Alon Goshen-Gottstein
Alon Goshen-Gottstein

Judaism and Eastern Religions — Diplomatic Success and Theological Challenges

Last week, the Israeli Foreign Ministry, together with the American Jewish Committee and the Council of World Religious Leaders, hosted a high-level delegation of leaders from Eastern Religions. The head of the Sikh faith was there. So were high-level Hindu, Buddhist and Tao leaders from India and China as well as Shinto and Zoroastrian leaders. They were received with great honor by the President of Israel. Our Prime Minister made time on his busy schedule to receive them and urged that such meetings should become an annual event. The coming of such a high-level delegation to Israel was clearly an event, and a successful one, from the perspective of the diplomats who organized it. Israel has deepened its ties with Asia, through religious channels. Because most of these leaders have influence not only on millions of faithful but also on their governments, this is a significant political achievement.

President Rivlin with Hindu and Buddhist monks from delegation of Asian Religious Leaders

Woody Allen once quipped: Showing up is 80 percent of life. The fact that the meeting happened and garnered the high-level official attention it did is itself success, regardless of its contents. But if we are to make good on Mr. Netanyahu’s vision of an ongoing exchange, issues of substance must come to the forefront. As a consultant to the meeting in its planning stages and as one who contributed to the proceedings, I would raise three questions, relating to Judaism’s relations to Eastern faiths (faiths of Asia, as they were referred to in the recent meeting).

1. Whom do we talk to?

For diplomatic purposes, it is fine to lump all “Asian” religions into a bundle and bring the heads of the different religions to meet with the leaders of our state. From a religious perspective, it makes less sense. Judaism’s conversation with Shinto faith is nothing like its conversation with Sikh faith. Shinto believes, if I got it right, in 30,000 gods. It is also very tolerant, adaptable and could conform itself easily to modernity, as well as to various religious groups. If Japanese pacifism and peace-making are related to a particular theology, then a Jewish encounter with Shinto requires reflection on monotheism and its discontents or on what lessons can be carried over from Shinto into a Jewish framework. Sikhs, on the other hand, are monotheists, who integrate a military ethos with very refined spirituality. This raises an entirely different set of concerns for a meaningful conversation. Lumping all religions together pushes the conversation to the broadest common denominators – protection of planet, peacemaking, values in society. But holding conversations on these broad values without engaging the particular theologies of the traditions only affirms the starting point – the 80 percent of showing up. It affirms that somehow there are some values we would all like to see implemented in today’s world. But it does little to advance how Judaism, and the State of Israel, can learn from others, teach others, or collaborate with others in ways that are more than purely declarative or ceremonial.

2. What can we talk about and what do we ignore?

Rabbi Michael Melchior made an important presentation on religion and peacemaking. The Oslo peace process failed, he suggested, because it did not take into account identity. People will die for their identity and religious identity is an essential component of identity. The quest for affirming identity has been an important driver in the official Jewish-Hindu dialogue, launched in 2007, by Swami Dayananda (Click here to learn more). Dayananda was concerned about Christian missionary efforts against Hindus and sought to create an alliance with Judaism, whereby both non-missionary religions could stand up against missionary efforts. (As participants in the recent meeting joked: Between Israel, India and China we would number 2.5 billion people). Yet, a review of the proceedings of official Hindu-Jewish dialogue, surveyed in my The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism (Palgrave, 2016), shows that Jewish leaders have failed to raise their own identitarian issues in dialogue with others. While Hindus voiced their concerns regarding missionary activities, Jews remained silent on the reality of Israelis drawn to the ashrams of the very same leaders. The sight of an orange-clad Israeli swami, ordained by Swami Dayananda, at last week’s memorial lecture for Dayananda, brought home to me the challenge of not avoiding discussion of identity issues, as these concern Jewish participants in the dialogue.

Swami Dayananda
Swami Dayananda

A second issue that was kept off the table and that must feature more prominently in a future conversation, and which indeed did feature in previous Hindu-Jewish summits, is the nature of belief in God, and in particular the challenge of idolatry. Is theological common-ground necessary for practical collaboration? Perhaps not. But it is necessary for successful transfer of ideas and inspiration across traditions.

The delegates presented both the President and the Prime Minister with the well-known image of Dancing Siva, one of the most iconic images of Hinduism. The gesture was obviously well-intended. Still, one is left wondering what have Hindu partners to the dialogue with Jewish religious officials learned about Judaism, or rather: what have they not learned? Good interfaith dialogue should sensitize us to the reality of the other, to his concerns and to differences in worldview. It seems that the dialogue has not yet reached a point of sufficient honesty, trust, breadth or representativity (some or all of the above) to allow Jewish participants to voice their concerns, in a spirit of dialogue and understanding.  Or perhaps the dialogue has not yet created the mechanisms of sharing, consultation and collaboration that would lead to deeper understanding of each side’s particular sensitivities.

Meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin
Meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin

3. Whom do we engage in conversation?

In 2007 and 2008 the Israeli Foreign Ministry was able to engage the two Chief Rabbis of Israel, Rabbis Metzger and Amar, in the dialogue with Hindu leaders. The recent event was marked by the absence of high-level Jewish religious leaders. The Chief Rabbinate’s representatives to the dialogue (Rabbis David Rosen and Daniel Sperber) were in attendance. So were many other rabbis who have a voice in the community, such as Rabbis Yuval Cherlow, Avi Giesser and Michael Melchior. But the discrepancy was obvious. The individuals who would be seen as the counterparts to the visiting Asian religious leaders were absent from the table. Their place was filled by State and diplomatic heads. This says something about the present state of the Chief Rabbinate and of official Judaism. It also points to the work ahead. Meaningful conversation must engage the highest ranking representatives and ultimately filter down to religious communities – of Jews and of leaders of other religions.


The dialogue with Asian religious leaders was an important and encouraging first step. That it happened is half the success, nay: 80% of the success. But the remaining 20% may be the hardest. If the dialogue is to bear long-term fruit, and if it is to become an ongoing event, the significant diplomatic success must be “converted” to the beginnings of a meaningful conversation that will not only delight in the very fact that a conversation is taking place, but also engage the challenging and meaningful religious issues that are appropriate to each of the religions and Judaism’s conversation with it.

All pictures courtesy of Israeli Foreign Ministry

About the Author
Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the founder and director of the Elijah Interfaith Institute. He is acknowledged as one of the world’s leading figures in interreligious dialogue, specializing in bridging the theological and academic dimension with a variety of practical initiatives, especially involving world religious leadership.