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The hybridity, creativity, and peril of outsider identification

Jews have a history in the United States of gravitating to cultures that they perceive to be both minority and shunned in the American context. In short, this entails a peculiar identity imperative of Jewry to view itself as outcast in order to live up to the expectations of its founding myth of exile and estrangement from the nations - an exilic imperative.'7 In the American context, where Jewry has suffered virtually no level of such estrangement (at least as might be measured by socioeconomic success or even the inclusion of its religious tradition as among the legitimate American traditions), Jewry has found itself identifying with those races, ethnicities, and perhaps even religions which continue to experience American disfavor or suspicion. Here, we suggest that Jewish participation in Hindu (and Buddhist)-related religiosities as well as the representations of these traditions offered by Jews are extensions of this longstanding sociological pattern (Alexander 2018).

In the past, Jews have faced significant criticism for claiming to represent African-Americans both culturally and politically (Melnick 2001, Greenberg 2006). Jews seem to have entered a similar fray regarding Hindu-related religiosities (Sanna 2012; Lucia 2020). Critiques have been issued both at the popular level of critiques of cultural appropriation in postural yoga and kirtan highlighted at events like Bhakti Fest, and at the academic level among faculty in the study of Hinduism at the most esteemed programs in the country. We must note, however, that the reception of Jewish representation is not always critical. The level to which the representations made by Jews are accepted by the originating cultures is complicated, but despite all potential ethical complication, that rhythm of hybridity, borrowing, and sometimes contestation is what constitutes the negotiations of culture and, of course, religion in multiethnic America.

But why are Jews increasingly attracted to spiritual practices outside of Judaism? Here we can only suggest possible reasons for this decline: whether Jews are participating in a larger American secularization; whether traditional requirements of Jewish ritual life are not compatible with contemporary social realities such as suburbanization and automobility; or whether Jews may have more particular reasons for turning away from traditional religious understandings of their experiences, including, perhaps, the failure of those understandings to encompass the Holocaust (Fackenheim 1994).

In the face of this decline of Judaism (the religion), what have members of this robust ethnicity done to satisfy what, presumably, are their continuing spiritual needs? Long histories of second-class status under Christendom and Dar al-Islam, as well as expectations of the religions of those civilizations for new participants to pronounce formal conversions, have typically been understood by Jews as barriers too great to traverse. For instance, 68% of Jews believe a person who “does not believe in God” is “compatible with being Jewish,” while only 34% agree that a person who “believes Jesus was messiah” is similarly compatible (Pew 2013, 14). On the other hand, the major traditions emanating from India, namely Buddhism and Hinduism, have very little historical meaning to Jewish memory, nor do these religions expect proclamations of conversion. It could be that Jews consider this combination of historical neutrality and conversional indifference sufficiently benign to permit them to explore these traditions without compromising their group identities. Though here we must focus on American Jewry, this novel exploration of Asian religions by Jews is not an entirely American phenomenon. The famous post-Army excursions of Israeli youth to India and Thailand (important centers of Hinduism and Theravada Buddhism, respectively) can hardly be spiritually accidental.

The practical aspect of Hindu traditions is also greatly appealing to Jews seeking methods for experiencing the divine. Since their arrival in the United States, the majority of Indic gurus have focused on offering distinct, practical methods to attain personalized spiritual-transformation instead of demanding religious conversion. Hinduism and Buddhism focus on action over belief; they are religions of practice. Gavin Flood suggests that in Hinduism “practice takes precedence over belief. What a Hindu does is more important than what a Hindu believes” (Flood 1996, 12). In a similar vein, Fritz Staal argues that, a Hindu “may be a theist, pantheist, atheist, communist and believe whatever he likes, but what makes him into a Hindu are the ritual practices he performs and the rules to which he adheres, in short, what he does” (Staal 1989, 389). This stands in contradistinction to the normative forms of both Christianity and Islam, certainly as these religions have been practiced in the United States; in both cases pronunciation of faith is the first step to inclusion. In this vein, Hinduism is also non-threatening to Jews because few avenues for conversion into Hinduism even exist, not simply because Hinduism is typically considered to be an ethnically determined religiosity, but also because traditional caste regulations governing purity from pollution allowed the religion to develop sentiments of exclusivity. Contemporary gurus therefore often proselytize to non-Hindus, but rarely demand a conversion that includes the denouncing of prior faith commitments. Instead, their followers largely express their commitments through action, adopting Hindu practices that exist alongside previous religious worldviews.

In his seminal book on the semiotics of the guru, Daniel Gold argues that practitioners seek out gurus as if in the format of acquiring “spiritual music lessons.” His shows that interested practitioners seek out the guru for his expertise in practical methods of spiritual awakening and then aim to learn and practice such methods with the goal of personal transformation. He explains, “As holy men, the Indian gurus frequently have an attitude toward theological issues that emphasizes pragmatism over consistency - a most viable approach for teaching skeptical Westerners... The traditional approach of Indian gurus to yogic practice has also been pragmatic, if somewhat authoritarian (‘Do it and you’ll see’), so spiritual practices can with some legitimacy be presented to Westerners (and Westernized Indians) as techniques that, when applied methodically, yield ‘empiric’ results” (Gold 1988, 122). In fact, there is a long history of Indic gurus who settled in Los Angeles and presented audiences with spiritual techniques that they framed as scientific methods. Pairing this focus on scientific techniques and a theology of “spiritual, but not religious” as Lucia has argued elsewhere (Huffer [Lucia 2011]), gurus are uniquely situated to appeal to religious audiences without demanding initial conversion. In fact, this focus on technique or method over demands for conversion connects the Indic gurus and practitioners of Buddhism. In this manner, Jews can retain their Jewish ethnic identities, but incorporate Hindu meditative and yogic techniques into the rituals of their daily lives.

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