Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Is Hinduism Avodah Zarah?

Avodah Zarah is loosely translated as idolatry or polytheism. I don't know much about Hinduism but as I read Dr. Nathan Katz's memoirs of his journey from studying Hinduism to becoming an Orthodox Jew, I was surprised by some of his comments. He suggests a few times that perhaps Hinduism is not avodah zarah. He is not an authority on Judaism but most Jewish scholars do not know about Hinduism with the same depth that he, a professor of the subject, does.

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He writes in his book, Spiritual Journey Home: Eastern Mysticism to the Western Wall:

The question of one God versus many gods confounds every westerner who approaches Hinduism. On the apparent level, Hinduism has many gods who are depicted by murtis, statues or idols. Idolatry, of course, is not only condemned in the Biblical second commandment, it even contradicts the much less doctrinaire seven Noahide commandments that are said to be obligatory for all descendants of Noah, which is to say everyone.

Yet when the swami speaks of God as the Light, beyond all form and distinctions, this apparent level of understanding is put into question. And the more one delves into the philosophies underlying Hindu practice, the more the apparent level is exposed as a mere comic book version of a profound and serious theology. At the same time, some of the practices of Hinduism cannot be affirmed from a Jewish standpoint. (p. 42)
Most of us think of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the three western monotheisms, as though monotheism never existed in India. Some politely refer to them as the three Abrahamic faiths, as Abraham is taken to be their father, either in a literal or a spiritualized sense. These western religions are assumed to be distinct from "eastern religions," which are characterized by a cyclic view of history and multiple deities. Indeed, that is one way to make a general distinction. But it is not the only way, as I tell my students... (p. 46)
For an observant Jew, participation in this sort of dialogue raises issues of avodah zarah, a derogatory term meaning "other people's worship," something to be avoided at all costs by observant Jews. Is Tibetan Buddhism avodah zarah, or is it another name of God?... Yet, the question is not simple. Ample halakhic authorities, from Sa'adia Gaon to Maimonides, sometimes held accommodating views regarding other religions. Somehow this liberal thread has receded into the background, and more rigid views have come to the fore. The texts do not hold a monolithic view... (pp. 114-115)
There are opinions that polytheism is not considered avodah zarah for Gentiles if they worship God at the top of their pantheon. This is not the position of R. Sa'adia Gaon or the Rambam, contrary to what Dr. Katz suggests, but that of many Ashkenazic authorities. If Hinduism has the same God as we do then perhaps it qualifies as shituf.

However, Dr. Katz suggests that Hindu practice might qualify as avodah zarah even if its theology does not. Meaning, if Hinduism allows or requires certain acts that qualify as idolatrous, then the concept of shituf does not help. This is, indeed, the view of the Avnei Nezer (Yoreh De'ah 123:9-10), but only if the worship is solely to a statue and not to a statue and God together. If Hindu worship is to one of their gods and also to the supreme God together, then it is permissible as shituf. I don't know enough about their theology and practice to reach any solid conclusion.

Note that this post is not an invitation to speak in-depth about Hindu beliefs and practice. Rather, it is to raise the awareness that an expert in Hinduism (who is now an Orthodox Jew) considers it to be less of an avodah zarah than I had previously thought.

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