Passage to India

I was this week’s featured cover story in the Jewish Standard. I have to thank Reb Yudel for an amazing job in his write up. The content was based on my many blog posts reporting on India. Let me know what topics would be especially interesting to develop for a general reader. The article was unable to include anything about my trip to the Temple of Tirumali that I blogged and the hair tonsuring and it did not discuss sacrifice. For those who want the original article with the wonderful photographs taken by Rabbi Robert Carroll who came to visit me, see the link here.

Local academic finds Jewish parallels in Hindu university

Larry Yudelson *Cover Story
Jewish Standard  29 August 2014

Dr. Alan Brill of Teaneck faced his students.

The classroom reminded him of British Mandate era buildings in Jerusalem. It obviously had been built in the 1940s, or at least refurbished then. All the desks had inkwells.

Among the students earnestly taking notes were three Buddhist monks from Cambodia wearing orange robes; two Tibetans, one of whom looked like a Sherpa in his yak-wool vest; an Australian Christian dressed like a hippie trying to dress like an Indian, and several Indians dressed in modern clothing. Up front, wearing a traditional long golden coat, was the professor of Hindu religion and philosophy who normally taught this course. He was particularly diligent in his note-taking.

The day’s topic was the Bible.

And then came a question that highlighted both the vast gulf between Indian and Jew, and the commonalities between Indian and Jewish religion:

“Do Jews still sacrifice animals?”

That’s not a hard question for Dr. Brill, an ordained Orthodox rabbi, to answer.

In fact, there are probably few Christians in America who don’t know that Jews stopped sacrificing animals nearly two thousand years ago.

But in India, the question made perfect sense. After all, in Indian, animal sacrifices only ended in the early 20th century.

The question was emblematic of Dr. Brill’s six-month stay in India — a place where Judaism doesn’t register on the religious awareness of even the most educated, but where people’s intensely religious lives — full of household ritual, frequent prayers and hand washings, and elaborate food regulations — makes it in some ways much closer to Judaism than Christianity.

passage to india

Dr. Brill was in India on sabbatical from Seton Hall University, where he teaches in the department of Jewish-Christian studies. He was based in the graduate school of religion and philosophy at Banaras Hindu University in the city of Varanasi, where he had a Fulbright-Nehru fellowship, courtesy of the U.S. State Department.

The interactions between Dr. Brill and his students embodied an encounter between two ancient religious traditions that have had relatively little interaction. (Dr. Brill was able to catalog those encounters — many consisting simply of medieval rabbis responding to reports of Indian religion in Arabic writings — in just one chapter of his 2012 book, “Judaism and World Religions.”)

Dr. Brill taught an introduction to Judaism course as part of the Introduction to Western Religions course required of graduate students in the religion school. Even the course’s usual instructor had never heard of Talmud or midrash, Dr. Brill said. And he too was surprised to learn that Jews long ago stopped bringing animal sacrifices, that the practice wasn’t ended by Judaism’s 19th century Reform movement as it has been by India’s 19th century religious reformers.

Wait. Animal sacrifices? Aren’t Hindus vegetarians?

Yes and no.

India is a big place With 1.2 billion people, it is the second most populous country on earth. Unlike China, the most populous, religion has not been repressed there. Instead, in India it flourishes. As of the 2001 census, 80 percent of Indians are Hindu; 13 percent Muslim (making India the country with the world’s third largest Muslim population), and the rest mostly divided between Christianity, a Western import, and the homegrown religions of Sikkhism, Buddhism, and Jainism. But what is called “Hinduism” by the West and the Indian national census is really a collection of related religious traditions with common roots and practices but great differences that are recognized by individual practitioners.

Dr. Brill compares it to someone who sees Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as essentially one religion. (He met many people like that in India.) After all, the three monotheistic religions share the same theology of one God who created the world and rewards and punishes sinners; and they share many religious figures, such as Abraham and Moses.

In reality, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are at least three religions — and the closer you look at any one them, the less monolithic is appears to be. (Is the difference between Reform and Orthodox Judaism significant? How about the difference between Chabad and Satmar?)

All the more so in India — with its more than 1,500 languages, representing myriad distinct ethnic groups.

“Almost any obscure Hindu sect has more members than there are Jews,” said Dr. Brill. That includes one group, dating back to the 13th century, that pretty much adopts a Jewish-style theology of pure monotheism.

“The most important thing I learned is not to trust any of the generalizations, stereotypes, or almost anything written in American popular literature,” Dr. Brill said. “Even the most basic things that come on a Google search are incorrect.”

One example: “The same way Jews are not still directly practicing the religion described in Leviticus, no Hindu is practicing the religions of the Vedic texts directly. They’ve had dozens of points of changes. Like any other religion, they’re practicing 20th century versions of it.”

Banaras Hindu University is, as its name implies, a religious college — as are, in their way, Seton Hall and Dr. Brill’s alma mater, Yeshiva University. But unlike the two small New York-area institutions, Banaras University is huge, boasting 20,000 students. It is in one of India’s holiest cities, on the banks of the sacred Ganges river, the city of a million residents that draws three million pilgrims each year — many with the belief that dying in the holy city, or being cremated on the shores of the Ganges, will prove auspicious.

Dr. Brill uses an Israeli metaphor. “It’s like Bar Ilan University” — a modern Orthodox institution — “but located within Bnai Brak,” an ultra-Orthodox center. In that metaphor, Dr. Brill likens his alien presence to a Swedish Lutheran living in Bnai Brak.

Another difference between the Indian institution and the American religious colleges: Conferences at Yeshiva University and Seton Hall don’t open with ceremonial offerings to busts of their founding presidents.

But Dr. Brill found plenty of ways in which Banaras reminded him of YU.

There were the pious students who kissed their sacred Sanskrit texts, like yeshiva students kissing their Bibles or Talmuds. Some went further and also kissed their Sanskrit dictionaries, an extension of the realm of holiness Dr. Brill also has seen in Jewish circles.

The pious students also paused at the doorway to touch the floor — reminiscent of the YU students who would kiss the mezuzah on the door jamb.

The two holiday calendars posted on Banaras University’s website point to India’s religious diversity. The first records 17 days on which the campus is closed, including Christmas and Good Friday; four Muslim holidays whose exact date is subject to change depending on when the new moon is sighted; national holidays like Independence Day and Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday, and several Hindu holy days. A second page offers 39 secondary holidays. Employees can choose two to observe.

But an observant Jew seeking to take off the 13 traditional Jewish holidays would be met with understanding, Dr. Brill believes. “They would be fine with it. There are many more regional holidays that are not on the list,” but for which practitioners take off.

“Hindus do not have a Sabbath but they have at least one festival every 10 days,” he said.

Dr. Brill has begun to write a book “that in some way explains the contours of Hinduism for Judaism, or lets both of the religions look at each other, the similarities and differences.” (This will follow his soon-to-be-completed history of Modern Orthodox Judaism from 1800 to 2000; his first book on interfaith topics, “Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding,” is coming out in paperback this fall.)

With that in mind, he was particularly keen to find out how his classes on Judaism would resonate with the Indian students.

He was thrilled to see them catch on to subtle points.

When the students read Genesis, “they all said, ‘Look! Adam was originally a vegetarian.’”

Another time, a professor sitting in on his class called out, “Oh, this is God in search of man!”

The Indian had unwittingly used Abraham Joshua Heschel’s phrase to summarize the Jewish Bible, where God speaks to humankind in a manner that contrasts starkly with the gods in Hindu scripture, who speak only to each other.

And both the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis and the philosophy of Maimonides in his Guide to the Perplexed earned the high praise of being “yogic.”

“For them, yogic is not the exercise part,” Dr. Brill said. “It’s how you go from falsehood and false consciousness to regaining the truth through correcting your mind and your habits. Yoga for them is a process by which you elevate the falsehood of the human condition through philosophy, through correct ethics, and also meditation and physical discipline.” The Hebrew translation for yogic is mussar, he added.

The Indian students found that some of the most esoteric ideas of Judaism were the easiest for them to grasp.

“Theoretical kabbalistic discussions of whether God is separate from the world, whether the world is all God, and how God infuses the world — anything that sounds scholastic,” Dr. Brill said. “That’s what they spent their time studying. Subtle points of how does emanation work. It doesn’t matter whether it’s from a Hindu or a Buddhist point of view. They could have three other courses all on that topic.

“Some of the things that seem least Christian about Judaism make the most sense to Hindus. Both Judaism and Hinduism have the same set of questions.”

To take one example from the kitchen: “Both Jews and Hindus know that mushrooms don’t fit into the category of vegetables. The Hindus I was with don’t eat them. Jews say a different blessing before eating them. The actual practice is different, but there’s a certain common way of thinking, of always doing a taxonomy and creating a rule from it.

“There was a court case in India recently where the judge ruled that Hinduism is a way of life, not a religion — the same way as many Jews see themselves. Hinduism gives us a template for us as Jews to see what we’re doing, as opposed to the Christian concept of religion.”

Dr. Brill found that the Hindu practice of vegetarianism varied in different parts of India— much as does observance of kashrut in different parts of Israel.

“In Jerusalem, not only is everything kosher, but everything is under good certification,” he said. “The majority of the country is keeping traditional dietary practices, even if not so strictly. But there are cities that are secular and ignore it entirely.

“Vegetarianism is seen as the traditional practice in India,” he continued. Most people who live in Veranasi, where he was based, are vegetarian. “In the modern cities, there’s quite a bit of meat-eating. In the completely secular parts, it doesn’t exist.”

But just as most Israelis avoid pork, in India, “even those who eat meat tend to avoid cow.”

The result is that the most prestigious restaurant chain is KFC — because many Indians feel comfortable eating American fried chicken. McDonald’s is seen as less prestigious. In India, the chain has modified its menu; instead of serving beef burgers, it serves veggie burgers, chicken burgers, and burgers made out of cheese.

While Benaras is a coeducational institution, unlike Yeshiva College, still men and women cannot touch. When there was a school performance, “it was very much like a yeshiva day school play. One could profitably compare how to do shomer negiah dramatics in both faiths,” he said, using the Hebrew phrase for those who observe the traditional Jewish ban on unrelated males and females touching each other.

“The lead male role in the play was given to a girl, so that she could touch and hug the heroine. A minor male role was performed by an actual male student, but the rest of the individual roles were women. The men served as a dance troupe, acting out selected events in the narrative,” he said. “And like at a day school, there was the awkward ending when the female students only received flowers and a shawl from the female dean and the male students from the male dean.

“If the school was traditional, old-time Brahman, there would have been no mixing allowed. If it was fully modern then it would not have been a question” — that is likely the case at India’s secular universities. Instead, they try to walk the same tightrope as their modern Orthodox counterparts.

A few words about Hinduism, monotheism, and idolatry.

Judaism takes great pride in not worshiping idols. It’s right there at the beginning of the Ten Commandments: “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me. Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

And the psalms of Hallel are full of mockery. “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but they speak not.”

It’s not a surprise, then, that Jews are discomfited by Hindu religion, with its devotional statues and images dedicated to Krishna, Vishnu, and myriads of other less prominent deities.

According to Dr. Brill, no matter how much ancient Indian religion resembled the idolatry condemned by the Torah, by the time rabbis first discussed Hindu beliefs in the middle ages, they were responding to reports filtered through monotheistic Islam, whose empires stood at the borders of India or ruled portions of it. In Judeo-Arabic translations of Hindu texts, “deities” was translated as “angels.”

At the same time, Hindu theology had undergone its own theological shifts.

As a result, by the time of the first official encounters between Jewish and Hindu leaders — a 2007 summit in Delhi featuring Israeli Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger — the two sides could sign a declaration that “Their respective traditions teach that there is one supreme being who is the ultimate reality, who has created this world in its blessed diversity, and who has communicated divine ways of action for humanity, for different peoples in different times and places.” In a follow-up meeting in 2008, the declaration went further: “It is recognized that the one supreme being, both in its formless and manifest aspects, has been worshipped by Hindus over the millennia. This does not mean that Hindus worship ‘gods’ and ‘idols.’ The Hindu relates to only the one supreme being when he/she prays to a particular manifestation.”

If you ask an Indian about the image of a deity, whether in their home or in a temple, “they would say the image is just the way to direct your heart,” Dr. Brill said. “Everyone understand these are just representations.” .

He added that Western views of Indian religion aren’t helped by the choices made by the graphic designers, who tend to put images of dancing gods on the covers of books about Hinduism.

“Those are actually decorations on the outside of buildings, not the actual ones used in worship,” he said. “Imagine if we took pictures of lions on the outsides of the Torah ark or zodiacs from old synagogues, and put them on the cover of a book about Judaism.”

But these questions about monotheism and idolatry “are seen as incredibly judgmental and provincial by most Indians,” because they start the conversation by comparing Indian religion to Western conceptions, Dr. Brill said. Indians want Westerners to recognize “how much their focus is on a personal God; on how much they too want to get grace or repent before God. They resent how Western textbooks don’t present them as concerned with charity, good deeds, helping one another, and family life, and how much they’re doing all that to help gain God’s merit or love.”

Of all of Dr. Brill’s encounters with Hinduism in India, probably the most alien was the death ritual. Like Jews seeking to be buried in Jerusalem, people come from across India to Veranasi and the Ganges with their dead. Rather than being buried, the bodies are burned. Cremation “has very exact rules,” Dr. Brill said.

Another major difference ties into the diversity and its origins.

On his blog at, Dr. Brill imagined a hypothetical world in which Judaism had followed a Hindu-like path from biblical times.

“Imagine if, instead of saying there has to be one Temple in Jerusalem, the response to Jereboam was to say, ‘It’s a great idea! Maybe we should have a separate temple every day’s journey through the country,’” he said. “Imagine if Elijah and the priests of Ba’al said, ‘There’s only one God over everything. Why are we fighting?’

“It’s completely against Judaism, but to their way of thinking, everyone’s heart is in the right place.”

Dr. Brill believes the biggest impact of his teaching on the Indians he met was cultural. “They had never really thought of Judaism, of where it fits in,” he said. “They only knew it through Christian or anti-Semitic eyes, through Shylock or Mein Kampf.”

Indians know far less about Judaism than do American Christians, even those American Christians who have never met a Jew before. At first, Dr. Brill found that ignorance to be shocking.

“So, what do you think about Hitler” turns out to be a common conversation opener.

“They have no knowledge of World War II,” he said. “It’s like you would ask someone from the former Communist bloc what it was like under Stalin, without meaning any personal offense. They only know Hitler as a strong leader. They fought for the British, but their World War II ran through Burma and Indochina.”

For these future religious teachers and religious leaders studying at Benaras, “The whole course of Jewish history and our self-conception as a people, the Holocaust, Israel — that didn’t register. These sort of questions they put in the history department. They tend to think of religion in the abstract.

“They do have a great interest in learning about Israel,” Dr. Brill said. “The Jewish organizations have a great deal to gain in creating a teaching guide about Judaism and about Israel for the Indians.”


8 responses to “Passage to India

  1. You say they liked learning “the fine points on emanation”. Which books did you actually teach them? Zohar? Eitz Haim? I’d love to know.

  2. Have you come across any responsa literature dealing with relations between local Jews in India and their Hindu neighbors, i.e., did anyone come up with explanations why the Hindus do not fall under the Talmudic definition of idolators (parallel to the way Ashkenazi poskim let Christianity off the hook by claiming that non-Jews are not held accountable for shituf)?

    • I don’t know about actual p’sak (which would be interesting), but the way my father explains Hindusim to me based on his own readings and conversations with Hindu friends is that the Hindu “gods” are avatars of a single godhead, just that nobody worships the godhead itself. Instead, they all choose different avatars and in that way, all the avatars of the godhead are worshiped and so the godhead itself. Which sounds mighty like ramba”m explaining how avoda zara started. But Hindusim seems to have retained the “start” rather than the end of avioda zara (although I also understand that the less educated Hindus don’t necessarily have a good grasp of what it is that’s going on in Hindu theology and may really be ovde avoda zara. I’d love for someone to correct me on this, but if I were writing a t’;shuva, I guess I’d go along this line. 🙂

      • David, The first thing you would have to do is not rely on Western textbooks even if read by your father. Ignore what you wrote and go learn. There are many denominations of Hinduism- Vaishnavism, Shaivism, Shaktism, and Smartism, and each of these break down into further categories some without any minor gods, some with incarnations, some with only a high god, some with many gods, some with folk polytheism. Here in the US, they break down into denominations such as Sai Baba, Swami Naharayan BAPS, Gayatri, Tamil or even Guyanese.Study each of these separately. There is no one category or halakhah that would cover all of them.

        Judging the Hinduism denominations from afar based on generalizations is like say “African religions” or Native American religions” is a stereotype. The Hindu HAF is currently working on textbook reform in California to overcome stereotypical depictions of ancient Hinduism as contemporary Hinduism.

        Your textbook knowledge is like judging contemporary Judaism based solely on Jubilees, the Zohar and Spinoza. Both contemporary Jews and Hindus follow the teachings of the last 200 years that has been exposed to modernity, suburban life, science and psychology. We distinguish between Reform and Orthodox Judaism, Secular and Hasidic, rational and mystical when Jews are only a mote in world’s religions.
        Hinduism in contrast is a billion believers with almost as much diversity as all three faith of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam combined. Go and learn first.

      • Berel Dov Lerner

        There is a fascinating recent account of idol-production in modern India in chapter 7 of William Dalrymple’s *Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India*. It gave me a new way to think about idols; the people making the idols sort of remind me of Jews making tefillin and constantly saying “leshem mitzvat tefillin”. You can read it online at chrome://epubreader/content/reader.xul?id=8

      • Berel, good point. In many cases the statues are tashmeishei kedushah and not how the West conceives of them

    • Thanks. I guess that’s along the line of what we were thinking that there’s a gamut of beliefs from pure avoda zara to something closer to us. But of course a well-off educated Hindu might simplify that that to poor and uneducated versus educated. But yes, some day I will try to learn more and thank you for these research terms. I love your analogy to Jubilees! 🙂

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