Monthly Archives: November 2010

To the Exurbs- Changing Denominations Again

Nancy Ammerman notes that 44% of Protestants in America change their denomination twice in their lives. The majority change it at least once. In her description of Golden Rule Believers, which I discussed below, she noted that “When people of all ages talked about being dissatisfied with a church, it was rarely over doctrinal disagreements, but often over the failure of a congregation to care for someone in need.” If people feel outside the family of the congregation they fund a new home. Jews are not identical to Protestants, however the point is that people move denominations not just once in life, but many change their denomination twice. Here is a recent story heard from another person.

“I know a man in his 50’s who grew up in what he calls a Conservadox congregation, which is one of the main NYC Orthodox congregations.” [editor’s note- that shul would firmly consider itself a bastion of Centrist Orthodox.]

“He moved out to the suburbs in line where he helped build a new synagogue similar to his vision of his old synagogue. He raised his kids there. Now, he and his wife are sick of Orthodoxy, he finds the very synagogue that he helped build is not hospitable anymore. He does not like the narrowness and judging. And he finds all the classes from the Center form the Jewish Future of YU completely irrelevant and a turn off.” (They have targeted this congregation for fund-raising and may not realize that they might be having the opposite effect in some cases.)

“ So, he and his wife are moving out to an exurb, far from an Orthodox shul, to be semi-retired. The implication is that he will now either drive to the Conservative congregation. He might occasionally drive to an Orthodox one”. Eventually, he might be part of a group that starts an Orthodox synagogue there. If there is a population study in 2010, he will be listed as having left Orthodoxy. “And, as a successful and wealthy professional, because they are annoyed, their charitable donations will not go to Orthodox institutions.”

“Contending Modernities: Catholic, Muslim, Secular.”

Tomorrow and Friday there will be a conference on what it means to combine religion and modernity. Details, speakers, and abstracts Here. Currently, modernity is not seen as secular process, rather each religious group creates its own religious modernity. This means that each and every religious group has its own narrative of modernity. Furthermore, modernity does not mean the 18th and 19th century values of autonomy, rationalization, individualization, or modern knowledge. It involves many other aspects. Those of you who use the words modern Orthodox or Modern Orthodox, the volumes produced by this conference will help you evaluate what you might mean.

On November 18-19, dozens of scholars, religious leaders, business people, and intellectuals will gather in New York for the public launch of a new, multi-year project called “Contending Modernities: Catholic, Muslim, Secular.” Based on the premise that Catholic, Muslim, and secular modernities each bring distinctive resources to the task of illuminating and resolving an array of characteristically modern problems, the project will examine the dynamic co-existence and competition of these “multiple modernities”—as well as the conflicts and contentions among them—with the aim of opening “new paths for constructive engagement between and among religion and secular people and institutions.”

In anticipation of the launch of this new project, we asked a distinguished group of scholars: What is gained by framing research on religion, secularity, and modernity in terms of “multiple” or “contending” modernities, and what “new paths for constructive engagement” might such a frame afford?

There are 12 speakers, here are some relevant aspects from the abstracts of 4 of them

R. Scott Appleby, John M. Regan Jr. Director, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and Professor of History, University of Notre Dame was instrumental in the Fundamentalist project. He thinks the current criteria is whether the groups are “deliberating and acting together for global justice?” Does Modern Orthodoxy participate in global justice? Does it work on inclusivism?

Modernity, scholars now agree, is not a linear, a priori, exclusively Western-originated, inspired, or driven project. “It” takes multiple forms, admits of no discernible telos, and emerges from discursive communities with both overlapping and incommensurate epistemologies and worldviews.

To make matters all the more complex, these supposedly self-contained discursive communities are themselves internally plural, and their priorities and self-understandings internally contested. Not least, they are culturally, economically, and physically “all over the map.”…

All of this is good news for religious communities, especially, which not so long ago were considered virtually irrelevant to “the project.”

Then the question becomes: how to translate disparate historical experiences into platforms or frames for “deliberating and acting together for global justice?”

Not everyone can or will play: these worlds are vast and divided, with remote or inaccessible parts. But the crosscultural conversation has already begun, and now it must become ever more explicit and, as possible, inclusive.

Lisa Sowle Cahill, J. Donald Monan Professor, Department of Theology, Boston College offers another definition. Does modern orthodoxy fit into this definition? Does it have a universal language? Why does it still buy into the myth that there is a neutral objective secular sphere?

“Modernity” brings global movements for democracy, women’s rights, human rights, and the environment. It also carries increased conflict within states, huge gaps between rich and poor, climate change, “superpower” hegemony, and global economic collapse.

Modern Catholicism has developed a universalizing language of the common good, mutual rights and duties, and global social justice. Catholicism aspires to be a moral voice for all citizens of “the modern world.”

“Contending Modernities” will increase understanding and respect between these different worldviews. More importantly, each can assist the other to renegotiate what it means to live faithfully before God and responsibly in a global environment. The dynamic of productive and self-critical interreligious “contention” is essential to meeting shared modern challenges constructively and creatively.

But there is no such thing as a “neutral” and “objective” secular sphere. “Secularity” is itself grounded in particular historical experiences, such as Enlightenment resistance to religious authority, sixteenth-century religious wars in Europe, evolving democratic regimes, growth of market capitalism, and defending the rationality of Western nation states and their agendas.

Robert Orsi, Professor of Religion, Grace Craddock Nagle Chair in Catholic Studies, Northwestern University complains about the term Catholic modernity because Catholicism has been a force for rejecting modernity. Since Orthodoxy has been a social and psychological force for rejecting modernity, people choose it to find safety in the tradition or mesorah, then is the very term Modern Orthodox an oxymoron?

But it is a sleight of nomenclatural hand to rename Catholic life since the 18th century as one among “multiple modernities” without attention to the ironies and contradictions of such a claim and to the tragedies the phrase masks. Catholicism has long stood fiercely against the protections and rights offered by secular modernity, including women’s equality, the freedom of sexual identity, respect for children’s autonomy, and reproductive choice. The church objected to democracy throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, aligning itself with repressive political regimes around the world. Better the torture cells of a pious dictator than a condom!

The various goods of modernity were hard won; the language of multiple modernities obscures the fact that Catholicism was one of the major obstacles to their achievement

Eboo Patel, Founder and President, Interfaith Youth Coreworks associates modernity with diversity. Since Modern Orthodoxy is about living in an homogeneous enclave then are they modern? Is there any difference between the left and the right if both of them only live in isolated neighborhoods. As one of my students put it. “Modern Orthodoxy means never meeting a gentile until graduate school.” Does modern orthodoxy choose authority over diversity? Does it see Orthodoxy as choice or necessity?

British academic Anthony Giddens claims that modernity has one chief characteristic: frequent interaction between people from different backgrounds. The chief question for religions is how to engage this diversity. Or, as Peter Berger bluntly put it, “Modernity pluralizes.”

Many religious leaders view the presence of diversity as a serious challenge to their authority. They could once pass down their ways of being, believing, and belonging to the next generation without multiple sets of other ways competing with them. To draw from Berger again, where they could once reasonably present their traditions as fate, now the next generation views those ways as a choice.

This post of mine from Dec 2009, Modern Orthodoxy- Modern meant Moral Self-transformation is relevant to this discussion. Since everyone is modern in the temporal sense, to go out of one’s way to call yourselves modern needs a specific aspiration.

Judaism and Yoga Part III

Rajiv Malhotra is a Hindu who agrees somewhat with the Evangelical position. Here is his article. This discussion is continued from part II here.

Malhotra emphasizes that there is a distinct metaphysics that runs counter to Christianity. The point of Yoga is liberation from this world. That is unlike the Christian scheme of salvation. But does Judaism have anything against liberation from the material world? Does Judaism just run an alternate track and this is ancillary like other forms of metaphysics? Does the fact that prophecy has ended in Judaism and that God is transcendent contradict also affirming God is everywhere as taught in Hasidut? Do we have a problem with dissolving the ego? If it is done in a Hasidic way? Are we bother by being embodied or are we anti-body in a monastic way?

While yoga is not a “religion” in the sense that the Abrahamic religions are, it is a well-established spiritual path. Its physical postures are only the tip of an iceberg, beneath which is a distinct metaphysics with profound depth and breadth. Its spiritual benefits are undoubtedly available to anyone regardless of religion. However, the assumptions and consequences of yoga do run counter to much of Christianity as understood today. This is why, as a Hindu yoga practitioner and scholar, I agree with the Southern Baptist Seminary President, Albert Mohler, when he speaks of the incompatibility between Christianity and yoga, arguing that “the idea that the body is a vehicle for reaching consciousness with the divine” is fundamentally at odds with Christian teaching. This incompatibility runs much deeper.

Yoga’s metaphysics center around the quest to attain liberation from one’s conditioning caused by past karma. Karma includes the baggage from prior lives, underscoring the importance of reincarnation. While it is fashionable for many Westerners to say they believe in karma and reincarnation, they have seldom worked out the contradictions with core Biblical doctrines. For instance, according to karma theory,…All humans come equipped to recover their own innate divinity without recourse to any historical person’s suffering on their behalf.

The Abrahamic religions posit an infinite gap between God and the cosmos, bridged only in the distant past through unique prophetic revelations, making the exclusive lineage of prophets indispensable. …Yoga, by contrast, has a non-dual cosmology, in which God is everything and permeates everything, and is at the same time also transcendent.

The yogic path of embodied-knowing seeks to dissolve the historical ego, both individual and collective, as false….Yoga is a do-it-yourself path that eliminates the need for intermediaries such as a priesthood or other institutional authority. Its emphasis on the body runs contrary to Christian beliefs that the body will lead humans astray.

Some have responded by distorting yogic principles in order to domesticate it into a Christian framework, i.e. the oxymoron, ‘Christian Yoga.’ Others simply avoid the issues or deny the differences. This is reductionist and unhelpful both to yoga and Christianity.

The “ dark ” passages of the Bible

More from the recent Pope Benedict document.
He explicitly acknowledges that there are morally difficult passages of the Bible. Read his passage below. Is it a Maimonidean “The Torah speaks in the [moral] language of men of the time? Is it Christian supersessionalism?
Progressive evolution of humanity? Probably not the later, because he mentions that history and current events are still violent. He wants a literary-theological reading from pastors that helps the laity deal with these passages in a way that preserves the sanctity of the text. So is it like the way modern Orthodox deal with Amalek, through a variety of answers? Is he going beyond? Or is it just a more historical approach? Maimonideans are comfortable saying that revelation made accommodations for the anthropomorphisms of the era, but what of accommodation for Bronze age ethics? What would be an interpretation made in the light of Hazal? in light of the Torah of Hashem is eternal?

42. The “ dark ” passages of the Bible

the Synod also considered those passages in the Bible which,
due to the violence and immorality they occasionally contain, prove obscure and difficult. Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance.

God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “ dark ” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day.

So it would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “ I encourage scholars and pastors to help all the faithful to approach these passages through an interpretation which enables their meaning to emerge in the light of the mystery of Christ.

For those who have not thought about these questions before the starting point for the discussion is Avi Sagi,The Punishment of Amalek in Jewish Tradition: Coping with the Moral Problem, Harvard Theological Review Vol.87, No.3 (1994) p.323-46. Sagi deals with the various approaches in the traditional medieval and modern commentaries.

Golden Rule Jews or Family Value Orthodoxy

I am not working on this right now, but thought that this article would help clarify a few thing that came up in the half-shabbos discussions.

The religion of much of the laity is not on a left-right spectrum or a frum or less frum spectrum. Many modern Orthodox congregation are made up entirely of people who choose it for the lifestyle and family values. Being Orthodox is about family on Shabbat, shiva calls, hospital visits, sharing simchas, and helping people out. They are oblivious to both doctrine and practice demarcations. They consider the warmth of the community as their Orthodox Judaism. Nancy Ammermann, the leading sociologist of congregations, calls the Christian equivalent “Golden Rule Christians.” She argues despite their lesser observance and liberal beliefs, they are not liberals and are not to be contrasted with Evangelicals, rather they are oblivious to most of the right-left issues.

Many congregants are concerned whether the Rabbi is good at shiva calls and hospital visits, not whether they went to Ner Israel or YU. They care about if the rabbi participates in their lives, welcomes new members, and gives divrei Torah or sermons about suburban life, not about the left-right flash points. And they are completely oblivious to ideology confusing Rav Frand and Aviva Zorenberg.

We can use a study of Orthodoxy using her categories developed about congregational life. JTS brought in Nancy Ammermann to do a study of the Conservative movement, but she accepted the statements of too many of the ideological talking heads as if they were empirical. This article was written 14 years ago; much has changed since then in American relgion. And Judaism is not the same as Protestantism. Nevertheless, her work is a good starting point for empirical discussions. Go read the 20 page article in full.

She points out that they are sincere, engaged, and have a relationship with God. They see themselves as neither lax nor liberal. She notes that ideologues and liberals are more likely to be found in urban areas. So innovations in an urban area like Riverdale or the Upper West Side, may have little to do with the Family Value Orthodoxy of Livingston, Scarsdale, Engelwood, or Great Neck. (I am only speaking of the big shuls).

This chapter is reprinted from the book LIVED RELIGION IN AMERICA edited by David Hall (1997), Pp. 196-216 with permission from the Princeton University Press

The first step in describing the religiosity of “lay liberals” is to recognize what these people believe and practice. Their religiosity is not just a paler reflection of evangelical fervor, but different in kind… Their own measure of Christianity is right living more than right believing. are characterized by a basic “Golden Rule” morality and a sense of compassion for those in need.

What is this good life for which Golden Rule Christians aim? Most important to Golden Rule Christians is care for relationships, doing good deeds, and looking for opportunities to provide care and comfort for people in need. Their goal is neither changing another’s beliefs nor changing the whole political system. The emphasis on relationships among Golden Rule Christians begins with care for friends, family, neighborhood, and congregation. In the neighborhood, they value friendliness and helpfulness. Many of these folk know what it is to be mobile and therefore what adjusting to life in a new location involves. “Doing unto others” means welcoming newcomers and offering routine neighborly assistance. Beyond such routine care, they are also convinced that a good person invests in relationships. That means being open and vulnerable, working through difficulties, being there during the hard times.

Among those we interviewed, older people were especially likely to describe the church as like a family, a place where people care for each other in times of need. When people of all ages talked about being dissatisfied with a church, it was rarely over doctrinal disagreements, but often over the failure of a congregation to care for someone in need.

Implicitly, most observers seem to measure strength of belief and commitment against a norm defined by evangelicalism, equating that with “religiosity” and painting these non-exclusivist, less involved practitioners as simply lower on the scale. In this essay, I suggest that “lay liberals” are not simply lower on the religiosity scale. Rather, they are a pervasive religious type that deserves to be understood on its own terms.

What I am describing may in fact be the dominant form of religiosity among middle-class suburban Americans. It certainly is among the middle-class suburban Americans in our study. It is their form of “lived religion.” Urban congregations were more likely than suburban ones to be activist,
They draw from Scripture their own inspiration and motivation and guidance for life in this world. Their knowledge of Scripture may not be very deep, but they have at least some sense that the Bible is a book worth taking seriously, especially as a tool for making one’s own life and the life of the world better.

This emphasis on caring also defines their picture of God. Just as our interviewees’ most common description of the Christian life was living by the Golden Rule, so the most common description of God was as a protector and comforter. God was experienced most often in moments of need. Even beyond times of crisis, these church members talked about seeing God’s presence in the ways “things just work out” or feeling more confident about everyday challenges because they know God will care for them.

Relationships with friends and fellow church members are important, then, but the relationship that perhaps defines the religiosity of Golden Rule Christians more than any other is the relationship of parent to child. A quarter of the interviews we analyzed contained explicit statements linking faith to the upbringing of children.

They are not in church only for their children (as we will see below), but religious training for their children is part of what they see as their obligation to the world. They would not be doing good or making the world a better place if their children were denied the training provided by the church.

Stresses in family life are among the items of most concern to the Golden Rule Christians in these two affluent suburban congregations. They spoke often of care for spouse and children as very important to them. They worried about the demands of their jobs and how to balance work and family life. Among the relatively small proportion who participated in various Bible study or discipleship groups at the two churches, discussions about work and family decisions were frequent refrains.

If Golden Rule Christians are characterized by their moral practices and their lack of creed, why call them Christian (or even religious) at all? Could they not be doing all these things based on an ethic generally available in the culture, the sort of generalized value system Could they not be members of a lodge or community club just as easily as of a church?

There are at least two reasons to reject that argument. The first is that they themselves insist on joining churches. They may join community organizations as well, but they talk about how important it is to them to find and join a church.
They simply see no other organization that puts caring for others so clearly at the center of its life. The more potent reason to reject Golden Rule Christianity as proof of secularization, however, is that Golden Rule Christians have not given up on transcendence. They were sometimes rather fuzzy on just what it is they experience, and they sometimes had to stop and think when we asked, but they almost always came up with answers to questions about their experience of God.Some said that they feel close to God in Sunday worship, especially in the music and in the opportunity for quiet reflection. Nearly half of those whose interviews we analyzed mentioned some aspect of the worship service as important to them, as a time when they feel God’s presence or find new insight and understanding for their lives…The parts of the service that involved participation and introspection seemed most important.

Others mentioned experiences with their children – births, for example – or moments near the end of their parents’ lives. One man reflected, “I think He [God] has always been a big part of our life, our married life, and our kids’ lives. I think our kids had a lot to do with making Him more real to us, and personalizing Him.” As these people encounter the power and grandeur of nature and the mystery of life’s formative moments, they again sense that something beyond themselves is present. Not surprisingly, they also sense this presence in times of special difficulty. Many of those we interviewed mentioned times of sickness and death as moments of particular closeness to God. Rather than eliciting questions or existential anger, these trials seemed to allow Golden Rule Christians to draw on a reservoir of spiritual energy.

Half of the people we surveyed define their faith more in terms of everyday morality than in terms of institutional commitment or theological orthodoxy. They would be likely to find a high-commitment sectarian congregation uncongenial.
While theologians might want to argue that the people I have termed “Golden Rule Christians” have no coherent theology, and evangelists might worry about their eternal souls, sociologists cannot afford to dismiss a form of lived religion just because it does not measure up to orthodox theological standards.

I have argued here that the Golden Rule Christianity we see today is explicitly nonideological. That is, it is not driven by beliefs, orthodox or otherwise. Rather, it is based in practice and experience. God is located in moments of transcendence and in the everyday virtues of doing good. The good person invests heavily in care for family (especially children) and friends, tries to provide friendly help in the community, and seeks ways to make the larger world a better place. All the while, the ideas of others are respected.

Christians, Jews and the Sacred Scriptures

This week, Pope Benedict published a 208 page document giving the core of his official views for the Church. Most of it has to do with the Bible. Several small sections set out what may be the new standard in Christian-Jewish relations. I have at least two weeks to produce a statement for the press since the document is so long, the Catholic press has yet to digest it, and for a Jewish paper to cover the topic two weeks later is fine. I will be discussing various parts of this very binding document and then posting my 850 words without any theological words in two weeks. In the meantime, © Alan Brill 2010, all rights reserved.

We will deal with pages 76-78 on the relationship of Judaism to Christianity.

Christians, Jews and the Sacred Scriptures

43. Having considered the close relationship between the New Testament and the Old, we now naturally turn to the special bond which that relationship has engendered between Christians and Jews, a bond that must never be overlooked. Pope John Paul II, speaking to Jews, called them “ our ‘beloved brothers’ in the faith of Abraham, our Patriarch ”.141 To acknowledge this fact is in no way to disregard the instances of discontinuity which the New Testament asserts with regard to the institutions of the Old Testament, much less the fulfillment of the Scriptures in the mystery of Jesus Christ, acknowledged as Messiah and Son of God. All the same, this profound and radical difference by no means implies mutual hostility. The example of Saint Paul (cf. Rom 9-11) shows on the contrary that “ an attitude of respect, esteem and love for the Jewish people is the only truly Christian attitude in the present situation, which is a mysterious part of God’s wholly positive plan ”.142 Indeed, Saint Paul says of the Jews that: “ as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers, for the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable! ” (Rom 11:28-29).

For Pope Benedict, the relationship of the two religions is because of shared scripture and the sharing of God’s revelation to Abraham (as defined in Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews). Benedict does not attempt to acknowledge the Jewish understanding of these passages in Genesis or to acknowledge the Jewish self-understanding of the role of Moses and Torah. He does, however, state that the commonality does not invalidate the discontinuity of institutions and how the New Testament fulfills the Old.
The difference is “profound and radical.” This return to fulfillment language after a several decade absence was already used in his homilies last year.

Benedict does seek to avoid any mutual hostility, rather to seek respect and love. His reason is because the separation of Judaism and Christianity is part of a mysterious plan on God’s part for some greater purpose. God gave the Jews an irrevocable gift. Why? We dont know. We do know that it has a productive role. This is the line of text for Christian theologians to crawl through to create a theology of Judaism. Even if Christians acknowledge separate covenants for Jews and Christians, they are not mutual since Christianity is the fulfillment of the Biblical promise. Expect speeches trying to give this paragraph a positive spin. And needless to say, none of this is from the Jewish perspective.

Saint Paul also uses the lovely image of the olive tree to describe the very close relationship between Christians and Jews: the Church of the Gentiles is like a wild olive shoot, grafted onto the good olive tree that is the people of the Covenant (cf. Rom 11:17-24). In other words, we draw our nourishment from the same spiritual roots. We encounter one another as brothers and sisters who at certain moments in their history have had a tense relationship, but are now
firmly committed to building bridges of lasting friendship.143
As Pope John Paul II said on another occasion: “ We have much in common. Together we can do much for peace, justice and for a more fraternal and more humane world ”.144

This is a paraphrase of Nosta Aetate paragraph four, but Moses and the prophets are not mentioned here. More importantly, it does it mention the vision of a reconciliation. It does acknowledge, albeit tersely, prior anti-Jewish attitudes. Now, there should be lasting friendship. Benedict has been firmly committed to friendship with the Jews, so Jews should have tackled more fundamental issues of historical anti-Jewish texts. Instead,we squandered our audiences and communications on a crazy excommunicated Bishop and on how Benedict’s speeches could be parsed for bad. We need to work together or peace, justice, and more fraternal and human world. Nothing specifically Jewish-Christian there.

I wish to state once more how much the Church values her dialogue with the Jews. Wherever it seems appropriate, it would be good to create opportunities for encounter and exchange in public as well as in private, and thus to promote growth in reciprocal knowledge, in mutual esteem and cooperation, also in the study of the sacred Scriptures.

Conclusion more dialogue and study of Scriptures. (For Jews who dont know that dialogue for Catholics is currently a generic term meaning everything from social action to soup kitchens to study of Jewish history to attending a Holocaust memorial, see Dialogue and Proclamation, section 3.

140 Propositio 29.
141 JOHN PAUL II, Message to the Chief Rabbi of Rome
(22 May 2004): Insegnamenti XXVII, 1 (2004), p. 655.
142 Cf. PONTIFICAL BIBLICAL COMMISSION, The Jewish People and their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (24 May 2001), 87: Enchiridion Vaticanum 20, No. 1150.
143 Cf. BENEDICT XVI, Farewell Discourse at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv (15 May 2009): Insegnamenti, V, 1 (2009), 847-849.
144 JOHN PAUL II, Address to the Chief Rabbis of Israel
(23 March 2000): Insegnamenti XXIII, 1 (2000), 434.

Benedict’s footnotes are reliant on his recent speeches. He does not use the more open to Judaism “Notes on the Correct Way to Present Jews and Judaism in Preaching and Catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church” Written by Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews from 1985. But we dont even hear “Jewish messianic expectation is not in vain” from Cardinal Ratzinger’s document cited in footnote 143.

On page 74, two pages before the section discussed above, Benedict wrote his transition to this section.He then seemingly inserted page 75 on a different topic, breaking the original transition).

we must not forget that the Old Testament retains its own inherent value as revelation… Early Christian catechesis made constant use of the Old Testament (cf. 1 Cor 5:6-8; 1 Cor 10:1- 11) ”.For this reason the Synod Fathers stated that “ the Jewish understanding of the Bible can prove helpful to Christians for their own understanding and study of the Scriptures ”.

This is an acknowledgment that one can learn from Jewish exegesis, both traditional and scholarly. Yet, his proof is not Jerome or Nicholas of Lyra, rather the New Testament itself. It seems to imply that the NT used the OT, as an independent and outside source. It does not give a feeling of setting the NT in Jewish context. It gives a feeling that a non-typological reading still has some value, even though the NT is radically past literal readings. I am not sure that the small army of Catholic Tanakh teachers would formulate the matter this way.

(Please if you want to enter the discussion by commenting then be willing and eager to read and discuss these documents. And even to learn about the last decades of discussion and documents. If not, then this isn’t the place.)

Interview with Avi Solomon about Jewish relationship to other Religions in India

In the comments section on the post about the limits of Yoga for Jews, Avi Solomon, a reader of this blog, posted that as a Jew from Mumbai India he knew that Indian Jews knew how to keep a distance. (He is the author of a blog avisolo.blogspot that mainly discusses Abulafia and technical writing.) Since he has firsthand knowledge of Jewish practice in India, I decided to ask him a few questions and then a few more questions. I wanted to learn how they keep a distance and where they put the lines.

Please treat him and his answers with respect. We don’t need to point out where the practice among Indian Jewry is different than the Rambam, Rama or Pithei Teshuvah. Nor should we correct him with hindsight. The goal is to ask what can we learn from the natural practices of Indian Jewry.

When I posted on Yoga and Judaism, it was during Diwali. I was receiving many emails wishing me a happy Diwali. So the first thing I asked was concerning the holiday.

How did Jews relate to Diwali? Did they give greeting? Go out to the festivities?

We participated (along with members of every religion) in setting off very loud firecrackers! We greeted the Hindus when socially appropriate but attended any Diwali festivities only if we were invited. We told them we have our Diwali too -Hanukkah, which usually came a week or two after Diwali.

Which holidays did the Jews avoid?

None really. All holidays were an social occasion to meet the Goyim or to do excursions together as a (Jewish) family. This included the [Muslim] Id festivals too.

What were some of the things forbidden as Avodah Zara in India?

Never bow down to an Idol or at any place of worship that was not a synagogue. We somehow knew instinctively when we were about to cross a line.

How much did Jews know about Indian religions, its practice, and its Gods?

A lot – we were neighbors and Mumbai is a very cramped place.

Is there anything noticeable that was allowed?

Stuff to do with protection from ayin hara. For example a lemon with seven chillies would hang from the main door under the mezuzah as “additional protection”; or breaking coconuts on various occasions to ward off ayin ha ra.
Some religious customs were adopted from the Goyim but thoroughly koshered, for example the “Malida” ceremony honoring our “patron saint” Eliyahu HaNavi:

Shirley Berry Isenberg’s classic book “India’s Bene Israel” has more info.

Did you model yourself on the Muslims?

Not really. The Jews were there a lot before the Muslims and there was always some tension with the Muslims. The positive model to aspire to in India were the Zoroastrians (Parsis) who are ironically called the “Jews of India”. In fact my family lived next doors to a Zoroastrian family and our house overlooked a fire temple.

How did Jews relate to Zoroastrianism?

Congenially – Zoroastrianism was closer to the Jews as they worship an invisible God albeit made present in the form of fire and there was a sense of companionship as Zoroastrians were fellow “exiles” in India even after being there for a few thousand years. Also the Zoroastrians/Parsis were the most cosmopolitan Indians and the Indian Jews (Bene Israel) of Bombay naturally gravitated towards the same middle class status as them.

See the movie ‘Such a Long Journey’ for an intimate portrayal of the Zoroastrian life in Bombay.

‘Percy’ is also good but difficult to find.

How did you relate to the fire temple?

It was off limits to any non-Zoroastrian. I was able to sneak in once as a kid with my Parsi neighbor friend. Don’t tell anybody. 🙂

What were the boundaries with Zoroastrians?

None apart from not bowing down to their prophet.

Was it different than Hinduism?

No. Will all religions the boundary was not bowing down before their Gods (you could go into their places of worship if you wished and they allowed). The other boundaries were not marrying goyim or eating non-kosher meat. Of course there were some Indian Jews who crossed these lines and paid prices. For young Jews the solution was usually to immigrate to Israel to find a Jewish partner. When the community is down to 5000 it’s hard to find someone suitable.

Do you know of any writings on how actual Jews related to Indian religions? (Besides Nathan Katz)

Mostly fiction (Shirley Berry Isenberg’s non-fiction book India’s Bene Israel: A Comprehensive Inquiry and Sourcebook [Hardcover] is the best factual accounts):
Shulamith by Meera Mahadevan (hard to find – movingly shows that Indian Jewish life was not all hunky dory)
Esther David

“Baumgartner’s Bombay” is a unique fictional account of a German Jew who ended up in Bombay just before the war and stayed there.

There is an online Jews of India forum.

These documentaries on the Bene Israel might be useful:


Were there any rabbis- or hakhamim who were stricter? (I wanted to know if anyone followed the way it is discussed in the poskim.)

Not that I know of – most of the strictness was in setting a personal example of high levels of observances.