When we first went from Jerusalem to Benares, some twenty years ago, my wife and I met an old man on the Sarnath bus. Not knowing us, not knowing whence we had arrived, he began to speak to us in hushed tones, as if conveying a great secret. He loved Benares, and he told us: “There are two cities in the world that are truly alike, two ancient sisters—Jerusalem and Benares." He was thinking, surely, about a certain kind of continuous passion for an experience we sometimes call "holy,” manifest in a single place; and he may also have meant some- thing more than this, something connected to the varied and often paradoxical relations between this ”holiness" or "otherness" and the life of a civilization unfolding around it. This book is devoted to exploring that venerable Banarsi's proposition.
The proposition is by no means axiomatic, and this is the first book that has thought it worthy of serious notice. Do the two cultures share anything basic? Is the comparison worth pursuing? At first glance, from the vantage point of Jerusalem, India seems to be immersed in what the Jews call avodah zarah, “alien worship," that is, a form of idolatry. (This has also been a prevalent Islamic perspective on Indian religion, as centuries of Muslim iconoclasm in India have shown.) The panoply of temples, with their stone or metal images; the richly sensuous modes of worship; the apparent proximity of god and man; the potential manifestations of the divine in any place or thing; the readiness of the mystic to proclaim, so 'ham asmi, "I am God"—all these are conducive to this rather hostile view. From Benares, on the other hand, Jerusalem may seem stubbornly, even perversely, fixated in a severely nirguna mode. The Jews insist on God’s unity and transcendence and claim, at least, to deny him representation——although, for many Hindus, the Biblical use of language to speak of God as having thoughts, intentions, actions, attributes, not to mention metaphors or figures such as “a strong hand and mighty arm," is not qualitatively different from actual representation in visual images. Even metaphoric conceptualization fractures the infinite wholeness of the Absolute. Philosophic Hinduism is perfectly aware of this issue: Sankara is said to have prayed on his deathbed for forgiveness (from whom?) for having worshipped God in his partial manifestations, in temples and mental images, with human language. Such limitations are no more than painful concessions to our weakness. This being so, the Hindu might well ask, why all the fuss about symbolization, why the monotheistic horror of the visible?
This first, impressionistic line of division could be formulated as a hypothesis: Is it true that the Jews worship a saguna god—a deity endowed with attributes—who cannot be symbolized, while Hindus worship a nirguna Absolute, without attributes, who can? But much more than the issue of symbolism is at stake. There are questions here of epistemology, of the relation to sacred texts and their explication, of the social and cultural construction of the self, of ethical philosophy, and of basic cultural intuitions that, however much they transform themselves over time, remain distinct. Let me give two examples from one year in Jerusalem. When our seminar on enigmas invited several Bible scholars to discuss the opening chapters of Genesis, and they proceeded to do so with their customary vigor and concern for the singular truth of the text, my Hindu colleague, V. Narayana Rao, whispered to me: "If I have to be reborn, I have only one request—let it not be into a monotheistic religion." Factuality is not, perhaps, the dominant Hindu interpretative mode for metaphysical utterance. Later he at- tended a lecture by my colleague Moshe Idel, who strove to prove, in the face of much skepticism, that the cherubim in the Second Temple carried a powerful erotic symbolism of male and female hypostases uniting within the godhead. Discussion was heated, and, for obvious reasons, the thesis had to be painfully and very meticulously argued. At its conclusion, my Hindu friend remarked: "So much effort to establish what should be taken for granted!"
Are Benares and Jerusalem really part of the same world? The possibility of communication suggests that the unlikely answer may, after all, be yes. Perhaps, in the end, comparison is impossible: Cultures live out their peculiarly organic lives, and it is usually all we can do to understand a little of even one of them, on its own terms. Yet without comparison, thought itself is probably impossible, and neither taxonomy nor history could exist. Moreover, the fact of cross- cultural resonances is established by experience. I teach Sanskrit and Tamil in Jerusalem. Each year I am amazed anew at the hunger for knowledge about India that animates a select group of young Israeli students. Many of my best students come to me from the study of Kabbalah; they seem to understand easily, intuitively, the inner world of Indian texts. Bhakti religion, in particular, perhaps partly because of my own affinities, awakens their response. Some find in India a vision of the repressed Idel of their own culture. Some seek relief from their own in the exotic; the self defines itself only in relation to another, real or imagined. A few have come to me from the communities of Indian jews, with their own intimate experience and personal or family memories of India. These same students will also draw in the boundaries, the profound and evident contrasts, between Benares and Jerusalem.
The essays in this volume open a discussion, long overdue. Some trace linkages rooted in actual contact, borrowed elements, the residue of historical ties. The anthropology of India’s Jews presents a case of unconscious symbiosis and acculturation as well as powerful continuities with the imported Jewish past. The European romance of Jewish Indologists points to one type of charmed (and problematic) relations. The essays here constitute a fertile beginning. Whatever the similarities, the shared themes and tensions, this is no simple enterprise. Ultimately, it is less a matter of making comparisons, always partial and often frustrating, than of a certain kind of listening. The challenge is to hear the echoes that connect, however tenuously, two ancient civilizations, each richly endowed with experience of God and of the world, and not entirely without a history of intellectual, linguistic, and material interaction. To study them together is to' provoke the overtones or resonances, dhvani, that—so Hindu poets tell us—are the vehicle of truth.
Back of the Book
“What I like best about this book is simply that it exists.”
This book stands at the crossroads between Jerusalem and Benares and opens a long awaited conversation between two ancient religious traditions. It represents the first serious studies to take seriously the cross-cultural resonances among the Judaic and Hindu traditions.
The essays in the first part of the volume explore the historical connections and influence of borrowed elements and the adaptation of Jewish Indian communities to Hindu culture. The essays in the second part focus primarily on resonances between particular conceptual complexes and practices in the two traditions, including comparative analyses of representations of Veda and Torah. Legal formulations of dharma and halakhah, and conceptions of union with the Divine in Hindu Tantra and Kabbalah.
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