October Issue

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Wisdom October 2010 Issue

Jewish-Hindu Encounters: Elijah Breaks New Educational Ground

Recently, the first encounter between a group of Hindu religious leaders and (Orthodox) Jewish seminarians took place at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical Seminary in New York. In the framework of an ongoing Elijah- YCT collaboration, sponsored by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, a course on “Jewish Views of Hinduism” was taught at the Seminary.

This course, offered as part of the ongoing work of ‘Jewish Theology of Religions’ in which Elijah engages, was launched by a conference that brought Jewish seminarians face-to-face with an array of Hindu leaders and perspectives. These included representatives of the Ramakrishna Order, ISKCON, the Flushing Temple, the BAPS Swaminarayan movement and academics.

Discussion focused on two issues:

a)commonalities and similarities in challenges and processes facing both communities and

b) understanding Hindu Image-worship.

The latter is a primary concern for Jews, for whom avoidance of other gods and idol worship is a defining feature of Judaism’s engagement with world religions. For almost all students, this was the first opportunity to encounter Hinduism and to engage its representatives in a religious exchange. The issues involved in a Jewish view of Hinduism are complex and that complexity came across in the lively panel discussion. The issues received careful attention in the academic course that followed, with attention to historical precedent, formative categories and legal and philosophical considerations in light of which a positive Jewish appreciation of Hinduism may be developed.

This issue’s Sharing Wisdom section features one of the resources that was studied during the course, a lengthy quote by Israeli Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who works through traditional categories in order to develop a position of tolerance towards world religions, Hinduism included. The subject of Jewish attitudes to Hinduism is the subject of a monograph, being completed by Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, tentatively titled Identity and Idolatry: The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism

Announcing: The Guerrand-Hermes Center for Spirituality and Mysticism in World Religions

Elijah announces with pride the establishment of the Guerrand-Hermes Center for Spirituality and Mysticism in World Religions. The center has been gifted by Mr. Xavier Guerrand-Hermes, who is a long time friend of Elijah’s and who has a strong interest in the issues of mysticism and spirituality. The center will bring together a group of leaders, drawn from the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders along with scholars of the Elijah Interfaith Academy. The group will explore the relevance of mysticism and spirituality as arenas for encounter between world religions. Its discussions will be published, with the hope of encouraging broader conversation on these issues. The forum will meet regularly in Marakech, Morocco, at Mr. Guerrand-Hermes’ estate. This is the first international forum that brings together thinkers and practitioners of mysticism from both Eastern and Western religions, in an exploration of the contribution of mysticism and spirituality to theology, interfaith relations and world peace.

The forum is scheduled to hold its first meeting at the beginning of next year, in Morocco and will be moderated by Dr. Piotr Sikora.

                                                                  

Sharing Wisdom: Wisdom of Rabbi Adin Steinsalz

The following quote from Rabbi Adin Steinsalz is taken, with omissions, from his Peace without Conciliation, The Irrelevance of “Toleration” in Judaism, Common Knowledge 11,1, 2005, Duke University Press, pp. 41-47. Is is analyzed in my forthcoming article “Encountering Hinduism: Thinking Through Avoda Zara’, in a volume on Judaism and World Religions, edited by Eugene Korn and myself, forthcoming from the Littman Library.

Judaism, despite the absolute and exclusionary quality of its monotheism, has a side that tends toward openness and toleration. This side of Judaism has also an expression in the Jewish abstention from proselytizing.  Even ultimately, Judaism does not view itself as the religion of all people. It is the religion of the Jews alone and is, for almost all its practitioners, inherited. The assumption that Judaism is the religion of one people (and a few unsought converts) is emphatically a normative principle and is important to our discussion because it suggests that, within Jewish doctrine, there is room for the religious beliefs of others.

This principle applies not only to the world as it is today but also to the messianic projections that Judaism makes for the future. Although the messianic era represents an ultimate vindication of truth as Judaism understands it—a time when the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will assert his dominion over all the world—at that time the peoples of the world will not embrace Judaism and will not come to observe Jewish law. In the closing chapters of his monumental Code of    Jewish Law, Maimonides gives an account of the end of days. In his portrayal, the messianic realm is one of peace, but not uniformity of faith. According to Maimonides, when Isaiah saw the wolf and the lamb lying down together, what he envisioned was not a change in the nature of creation. Wolves will still be wolves, and lambs will be lambs; what will change is the relationship between them. At the end of days, the different peoples of the world will not become less different. And because they will not embrace a single faith, the prohibition against gentiles undertaking distinctively Jewish practices will continue. However, each religion will come to share with all the others a small set of fundamental truths, and people everywhere will abandon violence, theft, and oppression.

Judaism, despite the absolute and exclusionary quality of its monotheism, has a side that tends toward openness and toleration. This side of Judaism has also an expression in the Jewish abstention from proselytizing.  Even ultimately, Judaism does not view itself as the religion of all people. It is the religion of the Jews alone and is, for almost all its practitioners, inherited. The assumption that Judaism is the religion of one people (and a few unsought converts) is emphatically a normative principle and is important to our discussion because it suggests that, within Jewish doctrine, there is room for the religious beliefs of others.

This principle applies not only to the world as it is today but also to the messianic projections that Judaism makes for the future. Although the messianic era represents an ultimate vindication of truth as Judaism understands it—a time when the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob will assert his dominion over all the world—at that time the peoples of the world will not embrace Judaism and will not come to observe Jewish law. In the closing chapters of his monumental Code of    Jewish Law, Maimonides gives an account of the end of days. In his portrayal, the messianic realm is one of peace, but not uniformity of faith. According to Maimonides, when Isaiah saw the wolf and the lamb lying down together, what he envisioned was not a change in the nature of creation. Wolves will still be wolves, and lambs will be lambs; what will change is the relationship between them. At the end of days, the different peoples of the world will not become less different. And because they will not embrace a single faith, the prohibition against gentiles undertaking distinctively Jewish practices will continue. However, each religion will come to share with all the others a small set of fundamental truths, and people everywhere will abandon violence, theft, and oppression…

“Toleration” would not be an accurate name for this doctrine, and certainly the doctrine is not one of religious equivalence. However, the approach that Judaism takes toward righteous gentiles offers a partial solution to the problem of intolerance in monotheist religions. By establishing different sets of expectations for different groups, Judaism makes room for adherents of other faiths to perform their own religious obligations in a way that entitles them to salvation by the God of Israel. While Jews are enjoined to follow 613 commandments of the Torah, the demands that normative Judaism makes of gentiles comprise only seven laws. These six prohibitions and one positive commandment are together known as the Noahide laws because (according to chapter seven of Sanhedrin) they were the series of laws given to Noah after the   ood (though they differ little from the basic laws given to Adam). The Noahide laws set a universal standard for gentile religions and embody the truths that, according to Maimonides, the peoples of the world will come to recognize and share at the end of days. Thus, the Noahide laws delineate the boundaries of Jewish religious toleration: failure  to observe these laws would bar a person or a people from entering their own gate into heaven.

One of the highest principles of the Noahide laws is belief in the one God. Both Islam and Christianity (though trinitarian doctrine presents a complication) satisfy this key demand and clear the way for Jewish recognition of these religions…

It is an entirely normative principle in Judaism that the monotheism expected of gentiles by the Noahide laws is of a less absolute kind than that expected of Jews. In the Middle Ages, many authorities indeed recognized Christian doctrine (even the doctrine of the Trinity) as  basically monotheistic belief.

One can readily understand how the doctrine of a triune Godhead could contaminate Christianity’s claim to be monotheistic. However, Christianity was generally not considered polytheistic or idolatrous, though Maimonides -who did not live in Christendom – dissented from the widespread rabbinic agreement on this point. The concept of the Trinity was represented in the church as a mystery or paradox because it apparently contradicted a central component of their faith in the one God. Thus the Trinity, even though it is an essential feature of Christian theology and not merely one of folk religion, could be taken by Jewish scholars as a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, the idea of God as one. By Jewish standards as applied to Jews, Trinitarianism is not monotheism. But by the standards of the Noahide laws, the doctrine of the Trinity is not an idolatrous belief to which Judaism can express an objection.

What about indic religions and various kinds of Buddhism. [should this be a ?]Again, I do not believe that a definitive solution is possible, but a partial solution may be considered.

It is important to introduce a distinction between theology and religious practice. In the ancient religions grouped under the name of Hinduism, there

are many gods and local shrines, but the theological principles that guide belief and provide a uniformity of moral standards assume that all the deities revered in India or elsewhere are forms of, expressions of , or names for, one ultimate reality or God. Saivites propose Siva as the best name (among many names) for this ultimacy; Vaisnavites prefer Visnu or Krishna; atman is an Upanisadic word for the same principle – and brahman is perhaps the most common way among non-Muslim, non Christian Indians of naming ultimacy.

By the standards of Jewish law as applied to Jews, Hinduism (and Buddhism) do not count as monotheistic traditions. However, the essential point of the Noahide laws is that the standards of Jewish law do not apply to non-Jews. Radically pure monotheism is expected by Judaism only from Jews. The Noahide laws do not preclude gentile religions from developing softer, more complex, and compromised forms of monotheism. Under the Noahide laws, it is possible to assume that Hinduism and Buddhism are sufficiently monotheistic in principle for moral Hindus and Buddhist to enter the gentile’s gate into heaven. Jewish law regards the compromises made or tolerated by the world’s major religions as ways of rendering essentially monotheistic theologies easier in practice for large populations of adherents. The fierceness of Islamic opposition to such compromises has no counterpart in Judaism. In Islam, it is seriously blasphemous for anyone of  whatever faith to combine belief in the one God with popular ideas about other heavenly powers or with subtle theological doctrines such as the Trinity. Islam cannot tolerate such compromises because the truth that they violate is applicable universally and not simply to Muslins. The problem is that Islam is radically monotheistic (like Judaism) yet is also (unlike Judaism, which is the religion of one people) universalistic as well.

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