Rabbi Dr. Alon Goshen-Gottstein has opened himself up to the wisdom of the East, specifically Hindu religious thought. He studied with Swami Chidananda of the Sivananda Ashram and at the Sadhana Kendra Ashram and worked together with Sri Sri Ravi Shankar In addition, he visited the ashrams of other noted leaders. Goshen-Gottstein feels is that Judaism is in crisis. Torah needs more god talk, more spiritual focus, and to create a focus on ultimate reality. This interview is a continuation from Part I – here.
(Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein is the first person on the left of the picture)
Goshen-Gottstien asks: “how much is this really an encounter with Hinduism. What I describe in my journey is increasingly a movement away from rituals, ideas and symbols into the realm of spirituality that transcends religions, and perhaps should therefore not be presented as Hindu at all.” There is for him, a spirituality, that transcends any specific form.
In his The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism, he notes that among those whose have experiences with both religions, the two religions are not being mixed. Rather, most with Jewish background “have dropped their Hindu identity upon return to Judaism.” Yet, he could see the integration into Judaism of “various yogic or mantric japa practices.” In his view, “such individuals would certainly be returning back to Judaism with a more expansive understanding of the religious life and possibly of God than many of their Jewish co-religionists. “
Goshen-Gottstein has been grappling with this question for decades and some of his ideas that go beyond this interview can be found here on Jewish-Hindu relations, here on his own encounter, and here on the Hindu-Jewish dialogue.
The most important point of the interview, from my opinion, is that “[m]ost Jews… do not devote much time, or are incapable of the kind of God-talk that Hindus cultivate.”
So my question is to consider if this is similar to Bahye ibn Pakuda and his extensive integration of Sufism? And what are the categories of this influence from another religion. We have no trouble using the wisdom of Christian thinkers such as Aquinas, Kierkegaard, Barth, or Tillich to understand Judaism. But how do we learn from the wisdom in the theological thinking in the other religions.
Wisdom – Theistic Piety
The most mild usage is that of intellectual wisdom.
In 2009, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein (Zt”l d. 2015) Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion gave a discourse for over an hour on the Bhagavad Gita as an illustration of the Torah’s concept of duty. For him, the Torah teaches the need to do the right action without worry for the results similar to Nishkam Karma. “To action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits; let not the fruits of action be thy motive; neither let there be in thee any attachment to inaction”(Bhagavad Gita 2.47) He also used it to teach the need for the Torah scholar to have self-control , discipline, and freedom from attachment. “With the body, with the mind, with the intellect, even merely with the senses, perform action toward self-purification, having abandoned attachment. He who is disciplined in Yoga, having abandoned the fruit of action, attains steady peace. ( 2.48). Here, the Gita did not provide new content or thoughts patterns, it provided as language for discussion.
Similarly, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits, in his work God, Man, and History, asks about the inherent chasm between the human person and the Divine in the encounter with God. To emphasize his point, he surprisingly quotes the Bhagavad Gita on human smallness before the divine: “Suppose a thousand suns were to arise tomorrow in the sky?” (33) For Berkovits, God’s infinite greatness remains beyond human understanding, creating an abyss between the human person and God. However, unlike Berkovits, classical Hindu commentators believe that this gap can be bridged on a personal level through meditation and enlightenment. Furthermore, for the Hindu the infinite divine takes on manifestations to help bridge the gap.
Learning from the Other
A different approach goes beyond language to actually learning from the other faith to gain greater perspective. A binocular or bifocal vision allows one to see deeper trends in one’s own faith. For those attracted to Asian traditions of meditation this can contribute to one’s own faith through reclaiming lost traditions.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan popularized the statement of Rabbi Menashe ben Israel (17th century Amsterdam) that the gifts of Abraham to his concubines were the Asian religions. But Kaplan held that “Idolatrous and other occult practices often shed light on the prophetic methods.” (Innerspace 109, 115). Hence, he often used books about practices in other religions to figure out Jewish practices. We read books about Asian religions to reclaim Jewish practices.
Rabbi Yoel Glick, whom I interviewed a few years, (see the links here and here) goes further to integrate a Hindu approach into Jewish texts and practices creating a Judaism of God centered spirituality. Rabbi Glick teaches the wisdom of Ramana Maharshi and Sri Ramakrishna in a Jewish form. Goshen-Gottstein see this as an important perspective both in the interview and in his book.
The current Christian and Muslim communities in the USA are asking many of these same questions in terms of meditation, yoga, and Asian theology. We have to thank Rabbi Goshen-Gotstein for his Jewish insights into these questions. The interview stresses the impact of great swamis as great spiritual leaders on his life. If I had wanted more from him, it would have been greater autobiographic details in vivid specifics of how it changed the minute of his spiritual life, including specific practices and specific concepts.
As a final point, last week on March 28 Swami Sarvapriyananda of the Vedanta society spoke at Seton Hall and I was the respondent. The Swami was introducing what he called his modern reform Hinduism to students whose home Hinduism was ritual and Temple based. He acknowledged the differences. My response was the need to always compare like to like. We compare Hindu mystics to Jewish mystics, Hindu legalists to Jewish legalists, and Hindu rationalists to Jewish rationalists. And quoting Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, I said we have to respect our differences and not to elide our differences. When we received questions from the audience, he answered one of them by stating that he was asked the same question by Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein.
- What does it mean to acknowledge a rich spiritual life in another faith?
How do we understand religion? All too often, we have a view of religion as a set of beliefs, moral instruction, and actions. Yet, all too often, we do not take into account the quality of relationship with God that individuals attain in a religion. How one’s faith is lived allows the formation of a relationship with God as what may be described as a living God. Contact with the living God has a powerful transformative impact on the person. We may describe how this contact transforms the individual as the spiritual life.
Let me give an example from Judaism. I argue that Judaism is in crisis. This means that for the overwhelming majority of Jews, Judaism is not a vehicle for living a spiritual life in the sense just described. Such a life is surely available within Judaism, but only within small circles or spiritual groups that seek it. For the most part, Jews are more concerned with Jewish survival, education, observance, people and state. The spiritual life focused on God, a conscious relationship with God and growing in a spiritual relationship are low on the collective value scale.
Herein is a key to two dimensions of Judaism’s relationship with Hinduism. In part, this is what Hinduism has to offer us, if only by way of the example of a religious culture that does make God more central to its concerns than present-day Judaism does. From another perspective, appreciating the fullness of the spiritual life that is possible in Hinduism would shift the view of Jews from the question of the forms of worship of Hinduism, which are obviously strange and foreign to Jewish sensibilities, to the broader spiritual concerns that Jews and Hindus share.
- When did you fascination with Hinduism start?
My own initial fascination with Hinduism owes to street encounters with one brand of Hinduism, popularly known as Hare Krishna, that was visible on street corners of major cities in the 1980s and ’90s. One cannot consider this a real encounter, even if it engaged my fascination, and led me to visits to temples and to conversations with faithful. Of course, it was an encounter of sorts. It involved curiosity, learning, dialogue and contact with practitioners. But this early teenage kind of engagement did not really affect me. The contact remained external, even if fascinating.
Taking up transcendental meditation (TM) in my early twenties might be considered a step toward a fuller encounter, especially as it was accompanied by many hours of study of the teachings of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, either through books or recorded videos. Certainly, meditation is a means of going deeper into a tradition. It forces one to make one’s own whatever experience is being attained through meditation, and if that experience is related to another faith tradition, then it could be a way of interiorizing, possibly owning, something of that tradition.
This form of meditation, however, was offered as a universal approach that was not religious and essentially not particularly Hindu. Even if the initiation ceremony followed Hindu conventions, and even if Maharishi wrote a commentary on Hinduism’s most popular text, the Bhagavad Gita, the practice, message and mindset, had been abstracted into a universalism from its Hindu particularity.It was a teaching that taught a path to oneself, not to another tradition. If nothing else, I was introduced to TM by a group of mostly secularized Israelis, for many of whom this functioned as a substitute religious identity, but who lacked the depth of the fullness of a religious tradition that they could represent to others.
- Can you explain your journey into Hindu ashram culture?
One approach to Hinduism is what you call Ashram culture. Ashrams are spiritual centers where live-in conditions offer the opportunity for full dedication to the spiritual life. They are typically organized around a great teacher, alive or one who has passed away. They contain some mix of teaching, ritual, meditation, service, community life and they seek to offer a comprehensive approach to the spiritual life as the goal and purpose of life. To compare them to what we know in Judaism, they are not synagogues or houses of study, though both activities take place there. They are closer to monasteries, though the discipline is often much laxer than in Christian monasteries.
Ashrams are closely associated with teachers, gurus, and monks. Broadly speaking, outside of the home, which is an important site for the practice of religion, ashrams and temples are the two main institutional expressions of Hindu religious life. Whereas a temple is organized primarily around the deity, the ashram is organized primarily around the teacher, lineage and the dedication to a form of the religious life. Ashrams are hugely diverse in terms of the activities that take place in them.
My first visit to India was to an ashram of a contemporary Hindu teacher, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. It also included visits to the ashrams of other noted leaders, such as Sai Baba and concluded with the ashram with which I maintain ties until this day, the Sivananda Ashram.
In the course of my years of visiting India, I have visited dozens of Ashrams, some of which did not even go by that name, but which were ashrams in functional terms.
Ashram culture is a where one encounters Hindu dedication to the spiritual life. The following thought occurs to me. Let us consider the purposes of religion. One purpose is to receive blessing in various aspects of one’s life – what the Zohar calls “children, life and livelihood.” One turns to God for the needs of life. The other purpose of religion is to transform oneself to attain the highest goal of religion, which is self-transformation, liberation, going beyond the limitations of material life and entering the fullness of a relationship with the divine.
From my experience, schematically speaking, temples serve the first set of goals; ashrams the latter. Exceptions abound in both directions, but the overall characterization gives us a sense of the institution. So, if you wish to get a handle on how Hindus dedicate themselves to the spiritual life, the practices they undertake, the ideas they share and how they organize their religious life around teachers, teachings and practices with the goal of attaining what they often refer to as “God Realization”, then ashrams are the place to go to.
- Why are Israelis attracted to ashram life?
I think the answer is contained in the previous questions. A meaningful number of Israeli travelers to India travel there for spiritual reasons. If they seek the spiritual life, they will usually not find it in Hindu temples that cater to the local Hindu population. They require a structured approach to the spiritual life, as set forth by teachers who offer a teaching and a path. This they will only find in ashrams.
Some ashrams have a high concentration of Israeli visitors, such as Sadhana Kendra Ashram, near Dehradun. The resident teacher, Chandra Swami, has been to visit Israel several times. He practices a form of Hinduism (he would claim he is not even practicing Hinduism, but something beyond the specificity of Hinduism) that is devoid of elements of worship and is focused almost exclusively on meditation.
This makes it easy for Israelis to be enriched by the Ashram experience without compromising their identity. However, Israelis are found in many other places in India. All ashrams that belong to gurus who travel to the west and have western following have Israeli residents, some of whom are even in positions of leadership. Israelis, Jews more broadly, are spiritual seekers. If they do not find their nourishment in Judaism, they will turn elsewhere.
India is an important destination in such a spiritual quest. There are several reasons. One is that India does not come with some of the negative baggage associated historically with other religions. A second reason owes to the ability of Hindu teachers to present their teachings as spirituality, rather than as religion, thus minimizing the conflict between competing identities.
- Can you share something about Swami Chidananda, the disciple of Swami Sivananda?
I wish I could communicate in words the feeling of being in this man’s presence. The intensity of energy and feeling, the uplifting of one’s internal orientation and internal quest, that occurred simply by being in his presence, are the stuff of which stories of tzaddikim and masters of faith in all traditions are made. One knows the presence when one is in it and someone who has not experienced being in the presence of a great soul or spiritual teacher will simply not understand the overwhelming energizing and the transformation one undergoes simply by being in the presence of some individuals.
My first encounter with him was as part of a group meeting. I, and others, had been sitting on the floor. He was seated in his chair. When it came time to talk to me, Swamiji did something startling. Before talking to me, he descended from his chair, and positioned himself on a level with me for our conversation. Here I was, a rabbi of another tradition. He would not talk to me from a position of greater height.
The impression this gesture made was tremendous. It was a gesture that captured the essence of this man, something I came to appreciate later through the reading of many of his books and watching dozens of hours of his teaching. The hallmark of this contemporary teacher was humility, the kind of humility that grows from the fullness of knowledge of divine presence and that translates itself into a meticulous care taken in human relations. I do not think I ever saw or felt the depth of humility in practice as during that brief moment when Swami Chidananda descended to sit facing me.
For me, the encounter with Swami Chidananda is not over. It is alive when I visit him, or nowadays his home, that is maintained as a sacred place, since he passed away in 2008. But it is also alive inside me. To touch the spirit and to be a model means that his example of humility and wisdom in action and his approach to the spiritual life can inform my internal horizons, together with the testimony of the great Jewish teachers. His presence remains real, and so he remains a teacher.
My question is how much is this really an encounter with Hinduism. What I describe in my journey is increasingly a movement away from rituals, ideas and symbols into the realm of spirituality that transcends religions, and perhaps should therefore not be presented as Hindu at all. This may be so. But then at the very least it would be a recognition that there is a spiritual reality that transcends religious particularity and that can communicate across religions. Such an understanding allows us to cultivate respect, appreciation and admiration for figures of another religion, where affirmation of existing boundaries would have the opposite effect. This in itself is no small feat.
Religious teachers speak the language of the tradition and bring its particularity to light, in light of their own experience and person. Therefore, Hinduism as taught by a Chidananda has a very different valence not only from classroom Hinduism but also from what other academic and religious teachers could offer. It is a full reading of the tradition, supported by a high point of spiritual and existential fulfillment. It allows a full encounter with the tradition itself, enhancing respect and understanding, even as it is a force for the transformation of spirit for the outsider who is lucky enough to be invited in.
- What do Jews and Judaism gain from the encounter?
Heschel has said that had Judaism gone east rather than west, to the Ganges rather than to Athens, it would have had a different course for its evolution. Religions grow and part of their growth occurs through contact with the other. Hinduism is a relatively new other and contains significant opportunities for growth for Jewish thought. Hindu thought and how it configures the religious life around God’s presence, in an immanentist context, provides many interesting philosophical and theological challenges.
Jewish theology is largely at a standstill. Throughout the ages, Jewish thought grew from its encounter with other religious cultures. Today, science is the significant other, not another religious tradition. I think Hinduism can play the role that Greek culture, Islam and Christianity played in earlier periods, in stretching Jewish thought.
On the personal level, Jews are finding in the Indian religious life a welcome alternative to what they perceive as the rigidity, authoritarianism and politicization of their own religion. Never mind that the same problems plague Hinduism as well. It’s all about perceptions. Because the forms of Hinduism to which many Jews are exposed do offer an alternative to some of the ills of Judaism, some Jews have found their spiritual path through Hinduism.
There are, then, two modalities for what Judaism can receive. The first is a function of the ongoing growth between religious traditions. The second, relating to the spiritual journey of individuals, is a function of Judaism’s present day crisis. The two dimensions come together in the recognition that Judaism does face a crisis in its relation to God, with other values having eclipsed God and the relationship with Him. Hinduism either already is or can become an important conversation partner and source of inspiration. Given that the great majority of gurus do not wish to make souls for Hinduism, but rather to help aspirants on the spiritual path, Jews could make their way back to Judaism enriched by their encounter with Hinduism.
- Should Jews go to the Kumbh Mela? Should they bath in the river?
The public image of the Kumbh Mela is governed by picturesque images of exotic sadhus, often naked, dipping in the confluence of Indian rivers. In fact, the Kumbh Mela is very different. It is, more than anything, a great learning camp, where different religious groups camp out and spend a month or so with their spiritual teacher. It is more like yarchei kala than anything else. Going to the Kumbh is therefore a wonderful opportunity for learning about the diversity of Hindu groups as well as of how they are united in the act of coming together and in the practices of the Kumbh.
The Kumbh is very impressive, but without command of the language and ability to partake of the teachings, one can only benefit from a fraction of what goes on. When I visited the Kumbh Mela I was interested in meeting the famous preacher Murari Bapu. I had heard much about him and I know he touches millions in his sermons. I sat through several hours of his teaching. I did not understand anything he said, but I learned a lot. I learned about how teaching and song combine; how teaching moves to prayer; how a teacher and community interact and more. In some ways, this was similar to what I knew from Judaism; in some ways there were new nuances and new dynamics. It was enriching. It allowed me to appreciate this great teacher in context. Still, most of what goes on in the Kumbha Mela is beyond the understanding of the outsider, which is in fact why there are so few outsiders who attend the event.
As regards bathing in the river, it is a question of motivation, and in part a halachic question. Overall, I avoid engaging in rituals of another religion, which is also true for bathing in the Kumbh, if undertaken as participation in the ritual of another religion. However, as I go to the mikveh regularly in preparation for Shabbat, I did find myself bathing alongside Hindus who were engaged in similar activities (though not carried out as fully and as strictly as Jewish mikveh practice). Such a moment is a moment of solidarity across religions, recognizing our common quest for purification and transcendence. I have experienced such moments in other contexts, for example at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, where Sikhs bathe.
- Do you then espouse a form of multiple religious identity, being both Hindu and Jewish?
I certainly would not proscribe multiple religious identities. In forty years of study of and fascination with Hinduism, I could never say of myself that I have a multiple religious identity. Even when I am in ashram, my path is Jewish, as is my practice, even my meditation practice. But I do recognize that there are Jews whose lives have taken other paths.
Could I see multiple religious identities for them? Much depends on how one defines Hinduism and the engagement to it. As I describe it in The Jewish Encounter with Hinduism, most Jews who have engaged Hinduism have not cultivated a strong Jewish identity or have dropped their Hindu identity upon return to Judaism. I could see ways of upholding certain practices and integrating them within one’s Jewish identity. This could include various yogic or mantric japa practices. Such individuals would certainly be returning back to Judaism with a more expansive understanding of the religious life and possibly of God than many of their Jewish co-religionists.
Most Jews, as stated, do not devote much time, or are incapable of the kind of God-talk that Hindus cultivate.
Within the parameters of a multiple religious identity that does not consider both components of equal value, I could see a theoretical possibility where some individuals would return to Judaism as their primary identity and bring back to it some of the spoils that were gained through their spiritual process and struggle within Hinduism.
- Why is Rabbi Yoel Glick’s work important?
Glick is one contemporary spiritual teacher who seeks to live and teach a Judaism with God at the center. He has found a very unique voice that draws from the treasures of Jewish spirituality, especially from Hassidic teachers. But he has also been inspired by some of the great masters of the Hindu tradition, such as Ramana Maharshi and Sri Ramakrishna. His is not a case of multiple religious belonging, but it is a case of being able to draw from the wisdom of those teachers and to deliver a message of Judaism that is either in dialogue with the teachings of those teachers or that draws in different proportions from the wisdom of both traditions. This is a unique balance and one that addresses head on the spiritual crisis of Judaism, its need to return to God at the center, and also makes room for getting “help” from Hindu sources for this process.
- How do you deal with the diversity of Hinduism and what role do your direct encounters play?
There is extreme diversity of forms of Hindu religious life. Some Hindus may never visit an ashram; some Hindus may never go to Temple; some Hindus may not have a guru; some may never read scripture. And yet all come under that broad umbrella called Hinduism. It is a great challenge for the outsider to get a handle on Hinduism given this diversity.
Given the problem of diversity of Hindu positions, we have two fundamental paths we could take. The one is to relate to these traditions in their diversity, as a series of religious phenomena, avoiding reference to the broad, and admittedly somewhat artificial umbrella term of “Hinduism”. The other is to seek to understand the broader phenomena in terms that are broad enough to be representative.
Situations such as the dialogue of the Chief Rabbinate with Hindu leadership require some kind of representative conversation partner. The Hindu side came to this dialogue featuring a broad spectrum of Hindu voices. Reading the transcripts of those dialogues one realizes they were nevertheless united in some important ways relating to the fundamentals of their faith.
My journey involved not only entry into the ashram world, but also very close personal associations with Hindu leadership, through my work with the Elijah Board of World Religious Leaders.
Let me recount one moment that will illustrate how broader understandings cut across the diversity of schools. I recall sitting in a hotel room in Cordoba, Spain just as the Elijah Board was established, with Sri Sri Ravi Sankar and one of the leaders of the Madhva stream of Hinduism, Sugunendra Theerta Swami, and discussing what idols and images meant to them. Needless to say, for a Jew this is a cardinal question and one that had to be explored in dialogue with authoritative practitioners.
Engaging religious leaders has provided an opening to what is most meaningful to those leaders in Hinduism, the heart of their faith, their practice and their message for others. As it turns out, the diversity of philosophical positions concerning metaphysical unity or multiplicity was quite inconsequential to that conversation in Cordoba. Both leaders affirmed the same fundamental view of God, the absolute, representation, images, immanence etc. You would not know they belonged to different schools. The same took place during the Jewish-Hindu summits. The same has also been true of my extensive conversations with leaders of diverse streams of Hinduism.
Projecting my understanding back to them, hearing how they conceptualized matters, following their arguments, suggested that fundamental commonalities far outweighed the particularities of philosophical, ritual or devotional schools. Since many such exchanges did not take place in “diplomatic” interreligious contexts, I must conclude that there is a significant religious and philosophical agreement about fundamentals of the faith, notwithstanding many differences.
Thus, I would state that what I write of Hinduism is descriptive of far more than the Advaita Vedanta that I often appeal to. Even if one would put forth the view of a historically diverse Hinduism, to me the living Hinduism of today’s teachers and practitioners is of greater consequence, and this suggests some fundamental commonalities. It seems reasonable to me to appeal to contemporary teachers as far as understanding Hinduism for present Jewish purposes is concerned. I appeal for the validity of my Judaism to the great spiritual teachers who have inspired me, even if some of them lived in the 20th century. I do not see why another religion cannot be dealt with along similar lines.