Two ancient religions behave like old friends

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Alan Brill

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Recent studies found that, on average, Jews and Hindus are the most educated religious groups in the United States, with similar economic structures and the highest retention rate of believers. Yet there is little exposure of one faiths to the other. On June 14, a Hindu-Jewish interfaith meeting in New York and Washington helped the two faith groups make each other’s acquaintance.

The International Hindu-Jewish Leadership Dialogue was hosted by the American Jewish Committee, the Hindu American Foundation, and the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha and was sponsored by the World Council of Religious Leaders. It began with a lunch and presentations amid saffron-robed swamis, dark-suited rabbis, and Hindu lay leaders wearing lapel pins combining the Israeli, Indian, and American flags.

In his talk, the AJC’s Rabbi David Rosen mentioned the rapid growth of political, economic, and military connections between Israel and India and emphasized the need for religious encounters. Religious leaders of both faiths mentioned how Hinduism and Judaism are both ancient civilizations and religions steeped in scripture and ritual.

When one of the speakers mentioned that in 2000 years there has been no indigenous anti-Semitism in India, he received unanimous applause.

Bawa Jain, the secretary general of the World Council of Religious Leaders, has been active in fostering this new Hindu-Jewish dialogue. In February 2007, he helped arrange the first Jewish-Hindu Summit, which took place in Delhi, India. Both sides affirmed that their “respective traditions teach that there is One Supreme Being…who has communicated Divine ways of action for humanity, for different peoples in different times and places.”

A second Hindu-Jewish Summit took place in Jerusalem in February 2008. There, the Jewish delegation accepted that true Hindus accept One Supreme Being and do not think that the representations used in worship are idols.

Two weeks ago there was a much smaller third meeting. The Hindu religious leaders represented a variety of paths. Religious restrictions kept some of them from being in the same room as women, while others gladly shared the podium with female Hindu leaders. All the swamis considered the kosher tuna wraps as meat, forbidden to a vegetarian; others would eat only the fresh fruit, since they would not eat anything cooked with utensils that might have been used to serve their forbidden foods.

The Hindu representatives all shared the perception that Christians engage in aggressive proselytizing and have a hidden conversionary agenda in interfaith activity. Even now in the United States, Hindus complain that they face aggressive missionary campaigns. They felt that Jews understand their concerns about proselytizing.

In addition, the Hindu representatives said that as many as five million Hindus died at the hands of Muslims because they chose not to convert. They worry about Islamist forces within and outside of India, a tacit area of agreement with Jews and Israel.

The Hindu representatives emphasized that they can learn from Jews about building community as a diaspora minority in America. They spoke of the imminent arrival to the United States of 60, 000 Hindu refugees from Bhutan and wanted to know how to set up an immigrant aid society. More importantly, they wanted to fight anti-Hinduism and change the derogatory descriptions of Hinduism in textbooks.

The two substantive interfaith themes, reiterated from the first two summits, were the Hindu understanding of God and the swastika. Representatives of the Shaivism school of Hinduism emphasized that they worship a single supreme being and are not polytheistic — and that they earnestly wanted Jews to know that the swastika is an ancient Hindu symbol of auspicious times, which originally had nothing to do with Nazis.

A broad acceptance of Hindu theology by the Jewish participants at the first two meetings set a universal tone but is likely to become substantially more qualified or restricted when the meetings include Hindu swamis from other denominations that have a more devotional and literal approach to the worship of images of the divine.

In the post-9/11 world, India and Israel have had a rapid rapprochement, pushing aside 50 years of tensions and fostering political and military links, including arms sales, joint intelligence, and trade agreements. Over 40, 000 Israeli youth visit India each year.

The swamis and rabbis are excited to engage with another religion with no negative historical baggage. This is an opportunity for a truly open interfaith encounter whose aim is mutual understanding and respect. The Jewish-Hindu encounter allows the Jews the possibility of a sister diaspora religion.

There were no funds this year for a full summit that would have been able to produce a new joint declaration. Instead, organizers created an event to publicize the prior summits. But expect more summits both in the United States and Israel as the two oldest religions belatedly get acquainted.

Alan Brill is the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Professor in honor of Sister Rose Thering and associate professor, Graduate Department of Jewish-Christian Studies, at Seton Hall University, South Orange (brillala@shu.edu).

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