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Crossing over

Examining Jewish encounters with other religions

The story of how the Dalai Lama encountered the Jewish community in 1990 is well known. Less known is how the Ashkenazi Jewish community first encountered the Dalai Lama in 1804 — in a Hebrew-language book published in Europe, compiled from travelers’ accounts in English and French.

“Jews then were not as sheltered as we think of them,” said Rabbi Alan Brill, who quotes from the book, Meorot Zvi, in his just-published work, Judaism and World Religions: Encountering Christianity, Islam, and Eastern Traditions (Palgrave Macmillan).

The understanding of Buddhism shown by the author of Meorot Zvi is less positive than that of the Jewish religious leaders who traveled to Dharamsala to meet the current Dalai Lama as recounted in The Jew and the Lotus nearly two centuries later. The Meorot Zvi called the senior Tibetan leader of his day the “father of impurity from which all the monks derive their way of crookedness from one of the spirits of impurity.”

This negative Jewish view of Buddhism, however, is only one perspective, and Judaism and World Religions aims to catalogue all of them, from a 13th-century Jewish physician who accumulated enormous power in the Mongol court and wrote a biography of the Buddha, through the differing views of contemporary authors and thinkers.

Buddhism is the subject of only one chapter of this book, which looks at Jewish understandings of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, and the whole concept of religion itself.

Judaism and World Religions is a sequel to Brill’s previous book, Judaism and Other Religions: Models of Understanding, in which Brill — a Teaneck resident who holds Seton Hall University’s Cooperman/Ross Endowed Chair for Jewish-Christian Studies in honor of Sister Rose Thering — examines different approaches to religions at a more abstract level. Is Judaism the only true religion and all other religions are false? Or is Judaism the root of all true religions? Or are all religions true paths to approach God?

As could be expected, each of these positions had some support from Jewish thinkers over the ages.

“The first book deals with the fact that we’ve forgotten that we have many universal and inclusive positions, that we share monotheism and other elements. It’s not a zero sum game. The second book deals with the specifics,” says Brill.

Points of contact

A Yeshiva University-trained rabbi with a doctorate in religion from Fordham — a Catholic university — Brill has been an active participant in interfaith dialogue. He has been part of the Jewish delegation in meetings with the Catholic Church — the most formalized and regular interfaith dialogue — but also with Orthodox Christians, at the Madrid interfaith conference convened by Saudi King Abdullah in 2008, and with ongoing meetings with Hindu religious leaders since 2006.

“The Jews — including the Israeli chief rabbinate — have recognized that Hindus worship a supreme being and are not idolatrous,” Brill said.

In his book, Brill shows that this is not a revolutionary departure for Jewish observers of Hinduism.

“A lot of the texts in earlier times conceptualized Hinduism and Buddhism using an Islamic lens,” he said. “The Muslim world had the trade routes and the borders. Jews were the merchants and doctors and translators.

“The Eastern religions got translated from Arabic into Hebrew, so the 30,000 million gods of Hinduism get translated as ‘malachim,’ angels, to preserve a monotheistic understanding. They understood almost all Asian theological categories through Judaeo-Islamic philosophy.

“The statues stood in Afghanistan for 800 years peacefully under Islam, because the Buddhists were seen as worshiping one principle, and it’s only the recent Taliban that saw them as a problem.”

Brill was surprised by how much Jewish contact with Buddhists and Hindus his research uncovered.

He was also surprised to discover that the relationship between Judaism and Islam had even more connections than was commonly known.

“We’ve crossed over many more times than we usually conceive of,” he says. “Jews don’t begin to understand the incredible overlaps of law and texts and mysticism between Judaism and Islam.”

Brill quotes from what he calls the earliest Jewish responses to the rise of Islam, midrashic works such as Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer. He shows how medieval Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides viewed Islam as a theological phenomenon.

“Judaism does not have the same problems with Islam that it has with Christianity, that is, trinity, incarnation, and resurrection,” Brill concludes. “But to envision a Jewish theology of Islam, there are many questions that would need a fresh analysis to move the discussion forward, especially finding a way to read the negative statements about Jews, either conceptually or contextually, in a way that would minimize their effect.”

And he raises some of the questions that he wants Jewish theology to answer regarding Islam, among them, “Can Judaism find a place for Mohammed in Judaism as not a madman,” as he was portrayed by Maimonides? “Can we find a place not in the realm of an Islamic polity (dar islam) or in an anti-Islamic polity (dar harb), but walking alongside? Can we have a sense that we worship one God, have common laws, common revelation, and common resurrection?”

Going forward

Much of the classical Jewish theology on Christianity appeared in Brill’s prior volume. Here, he details contemporary Jewish thinkers on Christianity. The American-born, Modern Orthodox Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Brill writes, “can serve as a barometer of the inroads of ecumenical thinking about Christianity in many traditional Jewish circles. Riskin’s speeches show that segments of his community are begging to sincerely acknowledge the tremendous strides in Jewish-Christian relations along with post-Holocaust sensitivity to Judaism and the State of Israel.”

Even after 50 years of formal Catholic-Jewish dialogue, plenty remains on the theological agenda, says Brill.

“The next question is How do we go forward? We have to break discussions down into much smaller units, starting from the questions of where we overlap, to the other way: Where do we diverge?”

Brill says that in thinking about other religions, Jews have to be fair and consistent.

“You can’t compare a Christianity from the 14th century to a modern Judaism and then say, ‘Behold, they’re opposites.’”

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