Gods of Stone

Rabbi Sara Brandes
October 17, 2013
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Hinduism is a polytheistic religion, identifying thousands of deities; however, there is a debate among philosophers of Hinduism, ancient and modern, as to whether or not this polytheism is set on a backdrop of an essential monotheism.  For more than a thousand years, some Hindu mystics have argued that beyond the many, lies the One.  Others disagree.

As a rabbinical student, fleeing Israel and the fourth year of school that awaited me in the fall, I journeyed to India, home and birthplace of Hinduism, filled with hope and faith that those monotheistic Hindu mystics were right - that Hindu gods were aspects of a Hindu God, or really, of God.  Psalm 135 decries the foolishness of the idol worshiper, saying “[Idols] have a mouth, but do not speak, eyes but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear; there is not even spirit in their mouths.” Surely such condescension was misplaced, the judgement of our Biblical ancestors, warring with the Cannanite polytheistic traditions that surrounded them.  Polytheists do not worship the stone itself, I was certain.

I lived at the Yoga Vidha Gurkul Ashram, in Nashik, India.  Although not a well known city in the West, Nashik is one of India’s four holiest cities, a site of the great Kumbh Mela gathering held in India every twelve years. When a Kumbh Mela is not taking place (it was not, when I was there), the city is crowded with urban dwellers, and its vast surrounding country-side is scattered with India’s peaceful, rural population.  Observing these typical Indians visit the many great Hindu temples in Nashik was a fascinating cultural experience.   Candles are lit. Food and incense are brought as offerings to the gods.  In talking with my Indian teachers about the villagers I saw and met, I came to feel that for the simple Hindu practitioner, those mystics who argue for an essential monotheism are wrong. Each is fiercely loyal to their preferred god, embodied in the graven image of it found in the temple.  Why bring food as an offering? To feed the god, of course.

As a mystic, and a student of world religion, my experience at the kotel is the same as my experience at the temples I saw in India.  Holy sites of brick and stone are fascinating settings for anthropological study, and yet, for me, they host religious practice that is calcified, much like the stone of the structures themselves. There is a debate among the great biblical commentators Rashi and Ramban as to whether the command to build the mishkan, the proto-temple precedes or follows the sin of the golden calf.  Is a brick and mortar space for worship the telos of the Jewish people’s journey from slavery to freedom (Ramban) or a concession made to a limited human nature (Rashi).  In a land as holy as Israel, the intensity of the energy poured out before the great stones of the Kotel inclines me toward Rashi’s view.  God is in the breath, the spirit and the wind, our Torah teaches us, not in the stone.

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Rabbi Sara Brandes Rabbi Sara Brandes fell in love with being Jewish while Israeli dancing at Camp Alonim in Los Angeles, CA. Since then, she has worked to build Jewish spaces where Judaism is felt, not just heard, space that are as fun and compelling as the feeling of holding hands, laughing, with hundreds of friends. Sara is California Director at Moving Traditions, and returns to Alonim every summer as Rabbi-in-Residence. When she is not engaging Jewish teens and adults in meaningful Jewish life, she is a yogi, partner of Hyim and mom to Michal and Gavi.

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