Announcing – The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism
We are happy to announce a new publication by Alon Goshen-Gottstein of The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism – Wisdom, Spirituality, Identity. The recent publication by Palgrave Macmillan makes available the first full length monograph devoted to Jewish-Hindu relations. Hinduism has become a vital “other” for Judaism over the past decades. A new relationship, that is not coloured by a history of persecution and competition suggests new parameters for Judaism’s engagement with world religions at large. The book surveys the history of the relationship from historical to contemporary times, from travellers to religious leadership. It analyses high-profile events such as public wig-burning, of wigs made of Indian hair, and the statements of religious leadership acknowledging the validity of both traditions. It explores the potential enrichment for Jewish theology and spirituality, by looking at life stories of Jews who have travelled into Hinduism, what they have received and how this has impacted their identity. It engages the theological challenges of a future-dialogue between Hinduism and Judaism and considers how the present Jewish encounter with Hinduism can be a source of theological and spiritual regeneration.
Wisdom interviewed Goshen-Gottstein for the present edition of our newsletter
Wisdom – Can you state for our readers, in brief, what is the key message of your book
GG – It is that Hinduism is a vital conversation partner. It is a relationship that cannot be ignored. It extends from on the ground contact of travellers to the high profile meetings of religious leaders.
Wisdom – Is this relationship a good thing?
GG – It is what we make of it. Obviously, some will be concerned that Jews might convert to Hinduism. The problem of Jews who are members of Hindu religious groups is a reality we must recognize and confront. In the book I bring an amazing suggestion by Elie Wiesel that in some ways this is a tikkun for Judaism, as if some Jews have to make their contribution through other religions, not through Judaism. But this is only part of the story. The more positive and promising part is that there is a quiet spiritual revival that is going on through the contact with Hinduism. It is particularly striking due to the fact that so many youth, who are sociologically affiliated with the dati-leumi sector of Judaism, have been involved in travel and encounter with Hinduism. This has led to a spiritual opening and a revisiting of their tradition in a very positive way. So, the encounter contains dangers, but also opportunities.
Wisdom – is there something that Jewish religious leadership can or should do, in view of this phenomenon?
GG – The amazing thing is that Jewish religious leadership has next to nothing to say about the phenomenon. It either does not realize it or it has no direction or wisdom to offer. As a matter of fact, many Jewish religious teachers from Israeli yeshivot have visited India, as part of a spiritual process, related to themselves or their students. It is particularly noteworthy that even when the Chief Rabbi of Israel was in India and met with Hindu leaders, as part of a Jewish-Hindu summit, and even when the issue of faithfulness to identity was on the agenda, the Jewish authorities did not issue a joint call for everyone to maintain fidelity to their own traditions. In short, this is a process that occurs beyond the control and guidance of Jewish religious leadership.
Wisdom – Can you share a good case and a bad case of such encounter with Hinduism?
GG – I devote a chapter to the implications on Jewish identity of the encounter. Some Jews opt for Hinduism and then seek to justify their choice in Jewish terms. I find the process very problematic, disingenious and deceptive. I review the work of some Jewish authors who have opted for Hinduism and how they seek to give a Jewish twist to their choice, justifying it as Jewishly valid. I was once in an ashram and a Jewish seeker found this book, which presented itself as a study of Jewish mysticism, and was excited about it. When the non-discerning reader encounters such materials he or she may be misled. This is bad spiritual practice.
At the other extreme is a very moving story of a Jewish doctor who became a devotee of the great Hindu teacher Anandamayi ma. Under her guidance he became a Swami and led a life of apparently high spiritual caliber. In all this, he maintained a strong sense of his affiliation as a Jew, and was quite clear about the fact that he never converted to Hinduism. I recall on one occasion when I traveled to India, my religious artifacts were stolen en route. I was able to get from the aged Swami, already close to 90 years of age, what I needed for my Torah study. So, the story of Jews encountering Hinduism is a story that touches on issues of identity at the one end and the promise of spirituality, on the other. Somehow, between the two poles, many seekers find in India an important station in their spiritual life.
Wisdom – How did you become interested in the subject? What is your personal story?
GG – I’ve asked myself that question for years. So has my mother. (smile).
At a fairly young age I was taken by my parents to visit India. It made a huge impression on me. But I don’t know if that is sufficient as an explanation. We also visited many other asian countries, that did not leave such a powerful impression. In any event, already in my teens I was fascinated by Hindu religious movements. Later I studied the subject at university. With the formation of the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders, I accepted an invitation by Sri Sri Ravi Sankar to come to India. Since then I have been visiting India regularly, exploring the endless facets of its spiritual life, and forging deep bonds of friendship and spiritual relations with leading Hindu teachers of different schools. The India I go to (which is one of many “Indias” that one might visit) is one that makes the spiritual life a priority and the quest for God the focus of life. The relationships centered around such a quest are deeply satisfying and having extended periods of time in spiritual establishments offers me a wonderful opportunity of spiritual deepening.
Wisdom – And you have never thought of becoming Hindu?
GG – Neither have I thought, nor would my Hindu friends want me to. If anything, they speak of a path that transcends or unites religions. One of my close friends, speaks of himself as my “so called” Hindu friend. The question would never arise.
Wisdom – And would you recommend such a journey for other seekers, Jewish or otherwise?
GG – Only if they are prepared. My path, which has shaped much of what Elijah has become, is one of engaging other traditions from a foundation of rootedness in one’s own tradition. When someone is firm in their own faith and knowledgable about it, they stand to gain a lot from deep exposure to another tradition. This, for me, is the optimal model.
For a list of chapters of The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism, click here.
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