Bollywood, Interfaith Dialogue, and the Shechinah: How the Stories of Others Enlighten Our Own

Alissa Thomas
February 11, 2013
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‘So, do you know anything about India?’ my Indian cab driver asked matter-of-factly.

‘Not to be stereotypical, but I love Bollywood movies,’ I answered with an apologetic yet hopeful tone.

‘Oh! Which is your favorite?’ his face lit up.

I knew then that the rest of my cab ride would be awesome. My not-so-secret guilty pleasure is a good Bollywood movie that encapsulates the entire range of human emotions. I relish sitting down for a three-hour story of family drama, true love, religious values, and moral triumph in the face of suffering. How could I not? There really is nothing like a Bollywood tearjerker that leaves you both shaken and satisfied.

After we concluded a thorough review of every Shahrukh Khan movie, the cab driver turned to me, ‘You said you are studying in yeshiva. That means you’re Orthodox right?’

‘I am Orthodox,’ I nodded.

‘It makes a lot of sense that a Jew would like Bollywood. It has a lot of your same values- family, community, and faith, right? You see yourself in it, and it speaks to you.’

I had never thought of it that way, but my cab driver was absolutely right.

Every interest, every action, every emotion, every dimension of myself is wrapped up in where I come from and where I am going. We are all admittedly influenced by our upbringings, our surroundings, and our educations. But what I found so striking about my cab driver’s observation was that even when I ventured out of my own culture, I unconsciously took my Judaism with me.

As I reflected on his statement, ‘You see yourself in it, and it speaks to you,’ I was reminded that when we explore someone of something different from us, we often return with the most rewarding and effective knowledge of ourselves. In this way, we experience a multidimensional image of ourselves: as individuals with unique beliefs and experiences and as a single group dwelling among God’s many creations.

As Jews living in the modern world, we are constantly in contact with people and cultures that are foreign, and even contrary to our traditional Jewish values. We each must learn how to hear the voice of the other without losing our own, and I would argue that this is one of the hardest and the most thrilling tasks we have as Jews and as citizens of the world. When we actively engage and communicate with those who are foreign to us, we are forced to articulate exactly who we are and what we believe. The most exciting part of all is owning your voice in every mode of life.

For this reason, I am a huge advocate for interfaith dialogue. When I volunteered as a chaplain at Bellevue Hospital this past summer, I learned so much about my own beliefs from interactions with my Christian colleagues as we poured over topics of theology together. The dimension of stepping outside of the self in order to understand another is frequently the gateway into self-awareness and a deeper connection to God.

Perhaps my cab driver knew this truth and thus casually hinted at it.

In the zemer ‘Beshem Hashem’, we sing ‘בשם השם אלקי ישראל, מימיני מיכאל, ומשמאלי גבריאל, ומלפני אוריאל ומאחורי רפאל, ועל ראשי שכינת קל,’ or ‘In the name of Hashem, God of Israel, on my right Michael and on my left Gavriel, and before me Uriel and behind me Rafael, and above my head the Presence of God’.

We sing these words during Seudah Shlishit on Shabbat as well as in the Shema HaMitah every night. In this prayer we ask that the angels will protect us and that God’s Shechinah will always dwell with us, ever so close, hovering around us. Beshem Hashem is the multidimensional prayer that no matter where we are in life, God’s divinity will cradle us and be with us.

But it can also be understood as a prayer in which we are surrounded by many different voices, or individuals, Michael, Gavriel, Uriel, Raphael, who are all different emanations of God’s creation. When we engage with those different voices, as we do when we have interfaith dialogue or when we dialogue with those who come from a different background than we, the Shechinah is still always above us, so that no matter which direction we turn, we always return to our source. And most importantly, we recognize the godliness in each different voice that surrounds us.

In many ways, these are the sentiments that I heard my cab driver say:

‘You see yourself in it, and it speaks to you.’

‘Wherever you go, you see or look for God. You see both your creation and your background and the creation of all of God’s creatures.’

‘In my story, you are able to see your own, because we share common human values.’

‘We are all made in the image of God, and if we look hard enough we can recognize the godliness in each other.’

I am reminded of a beautiful quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

‘Do you ever expect to be moved from the pulpit or from man by anything but plain truth? Never. It is God in you that responds to God without, or affirms His own words trembling on the lips of another.’

In our brief exchange, my cab driver and I were able to share a truth that affirmed something godly in each other. And that truth is our shared stories and experiences. The reason Bollywood was the vehicle for our connection is because Bollywood movies deal with subject matter that every person can relate to– love, suffering, loss, family, faith. This is in fact the aim of all art, literature, and even the Torah itself– for us to see ourselves in them and in turn to have them speak their messages to us. And one of the most meaningful lessons comes from the realization that we are all God’s creations with both our individual and shared stories.

I believe that in the exchange of truth between two human beings, no matter how different they may be, Shechinat Kel dwells over our heads, cradling and partnering with us in the perfection of God’s creation. May we each benefit from hearing the words of God trembling on the lips of another, and in doing so see ourselves and the world around us in the splendor of God’s compassionate light.

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Alissa Thomas is currently a student at Yeshivat Maharat. She graduated from Brandeis University with a bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and a bachelor’s degree in Classical Studies Archaeology and Ancient History. She has studied at Machon Pardes, Neve Yerushalayim, and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. She has completed one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Bellevue Hospital and is also the present Rosh Beit Midrash for Uri L’Tzedek. She is originally from Los Angeles, California and currently lives in New York City.

1 Comment

  1. Amen…”when we explore someone of something different from us, we often return with the most rewarding and effective knowledge of ourselves.”. Made my day…

    Posted by
    Hari Kiran Reddy Tadi
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