Inter-Faith Relations: Survey of World Religions (Part 5)

Prayer Wheels
Japa Mala Prayer Beads (Bikrampratapsingh – Wikipedia)


The founder of Buddhism was a royal prince born in 624 BCE in northern India – now a part of Nepal – who was given the name Siddhartha. He lived in the royal palace but when he was 29-years-old he moved into the forest to follow a life of meditation. According to Buddhist belief he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree which grew in Bodh Gaya, India. It was requested of him to teach fellow pilgrims who were attempting to attain enlightenment. The Buddha as he was now called proceeded to teach the first Wheel of Dharma which included the Four Noble Truths. Later he taught the second and third Wheels of Dharma including the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and the Sutra Discriminating the Intention. The teachings of the Buddha included 84,000 teachings with the intention of leading mankind to permanent liberation from suffering and finding nirvana.23 The First Council was convened after the Buddha’s death in order to preserve his teachings.24 The Second Council was convened about 100 years after the Buddha’s death when conflicts began to arise amongst the Buddhists. It is unclear what happened during this Council but a split occurred within the Buddhist community. The group who felt they were keeping the original spirit of the Buddha’s teachings became known as the Elders and eventually evolved into Theravada Buddhism. Those who taught a more lenient form of Buddhism in ways they felt were in tune with the Buddha’s intentions broke off from the others and became known as the Great Community. This break-off group eventually became Mahayana Buddhism. “Within 200 years of the Buddha’s death, there were 18 schools of Buddhism in India. … Moreover, Buddhism had now spread to places with different languages and customs, and therefore different perspectives on the dharma.”25

The Buddha’s teachings as well as those of Theravada Buddhism are in reality atheistic. However, the Buddha and Theravada Buddhism do not necessarily deny the existence of beings that could be called “gods.” Mahayana Buddhism on the other hand believes in a universe that is populated with celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas who are worshipped by followers as gods and goddesses. Included in this pantheon of gods and goddesses is the Buddha himself. Most of the Mahayana Buddhist deities are adapted from indigenous religions of Tibet, China, and Thailand as well as the deities of Hinduism.26

The First Council was convened after the Buddha’s death in order to preserve his teachings. It was at this Council that the Buddha’s teachings were divided into three categories known as pitaka. These categories include discourses, discipline, and higher knowledge. “The Tripitaka that was formed at this meeting is the same canon used by Buddhists today.”24

Evil according to Buddhism comes from the choices that mankind makes. The three basic roots of evil are greed, hatred, and delusion. It is the choices made by mankind from these roots that is the cause of suffering and evil in this world.27 The Buddha taught a doctrine that rejected the idea of a soul and instead taught a doctrine of reincarnation (often called transmigration) in which one takes on a new body in the next life. Nirvana is the final liberation from the cycle of death and rebirth according to Buddhism and it is the end of all suffering. Nirvana was described by the Buddha as “incomprehensible, indescribable, inconceivable, unutterable. … [In his teachings] the Buddha describes Nirvana as the place in which it is recognized that there is nothing but what is seen of the mind itself; where, recognizing the nature of the self-mind, one no longer cherishes the dualisms of discrimination; where there is no more thirst nor grasping; where there is no more attachment to external things.”28


23“History of Buddhism.” About Buddhism, 2007. []
24“The first Buddhist council.” Religion Facts, n.d. []
25“The second Buddhist council.” Religion Facts, n.d.  []
26“Do Buddhists believe in God?” Religion Facts, n.d.  []
27Nyanaponika Thera. “The Roots of Good and Evil.” Penang, Malaysia: Inward Path, 1999. []
28“Buddhist beliefs about the afterlife.” Religion Facts, n.d.  []

Inter-Faith Relations: Survey of World Religions (Part 4)

Japa Mala Prayer Beads
Japa Mala Prayer Beads (Fountain Posters – Wikipedia)


Hinduism is unique among the world faith systems because it has no founder and no date of origin. Most major religions derive their ideas from charismatic leaders but “Hinduism is simply the religion of the people from India.”18 This religion of the people from India gradually developed over four-thousand years and the origins are not known. Hinduism of today differs significantly from the earlier Indian religion but its roots go back to 2,000 BCE which makes it one of the oldest surviving religions. Hinduism’s authors of its holy texts are mostly unknown and most of the ancient writings are still waiting to be deciphered. This means that “for the earliest periods scholars must rely on educated guesses based on archaeology and the study of contemporary texts.”18

Hinduism is a polytheistic religion. The pantheon of Hinduism contains many gods and goddesses with the chief deities being the gods Shiva and Vishnu as well as the goddess Shakti. Devotion to the various gods and goddesses is based upon one’s region and needs. Generally devotion is limited to only one god or goddess but the existence of other deities is acknowledged. “Hindu worship virtually always involves sculptures and images, to which offerings are made and rituals are performed.”19

Hinduism’s holy texts fall into one of two categories: sruti (“heard”) or smruti (“remembered”). The sruti scriptures are those texts that are divinely inspired and hold the complete authoritative text of beliefs and practices. The smruti scriptures are considered the texts of the great sages which often carry the same authority as the sruti texts. The smruti texts help to explain the sruti texts and makes them meaningful to the average Hindu.20

Hinduism does not have a central belief regarding the source of evil. There are generally four ways of viewing evil according to Hinduism. According to the Vedas evil is caused by mankind not fulfilling the laws or not performing rituals properly. The Upanishads believe that karma is the explanation for evil because suffering is caused by ignorance. According to the Samkhya and Yoga evil is caused by how much one is caught up in the illusions “generated by the primordial substance.”21 Hindu theism explains evil and in the Epics and the Puranas the gods are responsible for creating evil.21 Hinduism believes that there are four purposes to life. Dharma is the fulfillment of one’s purpose. Artha is prosperity. Kama is desire, sexuality, and enjoyment. Moksha is enlightenment. Karma – Sanskrit for “actions” – refers to “the fundamental Hindu principle that one’s moral actions have unavoidable and automatic effects on one’s fortunes in this life and condition of rebirth in the next.”22


18“History of Hinduism.” Religion Facts, n.d.  []
19“Hindu gods and goddesses.” Religion Facts, n.d.   []
20“Hindu sacred texts.” Religion Facts, n.d.   []
21Ernest Valea. “The Problem of Evil in World Religions.” World Religions: Comparative Analysis, n.d. []
22“Hindu beliefs.” Religion Facts, n.d. []

Inter-Faith Relations: Survey of World Religions (Part 1)

Russian Orthodox Communion
Russian Orthodox Communion (Olga.Mach – Wikipedia)

If one is to truly understand where one stand in the world regarding religion it is important to have at least some working knowledge of the various other religions of the world. It is also important to understand the basic concepts of other religions so one may logically and factually defend one’s own Jewish/Torah faith. In this five-part blog I will be exploring the five largest and most well-known religions: Christianity, Islam, Baha’i, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

Religions can be divided into seven general categories based upon historical origin and mutual influence. Abrahamic religions originated in the Middle-East, Indian religions in the Indian subcontinent, East Asian religions in East Asia, and Afro-American religions in Central and West Africa.1

Abrahamic religions are the largest group and consist mainly of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Baha’i and are named after the patriarch Abraham. Indian religions tend to share key concepts such as dharma and karma and consist mostly of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. East Asian religions are dominated by Taoism and Confucianism and make use of the concepts of Tao or Dō. Afro-American religions were imported as a result of the Atlantic slave trade and are built upon traditional African religions from Central and West Africa. Indigenous religions have formed on every continent and include such religions as Native-American religions, Australian-Aboriginal religions, Chinese folk religions, Shinto, etc. Iranian or Persian religions have their origins in Persia and include Zoroastrianism and Gnosticism. There are also new religious movements – those that emerged since the 19th-century – that often reinterpret or revive aspects of older traditions. These religions include Hindu reform movements, Eckankar, and Wicca.1

This video will be focusing upon the five religions that are followed by a large part of the world population – Christianity, Islam, Baha’i, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Please remember that this is a general overview and there are many varied beliefs and practices within each of these religions just as there is within Judaism.


Christianity grew out of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth in the first-century CE during the time of Augustus. The teachings generally urged a purification of Judaism which would allow for a free Israel and the establishment of a kingdom of God upon earth. The faithful were asked to follow the moral code of love, charity, and humility forsaking the worldly matters. Many of the early followers believed in the coming of the messiah which would usher in a final judgment. Initially converts to this sect of Judaism were Jewish by birth and followed Jewish law. The growing belief in Jesus as divine however caused hostility with the Jewish world and many believers were forced to leave Israel. Paul converted to the new early Christian religion and he helped to establish a new set of laws that insisted on abandoning the “old laws” of Judaism. Under his guidance missionaries were sent out across the Middle-East and Europe to spread the message of this new universal religion. Over the next 250 years Christianity won over many converts and by the fourth-century CE about 10-percent of the residents within the Roman Empire were Christian and there were flourishing Christian communities in the Middle-East and Ethiopia.2

Christianity believes in the unity of God and that He is infinite – infinite in perfection and infinite in time and space. God is also considered a “simple” being for He cannot be made up of finite parts nor can He possess accidental imperfections. God is also free, intelligent, and distinct from His creation. God is considered eternal and immutable in Christianity. God is also “omniscient or possesses the most perfect knowledge of all things … [and] possesses the perfection of free will in an infinitely eminent degree.”3 Christianity believes that God is part of a “Trinity” and this doctrine is central to the Christian religion. The Trinity represents a unity of the Godhead which is made up of three persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) and these three persons are distinct from one another – all being co-eternal and co-equal. This is taught in the Athanasian Creed: “the father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God, and yet there are not three Gods but one God.”4

The holy text of the Christian religion is the Bible. The Christian Bible includes the Tanakh – what Christianity refers to as the “Old Testament” – and the Christian texts known as the “New Testament.” Book lists of acceptable biblical books had been in existence since 170 CE but they did not always agree with each other. The Old Testament canon was derived from the books of the Septuagint – or Greek – version of the Tanakh. The New Testament canon was derived from the biblical book list of an influential bishop named Athanasius.5 The official cannon was adopted at the Council of Trent.

The source of evil in Christian tradition is attributed to the free-will choices of man. The willful disobedience to God by mankind causes evil and suffering.6 Christianity teaches that “Satan” or “The Devil” is a tormentor and tempter that can lead one to sin. The Christian religion teaches a theology of “original sin” whereby all mankind is tainted by the original sin of Adam. Mankind is born into a state of sin and is a slave to sin according to Christian doctrine. The use of baptism as well as accepting Jesus as one’s “Lord and Savior” are the only options for bringing about forgiveness of sin.


1“Major Religious Groups.” Wikipedia, n.d. []
2Robert Guisepi (ed.). “A History of Christianity.” History World International, n.d. []
3Patrick Toner. “The Nature and Attributes of God.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 6. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. []
4George Joyce. “The Blessed Trinity.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. []
5Michael Marlowe. “A Brief Introduction to the Canon and Ancient Versions of Scriptures.” Bible Research, n.d. []
6Alfred Sharpe. “Evil.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. []


Jewish Literacy – Biblical Era: Creation (Part 5)

creation of the sky - Genesis chapter 1
Creation of the Sky – Genesis Chapter 1 (Howcheng – Wikipedia)

“…and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth.’ And it was so” (Genesis 1:15). These lights shall also function to provide light to the earth. Rashi explains that the earth itself does not need light. These lights are to provide light for the world which “includes those beings that need light.”1

“And God made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; and the stars. And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth…” (Genesis 1:16-17).

These lights were not created “from the body of the firmament, rather, they were bodies set into it.”3 Rashi explains that these lights were created equal in size but God reduced the size of the moon. Why was the moon reduced in size?

“R. Simeon b. Pazzi pointed out a contradiction [between verses]. One verse says: And God made the two great lights, and immediately the verse continues: The greater light . . . and the lesser light. The moon said unto the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Is it possible for two kings to wear one crown’? He answered: ‘Go then and make thyself smaller’” (Chillun 60b).7

“[A]nd to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness; and God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day” (Genesis 1:19-20). The lights are told to rule over the earth by the changes they cause in the earth and the power of “bringing about the existence and deterioration of all things in the lower world.”3

The sun rules the day and causes the sprouting, propagation, and growth of all the “warm and dry things”. The moon rules the night and causes the increases in the waters “and all liquid and cold things.”3

“Abraham ibn Ezra said: ‘By the coming forth of the sun at daytime and the light of the moon at night, they shall divide the light from the darkness.’” In Ramban’s opinion, “the light mentioned here refers to the day, and the darkness is the night.”3

“And God said: ‘Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let fowl fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven’” (Genesis 1:20).

According to Rashi, the swarming creatures are considered any living creature that does not stand high off the ground. This would include winged creatures such as flies as well as land creatures such as ants, worms, moles, and mice as well as all fish.1

However, Onkelos translates this verse as “And the Lord said, Let the waters generate the moving creature (having) life and the fowl which flieth over the earth on the face of the expanse of heaven.”8 Here we see that swarming has the implication of movement. The creatures are called swarming “because of their constant movement.”3

According to Rashi the fowl (or winged creature) are the creatures that do not have four legs upon which it moves because its main method of movement is via flying.1

“And God created the great sea-monsters, and every living creature that creeps, with which the waters swarmed, after its kind, and every winged fowl after its kind; and God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:21).

“[It is written]: And God created the great sea-monsters. Here they explained: The sea-gazelles. R. Johanan said: This refers to Leviathan the slant serpent, and to Leviathan the tortuous serpent, for it is written: In that day the Lord with his sore [and great and strong] sword will punish [Leviathan the slant serpent, and Leviathan the tortuous serpent]. … Rab Judah said in the name of Rab: All that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in his world he created male and female. Likewise, Leviathan the slant serpent and Leviathan the tortuous serpent he created male and female; and had they mated with one another they would have destroyed the whole world. What [then] did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? He castrated the male and killed the female preserving it in salt for the righteous in the world to come; for it is written: And he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.”9

“And God blessed them, saying: ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the waters in the seas, and let fowl multiply in the earth.’ And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day” (Genesis 1:22-23). Since these creatures will eventually be hunted and eaten they need a blessing, according to Rashi, so they would not become depleted.1

The creatures were told to be “fruitful and multiply” to fill the earth. God gave this command to ensure that the creatures would have more than one offspring so they would not become depleted in the earth.1


1Yisrael Herczeg. The Torah with Rashi’s Commentary – Genesis. (New York: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 2000).
2I. Epstein. Soncino Babylonian Talmud. (London: Soncino Press, 1949). []
3Charles Chavel. Ramban Commentary on the Torah – Genesis. (New York: Shilo Publishing House, Inc., 1971).
4I. Epstein. Soncino Babylonian Talmud. (London: Soncino Press, 1949). []
5Aryeh Kaplan. The Living Nach: Later Prophets. (New York: Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1995).
6I. Epstein. Soncino Babylonian Talmud. (London: Soncino Press, 1949). []
7I. Epstein. Soncino Babylonian Talmud. (London: Soncino Press, 1949). []
8J. W. Ethridge. On the Pentateuch With The Fragments of the Jerusalem Targum From the Chaldee (1862). []
9I. Epstein. Soncino Babylonian Talmud. (London: Soncino Press, 1949). []

Jewish Literacy – Biblical Era: Creation (Part 4)

Creation of Earth - Genesis Chapter 1
Creation of Earth – Genesis Chapter 1 (GFreihalter – Wikipedia)

“And God said: ‘Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night…” (Genesis 1:14).

Rashi explains that there is an allusion to the creation of these lights on the first day of Creation but God commanded them to be suspended in the heavens. This teaching is corroborated by the Rabbis.1

“But was the light created on the first day? For, behold, it is written: And God set them in the firmament of the heaven, and it is [further] written: And there was evening and there was morning a fourth day — This is [to be explained] according to R. Eleazar. For R. Eleazar said: The light which the Holy One, blessed be He, created on the first day, one could see thereby from one end of the world to the other; but as soon as the Holy One, blessed be He, beheld the generation of the Flood and the generation of the Dispersion, and saw that their actions were corrupt, He arose and hid it from them…” (Chagigah 12a).2

Ramban taught that light was created on the first day but when the firmament was created on the second day it intercepted the light thus preventing it from illuminating the lower entities that had been created. This is why the earth was dark. On the fourth day, God decided to place luminaries in the firmament to shed light upon the Earth.3

All the created entities generated from heaven and earth, Rashi goes on to explain, were created on the first day. Each of these entities were fixed in their permanent positions and functions on the day that it was decreed by God.1

“[A]nd let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years; …” (Genesis 1:14). From this passage we learn that when solar or lunar eclipses occur it is a bad sign for the world.

“Our Rabbis taught, When the sun is in eclipse, it is a bad omen for the whole world. This may be illustrated by a parable. To what can this be compared? To a human being who made a banquet for his servants and put up for them a lamp. When he became wroth with them he said to his servant, ‘Take away the lamp from them, and let them sit in the dark’” (Sukkah 29a).4

We are called upon to not “fear the signs of heaven, even though the nations fear them, for the ways of the nations are nonsense” (Yirmiyahu 10:2-3).5 If Israel performs the will of God the people need not worry about the punishments that are portended by the eclipse.1

“But when Israel fulfil the will of the Omnipresent, they need have no fear of all these [omens] as it is said, Thus saith the Lord,’ Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them, the idolaters will be dismayed, but Israel will not be dismayed” (Sukkah 29a).4

These lights were set in the firmament to be used as signs for the seasons for Israel will be commanded in the future to celebrate the festivals in their fixed times. The times of the festivals are fixed by the signs of the moon since Israel calculates months by the sign of the new moon.1

These lights are also set in the firmament to be used by mankind to calculate the length of the day and the length of the night. The lights are set in a consistent course so the lunar month lasts approximately 30 days and the solar year lasts 365 days.3

“[T]welve constellations have I created in the firmament, and for each constellation I have created thirty hosts, and for each host I have created thirty legions, and for each legion I have created thirty cohorts, and for each cohort I have created thirty maniples, and for each maniple I have created thirty camps, and to each camp I have attached three hundred and sixty-five thousands of myriads of stars, corresponding to the days of the solar year” (Berachot 32b).6


1Yisrael Herczeg. The Torah with Rashi’s Commentary – Genesis. (New York: Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 2000).
2I. Epstein. Soncino Babylonian Talmud. (London: Soncino Press, 1949). []
3Charles Chavel. Ramban Commentary on the Torah – Genesis. (New York: Shilo Publishing House, Inc., 1971).
4I. Epstein. Soncino Babylonian Talmud. (London: Soncino Press, 1949). []
5Aryeh Kaplan. The Living Nach: Later Prophets. (New York: Moznaim Publishing Corporation, 1995).
6I. Epstein. Soncino Babylonian Talmud. (London: Soncino Press, 1949). []

Intermarriage and the HUC-JIR

Hebrew Union College Campus Jerusalem
Hebrew Union College Campus, Jerusalem

A couple months ago rabbinical student Daniel Kirzane wrote a post related to his student senior sermon. His topic was a discussion about the current position of the HUC-JIR regarding applicants to its rabbinical school who are married to or involved with a non-Jew. As Brandon Bernstein puts it:

Currently, applicants to HUC-JIR (the Reform Movement’s seminary) are not held to any standards of theological belief, ritual observance, or life choices, except for one: an agreement not to be “engaged, married, or partnered/committed to a person not Jewish by birth or conversion.” This policy is therefore crucial for its significant symbolic value—it is the one and only commitment to living a Jewish life expected by HUC of future Reform rabbis, cantors, educators, and communal workers. (Reform Judaism Online – Spring 2013)

I agree with Brandon, if HUC-JIR removes the rule that a future rabbinical student cannot be “engaged, married, or partnered/committed to” a non-Jew then what other rules should also be removed? Why not permit a rabbinical student applicant to believe the messiah has already arrived? Even though I consider myself non-denominational I do believe that there needs to be some set standards for future rabbis.

I understand that there are Jews who fall in love with non-Jews. This is simply a fact of life and we need to realize this fact. However, if a potential rabbinical student is serious about his/her Judaism then shouldn’t the individual also be serious about being intermarried (or involved with) a non-Jew? Are we not told in the Torah not to intermarry? If so, then how can someone supposedly serious enough to attend rabbinical school argue that intermarriage is okay? Yes, I realize that Daniel is a Reform Jew but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he – even according to Reform Judaism beliefs – can rightfully ignore Torah law when it is advantageous.

I am not saying that intermarried people should be ignored or thrown out of the synagogues. I believe that it is our responsibility to win over the non-Jew so he/she will convert. We absolutely cannot run-off the Jew in these intermarried relationships but we cannot go on simply ignoring the situation. Any future rabbi must be aware of, and sympathetic to, intermarried couples but this does not mean there must be an indication of acceptance.

Rabbinical schools must have set standards for potential students. HUC-JIR has a position which means that a potential rabbinical student cannot be “engaged, married, or partnered/committed to” a non-Jew. I personally applaud this rule. This is a Torah-based rule that should not be changed. If a person is truly committed to Judaism – enough to become a rabbi – then he/she should be serious enough to not be intermarried. If the person is already intermarried then bringing the non-Jewish spouse/partner to Judaism should be a primary goal. If this can be accomplished then he/she can attend rabbinical school at a later time.

I applaud HUC-JIR for their stand and I hope they stand strong against the forces pushing them to give up their stand.