(L-R) William Scott Green & Douglas Renfrew BrooksHinduism and Judaism have long been understood as foundational religions in the East and West. Each of them undergirds and has spawned other religions that adopt, modify, and transform its basic categories. While Hinduism’s complex and deeply diverse body of traditions and customs often defy categorisation, and the word “Hinduism” is a term adapted to describe these phenomena, its relationship to Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism provides ample evidence of its foundational role. When Hinduism shares foundational concepts such as karma, bondage, and liberation with Buddhism and Jainism, it is contrast and comparison that empower deeper understanding. Likewise, for example, Christianity and Islam build upon and reinterpret the Judaic notion of “covenant” as part of their basic structures. Hinduism and Judaism both create an architecture that permits diverse, complex ideas and values, but this commitment to foundational principles invites further comparison. Some scholars think that the foundational role of Hinduism and Judaism accounts for their largely non-missionary character. Both religions travel principally with people, rather than beliefs, with customs and practices, rather than dogmas or evangelists.
Professor Barbara Holdrege (University of California, Santa Barbara) plausibly suggests that Hinduism and Judaism represent a distinctive form of religion that focuses on “practice, observance, and law”, instead of “belief, doctrine, and theology”. Hindus and Jews both have gone to great lengths to offer up complex theologies and systems of interpretation, but both traditions prioritise duty, action and observance over belief in everyday religion. In Professor Holdrege’s terms, as “religions of orthopraxy”, Hinduism and Judaism have developed “elaborate legal systems, sacrificial traditions, purity codes, and dietary laws” and each “defines itself in relation to a particular sacred language and to a particular corpus of sacred texts that is held to be linguistically, ethnically and culturally tied to a particular people”. We might modify Professor Holdrege’s observation only to point out that both language and canon are tied to many peoples who identify through their actions to be Hindus or Jews.
Devotees worship young girls dressed as Kumari during rituals to celebrate the Navratri festival, inside the Adyapeeth Temple, on the outskirts of Kolkata, on 5 April 2017. Photo: REUTERS
Classical Judaism exhibits all these traits. It holds that there is only one God in the cosmos, and that God created all that exists. That God made a relationship, a covenant, with the people Israel, which takes two forms. The first is an eternal unilateral, familial and territorial relationship with the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—and later with King David and his descendants as anointed leaders of the people. The second is a reciprocal relationship that applies to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and to all others who choose to join the people Israel and fulfil God’s commandments. The two forms are complementary. God promises to persevere with those in the covenant, while calling them to a life of sanctity and purpose.
Hinduism and Judaism represent a distinctive form of religion that focuses on ‘practice, observance, and law’, instead of ‘belief, doctrine, and theology’.
The covenant involves attitude and practice. The people Israel is to love God and neighbour and remember and follow God’s commandments. These encompass ethical, social, and ritual components such as prayer; the observance of the Sabbath and festivals; dietary conventions; marriage, consanguinity and family practices; norms for commerce, civility and charity; and ritual purity, among other concerns. The commandments are the means by which the people Israel both maintains and repairs its covenant relationship with God. They are articulated in the Written Torah—the Five Books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—which contains part of God’s revelation to Israel and is the blueprint for the created order. The Written Torah emerges as Judaism’s definitive centre after the destruction of the second Jerusalem Temple in 70CE.
The Torah recounts God’s creation of the cosmos, God’s covenant with the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt; and Moses receiving God’s commandments—numbered in classical Judaism as 613—at Mount Sinai. Written in Hebrew, Judaism’s sacred language, the Torah scroll as a text is sacred both as a teaching and as a holy object. The sanctity of the Torah scroll is socially demonstrated by the constraints that surround its production, which guarantee that all scrolls are identical to the original dictated by God to Moses. In effect, the Torah scroll replaces the altar of the destroyed Temple and becomes a textual tabernacle.
In Judaism, prayers are said thrice daily, and the Torah is recited—with memorised cantillation —on holidays, twice weekly in the daily liturgy, and twice on the Sabbath, fast days, and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement). Because the Torah is both changeless and portable, it enabled the Jews to maintain their language and religion in the absence of a fixed, geographic sacred centre. Other books, including prophecy, the Deuteronomic history, and tracts from the Wisdom tradition came to be added to the Written Torah and included in Judaism’s written canon of scripture.
The second part of God’s revelation to the people Israel is the Oral Torah, told by God to Moses at Sinai and transmitted orally over generations from Moses to the rabbis—who both preserve and interpret God’s teachings—and ultimately represented in rabbinic literature. The Oral Torah complements, fulfils, explains and elaborates the meaning of the Written Torah, and the two constitute a single revelation that, through the Oral Torah’s processes of interrogation and interpretation, is continually adaptable to changing conditions. Through engagement with and particularly the study of Torah (both Written and Oral), practitioners of Judaism come to understand God’s will and how to fulfil the commandments and maintain their relationship with God. Thus, Torah (“instruction”) ultimately comes to refer to the totality of Judaic teaching.
Perhaps PM Modi’s visit to Israel will encourage more research and reflection on the two great traditions of Hinduism and Judaism.
Because of its focus on practice, Judaism is a this-worldly religion. Although Judaism’s liturgy affirms resurrection from the dead and a redeemer, a “messiah”, who will appear at the end of time, and while rabbinic literature has a category of “the World to Come”, which follows this world, rabbinic teachings on all these ideas are fluid and flexible. These concepts are secondary to Judaism’s concern with praxis and Torah’s call to Judaic action in this world.
Rabbinic Judaism holds, however, that entry into the World to Come—whatever precisely it may mean—is not limited to Jews. Because the revelation at Sinai is obligatory only for Jews, and because God is the God of all of humanity, rabbinic Judaism identified the seven commandments of Noah, which justify the entry of the righteous of all nations to the World to Come. The seven Noahide commandments forbid 1) denying God, 2) blaspheming God, 3) murder, 4) engaging in illicit sexual relations, 5) theft, 6) eating from a live animal, and enjoin 7) establishing courts/legal system to ensure fulfilment of these commandments.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi shakes hands with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin ahead of their meeting at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, on 15 November 2016. Photo: REUTERS
God’s 613 commandments in the Torah affect nearly all aspects of life—from birth to death—and Judaism presupposes that its practitioners can know themselves, manage their attitudes and behaviours, learn from the Torah and correct their shortcomings. Judaism assumes that humans—who are created, the Torah says, “in the image of God”—have free will and therefore are responsible for their actions and their consequences. One God, creation, covenant, community and commandment come together to form a religion, in which participants relate to God and to one another according to comprehensive set of practices and attitudes. These generate, in the Torah’s terms, the life of a “kingdom of priests and a holy people” that unites ritual and ethics, the outer and inner lives of its practitioners.
Hinduism too exhibits comparable traits. Hindus are less concerned whether there is one god, many gods, or even no god at all. But it does maintain that the cosmos itself is sacred and that all living things are especial examples of that sacrality. The universe is founded upon eternal principle (Dharma) and functions in relationship of intelligibility and meaningful relationships (karma). Human beings have a special relationship with the Dharmic universe and so have their own kind of a covenant, a covenant made people who understand themselves to live within under the great sky of Dharma. Dharma too is an eternal unilateral, familial and territorial relationship with one’s descendants and with the whole of nature. Canonical Dharma Kings—Rama, Yudhistira, Ashoka—are formally “anointed” (the Sanskrit term that comes to mind is “abhisheka”) as leaders of the people. The second is a reciprocal relationship too with family and all others who chose to enter into Dharma’s firm, resolute embrace, which then stipulates the conditions of the relationship.   
Like Judaism’s covenant, Hindu Dharma involves attitude and practice and stresses these features over dogmatic belief. Dharma is commitment to the deep abiding ways of nature, to society and to the responsibilities that follow from having achieved human embodiment. To love Dharma is to remember its ever-presence, its guiding values, to follow one’s own Dharma. However, Dharma applies to all, it always applies to each according in her or his own Dharma (svadharma). Like Judaism’s covenant, Hindu Dharma encompasses ethical, social and ritual components such as prayer, the observance of the important events and festivals, dietary conventions, marriage and consanguinity practices, norms for commerce and charity, and ritual purity, among other concerns. (You will notice here how directly comparable they are: our lists of encompassing practices and values need not change in structure, however, they may be different in specific custom or content.) The Hindu’s relationship to Dharma—to duty, custom, principle—functions like commandments that similarly maintain and repair the human relationship with Dharma. While these Dharma prescriptions are likewise spelled out in sacred texts—like Judaism’s Written Torah—a blueprint for the created order is similarly provided. Dharma sources, written and customary, composed in Sanskrit and other languages and passed in oral traditions, provide Hinduism’s definitive centre. Importantly, there is no comparable destruction of Judaism’s second Jerusalem Temple, and so Dharma operates within the structures of sacrificial temple cults, where rituals re-represent foundational claims. In Hindu temples, the sacred Sanskrit language operates without scrolls, but with equal fixation on perfect recital and execution. The “text” itself is sacred, no matter what role it plays in teaching or how it is used to endow objects—images, gifts, virtually anything—with holiness. The sanctity of mantra, of recitation, of “Veda” is comparable to the Torah scroll by similar socially demonstrated constraints that surround its production and use. The prodigious power of memory in India likewise guarantees that all Vedic recitations are identical to the original understood to have been heard (shruti) by the sages (rishis). While the Torah scroll replaces the altar in the Temple, Hindus have maintained their sacred recitations, rebuilt them even after periodic destruction, and have elaborated their cultic practices in local forms across the expanse of India. While Judaic worship indeed celebrates and venerates the Torah scroll, unchanging and portable, recited publicly and regularly in the liturgy, the practices of Hindu recitation—Vedic and extra-Vedic mantra, devotional song, and prayer provide a structural continuity to every cult practice, in temples and at home.
Some scholars think that the foundational role of Hinduism and Judaism accounts for their largely non-missionary character. Both religions travel principally with people, rather than beliefs, with customs and practices, rather than dogmas or evangelists.
For Hindus, the oral Veda and other practices of oral recitation and memory have always superseded anything written. However, it’s fair too to say that Hindu life has likewise evolved through engagement with, and study of, both written and oral sources. Such practice is critical to understanding the meaning of Dharma and developing a relationship with the sacred.
With its focus on practice, Hinduism too is a this-worldly religion, no matter how one attends to the problematic of human embodiment. Hindus’ regard for asceticism, its commitment to tapas, to “heat” as the source of power in practice means that whatever more there is to come—heaven, rebirth, liberation—depends on one’s commitment to essential principles and actions.
Hindus have long held that anyone who performs the “correct” karmas, does tapas, and commits to Dharma will receive the results of their practices—and that this too is not limited to Hindus. While there is no comparably fixed list of commandments like those given to Noah, a comparable sense of ethical injunction and behavioural commitment defines Hindu life. Dharma too affects nearly all aspects of life—from pre-birth to death and beyond—and Hinduism presupposes that its practitioners can know themselves, manage their attitudes and behaviours, learn from the Dharma, and correct their shortcomings. Hinduism assumes that humans—who exist within the encompassing terms of Dharma that applies to all things—have enough free will to be responsible for their actions and are held to accountable to consequences. Dharma describes creation, orders and so creates “covenant”, operates wholly within community, and comes together in shared duty to form a religion in which participants relate to Dharma and to one another according to a comprehensive set of practices and attitudes. Where Hinduism and Judaism seem to converge is in how people can be united through ritual and custom, in ethical order that applies to the outer and inner lives of all practitioners.
These are preliminary observations shaped by comparative studies of these two great traditions by such contemporary scholars as Barbara Holdrege, Hananya Goodman, Nathan Katz, Alon Goshen-Gottstein, to name a few. Perhaps Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Israel will prompt and encourage more such research and reflection. Each tradition has much to learn from the other.
William Scott Green is the Professor of Religious Studies, Senior Vice Provost, Dean of Undergraduate Education at the University of Miami. Douglas Renfrew Brooks is Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester.
(Note: Professor Alan Avery-Peck of College of the Holy Cross helped us clarify some of these observations.)
©William Scott Green and Douglas Renfrew Brooks