Digging around in online bibliographies and the references in the backs of yellowing texts on comparative religion, I came upon a 40-year-old treasure (to me, anyway): Judaism and the Gentile Faiths, by Joseph P. Schultz. This is the kind of book that helps me understand not just "Comparative Religion" but "Religion": the meaning of the search for meaning, and how cross-fertilized our traditions, our spirits, and our religious ideas may really be.
The author takes a look at Judaism with a comparative lens, and finds intriguing connections -- not only theological, but possibly historical -- between Judaism and Eastern traditions, most notably Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
Some fun facts:
- The flowering of classical traditions in Judaism and Confucianism happened contemporaneously -- in or around the 5th century BCE. Inscriptions on a synagogue built in Kaifeng in 1163 CE showed that Jews may have arrived there during the Han dynasty (as far back as 206 BCE).
- In the first century CE, Rome ruled the entire Mediterranean basin. The ruling class developed a taste for the finer things, including silk, which helped develop the trade route between Europe and China. Jews may have migrated along this route, especially after the collapse of the Jewish State and the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
- Arab geographers noted the presence of Jews in China during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE). It was there, according to Schultz, not only with indigenous religions, but also "along with Islam, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and Nestorian Christianity."
- Judaism, and especially the Rabbinic tradition, includes some philosophical statements that are remarkably consistent with Eastern philosophy:
- "Everything is in the hands of Heaven but the fear of Heaven" (Berakhot 33b) is very consistent with Confucianism, both in thought and in terminology.
- The Confucian li (among other things, 'correct conduct') and Judaism's halakhah (law or way) have many striking similarities.
- Confucius: "What you do not want done to yourself do not do to others." Hillel: "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor."
- Jewish contact with India may have cross-pollinated Vedanta with Kabbalah.
- The articulation by Aaron of Starosselje (a disciple of R. Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad) of the diversity of the world from the human vantage point, and the unity of the world from the Divine, are very similar to the Vedanta philosophy of Maya (illusion), and especially the school of Ramanuja, who held, according to Schultz, that "God can only be known through the medium of Scripture."
- Jewish and Buddhist ideas of death and rebirth bear some similarities, too. This may go back beyond Vedanta, even to similarities in the biographies of Moses and the Buddha: born to or raised by royal families, they took radical steps to break free from their physical and theological confinements -- Moses by plunging into the world, the Buddha by retreating from it -- or the other way around, depending on how you look at it.
Of course, there's this one gigantic difference: "a central Buddhist thesis," says Schultz, is that "what we have been in life will condition our life after death," whereas in rabbinic Judaism "God's permanent and constant direction of human affairs is everywhere assumed." In other words, in Eastern traditions, reality as we know it does not presuppose our alienation from and attempts at reunion with an omniscient and personal Creator. But it does operate according to laws and dynamics that both Eastern and Western traditions recognize and adhere to.
So what, right?
In Judaism, history is part of the moment -- this moment, every moment. History is the unfolding of a redemption. Events are foretold in prophecy and in history, moving toward an ultimate in-gathering. In, say, Mahayana Buddhism, this moment is This Moment. Every moment simply is, and does not bear with it the lengthening, crushing train of historical precedent.
So . . . is morality grounded in history, and a reality established by God? Or is morality merely one strand of dharmakhaya -- the ultimate reality that underlies everything? Is history our struggle to return to proto-awareness, or to finally arrive at it? Did medieval Jewish philosophers, as Schultz says, "purchase God's purity at the expense of His living reality" . . . or did they preserve the essence of Judaism in a time of upheaval, assimilation and persecution?