An Orthodox scholar’s passage to India

An Orthodox scholar’s passage to India

Seton Hall professor helps builds bridges among Jews, Hindus

Dr. Alan Brill in Varanasi, where he held a Fulbright fellowship leading a project, “A Needed Dialogue and Encounter of Hinduism and Judaism,” at Banaras Hindu University.    
Dr. Alan Brill in Varanasi, where he held a Fulbright fellowship leading a project, “A Needed Dialogue and Encounter of Hinduism and Judaism,” at Banaras Hindu University.    

Dr. Alan Brill faced his students. The classroom reminded him of British Mandate-era buildings in Jerusalem. It obviously had been built in the 1940s, or at least refurbished then. All the desks had inkwells.

Among the students earnestly taking notes were three Buddhist monks from Cambodia wearing orange robes; two Tibetans, one of whom looked like a Sherpa in his yak-wool vest; an Australian Christian dressed like a hippie trying to dress like an Indian; and several Indians in modern clothing. 

Up front, wearing a traditional long golden coat, was the professor of Hindu religion and philosophy who normally taught this course. He was particularly diligent in his note-taking.

The day’s topic was the Bible.

And then came a question that highlighted both the vast gulf between the Indian and Jew, and the commonalities between their two faiths: “Do Jews still sacrifice animals?”

That’s not a hard question for Brill, an ordained Orthodox rabbi, to answer. While animal sacrifice in India ended only in the early 20th century, he explained, Jews stopped sacrificing animals nearly 2,000 years ago.

Brill was in India on sabbatical from Seton Hall University in South Orange, where he teaches in the department of Jewish-Christian studies, from last October through the end of March. He was based in the graduate school of religion and philosophy at Banaras Hindu University in the city of Varanasi, where he held a fellowship in the Fulbright-Nehru Project, A Needed Dialogue and Encounter of Hinduism and Judaism, courtesy of the U.S. State Department.

The question about sacrifices was emblematic of Brill’s stay in India — a place where Judaism doesn’t register on the religious awareness of even the most educated, but where people’s intensely religious lives — full of household ritual, frequent prayers and hand washings, and elaborate food regulations — make it in some ways much closer to Judaism than Christianity.

The interactions between Brill and his students embodied an encounter between two ancient religious traditions that have had relatively little interaction. (Brill was able to catalogue those encounters — many consisting simply of medieval rabbis responding to reports of Indian religion in Arabic writings — in just one chapter of his 2012 book, Judaism and World Religions.)

Brill taught an introduction to Judaism course as part of a Western Religions course required of graduate students in the university’s religion school. Even the course’s usual instructor had never heard of Talmud or midrash, Brill said.

With 1.2 billion people, India is the second-most populous country on earth. As of the 2001 census, 80 percent of Indians are Hindu; 13 percent are Muslim; and the rest are mostly divided among Christianity, a Western import, and the homegrown religions of Sikkhism, Buddhism, and Jainism. But what is called “Hinduism” by the West is really a collection of related religious traditions with common roots and practices but great differences. Brill compares it to someone who sees Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as essentially one “monotheist” religion.

“Almost any obscure Hindu sect has more members than there are Jews,” said Brill. “That includes one group, dating back to the 13th century, that pretty much adopts a Jewish-style theology of pure monotheism.

“The most important thing I learned is not to trust any of the generalizations, stereotypes, or almost anything written in American popular literature,” Brill said. “Even the most basic things that come on a Google search are incorrect.”

One example: “The same way Jews are not still directly practicing the religion described in Leviticus, no Hindu is practicing the religions of the Vedic texts directly. They’ve had dozens of points of changes. Like any other religion, they’re practicing 20th-century versions of it.”

One supreme being

Banaras Hindu University is, as its name implies, a religious college. It is huge, boasting 20,000 students. It is in Varanasi, one of India’s holiest cities, on the banks of the sacred Ganges river, a city of a million residents that draws three million pilgrims each year — many with the belief that dying in the holy city, or being cremated on the shores of the Ganges, will prove auspicious.

“It’s like Bar-Ilan University” — a Modern Orthodox institution in Israel — “but located within B’nei Brak,” an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, Brill said.

Brill has begun to write a book “that in some way explains the contours of Hinduism for Judaism, or lets both of the religions look at each other, the similarities and differences.” (This will follow his soon-to-be-completed history of Modern Orthodox Judaism; his first book on interfaith topics, Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding, is coming out in paperback this fall.)

With that in mind, he was particularly keen to find out how his classes on Judaism would resonate with the Indian students.

He was thrilled to see them catch on to subtle points.

When the students read Genesis, “they all said, ‘Look! Adam was originally a vegetarian.’”

Another time, a professor sitting in on his class called out, “Oh, this is God in search of man,” unwittingly using a phrase by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to summarize the Jewish Bible.

Because Judaism takes great pride in not worshiping idols, many Jews are discomfited by the Hindu religion, with its devotional statues and images dedicated to Krishna, Vishnu, and myriad other less prominent deities.

And yet, by the time of the first official encounters between Jewish and Hindu leaders — a 2007 summit in Delhi featuring Israeli Chief Rabbi Yonah Metzger — the two sides could sign a declaration affirming that “their respective traditions teach that there is one supreme being who is the ultimate reality, who has created this world in its blessed diversity.”

“If you ask an Indian about the image of a deity, whether in their home or in a temple, they would say the image is just the way to direct your heart,” Brill said. “Everyone understands these are just representations.”

Indians know far less about Judaism than do American Christians, even those American Christians who have never met a Jew before. At first, Brill found that unawareness to be shocking.

“They have no knowledge of World War II,” he said. “They only know Hitler as a strong leader. They fought for the British, but their World War II ran through Burma and Indochina.”

For these future religious teachers and religious leaders studying at Banaras, “the whole course of Jewish history and our self-conception as a people, the Holocaust, Israel — that didn’t register. These sort of questions they put in the history department. They tend to think of religion in the abstract.

“They do have a great interest in learning about Israel,” Brill said. “The Jewish organizations have a great deal to gain in creating a teaching guide about Judaism and about Israel for the Indians.”

This article was excerpted from a longer article appearing in the Jewish Standard.

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