Do Jews and Hindus worship the same God? Moses Mendelssohn argued over two centuries ago that Hindus were not polytheists but monotheists who worship God through a system of symbols misunderstood by Westerners. Mendelssohn argued that images of the divine in Hinduism are symbolic the same way the rabbinic stories of the cherubim embracing are symbolic. An outsider would misconstrue the story of the cherubs, so too Westerners misconstrue the symbolic nature of Hinduism, which is actually part of their healthy human understanding of God. Drawing on traditional categories, Mendelssohn thought the Bible only forbids imagery to Jews as Nahmanides taught and he extended the tosafist idea of shituf (association) to Hinduism. Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein returns to this approach in two recent books.
Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein studied at Yeshivat Har Etzion and has a PhD in Rabbinics from Hebrew University has devoted his career to interfaith work as founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. The first book is The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism (New York: Palgrave, Macmillan 2016) and the second book is Same God, Other God: Judaism, Hinduism and the Problem of Idolatry (New York: Palgrave, Macmillan 2016). He is also the editor of Jewish Theology and World Religions (The Littman Library 2012).
This interview will be in two parts; the first part will discuss the questions of Same God, Other God and the second part will be about Goshen –Gottstein’s actual encounter with Hinduism. This interview raises many important issues. If you want to write a response or want to ask both of us questions then email.
Yale professor Miroslav Volf in a significant book Allah: A Christian Response (HarperOne 2012) asks if Christians and Muslims worship the same God starts by separating the question into a series of questions. Do we have the same referent for God? Do we have the same descriptions? Do they have the same attributes? Were they accepted as historically similar? Is the worship style similar? Medieval thinkers such as Saadyah, Aquinas, or Farabi could see the same God is they affirm a unity based on the classic arguments for the divine. Volf created a method for asking these question in our age when scholastic thought does not have the same resonance.
Alon Goshen-Gottstein wrote an fine essay concerning Judaism and Christianity responding to the book’s argument, “God Between Christians and Jews Is it the Same God?”(available online) in Do We Worship the Same God?: Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Dialogue edited by Miroslav Volf. In addition, Goshen-Gottstein wrote some of the finest essays on the topic of comparisons with Christianity “God the Father in Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity” (2003) and “Judaisms and Incarnational Theology”(2002)
Four Jewish Opinions
Alon Goshen-Gottstein’s method in his book on Hinduism is to ask what the halakhic figures of Maimonides, Nahmanides, Tosfot and Meiri would say about similarities between the faiths. According to Goshen-Gottstein, Maimonides’ oneness of God can be compared to a proper understanding of Vedanta’s oneness. As a philosophic monotheist, there can only be one God regardless of the name and worship style. In the case of Hinduism, Maimonides’ negative theology has great commonality with Shankara’s Vedantic theology, but not the varied theologies of the individual devas -deities. (136)
The Tosafot concept of shituf, according to Goshen-Gottstein, means that non-Jews are not bound by the strict criteria of Jewish monotheism or the demand for exclusive worship of God. They may worship another being alongside God, the saints, Jesus or a deva.
Goshen-Gottstein gives special attention to Nahmanides’ who limit the lack of representation of God to Jews alone. Thereby, it leaves the other religions with “room for a rich mythical, imaginative and artistic life, that is particular to any given religious tradition, while balancing it with a more abstract, philosophical, if we will “pure” understanding of God.” For Goshen-Gottstein, “[a]ccording to this perspective, it may indeed be that Hindus worship various gods who are not the same as our God. Nevertheless, such worship may be legitimate and appropriate for them.
The thirteenth century Provencal Rabbi Menachem Meiri created a new category of the “ways of religion” based on its moral teachings, which Goshen-Gottstein perceptively divides this position into two aspects, the acknowledgment of non-Jewish forms of worship and the importance of moral teachings. Goshen-Gottstein plots a new course by expanding the Meiri into a statement of the acceptance of multiple ways to relate to God.
If we follow the Meiri, Hinduism is definitely a religion bound by the ways of religion and belongs in the same category as Islam and Christianity. For Goshen-Gottstein, “Hinduism provides us with an alternative way of configuring religious belief and moral duty.” This is because all “the fundamental details of belief –God, unity, power- may be recognizable, they appear in different combinations, carrying different weight within the overall system and operating in different ways as they interact with the moral order.” As long as we see the basics of Jewish religious principles in another faith then is monotheistic and moral enough to be respected by Jews.
Goshen-Gottstein creatively reaches to create a new category, a general respect for the “overall structure and value of their religious and spiritual life” found in other faiths. He encourages the reader to bracket out the technical halakhic questions of foreign worship in order to see a common religious goal. Jews can judge the other faiths as sharing common philosophical arguments concerning Gods being, negative theology, actions, and attributes.
Goshen-Gottstein develops from these positions a theory of religious imagination. For him, in this bold theory, the differences between religious ideas and symbols can be seen as the workings of religious imagination. This theme is a strong undercurrent to the book, partially discussed in many chapters, which should have been an independent section.
He models himself on Chief Rabbi Herzog’s statement that Christians elevated Jesus to a level of divinity as an act of their religious imagination and that halakhah permits these imaginative flourishes to gentiles. Goshen-Gottstein develops that into a broad concept of viewing the role of imagination in religion as our culturally diverse differences, meaning that our theological differences can be ascribed to imagination. If one accepts this extension of Rabbi Herzog, the other religions are not false gods or others gods, rather, the religious imagination at work. In Goshen-Gottstein’s estimation, the Hindu gods Krishna and Shiva can be treated the same way Herzog treated Jesus, that is, as acts of religious imagination rather than other gods.
Beyond this, he makes imagination a value in the full religious life rather than a hindrance. Just as there are rabbis who allow Jews who need to visualize God during worship as a concession to the strength of the imagination, so too non-Jews should be allowed even greater freedom in their religious imagination, even within their images of God, even if they are false images.
Alon Goshen Gottstein writes: “we might consider the specific manifestations of deities in Hinduism as part of what God has allotted this people, not through astral governance, but through the expressions of their religious imagination.“ The goal would be to “leave room for a rich mythical, imaginative and artistic life, that is particular to any given religious tradition, while balancing it with a more abstract, philosophical, if we will “pure” understanding of God.” For Goshen-Gottstein, “[a]ccording to this perspective, it may indeed be that Hindus worship various gods who are not the same as our God. Nevertheless, such worship may be legitimate and appropriate for them.
Later in the book, Goshen-Gottstein moves beyond his broad interpretations of the Shituf and Meiri to a theory of religious imagination and the religious personality, which includes “those expressions of moral and spiritual excellence that constitute religious perfection: humility, service, loving-kindness, compassion…”. In turn, “it can further be extended to formative experiences of God, as these register within human awareness and as these shape the religious personality.”
Goshen- Gottstein poses the question of what are signs by which one can recognize that a religion has true contact with God and extending Meiri from morality to religious life. We approach other religions looking to recognize God’s presence, especially mystical presence, and to see “traces of contact with God.” It would be non-generous to think that Jews have holiness but other religions have self-interest. We all share a common life of faith and recognize God’s presence. (144-145)
By the end of the book Goshen-Gottstein has advanced Meiri’s thought beyond his own rational starting point to the foundation of a more mystically oriented understanding of divine presence something between Paul Tillich or Bernard McGinn, in which a legitimate religion can be considered as anything having a presence of God, a dimension of contact with the divine. If the goal was raise a halakhic discussion, then the work has moved far from it.
The book however suffers from an essentialist approach to Hinduism. Tamar Reich, a Hinduism scholar with academic background in Judaism & Kabbalah, in her review of the book in the journal Pardes points out what she regards as the limitations of the work. “Advaita Vedanta theology resonates with the author’s Hasidic acosmistic leanings. This is very well, but it blinds him, in my view, to most of what Hinduism, for better and for worse, has been and is. He is less interested in the Sub-Continent’s rich pantheon, sacred narrative and religious poetry, theology of sacrifice, great temple architecture and art and devotional and social-protest movements.” I concur; the Hinduism in this book does not accord with what I know from my time teaching and studying in a department of Hinduism in India, rather it reflects Goshen-Gottstein’s own internalization of Advaita- Vedanta from his time with important Hindu teachers. (For more discussion, see part II of this interview- next week).
From Rejection to Acceptance
Most Christians accepted Miraslav Volf’s analysis of the issues of comparing conceptions of God. However, Evangelicals generally rejected it because the Muslim or Hindu views of God do not offer salvation and grace even if God is the same referent and same attributes. Goshen-Gottstein goal is to move from a Jewish Haredi rejectionist position toward his own reading of the Meiri and Nahmanides. Hence, frames his work using the Egyptologist Jan Assmann who claims that the religion of the Bible, and by extension Judaism, draws a sharp line between true and false religions, claiming that all other religions are false. Assman extends his claim, thinking that Biblical faith requires they be hated, persecuted, and destroyed as rivals, parodies, or perversions of the one true faith.
However, Mark S. Smith, professor at NYU, rejected Assmann’s claims and in fact Biblical and Hellenistic Jews translated the God of the Bible into corresponding to the God of their neighbors. He also points out that they could recognize other national gods as valid for Israel’s neighbors. “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 1:11)
From my own work, Jews were able to find an ability to translate the Jewish God into the divine ideas of theos and Allah around them. For example, the letter of the Jewish Annas to Seneca from the 4th century, is a purported Jewish letter to a pagan. He accepts that the pagan philosophic God and the God of the Bible are one. God is the father of all mortals is invisible to humans. However, Annas, the Jew attacks those who worship images that are nothing but images of their own desires.
The medieval philosophers readily translate between faiths such as Saadyah who writes of the Brahmins. Or Shem Tov Falquera already in the 13th century adumbrates a theory in which everyone believes in one God but the many deities are due to the religious imagination.
And in the age of exploration in the 17th century, Menashe ben Israel rejected the explorers labeling the nations of Asia as superstitious and pagan, rather he quoted “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts.” (Malachi 1:11)
During the colonial era, Chief Rabbi of Britain Joseph H. Hertz (1872–1946) stated that the heathens were not held responsible for a false conception of God and “were judged by God purely by their moral life.” For Hertz, “a primitive stage of religious belief” can still form “part of God’s guidance of humanity.” Even in their primitive version, [they] are serving the one true God (Malachi. 1:11)
All of these historical points are to emphasize that there has been discussions in the past about other religions, Asian religions and pagan practice, albeit not much about Hinduism. Yet, it was not a blanket condemnation of other religions or a sharp denunciation without translation. Goshen-Gottstein sees a direct line from Chief Rabbi Hertzog to himself. In the end, however, his position is a more developed Mendelssohn position. Finally, while an important book, the volume suffers from dense overwritten chapters which should have been trimmed from the Yeshiva casuistry that makes this work difficult to the reader without the requisite background as well as the many repetitions.
I acknowledge that my comments are some insider’s perspective, coming from my own concern with the topic. This is especially true since my own very different book, Rabbi on the Ganges: A Jewish Hindu Encounter (Lexington 2019) will be out this Fall 2019. Rabbi Prof Daniel Sperber has a forthcoming book on Hinduism and Avodah Zarah that will offer a contrast to this volume, so hold your breath before making final judgments. (Here is a recent article of Sperber’s) We have to thank Alon Goshen-Gottstein for producing strong Jewish theological analysis of the topic and the book should be read by all those interested in the topic, eventually together with my book and Rabbi Sperber’s forthcoming volume. Enjoy the interview. Stay tuned for part II next week.
- How is the tosfot concept ot Shituf helpful for a Jewish understanding of Hinduism?
Let me begin perhaps by defining what “shituf” is. “Shituf” is the position developed in the late middle ages by Jewish legal authorities who sought to legitimate Christian worship of God for Christians, while maintaining it is still forbidden for Jews. The position assumes there are two standards of proper approach to God – one for Jews, the other for non-Jews. Non-Jews are not bound by the strict criteria of Jewish monotheism or the demand for exclusive worship of God. What this means is that they may worship another being alongside God, the saints or Jesus himself. This provided Jews with a means of affirming the validity of Christianity for Christians, while continuing to affirm it is forbidden for Jews.
In the case of Hinduism, I have personally done very little to extend it because Rabbinic authorities have raised the possibility that what holds true for Christianity can hold true for Hinduism as well. The first to raise this possibility was the first Chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, Rabbi Y.I.Herzog. He made the point tentatively, stating he didn’t know that much about Hinduism, but it seemed to him that the construct could be applied to Hinduism as well. The point was also made by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who affirmed the “shituf” position by arguing that non-Jews are not expected to hold by the same standards that Jewish monotheism does. This softer or compromised monotheism he was willing to apply to Hinduism.
The basic argument would be that while Hindus may worship various forces of nature, deities, being or humans considered divine, they nevertheless do have a sense of a divinity beyond, and that therefore these are worshipped along with that absolute Supreme beyond.
If one thinks in terms of “Shituf”, then one could read the statement signed by the Chief Rabbinate and Hindu leadership, cited below, in these terms. The Hindu worships the Supreme, while worshipping in fact nature, concrete objects or individuals. Actually, in the case of Hinduism the argument to permit “shituf” may be stronger than with reference to Christianity, inasmuch as there is a conscious articulation of the principle that the Absolute Supreme Being manifests as those beings. Therefore, the Hindu acknowledges that it is not those beings that are being worshipped alongside God, but rather God who is worshipped in or as those beings.
But, frankly I find the category of “Shituf” not fully adequate to the task at hand.
- What contribution does Nahmanides make to our evaluation of Hinduism?
Ramban develops a theory of Avoda Zara in his commentary on the ten commandments (Exodus 20). According to Ramban there are different levels of what constitutes Avoda Zara.
In a manner analogous to the tosafot’s notion of permissibility of Shituf for non-Jews, Ramban develops a theory of permissibility of worship of other beings for non-Jews, provided they remain aware of the existence of the Supreme Being. He grounds this in a theory of distribution of divine providence to nations through their governing angels. Non-Jews are allowed to worship the celestial beings who provide for them. Why should it forbidden to them? The only thing is that they need to remember that beyond these angels is the one God who put it all in place. Jews, by contrast, may not worship other beings, because they are God’s lot and therefore exclusive allegiance is owed to God and cannot be compromised.
The advantage of Ramban’s position is that it does not require simultaneous worship of the absolute God while also worshiping a created being. In that, it avoids some of the theoretical problems associated with “Shituf”, which may not accurately reflect the beliefs of either Christians or Hindus, even if it is helpful to a Jewish theological discussion. On the other hand, however, is the difficulty that Ramban’s theory assumes a cosmic ordering, wherein different nations worship the angel or star that has been divinely allotted to them.
- Meiri helpful to understand Hinduism?
Rabbi Menachem Hameiri seeks to establish what a legitimate religion is; reversing the procedure of first establishing what is foreign worship. For Meiri a legitimate religion is one that has some knowledge of God, that by virtue of such knowledge assures a morally ordered society and that aids humans in their overall moral improvement and evolution. The key thing for Meiri is that details of faith, theology and ritual do not matter. Once one has it basically right, the details that one gets wrong don’t change the big picture. It is a very tolerant view that has great capacity to contain theological and religious disagreement, highlighting instead what is common between religions. In one way, that commonality is the commonality of the moral life.
Ultimately, valid religions all reference the same God. That they have different conceptions, names, myths and rituals does not detract from the fact that it is the one same God that is worshipped in different religions.
Moreover, Meiri subscribes to a theory of progress, wherein idolatry is something of the past and most religions have outgrown it. Because Meiri paints his theological picture in very broad strokes, I see no reason why Hinduism would not be included within this view of other religions. I think Meiri would consider Hinduism a valid religion. It has a notion of God. God ties into the moral order, though in ways that are different, perhaps parallel, to how God and the moral order are tied in Judaism. It has an idea of a morally ordered society and it aids the human person in advancing past his or her material inclinations, as proper religion should.
In my book, I expand the Meiri’s position as considering moral living as the measure of recognizing the validity of other religions. Meiri’s argument is that God is known through a particular dimension of human life – the moral order – that serves as proof for a particular religion knowing him. This argument can be extended to other dimensions of the spiritual life. We may consider various expressions of the spiritual life as indications of the presence of God in a given religion. People of deep faith, mystics and saints manifest various qualities. A partial list would include love (of God and other), humility, generosity, altruism, joy and much more. A true religious life forms the individual in particular ways and these in turn can serve as confirmation for a given religion of the nature of God-as known and worshipped.
- So do Jews and Hindus mean the same thing when they speak of God?
Well, yes and no. It really depends on which Hindus position one speaks about. But let me give you a Jewish answer – do Jews and Jews mean the same thing when they speak of God? In other words, how much flexibility or pluralism do we assume in our notion of God and when do differences in theological view necessitate declaring the god of another person (or religion) a different god.
The question of how we know that two people, even of the same faith, really refer to the same God, is not always that simple to answer. Naming helps, and sharing scriptures and stories also helps. But these cannot always cover up for theological differences. Sometimes two people from different religions may be closer in their understanding of God than two members of the same faith. One would therefore have to establish the criteria by means of which one knows that two people are speaking of the same God.
Here Meiri’s criterion of the moral life is so crucial. By your fruits you shall know them, not by their theological declarations. I would push the argument one step further and refer to the spiritual life as a criterion for the knowledge of God. Ultimately, the “yes and no” answer may be the only answer we can give, even with reference to any two individuals.
- How do you apply the notion of religious imagination with reference to Hindu faith?
As I suggest, it is possible to construct an argument for God being the same in Judaism and Hinduism, based on authorities such as the Meiri, who applies moral criteria for the establishment of the identity of God. While this resolves many contemporary challenges in practical terms, it does leave us with the difficulty of reconciling God, as he is known in Judaism and the various descriptions of God and gods in Hinduism.
The problem is less extreme in cases where forces of nature or people are worshipped. But what most Hindus refer to as God has elements of the fantastic – either by way of description of the deity or in terms of what is ascribed to God or gods in stories and myths told of them. Do these then undermine the possibility of affirming God in both traditions as the same God? Not necessarily.
This is where a theory of the religious imagination comes in. I suggest we can develop a theory of religious imagination that respects the workings of this faculty of the human person and recognizes its contribution to the religious life. Imagination is instrumental in giving expression to our deepest quest, in guiding us to truths and realities that we cannot attain without it and to integrating mind and heart in religious experience. Without imagination, much of the vitality of the religious life would be lost.
Now, we can recognize that imagination operates differently in different religious cultures, as we see in the art and artifacts produced in different cultures, and specifically religious cultures.
It serves instrumental needs. Looking at it in instrumental terms means we put aside the valuation of whether the portrayal through the imagination is correct. Rather, we ask if it produces good fruit. If it does, we accept its beneficial consequences and bracket the question of its truth content.
I rely on Jewish sources that are willing to make that move internally. For instance, in Hassidic sources we find reliance on Rabad’s refusal to reject someone who considers God in anthropomorphic terms and to call him a min. One important Hassidic teacher, the Piasetzner Rebbe, turns this into a recommendation to cultivate anthropomorphic imagination if it is beneficial for the beginner to cultivate a desired attitude to God. Such internal acceptance of “false” imagination for beneficial purposes can be extended more broadly to recognizing the beneficial consequences of the religious imagination in other religions and religious cultures.
- How does Maimonides’ approach help us in relating to Hinduism.
I think Maimonides’ thought and Hinduism needs to be understood in two ways. The first is to compare Vedanta to Maimonides’ view of God and consider the convergence. The second is a consideration of how Maimonides is more concerned with philosophic concepts of unity than practice.
Rambam offers us a baseline definition of Avoda Zara and conditions much of Jewish attitude to other religions. He is the champion of the view that Christianity is Avoda Zara. It would stand to reason that what holds for Christianity would apply also to Hinduism with its multiple deities and the use of image worship. Rambam is therefore not the most promising resource for considering ways of accepting Hinduism as non-Avoda Zara.
Still, a conversation between Rambam and Hindu thought is interesting, in theological terms, even if these do not necessarily affect the practical outcome, the pesak. Hinduism offers an entirely different structure from the one that informs Rambam’s understanding of Avoda Zara. For Rambam Avoda Zara is based on the worship of intermediaries, given a mistaken understanding of divine will. One is worshiping another being instead of worshiping God. This assumes a clear distinction between God and non-God and a theory of intermediaries that leads to the worship of the latter. Hinduism operates with an entirely different structure. As the Hindu-Jewish summit declaration states, the Hindu does not worship another being per se, as he or she worships the many beings, real and imaginary, that are worshipped. Rather, it is God alone that is worshipped, as he is made manifest in these beings. The entire approach to Hinduism as Avoda Zara shifts if one considers that intentionality and awareness are directed to God, rather than to non-God.
I recently heard a wonderful story of the Magid of Dubna, in the context of approaching Avoda Zara. An impostor came to town a week before the Magid of Dubna and received great honor, as well as the monies that would have gone to the Magid of Dubna. When the Magid came to town the people were in shock as they had given all their money to the impostor. The Magid comforted them saying – be not disheartened. Even if you honored someone else, in your own minds it was me you were honoring.
- What was lacking by both sides of the Jewish-Hindu encounters in 2007-2009?
Hindus, led by Swami Dayananda, sought to resolve the problem of Hinduism as idolatry by claiming that “the Hindu” only worships the absolute, or Supreme Being, even if such worship is expressed through worship of other beings. It was certainly an important clarification from the perspective of Jewish participants and allowed them to shift their attitude to Hindu participants from one of suspicion of idolaters to a more appreciative and respectful approach.
The rabbis were willing to sign onto a document that affirmed that Hinduism and Judaism shared the recognition of One Supreme Being, Creator and Guide of the Cosmos; shared values; and similar historical experiences. “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.”
Rabbi Daniel Sperber who is writing an important book on Jewish view of Hinduism based on what the Hindus taught is an extreme expression of this change in attitude. But for most of the Jewish participants, I don’t think that they really considered that the Jewish category of Avoda Zara had been addressed by the explanations offered by the Hindu party.
In my understanding of the rabbis involved, personally I do not think that even if they signed a declaration affirming that the Hindu only worships the Supreme Being, I don’t think any of them had intended to declare that the charge of Avoda Zara was off the table.
- How does the work of Jan Assman help us move beyond medieval Jewish positions?
Jan Assman is a scholar of Egyptian religion, who has been fascinated with the issue of monotheism and how religions of the ancient world related to each other. His work is important for me because it allows me to explore from a historical perspective the question of “same God” in antiquity.
If you can identify means of translating the name of God from one system to another, you uncover a deeper commonality. Of course, one must distinguish between the ability to do so in a polythetistic and in a monotheistic context. Nevertheless, even the monotheistic context still requires such work of translation. Consider some parts of America where you may find support for the notion that “Allah is not God” and some places where it is a given that “Allah is God.”
Jews are not used to discussing the “same God” issue. I think that beginning to ask the question of the same God is an important theological step and it is particularly important in the context of doing theology of religions against the backdrop of improved relations between faiths. A new framing of the question allows us to get past places where the theological discussion seems stuck. No less importantly, it opens the door to deeper respect, and the possibility of mutual and reciprocal learning and inspiration.
Probably the most important conceptual move that I make in Same God, Other god, and I am certainly not the first to make it, is to shift the discussion from a discussion of whether another religion is “other”, foreign, strange, all synonyms of idolatry, to whether another religion, or rather its God is the same.
Classification as Avoda Zara sends a religion to the divine recycle bin and renders it senseless to reflect on the relative import of such world religions. The halakhic category devalues the other religions in that traditionally Jews concluded that there is nothing of value to be learned or received from that religion.
Theoretically, one may believe in the same God but still be culpable of Avoda Zara, on technical or conceptual grounds. For instance, there are halachic voices that consider Islam to be Avoda Zara, even though it believes in the same God as Judaism. However, the likelihood is that once the God of another religion is recognized as the same, the charge, or the intensity of the charge of idolatry drops. Maimonides on Islam is a case in point. His recognition of Islam’s God as the same God as Judaism, on grounds of a philosophical understanding of monotheism, leads him to exempt Islam from the charge of Avoda Zara.
- Who defines Hinduism for these discussions?
During the infamous sheitel controversy, a rabbinic emissary was dispatched to determine what Hindus believed. This emissary questioned believers. His procedure then was to approach ordinary believers in order to determine what the beliefs of the faith are. This in turn led him to declare Hindus as idolaters, which in turn led to major international manifestations of Jewish rejection of Hindu faith. The halachic authorities who engaged the subject at the time, notably R. Menashe Klein, tackled the question of who speaks for Hinduism and whether it should be defined by its practitioners or by its sages and scholars.
So the question is who speaks for Hinduism. Should one consider the voice of the sages, the learned, the leaders or should one consider the faith of the man and woman in the temple?
While I am personally in favor of having theologians and religious professionals speak for the religion, one cannot fully divorce the perspective of the sages from that of the common worshipper. To do so would mean we have in fact two different religions, that of the scholar and that of the common person. I have therefore also been concerned about capturing the attitude of the common Hindu person.
One of the challenges we as Jews would have looking at Hinduism is how much of a gap can be tolerated between the views of religious elites and those of the masses and consequently whether our “issues” with Hinduism are theological (differences with the elites) or focus more on different educational perspectives, with Judaism showing greater care for the education of the masses.
In the interim I can state that it is not at all the case that understanding there is ultimately one God is a conviction that only scholars and sages hold by. It is also prevalent among the masses, though by no means universally, based on hundreds of conversations I have conducted.