Jewish Attitudes Toward Eastern Religions
Most traditional authorities dismissed Hinduism as idolatry, but in recent years, some Jews have become more tolerant of certain Eastern religions and practices.
In the last several decades, countless Westerners have turned to Eastern religions for inspiration and spirituality. Jews have been no different. Many American Jews flocked to Eastern religions as part of the hippy counter-culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and today, India and Thailand are havens for Israelis seeking to explore other cultures and religions.
How can the Jewish tradition respond to this trend? What are some approaches within the Jewish tradition to the practice of Eastern religions?
This article focuses primarily on Hinduism and Buddhism, as these are the religions most often discussed in Jewish sources. Numerous pre-modern Jewish authorities addressed Hinduism (probably because pre-modern Jews encountered Hinduism through their trade with India), and, more recently, Buddhism has become increasingly popular with some American Jews.
Hinduism is Idolatry
The medieval sources that discuss Hinduism consider it idolatrous, implying that all the traditional laws that govern Jewish interactions with idolaters apply to Hindus. For example, a Jew cannot derive benefit from Hindu objects of worship or do business with a Hindu on Hindu festive days.
In the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides (1135-1204) argued that Hinduism is one of the only religions that has not joined Abraham's monotheistic mission. According to Maimonides, the Hindus are a remnant of the Sabians, an idolatrous religious community that used to extend across the whole earth. A Jewish scholar from the 13th century, Jacob ben Sheshet, also identified Hinduism with idolatry, and he attacked those Jews who learned wisdom from the Indians, because he believed it would lead to idolatry.
Later responsa also discuss Hinduism within the context of idolatry. Ezekiel Landau, a Rabbi in Prague in the 18th century, ruled that a cohen (priest) who married a Hindu woman according to Hindu rites--including entering a Hindu temple and bowing down there--then later divorced her and did penance, may still recite the priestly blessings.
In his ruling, Landau relied on the minority opinion among medieval Jewish legal authorities that a priest who has practiced idolatry can still recite the priestly blessings. However, Landau pointed out that, even according to the majority opinion that a cohen who practiced idolatry cannot recite the priestly blessings, this man should be able to perform these duties, because he did not genuinely believe in the Hindu gods; he just went through the motions to please his wife.
Rabbi Yehudah Moshe Ftayah, a 20th-century mystic, in his Minhat Yehudah, also classified Hinduism as idolatry. Ftayah observed that some Jews were turning to Hinduism for mystical insights, and he attacked this trend. He explained that these Jews turned to Hinduism after the rabbis refused to teach them Jewish mysticism, which many rabbis only teach to committed, knowledgeable Jews. Ftayah, therefore, urged these Jews to repent so that they could learn Jewish mysticism instead.