וְלִבְנֵי הַפִּילַגְשִׁים אֲשֶׁר לְאַבְרָהָם, נָתַן אַבְרָהָם מַתָּנֹת; וַיְשַׁלְּחֵם מֵעַל יִצְחָק בְּנוֹ, בְּעוֹדֶנּוּ חַי, קֵדְמָה, אֶל-אֶרֶץ קֶדֶם
An ancient Jewish tradition tells us that the gifts that Abraham bestowed upon the sons of the concubines were secret teachings and that the land of the East to which he sent them was India. In his book Bad Kodesh, the ‘Mitteler Rebbe’ of Lubavitch states that Land of the East is India and even points out that the Brahmins, the priestly caste of that country, are descendants of Abraham and are therefore named after him (Brahmin from Abraham). He notes that it was the Brahmins who first taught the faith in reincarnation in India and that this was a faith they had inherited from Abraham himself.
This tradition expresses a belief that there is a deep affinity between Jews and Hindus. The two have indeed gone separate ways, but they derive from the same holy source – the teachings of Avraham Avinu. Having had the privilege of spending three years in India as a Political Officer at the Embassy of Israel in New Delhi, I feel there is much truth to this intuition.
Today, the modern State of Israel has an extremely important relationship with the Republic of India. Just this week, President Reuven Rivlin undertook a 6-day State Visit to India, where he was welcomed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Pranab Mukherji, Head of Opposition Sonia Gandhi and by an outpouring of admiration and good will by the people of India. The warmth of the welcome which our President received in India attests to the enormous progress this relationship has made. If many years, the Indian Government was at times a little demure in the public profile of the strong relationship between our countries, today India is proud and open about being a staunch friend and partner of the Jewish State.
Our two countries cooperate in a whole range of fields, many of them of an existential nature to both countries: Defense, technological research and development, agriculture, water management and trade and investment. There are also strong people-to-people ties between the two countries with about 40,000 Israelis visiting India each year and a similar number of Indians visiting Israel. Despite the striking differences between the two countries, first and foremost, the difference in scale between a nation of 8 million and a nation of 1.2 billion people, we share important similar challenges. The two are democratic free societies surrounded by a sea of tyranny and religious extremism. When Israel looks east, the first democracy it sees is India and when India looks west, the first democracy it sees is Israel. Both countries, born less than a year apart, must be constantly vigilant against terrorism from hostile neighbors. Though we do not discuss the details publicly, India in Israel regularly assists each other in facing this threat.
The cooperation between India and Israel is constantly evolving and has many more fields to which to expand. But no less than the diplomatic cooperation is the civilizational even spiritual links between the Jewish civilization and the Indian civilization. Despite stark differences, primarily – the use of idols in hindu ritual, there are some striking similarities between the two traditions. The Hindu tradition of religious law, the manu smriti, closely mirrors the account of Noah’s ark, which we read in our shul’s a couple of weeks ago. Manu was warned by G-d of an impending deluge and saved humanity by building a boat for himself and his family. Brahmin males traditionally wear a sacred thread under their garments called yajnopavitam which seems to be a concept similar to our tzitzit. At around the same time that we light our Hanukah candles, the Hindus light Diwali candles, commemorating the candles lit upon the victorious homecoming of Rama, symbolizing Good prevailing over Evil. The laws of ritual purity practiced by the Brahmins of South India share much with our own practice of taharat mishpacha – in fact, in some ways they are more ‘machmir´ than we are.
At a Hindu-Jewish summit held in Israel in 2008, religious leaders from India and Israel read a Declaration upon which the leaders of the Rabbinate and the Hindu delegation had agreed. The nine-point Declaration includes, among other points, an affirmation of the common Hindu and Jewish belief in One Supreme Being both in its formless and manifest aspects; (b) expresses their common world view of the sanctity of human life; (c) recognizes that all religions are sacred for their people and therefore, no one should denigrate or interfere in the religious practice of others; (d) recognizes that the Swastika is an ancient Hindu symbol and was misappropriated by the Nazis. This declaration is of great importance in opening the way to closer relations between the two societies.
I believe that here in America too, Jewish and Hindu communities can be natural allies. In the American context, they share the profound dedication to family and to community, the concern for keeping their traditions alive and passing them on intact to the next generation and a sincere commitment to the welfare and the values of the Great American Republic. They are also two of the best integrated and most successful religious minorities in the country. In fact, Jews and Hindus are the two best educated and most wealthy religious minorities in America.
It is only natural for two such communities to cooperate, but such cooperation first requires dialogue and the establishment of fraternal relations. Many community rabbis have some relationship established with a Christian religious leader in their vicinity, but how many of them even know where the nearest hindu temple is? There is much benefit that could arise from forging such ties. Above all, I am sure it would a huge source of naches to our common ancestor Avraham Avinu.
Shimon Mercer-Wood arrived in New York from Jerusalem in March 2015 to take up the post of Spokesperson and Consul for Media Affairs at the Consulate General of Israel. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2008, after a brief episode in the Israeli corporate sector, and has served as Political Officer at the Embassy of Israel in New Delhi, Desk Officer at the Ministry Head Quarters and Press Officer at the Embassy of Israel in London. He holds a master’s degree in International Relations from the London School of Economics, which he completed after his three year compulsory military service and after spending a year studying at Ma’aleh Gilboa Yeshiva.