During a trip to India in 2006, I traveled to the northern city of Haridwar, where Anandamayi Ma, one of the great gurus of the previous century, had her ashram. The head of the ashram at the time was Swami Vijayananda, a ninety-two-year-old guru. But Vijayananda was not always his name; his mother and father, a rabbi in southern France, had named him Abraham Jacob Weintraub.
Like his biblical namesake in the beginning of this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, Abraham-Vijayananda came to a crossroads. Before traveling to India he had planned to immigrate to Israel. During the 1948 War of Independence, he tried to volunteer for the Haganah paramilitary organization but was rejected (it turns out that a relative of his was in charge of recruitment in France and was afraid to put him in harm’s way). Although Abraham had been raised in a religious home, he was an atheist.
One day, he stumbled upon a volume of Indian philosophy that described the capacity to “find God within oneself.” Captivated by the idea, he decided to travel to India and learn more. Abraham eventually arrived at the ashram of Anandamayi Ma, who immediately sensed that he was special: even before he could apply, and despite a policy of turning away Westerners, she took him on as a student. Years later, she named him as her successor. When I arrived at the ashram, he had already been there fifty-five years, during which he had never left India. He had faced two options at the outset of his journey: “lekh lekha,” or “get thee,” literally, to the Land of Israel, to fight for his people; or “go to yourself,” to search his inner world.
I entered his austere room, and noticed a few Jewish tomes on the shelf – a Bible, a Tanya, the Sefat Emet, Simcha Raz’s Tales of the Righteous, and a biography of Ariel Sharon. Vijayananda felt that he had never stopped being Jewish, and found that there was no contradiction between Judaism and the Indian Vedic philosophy he was drawn to. One of Vijayananda’s students told me that he was once asked whether it was true that he used to be Jewish. Vijayananda straightened his back proudly and exclaimed, “I am Jewish!”
Though he had never visited Israel, he felt a deep connection to events in the country. He had a subscription to the Jerusalem Post, and several of his students who resided in Israel would call him once in a while to keep him abreast of the latest news. When I visited him, he sang Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” with deep feeling. I asked Vijayananda for advice about spiritual seeking, and he replied, “There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but those who change paths on the way up will never make it to the top. One must remain utterly committed to a single path, based on one’s tradition.” There is value to taking interest in a variety of paths – it enables one to see the good in others and respect them. One can also gain valuable knowledge about one’s own path by becoming acquainted with other ways. But one must remain committed to walking a single path; otherwise, even copious information about alternative routes will yield little wisdom.
After our meeting, I pondered Vijayananda’s advice. As someone who had remained in the ashram for fifty-five years, he almost certainly qualified as having stuck to a single path. But what of his assertion that the path should adhere to “one’s own tradition”? Was he expressing sorrow over the loss of the road he had chosen not to take? Was it possible that, had he known earlier that the spiritual outlooks that drew him to India also existed in Judaism, he would have chosen differently?
Suddenly, I imagined what could have been: a Rebbe Abraham Jacob, thronged by grandchildren and students, and tens of thousands of Jews animated by the light of his Torah. I felt sad, both for the old man whom I instantly adored, and for the Jewish people, which was denied the spiritual bounty of this large soul. I felt compelled to return and speak to him again. On route to my second visit my cab got stuck in traffic and I only had a few minutes to see him before I had to catch a train to Delhi. When we parted we both gazed at each other, both realizing that it would be our final meeting. As I left, Vijayananda said, “Next time you go to the Western Wall, pray for me.” During the following Sukkot festival, I made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and when I came to the Western Wall I carried out Abraham’s wish and prayed for him.
Four years later he passed away, but not before requesting, in a departure from the Indian custom – especially as it applies to saints such as himself – that his body be buried rather than cremated. Vijayananda’s followers at the ashram respected the unusual request, which stemmed, no doubt, from his desire to be interred in keeping with the Jewish tradition. His body was thus flown to France to be buried in the presence of his Jewish family, who recited the Kaddish at his graveside.
The above is excerpted from my recent book: “Be, Become, Bless – Jewish Spirituality between East and West.”