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The Significance of Indo-Judaic Studies

By Nathan Katz

  • Feeling dislocated in Toronto, the Indian grandmother takes refuge in television. But the refuge portrayed in the 1992 black comedy, Masala, directed by Srinivas Krishna and produced by Diwas Films, Inc., is part Bollywood, part mysticism. The grandmother pours her heart out to the blue deity, played by Saeed Jaffrey, whom she had somehow summoned through her television set. Hearing his devotee’s woes, Krishna puts his fingers on his cheeks and sighs heavily, intoning “Oy vey!”
  • A 2002 international academic conference held at Oxford University prognosticated on “Indo-Judaic Sudies in the Twenty-First Century”, and produced a volume co-edited by the present author with Ranabir Chakravarti, Braj M. Sinha, and Shalva Weil, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2007. Even the proposed ambitious research agenda has been outstripped. In 2006, an interenational conference on the Jewish heritage of Kerala, hosted by Shree Shankaracharya University, and this ongoing enterpise has proceeded in India, North America, Europe and Israel, engaging more and more scholars and training more and more graduate students.
  • In mid-2005, a joint Indian-Israeli production company announced plans for “the greatest Indian musical ever,” with the aim of bringing Bollywood chic to western audiences. Explained one of the moguls behind the venture, “Israelis and Indians are incredibly similar in terms of the conflict between modernity and tradition, and the intense family relations that characterize both cultures, and this was one of the reasons that the Indian and Israeli teams managed to work so well together,” as reported by the Jerusalem Post on August 17 that year.
  • The 2003 tragedy of the Columbia space shuttle ended the lives of seven very talented, young astronauts, and three nations experienced the loss viscerally: the United States, India, and Israel. Among the dead are five American Christians, Kalpana Chawla, an American Hindu born and raised in India, and Ilan Ramon, an Israeli Jew. In California, Jews and Hindus spontaneously gather together to mourn.
  • In 2003, India became Israel’s second largest trading partner, behind only the United States; by 2005, bilateral trade topped $2.4 billion, exclusive of defense and military equipment (Indian Express, Kochi, February 22, 2006).
  • The prime minister of Israel openly calls for an anti-terrorism axis of the United States, India, and Israel, the “three nations which have suffered the most from terrorism,” as a counterweight to “the axis of evil” of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, as proclaimed by the American president. An international, right-of-center consensus was emerging between Likud in Israel, the Bharatiya Janatha Party in India, and the Republicans in the United States.
  • In 2003, the World Jewish Congress opened an office in New Delhi, and liberal interests — Labor in Israel, Congress in India, and the Democrats in the U.S. — mirror the entente on the right.
  • November 26, 2008, saw the most deadly terrorist attacks ever on Indian soil, in Mumbai. Targets included Chabad at Nariman House and further clarified Indian-Israeli anti-terrorist cooperation.
  • The first-ever formal Hindu-Jewish Leadership Summit was held in New Delhi in 2007, bringing together the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha and the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. A follow up was held in Jerusalem in 2008, and on both occasions the swamis and rabbis declared that both traditions worship the same God Who created diversity of the world’s religions as part of His plan. From a Jewish point of view in particular, this was a stunning theological gambit to open up cooperation between these two ancient faiths, as published by Michael Bender in a paper (JIJS,14: 7-26).
  • The election of Narendra Modi in 2014 brought Indo-Israeli relations into global focus, crystalling all the tentative steps taken by the two nations over 60 years and more.

These events and vignettes, and numerous others, indicate both the range and depth of what we are calling “Indo-Judaic Studies” in popular culture, commerce, and politics. As a nascent academic field, but one built upon millennia of commercial and cultural interaction, Indo-Judaic Studies has begun locating itself in the world academic community, offering fresh and enlivening perspectives, and opening up new domains of knowledge.

The unofficial academic voice of this trend, the Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies, defines itself as  “. . .an annual journal. . .dedicated to analyzing the affinities and interactions between Indic and Judaic civilizations from ancient through contemporary times.” The words in this self-description were carefully chosen, and they characterize the field that this volume propounds.

First, the designation “Indo-Judaic.” When the co-founders of the journal, Braj M. Sinha and I, were first conceiving this enterprise, many options were considered. The linguistic “Hebrew-Sanskrit Studies” was at first appealing, as both great civilizations presuppose textual traditions written in languages taken as sacred. But the designation also raised avoidable problems: What of vernacular traditions? What of the multiform “little traditions” associated with these civilizations? In choosing such a name, might we be inadvertently taking sides in the powerful forces of linguistic politics? And might we exclude movements and cultural forms we wish to keep included, such as non-Sanskritic Indian religious movements, such as Jainism or Sikhism? No, a linguistically-based designation was taken off the table.

What about “Hindu-Jewish” or “Hindu-Judaic”? As many of the cultural interactions we wished to scrutinize indeed were religious in nature, this terminology also had its appeal. But again, what of secular Jewish or Indian culture, or what of Indian traditions which are not associated with the core texts of what has come to be known as Hinduism? And what of other areas we wished to include, such as Buddhism in Tibet or Thailand? While of Indian origin, once we depart from the subcontinent, the term “Hindu” became less and less appropriate.

Eventually we settled on “Indo-Judaic,” which is meant to encompass cultural expressions rooted in the core traditions — textual or otherwise — of these two cultures. The term “Indic,” which had the virtue of not indicating a single religious line, is used to indicate those religious and cultural systems born on the subcontinent. “Judaic” is taken to indicate those cultural forms that emanated from what is now Israel, inclusive of secularism, and held together by a common identity, however attenuated.

Imperfect, perhaps, but the intention to analyze aspects of the cultures associated with India and the Jewish people is clear enough.

The analyses that comprise Indo-Judaic Studies are of both affinities and interactions. The former may include phenomenological, synchronic, non-historical, or structural studies of the religions of the regions, or their literatures or folklores. Studies of the interactions between these cultures, on the other hand, are historical or diachronic in nature, and posit meetings and influences. Indo-Judaic Studies, then, is both synchronic and diachronic.

Historical, social scientific Indo-Judaic studies extend from antiquity to contemporary times, and may range from archaeological finds in the Indus Valley and the Judean Desert up to contemporary strategic anti-terrorist cooperation between India and Israel.

Indo-Judaic Studies is also interactive, immediate, and interdisciplinary by nature.

It is interactive as opposed to boundary-driven, following certain trends in “area studies.” In the past, area studies have been defined by boundaries: East Asian Studies and Latin American Studies are examples of “areas” defined by geography. Other areas have been defined by peoples and cultures, especially when these civilizations are diasporized: Jewish Studies and Native American Studies are good examples. Finally, some disciplines akin to area studies, such as Women’s Studies, are defined not by geography nor peoplehood, but by a sector of humanity, in this case women. Such disciplines, like Indo-Judaic Studies, are also interdisciplinary, involving both synchronic and diachronic approaches and borrowing from anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, etc.

However, area studies may be confined by the very boundaries that define them. The very creative interactions across boundaries fall through the interstices of traditionally defined area studies. This issue is reflected in newer, emerging fields such as Atlantic Studies, which focuses on the interactions among the Americas, Europe, and Africa; Levantine Studies, which centers upon the cultural confluences between Europe, Asia, and Africa, which occurred on the eastern Mediterranean littoral; Indian Ocean Studies, which studies the interactions between India, West Asia, and East Africa; or Silk Road Studies, which bridges Central Asian Studies, South Asian Studies, East Asian Studies and, to a lesser extent, European and Islamic Studies. What these fields of inquiry emphasize, as does Indo-Judaic Studies, is the interactions between and among cultures. Rather than concentrating on the boundaries, the focus is on the intersections. This new mode of inquiry reflects the macro-trend of globalization; cultures are not isolated, and more complex models that are capable of apprehending their interactions are being developed.

The new models for cultural interactions draw from an array of traditional disciplines, includsing works of history, linguistics, folklore, cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, comparative literature, comparative religion, philosophy, political science, international relations, ethnomusicology, and sociology. Such research takes as its points of departure traditional area studies — Jewish Studies and South Asian Studies, naturally, but also Women’s Studies — and its contribution to knowledge begins precisely as they depart from traditional boundaries. It is precisely from the margin that Indo-Judaic Studies offers a fresh approach to familiar problems.

This “fresh approach” is another way of indicating the immediacy of Indo-Judaic Studies. It is immediate in that it allows cultures to meet and interact without mediation from any imposed, alien worldview, as is argued forcefully in Holdrege’s chapter.

Finally, Indo-Judaic studies is “marginal,” as indicated in the subtitle of this volume. Not only does it focus on interactions between cultures, but also it takes the standpoint of particular sectors of those cultures. For example, Jews make up the tiniest of India’s myriad minorities, and at the same time, India is one of the most remote regions of the Jewish Diaspora. Viewed from this perspective of marginality upon interstitially, Indo-Judaic Studies claims to afford a vantage point from which to view cultures, a vantage point which compels one to view familiar questions with fresh eyes. What we learn about Hindu culture from the perspective of Jews who live in it would not be possible from any other perspective. Similarly, our knowledge of commercial patterns of the ancient world becomes modified when our data are drawn from Jewish merchants who plied the land and sea routes between West and South Asia.

The very marginality of Indo-Judaic studies offers perspectives that reconfigure our traditional objects of study. When perceived from a European perspective, ancient commercial patterns between South Asia and West Asia, for example. From London or Paris, one gazes at a Near, Middle and Far “East,” an ontological wall between cultures is intellectually erected. But when viewed from either Jerusalem or Varanasi, tendrils of connecttion spread by land and sea in all directions, yielding an Indra-like nerwork of connections rather than impenetrable barriers. When Hinduism and Judaism meet directly, the very categories we use to analyze religions are modified. And when we trace themes, motifs and influences in art, literature, and philosophy, our common cultural heritage is revealed to us. No longer do we wallow in outdated and chauvinistic global bifurcations of human thought and soul as manifest in the crude “eastern” / “western” imposition, but we see the subtle, multi-pronged movement of culture. We re-join our human family, nothing less!

Indo-Judaic studies is a fine example of what has been termed “emergence” by Steven Johnson in  his popular book Emergence (New York: Scribner, 2001). It emerged from diverse quarters: the pioneering economic history by the late Ashin Das Gupta of Calcutta University and his best student, Ranabir Chakravarti at Jawaharlal Nehru University; from the American Academy of Religion group led by Barbara Holdrege; from the study of Indian Jewish communities begun the the late Walter J. Fischel of the University of California at Berkeley and developed by Nathan Katz, Barbara Johnson, Joan G. Roland, Shalva Weil, and others; from the field of comparative religious studies; from students of medieval trade, especially the late Solomon D. Goitein of Princeton University and his analyses of the Cairo Genizah documents; from studies of Malayalam Jewish women’s folk songs begun by community member the late A. I. Simon, Cochin journalist P.M. Jusay, and now scholars Scaria Zacharia, Albercht Frenz and Johnson; and so on. There has been a synergy that aspires to become, like the study of ant behavior, brin functions, urban geography, and software development,  “A field of research that had been characterized by a handful of early-stage investigations blossomed overnight into a densely populated landscape, transforming dozens of existing disciplines and inventing a handful of new ones.” (Johnson, 65) And like the other emergences on the forefront of knowledge, Indo-Judaic studies percolated from bottom up, from individual scholars in disparate fields who networked, connected, and collectively are creating a new way of looking at the world.

The academic enterprise of Indo-Judaic Studies has both anticipated and chronicled events on the global stage. There are direct connections between scholarly writing and diplomatic and political life as in few other fields. As the “facts on the ground” continue to proliferate, so too will the analyses of scholars, breaking new ground intellectually, opening new channels in diplomacy and commerce, and enriching our common, human heritage in literature, art, and religious life.


Professor Nathan Katz, co-founder and co-editor of The Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies, is Distinguished Professor in the School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University. His most recent book, his fifteenth, is Indian Jews: An Annotated Bibliography, 1665-2005 (Manohar: New Delhi, 2013).


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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