as perceiving goes their is no מצוה to believe in god but there is one to know him.
    IMO the essence of the מורה נבוכים is based on this: firstly in the initial chapter dealing with צלם which would be pure intellect where the perceiver and perceived are one e.g. what the Persian metaphysicians call ‘ilm al huduri, ‘knowledge by presence’ or ‘non-representational knowledge’ i.e. the absence of images.
    The Rambam then goes on in the 2nd chapter to extrapolate explaining that אלהים{which is not sanctified here and therefore חול} is ‘judges’ like Onkelos translates and not ‘gods’ as most seem to assume.
    So before ‘eating from the tree..’ Adam’s perception was of אמת ושקר whereas after the ‘repast’ his ‘perception’ was ‘downgraded’ to מפורמסות i.e. ‘relative’ meanings which change, let us say, according to situation, time, place etc.
    So it seems that the way you understand ‘perceiving’ seems somewhat pedestrian.
    Last but not least gentiles are not commanded by the Torah and thus you cannot deny them spirituality or some kind of קדושה on the grounds of them not being Jewish.

  4. Walter Benjamin wrote:

    > How do you know this so clearly? קדושה is not a given for just observing the מצות.

    It’s stated in the third paragraph of the Sh’ma (B’midbar 15:40): l’ma-ahn tiz-k’roo va-ah-see-tem et kol mitz-vo-tai, v’heh-yee-tem k’doe-shim l’ei-lo-hei-khem… .

    We say it in the bra-kha that accompanies mitzvote: ahsher kidsha-noo b’mitzvotav.

    In the Shabbat Sha-kha-reet ah-mee-da we say: v’keedahshtanoo b’mitzvoteh-kha.

    The whole parsha of K’doshim (Va-yikra 19:2), which starts with the prescription “k’doe-sheem ti-hee-yoo”, is nothing but mitzvote. It ends (20:26) similarly.

    And more recently, in the Neffesh Ha-chayyim (Sha-ar 1, chapters 4 through 6), Rav Chaim Volozhiner states clearly over and over again that the performance of the mitzvote brings the state of k’doosha.

    > Last but not least gentiles are not commanded by the Torah and thus you cannot deny them spirituality or some kind of קדושה on the grounds of them not being Jewish.

    No one is denying non-Jews spirituality. Alan was talking about a Yeshiva Ashram for Jews, not for non-Jews. I was only addressing Jews.

    But since you bring up the subject…

    We know that non-Jews can merit the world to come. One example is Rebbi Chanaya ben Tradyon’s executioner (TB Avoda Zara 18a).

    And non-Jews also seem to have a baseline level of K’doosha, as they are permitted to bring an offering to the Mikdash and to approach up to the Kheil (or Soreg), but no further. Jews can lose that baseline level of k’doosha via certain types of tum’ah (e.g., a m’tzo-ra).

  5. walter benjamin

    Again all these references are ‘potential’ situations’ not that one automatically achieves ‘holiness’ by doing מצות.
    We also have at least two examples of the performance of מצות and obviously קדושה is not attained:
    נוכל ברשות התורה
    אנשי מלומדה
    In both the cases above and the examples given in diff place it is obvious that even though they are performing the מצות כהלכתן there is no קדושה involved.

    • The state of k’dusha resulting from doing a mitzva is temporary and can be removed by sin or wrong/coarse action. See the first few paragraphs in the Neffesh Ha-chayyim, Sha-ar 4, chapter 29 on the subject of “kee mitzva nair, v’torah ore”. That applies to your first case of nah-val bir’shoot ha-torah.

      And the effect of roteness when performing mitzvote – which might or might not be the context of mitzvaht ah-na-sheem m’loo-ma-da – is not simply understood. See what the Neffesh Ha-chayyim says about the effects of mitzvote done without any intention, near the end of Gate 1, chapter 22. Also, see what he has to say in regards to the mitzva of talmood torah sheh-lo lishma (involvement with Torah not for its own sake) in the P’rakim, chapters 2 and 3, and in Sha-ar 4, chapter 18. He also mentions there the effect of doing things by rote.

  6. Jewish Ashram sounds good, or almost any attempt to bring classical discipline and disciplines into Jewish life. Without minimal levels of striving for basic self-discipline (and here I don’t mean the forced discipline of Tzahal, a discipline which their constant intoxication in India right after discharge threatens to make a mockery of, although as father of a ninenteen-year-old guy I do believe that we have to give these dudes some rope to cut loose and decompress), most aspects of Judaism are impoverished. Are you speaking strictly of setting up one in India, or are you talking American Catskills or Boulder, or Israeli mountains or deserts or elsewhere? How would “Jewish ashram” differ and avoid pitfalls of previous attempts, both Orthodox and liberal? There were the attempts of R. Zalman and his followers, Pnai Ohr, Eylat Chen, there was even the earlier days of Morristown Yeshiva, which I recall with some fondness. Sounds like the head of the Lubavitch outpost in Rishikesh is educated and deserves support, although the situation seems to make such a mockery of what Jews ought to stand for. Should ashrams be preferred over retreat centers or urban groups? Since Buddhism is much less theistic and hence less polytheistic, aren’t Buddhist monastaries much less problematic? And then there are the problems of lacking clear, developed, agreed-upon Jewish paths (which Advaita and Samkhya and Yoga provide for Hinduism), all of which leads to reliance upon the charismatic leadership and the pitfals of that. And how should staff manage the worldly existence of such a thing, and the students’ and staff’s own grhastha (baal ha-bayit) worldly obligations? Perhaps us older guys need take our obligations more seriously to become zeqenim and to move on to the Vanaprastha stage. After all, it was always Socrates and the older sophists with the young men in the Academy, Zeqenim with the young disciples in the Beit Midrash, and elder gurus with the young men in the Ashram. But even partial “retirement” and its potential for our own growth as well as to give back to society seems like an ever more remote possibility for most of us….

  7. Interesting website/post. A few comments:

    1) The idea of a Jewish ashram is an intriguing one. However, I don’t know that an institution of this type should specialize only in Jnana Yoga/Vedanta/Non-dualism. An equally pressing need, in my opinion, is for institutions that emphasize bhakti marga. Many Jews are devotionally oriented and there are few if any places for them within traditional Judaism. In my extended family, for example, there is a young man who is not a “learner” and is devotionally inclined. Almost by default, he wound up in Breslov Chassidus which, while positive in some respects, is deeply problematic in others.A Jewish sadhana that stressed kavannah in davvening, cultivating simcha-shel-mitzvah, and other devotional practices
    might fill a huge gap.

    2) I agree with your point that Mitzvot and Yoga have different spiritual goals.Yes, Judaism is not about either nirvikalpa samadhi or moksha(and I have yet to meet any Jivanmuktas on Avenue J in Brooklyn). However, I do not see why you then propose “demoting” yoga to asanas-only. Why not practice BOTH the Torah of Mitzvot and Raja/Ashtanga Yoga and Vedanta, especially if they fulfill different needs?(Assuming of course that Raja Yoga and Vedanta are OK Jewishly, which you seem to agree with).

    3) Yes, American yoga is cluttered with eclectic and trendy dilletantism, with yoga studios throwing together statues of the Buddha alongside those of Hanuman, Shiva etc(which, btw, many Hindus find offensive) – mostly because these are “cool”. However, as virtually every Yoga Master alive today (and not only Hatha Yoga Masters)would say, the Hindu “flavor” is not needed. This should not be an impediment to exploring the deeper aspects of yoga.

  8. Maybe I could promote my cousins sefer ‘Ayin el ha’ayin – An eye to the infinite’ (Rubin) for the kosher ashram (I do not get commission).

    Entering a beis avodah zarah for the purpose of kiruv would seem to be mutar as entering is not abizreihu so not yehareg ve’al yaavor and would be nidcheh by the various asin and lavin of doing kiruv in this scenario (lo saamod al dam re’echah etc.)

    I think the Arizal spent 7 years meditating in a hut by the Nile before he went to Tzephas so maybe some kisvei ha’Ari could serve as part of the foundation course for the Ashram. The Alter of Novahrodock also spent a few years in hisbodedus after his first wife died but I am not sure if Madregas ha’Adam would go down with chumas.

  9. alon goshen-gottstein

    3 comments. one trivial – there is a hindu minority in Malaysia. Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh started his career as a doctor in Malaysia. More significantly – I am concerned about an overidealization of ashrams and concommitant downplaying of spiritual benefits of studying at yeshivat tomchei temimim, or any other yeshiva. You can spend many years in Ashram and learn next to nothing and you can find some very good jewish education. the thought about 3 months in each resorts to a stereotype that may not be true to reality. Even more important – I think this is a highly idealized view of ashram also in terms of its actual practices. the imagined model of what ashram looks like, as the basis for the imagined yeshivashram, corresponds to only one out of a many ashrams that I visited. the rest are as ritualistic, practical etc. Certainly this is true for the various ashrams in rishikesh, within spitting distance of where chabad house is located. they do the ritual. maybe yoga courses for westerners have a different configuration, but ashrams are complex things and do not correspond to this highly idealized description.

  10. I remember when I was reading about Yoga and Buddhism that I thought that Judaism was like the early stages of Yoga or Buddhism. First negative prohibitions, second affirmative requirements and further on different paths and practices to prepare the individual for mysticism. Judaism seems to stop short with the first two.

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