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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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

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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.