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.

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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.Jewish-Buddhist relations shiva 

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.

Tolerance for Eastern Religions

Despite these rulings, from the beginning of the modern era, some Jewish scholars began to see Eastern religions in a more positive light. In Jerusalem, Moses Mendelssohn, an Enlightenment Jewish thinker, argued that we should not be so quick to judge other religions--particularly Hinduism--as idolatry. First one must know that religion well and investigate how its own practitioners see it.

Martin Buber, a 20th-century thinker, went a step further than Mendelssohn. He made no mention of the idolatrous nature of Eastern religions, and suggested that they made positive contributions to his own understanding of Jewish spirituality. Buber drew from Taoism and Zen in his discussions of Jewish spirituality. For example, he discusses the Taoist emphasis on the One--a sense of mystical unity--in his analysis of Hasidic mysticism. He cautioned, however, that Judaism maintains that the world is real and not a delusion, while the Taoist Chuang Tzu saw the world as indistinguishable from a dream.

The Debate: Are Eastern Religions Good for the Jews?

In the wake of the spiritual revolution of the 1960s, Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Chaim Zvi Hollander debated the value of Eastern religions in a 1974 issue of Sh'ma. Schachter-Shalomi embraced those Jews who practiced Eastern religions, within certain limits. He criticized modern Judaism for being excessively rationalistic, without leaving room for mysticism and spirituality, and expressed sympathy for those Jews who turned to Eastern religions to find spiritual inspiration. However, Schachter-Shalomi only endorsed those Eastern religions, such as Zen Buddhism, that do not necessitate the rejection of other religions.

Hollander, on the other hand, argued that all Eastern religions are idolatrous, and he defined idolatry broadly, to include any innovative way of worshipping God outside the framework of Jewish law. According to Hollander, even Jews who used Eastern meditation techniques to become closer to God, were being idolatrous. In response, Schachter-Shalomi suggested that exploring Eastern religions could be part of repentance, and the way of repentance is not governed by the strict understanding of Jewish law that Hollander preached, but by personal spiritual direction.

The Jewish renewal movement, following Schachter-Shalomi's leadership, at times incorporates Eastern religious practices such as Zen meditation into its prayers and meetings. 

Another possible reason to be more tolerant of some Eastern religions--such as Zen, Taoism, and Confucianism--is the fact that they have no real deity in the Western sense. It could be argued, that these religions are modes of spirituality, philosophies of life, more so than ways of worshipping God. Just like one can be a pragmatist or an existentialist and a Jew, perhaps one can be a Buddhist (or a Taoist or a Confucianist) and a Jew.

Interfaith Dialogue

In recent years, interfaith dialogue between Jews and practitioners of Eastern religions has developed, as well.

One of the most famous of these dialogues is described in Roger Kamenetz's The Jew in the Lotus. Kamenetz writes about eight Jewish delegates who traveled to Dharamsala, India to meet with the XIV Dalai Lama in 1990. The Jewish delegates had diverse attitudes toward this dialogue which reflect the diversity of Jewish attitudes toward inter-religious dialogue in general.

For example, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, an Orthodox rabbi, embraced dialogue with Buddhists, but drew the line at joint prayers and meditation. Greenberg explained: "[The late leader of Modern Orthodoxy] Rabbi [Joseph] Soloveitchik made the distinction: on social justice we have a universal language, but theology is a more intimate language. Liturgy conveys an affirmation that I'm in this system, so I would feel uncomfortable, for instance, in a Buddhist meditation."

Schachter-Shalomi, however, prayed the Jewish evening prayers in a Sikh Temple, asserting that the Sikh guru and he were, "in the same business, struggling to see holy values don't get lost. I see every other practitioner as organically doing in his bailiwick what I am doing in mine. When a non-Jewish person affirms me, I feel strengthened in my work. When I affirm a non-Jewish person, he or she feels strengthened in their work." 

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Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz holds a B.A. in religion from Harvard University, and completed her M.A. in Jewish Civilization at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Jewish educator in Karmiel, Israel.