Dharma and Halacha
Comparative Studies in Hindu-Jewish Philosophy and Religion
- ISBN: 9781498512794
- Published By: Lexington Books/Fortress Academic
- Published: August 2018
Over the last two decades, a Hindu-Jewish comparative inquiry (mostly initiated by Western thinkers) has sustained concerted and ongoing conversations in various academic venues, most notably at the Comparative Studies in Hinduisms and Judaisms Group of the American Academy of Religion. The conversations have spawned several studies, monographs, and edited volumes. The book Dharma and Halacha: Comparative Studies in Hindu-Jewish Philosophy and Religion, which brings together thirteen scholars who compare various aspects of Judaism and Hinduism, is a recent and welcome addition in this enduring effort.
The diversity of comparative analyses in Dharma and Halacha is reflected in its topical division into three sections: “Ritual and Sacrifice,” “Ethics,” and “Theology.” The first section opens with an insightful reflection by Rachel Fell McDermott and Daniel F. Polish on the complexity and asymmetry involved in comparing the two traditions. This section also includes a case study of a North American Hindu temple that adopted Jewish symbols, and a comparative examination of domestic practices and hospitality in the two traditions.
The second section, “Ethics,” includes general reflections about ethics in the two traditions and two realms of implied ethics: meat consumption and the social status of widows. The third section “Theology” contains essays about Jewish and Hindu notions of holy men, erotic metaphors in their respective canonical literatures, aesthetic categories, and contemplative techniques. The book also has an inviting introduction and an excellent and comprehensive epilogue by Barbara Holdrege, which covers the history of Jewish-Hindu encounters and of comparative scholarship about the traditions.
Within the limits of this review I can only demonstrate the diversity of themes and the complexity of their treatment in many of the book’s essays by referring to two of them. The first is Tracy Pinchman’s chapter about the Parashakthi Temple in Pontiac, Michigan, whose main goddess is identified (among other entities) with the Shekinah—a Jewish concept for god’s immanence in the world. This connection is embodied through the temple’s Shakti Garbha (the goddess’s inner chamber), which is modeled after the Ark of Covenant as described in early Jewish sources (40–44). This unusual confluence of Jewish and Hindu configurations of the divine (that occurs, and perhaps could only occur, on a North American grounds) is a remarkable example for how the two traditions can interact through a creative, generative interplay. Pinchman’s study invites further analysis of its implications on religious life at the temple and its reception by both communities and others.
The second example is Thomas A. Forsthoefel’s comparative analysis of the guru and the tzaddik ("righteous," revered Rabbi). Forsthoefel mostly aims at charting metaphysical commonalities across cultures by providing a “richer stock of insights on human experience” (159), which leads him to highlight a similar thrust to reveal “the fullest potential of humanity” (173) in the institutions of the tzaddik and the guru. At the same time, his discussion does not shun the presence of substantial differences due to the theological barrier in Judaism between God and the world of man, a barrier that is deliberately leveled in many Hindu traditions. Therefore, as Forsthoefel tells us, the tzaddik is “not typically considered a divine embodiment in the manner of some guru representations” (171). Despite the deep reverence toward spiritual figures that is shared by both traditions, the Jewish tendency to resist radical theologies of immanence differs categorically from Hindu affirmations of divine incarnation on earth.
Other chapters similarly deal with complicated comparative issues, but these should not deter the reader. On the contrary, in the messy act of cultural comparison, dispositional asymmetries are the rule rather than the exception. I would go as far as to argue that such asymmetries are foundational for establishing cross-cultural conversations in a candid manner, and therefore should be acknowledged and addressed rather than masked.
Here, McDermott and Polish’s insightful observations (23–27) gain importance, for they underscore that the encounter with another’s religion inevitably puts one’s own in a new perspective. Consequently, they suggest a Jewish theological introspection in light of Hindu approaches to image worship. Their examination of Jewish and Hindu analyses also leads them to point to the Protestant history that stealthily (and not without historical irony) orients modern militant Hinduism to present itself in the West as “compliant” with essentialist monotheistic puritanism. In this respect, Holdrege’s ongoing effort to establish a Hindu-Jewish comparative paradigm that is not mediated by a Protestant framework (226–27) is noteworthy.
Religious traditions, implicated as they are in specific and intricate social histories, are ill-fitted for inclusive paradigms of comparison that tend to spell out either complete isomorphism or distinction. Historically, such shallow comparisons were ill-used for masking one-sided political agendas (either by colonialists or the colonized) for producing quasi-religious universalist metaphysics, and for a wholesale dismissal of the project of cross-cultural comparison. Thus, it is an encouraging moment in the study of religion, perhaps more broadly in cross-cultural discussions, that we can approach comparison with sober goals and a nuanced gaze at both similarities and disparities. In this sense, Dharma and Halacha is a fine product of our time.
Some of the book’s weaknesses are also linked to its diversity. Not all the chapters maintain the same level of academic rigor, although the book overall sustains a laudable level of intellectual depth and use of sources. In addition, the term philosophy in the subtitle is not adequately reciprocated by the book’s anthropological meditations, and the occasional incorrect inversion of Hebrew letters in transcribed key terms is unfortunate.
But such quibbles miss the feisty richness offered in this volume, with multiple voices and points of view that will appeal to a broad and diverse readership. This complexity has a much better fit for our perplexingly intermingled world, especially when considered against the hackneyed relief of “polytheistic Hinduism vs. monotheistic Judaism.” Even more significantly, this comparative journey is guaranteed to educate readers not only about others’ religion but also about their own.
Gil Ben-Herut is associate professor at the University of South Florida.Gil Ben-HerutDate Of Review:September 24, 2021