Wednesday, April 16, 2008

An Answer to a Question Asked by Many - If not Outloud

"...But what of...the Indic religions and the various kinds of Buddhism? Again, I do not believe that a definitive solution is possible, but a partial solution may be considered. It is important to introduce a distinction between theology and religious practice. In the ancient religions grouped under the name of Hinduism, there are many gods and local shrines, but the theological principles that guide belief and provide a uniformity of moral standards assume that all the deities revered in India or elsewhere are forms of, expressions of, or names for, one ultimate reality or God. Saivites propose Siva as the best name (among many names) for this ultimacy; Vaisnavites prefer Visnu or Krishna; atman is an Upanisadic word for the same principle—and brahman is perhaps the most common way among non-Muslim, non-Christian Indians of naming ultimacy. As for Buddhism, the difficulty is not that there is a plethora of gods, though Siddartha Gautama and other buddhas, bodhisattvas, and “incarnate” lamas are often treated as godlike. The difficulty, from the perspective of the Noahide laws, is that it is unclear whether Buddhism is theistic at all [MUST SEE piece by Nathan Katz, "What Jews Can Learn from Buddhism", Tikkun 12:3 Mar.-Apr. 1997:67-70, explains in part how Buddhism may be more problematic than Hinduism!]. Buddhist thinkers tend to argue that metaphysical beliefs are among the causes of human suffering. (There are parables attributed to the Buddha in which the metaphysician or theologian is likened to one who has been shot by an arrow and is worried about who made the arrow, how it was constructed, and how it flew to its mark, instead of trying to remove it and doctor the wound.) Still, it is not necessarily atheistic to conclude that, because holding metaphysical beliefs leads to pain, it is best to concentrate our attention on proper human behavior. In any case, however controversial the question of whether Buddhism is theistic, it is certainly not polytheistic.
By the standards of Jewish law as applied to Jews, Hinduism and Buddhism do not count as monotheistic traditions. However, the essential point of the Noahide laws is that the standards of Jewish law do not apply to non-Jews. Radically pure monotheism is expected by Judaism only from Jews. The Noahide laws do not preclude gentile religions from developing softer, more complex, and compromised forms of monotheism. Under the Noahide laws, it is possible to assume that Hinduism and Buddhism are sufficiently monotheistic in principle for moral Hindus and Buddhists to enter the gentiles’ gate into heaven. Jewish law regards the compromises made or tolerated by the world’s major religions as ways of rendering essentially monotheistic theologies easier in practice for large populations of adherents. The fierceness of Islamic opposition to such compromises has no counterpart in Judaism. In Islam, it is seriously blasphemous for anyone of whatever faith to combine belief in the one God with popular ideas about other heavenly powers or with subtle theological doctrines such as the Trinity. Islam cannot tolerate such compromises because the truth that they violate is applicable universally and not simply to Muslims. The problem is that Islam is radically monotheistic (like Judaism) yet is also (unlike Judaism, which is the religion of one people) universalistic as well."
R. Adin Steinsaltz [or here]

Obviously not a ruling, and not meant to be such - but a powerful statement from a profound scholar nonetheless. The later writings by Dr. Nathan Katz are also worth parousing. David Blumenthal wrote an engaging piece on the dimensional theologies of G-d in their particular coordination in Zohar.


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