The visit of PM Modi to Israel celebrates 25 years of diplomatic relations. The visit will focus on agricultural projects as well as other commercial enterprises. The public agenda could in theory have been the same had the PM of China visited. There is, however, another agenda that makes India-Israel relations special. Imagine Modi would have come with ten Hindu religious leaders and ten religious scholars, and those religious voices would have sat down for a conversation with their Jewish counterparts. What would they have spoken about? What perspective on India-Israel relations could they offer that points to the deeper currents that tie the two nations together? What follows is the agenda for this virtual three day encounter, reflecting on the deeper meaning of Israel-India relations, from the perspective of Jewish-Hindu relations.
A preliminary clarification – While Israel does define itself as a Jewish state, India does not define itself as a Hindu state. It has a significant Muslim minority, that is in fact the second largest global Muslim constituency, as well as a sizable Christian community. However, PM Modi and his government do follow a Hindu-oriented agenda. The national (Israel/India) and religious (Jewish/Hindu) identities overlap in ways that justify reflection on the religious dimension, as well as its expressions in state structures.
The following 10 discussion points are broken down into 3 groups, featuring reciprocity, commonality and challenges.
Diplomatic relations are based on reciprocal recognition. Israel and India have recognized each other diplomatically in reciprocal ways and the present visit expresses maturity and flourishing of mutual recognition. What of religious recognition? Can we speak of reciprocity in mutual religious recognition? The following talking points suggest several difficulties in this regard.
1. Reciprocity of recognition as a distinct religion. Jews for the most part are aware of the fact that there is a religious tradition(s) that is particular to India and that is commonly referred to as Hinduism. Jews are accustomed to being recognized as a distinct faith community, following two millennia of living in the shadow of Christianity and Islam. It may therefore come as a surprise to learn that in many ways Judaism is not fully recognized in Indian public consciousness as a distinct religious tradition. There is a long history of Judaism being subsumed as a branch of Christianity, rather than appreciated as a self-standing tradition. The foundational writings of Swami Vivekananda, whom some would consider the founder of modern Hinduism, are a case in point. Major faith leaders in contemporary India, such as Sathya Sai Baba, had a hard time accounting for the distinctiveness of Judaism as a religion, and in many sections of India there is still no recognition of its particular identity. The reasons are primarily historical. Jews were a tiny minority. Most Indians never encountered Jews. At the same time, the Judaism they knew was refracted through New Testament polemics and was therefore subsumed as part of Christianity or as its forerunner. With the improvement in political relations and the high adulation that Israel enjoys in popular Indian culture this is slowly changing. However, the very issue of knowing Judaism’s distinctiveness and recognizing it as such is still one that must be addressed.
2. Reciprocity of interest. Perhaps as an extension of the previous point, one notes a lack of reciprocity in mutual interest. Israelis are fascinated by Indian culture. The roots of this fascination are much older than diplomatic relations. Israeli literature features India as a site for reflection and imagination for the better part of the 20th century. Opening the gates of India through diplomatic relations has led to a flood of Israeli visitors to India. Even if many of them go there for circumstantial reasons, there is a significant attraction to India that finds expression in mass travel. No parallel process exists. Indian travel to Israel is limited to business and study (and for Christians for pilgrimage as well). There is no parallel fascination with Jewish or Israeli culture.
3. Reciprocity of mutual learning. As a consequence of the previous two points we note total lack of reciprocity in academic studies. Indian studies and the study of Hinduism have a place in just about all major Israeli universities. By contrast, there is not a single chair in Judaism in the entire subcontinent. In introducing a book called Karmic Passages, a work that features the academic achievements of Israeli academics on things Indian, then Indian ambassador to Israel, Arun Singh, notes that Israel is probably the only country in the world where academic studies are the follow-up to in-person exposure to Indian culture, experienced by Israelis through their travels. There is no similar tradition of Hindus visiting Israel which would provide feeders for the Academy. Thus, lack of reciprocity extends to academic study, teaching and research. India is important for Israeli intellectual life. The reverse is not true.
Let us, then, put on the agenda of the virtual encounter of minds, on the occasion of Modi’s visit, the challenge of increasing reciprocity.
There is an intuition that many feel that the Indian-Israeli/Hindu-Jewish relationship is special in important ways. Seen in the broader context of world religions and world cultures, this would be justified by appeal to commonalities, that tie these cultures together. One scholar of religion, Barbara Holdrege, has suggested several features that make these two communities similar – learning based, emphasizing action over belief (orthopraxy), embodiment in an ethnic community and being non-missionary. For our group’s deliberations, I would like to offer the following three talking points.
4. Commonality of foundational teachings. While all religions share in fundamental moral teachings (consider the emblematic golden rule), there are teachings of greater specificity that are shared between some traditions and not others. The teachings of the Kabbalah have particular resonance with teachings of the Hindu tradition in ways that allow them to mutually illuminate each other. The teaching of the kabbalistic sefirot, spiritual energy centers, and the yogic chakras are seen by many as reflecting the same structure and process. The kabbalistic Shekhina, feminine divine creative force and the Hindu Shakti can be similarly viewed as parallel teachings. The list can be expanded further and suggests fruitful areas for comparison, gaining insight and increasing appreciation between the two traditions.
5. The centrality of spirituality. Swami Vivekananda famously contrasted spiritual India with the material West. For many this rings true. One might consider the rush to India as partly justifying this view. Yet it must be reconsidered in the present context. Is Israel/Judaism part of the West? Can it really be presented as materialist? And for that matter, can Modi’s India really be presented as “spiritual”? The shock of the first time visitor to India, who comes with some spiritual expectation and discovers the “real” India, suggests the opposite.
There is a more balanced way of relating to spirituality. Israel and India are ancient cultures for whom the spiritual and religious life are central. This centrality has framed their history and has given birth to other religions that have spread beyond their geographic bounds (notably Christianity and Buddhism). Both continue to aspire to spiritual ideals. And here is the crucial point for our deliberations – both struggle to realize the challenges of spirituality in the face of the challenges of today’s world. Secularization, technology, exposure to external cultures and ideologies, the challenges of transmitting tradition – these challenges are common to both nations and both cultures. If we recognize that the encounter between these nations and cultures is a meeting point of classic spiritual aspirations and contemporary realities, our conversation will proceed along lines that will be mutually beneficial. We can then share survival strategies, educational lessons and the vision that is common to both traditions.
6. The commonality of God. Can we go beyond affirmation of “spirituality” to affirmation of belief in a common God? This is one of the biggest challenges facing these two religious cultures. A decade ago, a representative group of Hindu leaders met with some of the top representatives of the Jewish religion, including the Chief Rabbis of Israel. The Hindu group, and the initiative, were led by Swami Dayananda Saraswati, who was PM Modi’s Guru. Click here to read a blog on this visit.
Swami Dayananda considered one of the great achievements of the Jewish-Hindu religious summits to be the acceptance by all partiers that in fact Jews and Hindus worship the same God. Hindus, stated the common declaration, worship the Supreme Being only and not any lower form, even while the Supreme Being is worshipped through other forms. For Dayananda, this put to rest the charge of idolatry that Hindus felt was levelled against them by Jews (and other monotheists).
The challenge remains. I have devoted a book length study, titled Same God, Other god – Judaism, Hinduism, and the problem of Idolatry to this challenge. I am not convinced the problem has been resolved by an English language declaration that received next to no exposure on the Jewish side. I think a lot more has to be done in order to affirm commonality of belief in God. These efforts involve Jewish theological reflection, research data among Hindu believers, consideration of educational initiatives on the Hindu side, and above all much more sharing and dialogue. Cultures that have been estranged for millennia cannot close gaps in understanding in a matter of years, or even decades. This is one of the most formidable challenges, and one that can and should be addressed, even at the next convening of our imaginary council of the Jewish and Hindu wise, when the PM of Israel pays his reciprocal visit to India.
In addressing reciprocity and commonality we already discussed challenges that relate directly to Hindu-Jewish relations. Let us move on to challenges that Israel/Judaism and India/Hinduism share in common. These common challenges allow for fruitful exchanges and mutual learning.
7. The challenge of personal identity. Identity is a key feature of the Jewish encounter with Hinduism. My The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism – Wisdom, Spirituality, Identity explores this challenge at length. Maintaining Jewish identity is the primary concern of Jewish organizations globally, facing weakening of identity, assimilation and intermarriage. Conversion to another religion has been seen as a threat to Jewish continuity and survival for millennia. Jewish converts to Hinduism similarly challenge the Jewish community in that they are considered a loss to the Jewish community. This is a point to which Hindu leadership has shown very little sensitivity.
On the other hand, in recent years an age-old attitude of acceptance of Hindu conversion to other religions has given way to a more reactive approach that seeks to preserve Hindu identity in the face of missionary efforts. If, as suggested above, Judaism and Hinduism are both non-missionary, today they also share the concern for protecting their identities against missionary efforts. Swami Dayananda (Mudi’s guru) was A prime ideological mover in affirming Hindu opposition to Christian missionary work. ( Some perceived Jewish missionary work with the tribes of bene menashe has even got in the way of Jewish-Hindu relations). Significantly, Dayananda advanced the Jewish-Hindu leadership summits with the express goal of jointly combating missionaries. Concern for individual identity has now emerged as a common concern of both traditions.
8. Affirming collective identity. Israel struggles with its identity as a Jewish state. The struggle is ongoing. It seeks to balance ancient ideals and contemporary realities, the laws of old and present-day norms, the promises of old and today’s political realities. On the face of it, India does not seek to affirm an ancient culture through its statehood. And yet, increasingly, over past decades, there has been a rise in the aspirations of “hinduness” (hindutva) of the State. Modi came to power on the platform of a political party that seeks to affirm such identity. While the dynamics, challenges and how they translate into reality are different, there is one common concern that emerges in India and Israel – the place of religious minorities. Both countries are presently struggling with the implications of an affirmation, or a quest, for partial or full identification of the State with a particular religious worldview for religious minorities. Officially, both countries affirm full minority rights. Realities on the ground are more complex, fraught with tension and cause for concern. Here is a fruitful area for dialogue. Recognizing deeper similarities would allow each side to see itself in the mirror of the other and perhaps to draw some significant lessons.
9. Balancing religion and politics. Flowing from the previous point is the thorny issue of relations between religion and politics. Israel does not have Church-State separation; India does formally. Yet, with the rise of Hindu-oriented political parties, the political landscape is increasingly informed by religious concerns (and the religious landscape increasingly informed by political associations). The past week has seen how politics plays out in Israel and the Jewish world in relation to conversion and the status of the Western Wall. In India there are equally problematic expression of legislation by religiously oriented political parties, that have consequences for some parts of society. One of the hot topics in India is very recent legislation limiting the sale of cows, in an attempt to reduce or prevent cow slaughter. This issue has become a bone of contention, cause for riots and even killings. At the root is the challenge of mixing or balancing politics and religions, and how these play out especially in relation to minority religious groups. There is a lot to gain from a discussion across the traditions. Personally, I believe such a conversation can provide correctives to drives that all too often go unchecked when a tradition, or political party, simply follows its own mandate, based on particular religious teachings.
10. Advancing a culture of pluralism and dialogue. Indian spokespersons praise India for being religiously tolerant and consider this an expression of Hindu culture. Yet, reality on the ground is shifting. Moreover, Indian pluralism is often based on lack of meaningful contact beyond daily living. Superficial tolerance often breeds deeper lack of acceptance. Today’s India is experiencing this increasingly. The roots of intergroup intolerance remain unchecked. India has a very little developed culture of interreligious dialogue. I have seen this in my efforts to bring the know-how of dialogue to Indian religious leaders and academics. Even more significantly, it has a very low level of religious literacy in all that concerns other religions. Due to State-Church separation, no religion is taught in the school system and therefore opportunities for educating to a culture of tolerance and acceptance based on real knowledge of the other are almost non-existent.
This paradigm is very different from the paradigm that informs large parts of the Western world, especially the English speaking world, where educational efforts include religious pluralism. Sadly, in this respect Israel is much more like India than it is like parts of the Western world. Ignorance of the religious other is rampant and engagement in constructive encounter and dialogue a low national and educational priority.
A three day visit is probably not enough time for our imaginary group of leaders and scholars to engage all these issues. But it is an occasion for recalling that much more ties Israel to India than agriculture or the sale of military equipment. The relationship holds huge promise, but such promise also requires a spirit of honest exchange and interrogation, that would allow both nations to advance in their respective societal missions through dialogue with the contemporary reality of the other. Let us hope that this imaginary conversation can one day be made real, to the benefit of Jews, Hindus and all members of the states of India and Israel.