Interview in Makor Rishon in January 2023

I was interviewed by Makor Rishon last year and it was published on January 18, 2023. Below is an English translation. It is a little awkward in phrasing since I gave the interview in English and it was translated into Hebrew and then back into English. some phrases and some of my voice were lost in translation. I find it interesting how I am understood in the portrait as basically all interfaith.

Here is the Hebrew original

R20 Conference in Bali, Indonesia -November 2022, press conference after my talk

“Hindu Meditation is Closer to Judaism than Vipassana and Buddhist Techniques”

Rabbi Professor Alan Brill teaches in a Catholic college, travels to interfaith conferences around the world, helps Indonesians articulate a moderate version of Islam, and compares Indian religions to Kabbalah; following his teacher Rabbi Soloveitchik, however, rejects the idea of a common alliance of all religions.

By Yeshaya Rosenman

“I have never taught at a secular college,” Prof. Alan Brill tells me with a smile. “I taught at the religious institutions of Jews, Muslims, Protestants, Catholics, and Hindus. I think I’m the only person in the world who has taught in each of these kinds of institutions.”

Rabbi Professor Alan Brill (61) is a full professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey, a Catholic institution. He wrote his doctoral dissertation on the thought of Rabbi Tzadoq HaKohen of Lublin at Fordham University, another Catholic university in New York. He belongs to the large Orthodox community of Teaneck, New Jersey, and visits Israel regularly. He is now in Israel attending an academic conference at Bar-Ilan University on the legacy of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. I took the opportunity to chat with him about his interfaith activities with Muslims and Hindus, and about his unique writing on these subjects.

For the average Israeli, studying and teaching at Catholic universities sounds almost like studying at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. How did you get there?

“Fordham is right next to Yeshiva University, where I did my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in general philosophy. I thought about doing my PhD at Columbia University, but when I came to the interview, they told me: ‘We study religions through a social sciences lens. If you want to research “from the inside,” as a religious person, go to Fordham.’ Neither did I feel at all strange at Fordham, nor was I the only religious Jew there. One of the lecturers once told us: ‘Look around: Catholics, Mennonites, Greek Orthodox, and Orthodox Jews sitting together. You are not the typical Americans!’ At Fordham, I wrote about Maimonides, and my classmates wrote about a parallel Christian figure, Thomas Aquinas. I felt at home with them more than I do with secular non-Jews.

“That is how I feel today at Seton Hall. Northern New Jersey is one of the most religiously and linguistically diverse places in the world. Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu populations, in that order. It is the largest Indian diaspora outside Asia. The number of Muslims and Hindus at the university is steadily increasing. These are immigrants who want a conservative institution for their children, where religions are respected, where prayer is made accessible, and where the cafeteria serves Halal. By the way, in general, local Muslims trust the OU’s kashrut, and they have a website with a list of impermissible items containing alcohol. We have no violent confrontations with Muslims in New Jersey. This attendance at Seton Hall is a kind of natural, ethnic conservatism, not an ideological one like that of the Catholic justices on the Supreme Court. These are children of immigrants who want to escape the aggressive secularism of campus culture, who find a ‘Noah’s Ark’ in which there is almost no preoccupation with the culture war raging around us.”

In the wake of 9/11

During the ‘80s, Brill spent a few years in Jerusalem, and looked into the possibility of doing his doctorate at Hebrew University. After his doctorate, he taught Talmud at Maimonides High School in Boston and later Hasidism at Yeshiva University, at that time he was a sought-after lecturer at many Jewish institutions. In 2013,  he was awarded the prestigious Fulbright scholarship and chose to travel and teach Judaism at the Hindu university in Varanasi. Upon his return, he posted several recounts of his experiences to his excellent blog, “The Book of Doctrines and Opinions.” Later on, he lectured and was interviewed for various platforms, and finally authored a book called Rabbi on the Ganges (2019), an introduction to Hinduism for religious Jews. The book and its bibliography reveal impressive expertise of the English-language literature on Indian religions and is rife with ongoing comparisons to all arenas of Torah literature: Jewish thought, Kabbalah, and Hasidism.

This book was preceded by two others: Judaism and World Religions: Encountering Christianity, Islam, and Eastern Traditions (2012), and Judaism and Other Religions:Models of Understanding (2010). Selected excerpts of Brill’s books have been translated into several languages (although not into Hebrew).

“I studied general philosophy at Yeshiva University in 1978, and was ordained as a rabbi in one of the last years that people received semikha from Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (‘the Rav’). I helped organize events and the summer lectures of his, but we did not have a very close relationship. I was close with Rabbi Walter Wurzburger, the Rav’s student in philosophy. Rabbi Wurzburger engaged in interfaith dialogue with Catholics after Nostra aetate (the historic 1965 Vatican council that announced a fundamental change in the Catholic Church’s attitude towards the Jews).

“It is often said that Rabbi Soloveitchik opposed interfaith discourse, but we have to specify what exactly he opposed. He was not opposed to intellectual discussions. The lectures that became The Lonely Man of Faith were given at the Catholic St. Joseph’s Seminary and College, where the Rav tried to explain Judaism to Catholics. Famous Christian theologians such as Paul Tillich also lectured as part of the same series. The Rav opposed a ‘shared covenant’ with Christianity. He refused to discuss similarities between the religions, or a common religious-existential experience. He did not want to build commonality between Jewish and Christian theology and did not desire a common religious brotherhood.

“I hold this approach, in line with the Rav. I reject the idea that there is a shared covenant between all religions or Abrahamic religions. After all the analysis and discussions, when all is said and done, each religion has its own unique theology, setting it apart in the context of prayer, exegesis, and spirituality. I am not looking to point out connections between religions; rather, I am trying as a Jew to react to the world of great religious diversity that surrounds us today. What’s more, I believe that there is wisdom in these religions—as the saying goes, ‘There is wisdom among the nations, believe it’” (Lamentations Rabah 2:14).

Although Rabbi Wurzburger suggested he join the interfaith activities when he was a student, Brill did so beginning only in the early 2000s, as part of the global flourishing of interfaith discourse in the wake of the September 11 attacks, which were carried out in the name of Islam.

“During that period,” Brill points out, “Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ book The Dignity of Difference was published just a few months after 9/11, constituting a summary of the lectures he gave in response to the attack. Rabbi Sacks discussed questions of religious diversity and the place of Islam in the contemporary world, and this book raised his profile as an international thinker. At the same time, The Economist also published a book called God is Back. Until then, the West did not really treat religion as a living thing that influences world politics. Religious studies in universities focused on classical texts. But studying the Buddha’s sermons will not explain to you why the Rohingya are being persecuted in Myanmar, so they understood that there needed to be a change in the study materials.”

The Transformation of the Emirates

In 2004, Brill had the opportunity to explain his worldview on the subject of theology of other religions as part of a large conference of rabbis and senior Catholic clergy, under the auspices of the World Jewish Congress. “Present were figures like Rabbi Steinsaltz, senior members of the Conference of European Rabbis, and priests like Fr Patrick Debois. I gave a lecture there on the theology of other religions, which was the basis for my first book on the topic. I tried to clarify what the Torah says about other religions, employing four categories of relationships between religions, developed by others before me: exclusivity, inclusivity, pluralism, and universalism. Exclusivity means your religion is the true one, and everything else is false; inclusivity means that your religion is true, and you are willing to accept other religions on your own religion’s terms; pluralism means that there are many ways to worship God, or even many gods to worship and that all pathways are legitimate; and universalism will claim that all religions share a common kernel.

“Not all of these categories suit us as Jews, but it should be emphasized that these are not necessarily mutually exclusive categories. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook used more than one of these categories. The breadth of the library in your beit midrash indicates what you deem legitimate.

It should be noted that this lecture was given at a completely different era from that of Rabbi Wurzburger’s interfaith activities. In the audience were Hebrew-speaking priests with degrees in Talmud, as well as Jews who were well-versed in Catholic theology. This meeting did not belong to an inchoate earlier stage, but was one in which collaboration was already underway.”

What kind of collaboration?

“There can’t be just one format; it is always contingent upon local needs. Sometimes it is the fight against antisemitism, and other times it is promoting civil rights legislation. Nor should it be expected that the goals of Jews and Catholics will always coincide. I was working in collaboration with a host of Jewish organizations.”

You don’t necessarily find deep religious questions within the struggles for human and civil rights. What do we do with instances whereby antisemitism stems from sacred texts themselves, such as Islamic antisemitism?

“Recently, I was in Indonesia, at the personal invitation of the Islamic Nahdatul Ulama party. They read excerpts from my book translated into Indonesian, and wanted me to help them build a Muslim version of what I did in my book. I was also asked to help them formulate a campaign against antisemitism in Indonesia. The country has a culture of antisemitic conspiracies, from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the conspiracies about the Rothschild family.

“You have to understand that Islam in Indonesia is very different from what you are familiar with in Israel. There are two major Islamic parties, and they are the pillars of support for the democratic regime in Indonesia. Their Islam is a tolerant one, resting against the backdrop of the religions that preceded it in Indonesia: Hinduism and Buddhism. Nahdatul Ulama represents traditional Islam, which is syncretistic. They do not interpret the hadith stringently, and they combine Sufism with popular religion. The second party, Muhammadiyah, are ‘modern orthodox,’ as it were. They emphasize Islamic law, but are not an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. Both of these parties are opposed to extremist Salafist factions, who desire an undemocratic Sharia state. Neighboring Malaysia watches Indonesia closely. Even though it is a much more extremist state, if everyone else progresses, they will not want to be left behind.”

Can Islam be democratic?

“Islam in every country is different. Indonesia has its own unique story. You see, even their Hindus and Buddhists say they believe in the oneness of God, in the Prophecy, and in reward and punishment. On the other hand, Muslims there have no problem watching plays of the Ramayana epic, which is sacred to Indians.

From a different perspective, that of Turkey, I spent two days in the court of the Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen in New Jersey, and I heard him lecture to his students. He is a tolerant person, which is why he had to flee Erdogan’s Turkey. Islam in Senegal is also tolerant, but for completely different reasons.”

Is de-radicalization possible, given that extremist Islam has already become deep-seated?

“In 2018, before the Abraham Accords, I was on an American Jewish Committee (AJC) delegation to the Emirates, the aim being to familiarize the Emiratis with Jews and rabbis. Right before my eyes, the Emirates went from extreme Salafism to ‘spiritual but not religious.’ Over the years I had contacts with Saudis, and they want to progress in a different way. Morocco also has its own approach.”

And where is the state of Israel in all of this?

“The process I’m observing in Indonesia is supposed to be similar to what is happening in the Emirates. In 2019, I taught a semester at the illustrious Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, and visited major Islamic colleges in the country. This was the initial stage, and now the phenomenon is burgeoning. After laying the infrastructure in Indonesia for meetings with rabbis and Jews, the conditions will be riper to implement normalization and diplomatic relations with the state of Israel.”

The Pandits refused to eat with me

How did you arrive at your engagement with India’s religions? It is a pioneering field in which few religious Jews have engaged.

“Over the years I read Indian religious texts. In 2012, I applied for a Fulbright senior scholars award, with the goal of teaching in a foreign country. Given my prior research on Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and his writings on Jewish meditation, the concept was to travel to India and compare Jewish techniques to Hindu meditation, which I immediately realized is more akin to Jewish methods than Vipassana and Buddhist techniques are.”

There are those who claim that Rabbi Kaplan took Indian material and rendered it in Jewish terms. Do you agree with this assertion?

“Rabbi Kaplan read Eastern texts, and essentially reframed Jewish materials within frameworks that were commonplace in Eastern discourse at the time. It should be noted that Indian materials from before the twentieth century were written using very complex, abstract, and difficult-to-understand terminology. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Swami Vivekananda, in his book Raja Yoga, adapted these texts into simple instructions for practice, and in so doing constructed Indian meditation as we know it. Other guides copied him. Rabbi Kaplan did something similar with the Jewish tradition: he translated the complex and abstract texts of the Kabbalists and Hasidim into simple language. He availed himself of his general knowledge of physics, psychology, and Eastern teachings. He did not read the Indian literature in the original.”

In your mind, why are Jews and Israelis attracted to India?

“Initially, it is because of India’s ‘exotic’ nature—Israelis don’t necessarily understand at all the difference between a Hindu, a Buddhist, or a Sikh. They see modernized ashram culture. It should be emphasized that ashram culture is neo-Hinduism, it is not the religion that Indians themselves know. For 98% of Indians, religion means dietary restrictions, marriage laws, purity and impurity, life cycle rituals, holidays, etc. In fact, the ashrams don’t call themselves Hindu, instead using other names, such as ‘followers of Advaita Vedanta.’

We have to grasp what an insult it is when an Israeli who meditated in an ashram begins to essentialize how religion functions in the East. Imagine if a non-Jewish tourist who studied ‘Kabbalah’ for a few weeks were to explain to a religious Jew how to properly pray with kavvanot.

And does the Indian commoner have any familiarity with what is studied in ashrams?

“There are many movements in Hinduism. They each emphasize different aspects and are intended for different audiences. There is religion for the middle class, for academics, and for spiritual types. If you are a Gujarati businessman, you will go to Swaminarayan’s BAPS institutions. They build huge temples in the ancient Indian style, in the private ceremonies at home, there are no statues and no offerings. For them, everything is internalized and performed meditatively in one’s consciousness.”

So Maimonides was right when he said that the more religion progresses, the more abstract and monotheistic it becomes?

“Not necessarily. ISKCON is a movement with Christian influences, which is why they are fans of icons, and cleave to the image of baby Krishna as Christians do with baby Jesus. Two stages in the modernization of religions can be identified: first, the period from pre-modernity to modernity; and second, the twentieth century to the twenty-first century. In nineteenth-century India there were reformers who belonged to the local enlightenment movement, the ‘Bengali Renaissance,’ such as Ram Mohan Roy and his disciples, who are very much the Indian parallel to Reform Jews. Thereafter, thinkers like Sivananda articulated the Hindu commandments in ethical and non-mystical terms, similar to our own Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Most of the Indians I met still think of their religion in this way, and are offended when people say that their religion is mystical and not ethical.

In the twenty-first century, you see a new stage where Hindu or Buddhist meditation teachers teach meditation for the purpose of stress-reduction and achieving happiness, wealth, and the like.

Classical Indian texts already have all the layers we are familiar with in Judaism. Mimamsa corresponds to Jewish Midrashei Halakha, Nyaya corresponds to its medieval scholastic thought, and texts that I have researched in Tantra literature correspond to Kabbalistic kavvanot. I plan to publish a comparison of Tantra to Kabbalah.”

The Colonialism of Monotheism

What is your opinion on the deification of human beings in India? To the Jewish observer, this is a shocking phenomenon.

“Also to many Indian observers, certainly the Pandits. Any time you would mention to them –you might get an earful on the moral corruption of these characters.”

The Tantra literature you mentioned is a genre of Indian mystical literature known to Westerners mainly in its sexual valences. What does Tantra mean to Indians?

“In India, meditation that combines intention and action is called tantra. The purpose of tantra is the union of the male and female elements, Shiva and Shakti. This might be compared to the unification of Qudsha B’rikh Hu and His Shekhina according to the Kabbalists. Tantric techniques are very complex, with similarities to the kavvanot of the Kabbalists. I showed Indian colleagues texts of the prayer kavvanot from the early Kabbalists, and they immediately recognized the similarity. These colleagues are people who read Gershom Scholem and his disciples and already have a general familiarity.

Yoga is generally about abstract mental states of absorbtion—even if in modern versions of yoga, such as hatha yoga, there is a majority focus on breathing and postures. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, these body postures are described in just 13 words. Whereas in the ancient yogic texts, you will find mountains of words about different mental states.

“The transgressive things that Westerners associate with the worlds of tantra—which Indians themselves hardly engage in—are referred to as ‘left hand tantra.’ ‘Right hand tantra,’ however, centers visualizations, similar to the philosophy of kavvanot. Left hand tantra is concerned with ‘sin performed in God’s name’ (‘aveirah lishmah), that is, intentional transgression of religious prohibitions in order to be above the Law and beyond religious notions of good and evil: forbidden marriages between high and low castes, violations of purity laws, laws of worship, and more.”

When it comes to Tantra, is there a recognition of feminism?

“Indian discussions of female deities and female spirituality do not necessarily go hand-in-hand with feminism. On the contrary, sometimes such discourse is entangled with misogyny and the subjugation of women. Many more social reforms are needed in India, and religion alone will not provide for that.”

And after all is said and done, Indian culture is idolatrous. In fact, it can be associated with the most classic case of idolatry known to us from the Bible. If there is one animal we associate with idolatry, it is the cow.

Brill laughs when I mention cows. “First of all, Indians never pray to or worship cows. The cow is the symbol of motherly kindness, which gives nourishing milk to all. Therefore, it is simply on the same stratum of existence as humans, and therefore humans may not eat them. In the Dharmasastra it is written that ‘every day one should help gods, humankind, cows, and the poor.’ In India, there are different stages of religious development, wherein different reforms were undertaken. There is a striking difference between Indian and Jewish traditions: we do not claim that the worshipers of Ba’al and Ashtoreth, or the golden calf and the copper snake, are part of our tradition. But the Indians will say that all the disparate stages of their religion were once a part of their faith, and only today certain parts are no longer extent.

“It is important for me to clarify the question of polytheism and monotheism. The majority of Indians, about 70%, are Vishnu worshipers, and about 24% are Shiva worshipers. They all worship one transcendent God, above nature, who is not one of the forces of nature—irrespective of our notion that using idols even to worship one God is forbidden by the Torah. Recently there was a conference on Vaishnavism, with 16 speakers from around the world, and the lectures are about to be published as a book. Every speaker claimed to be a monotheist. They also do not worship individual idols, but indeed one God, ‘God of gods,’ as in the Torah.

This is how they see themselves today, and this is what they read back into their classical texts. Shiva worshipers have always believed in only one God. The novelty is that the Vaishnavas are even willing to ignore the Vedas, the most ancient layer of Indian religion, for this purpose. The important medieval commentaries on the classic texts all state that the highest understanding of religion is toward Oneness of the paraBrahman, as the formless divine. Sure, it’s unsurprising that they did away with Vedic horse sacrifices; theologically, however, they made an even deeper revision as a reaction to the spiritual challenge of monotheism that arose starkly via encounters with the West.”

Many Indian polemicists speak fervidly against monotheism and against the zealotry of the Abrahamic religions.

“They say ‘monotheism’ and mean ‘colonialism.’ The monotheism they hate is Christianity, which granted the British the right to conquer India in its name, and Islam, with which they are in conflict to this day. They have never heard of Judaism and think of monotheism as a single religion that strives to destroy all other religions. India’s contemporary right-wing and its spokespeople demand that Islam be tolerant again, as it has been for many years in India. They view fanatical Pakistani Islam as a mutation shaped under Arab influence, foreign to the subcontinent.”

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