I swear, I’ve been on such a religious journey that I firmly believe that it could rival Piscine Patel from Life of Pi.
Like most people in the United States, I was raised in a Christian home. More specifically, I was raised as a Southern Baptist. Not shocking since I was born and raised in the Southern United States. My upbringing was fairly typical of other Baptist families. We went to church on Sundays and many Wednesdays, prayed before every meal and before going to bed, and we did a lot of volunteer work like Vacation Bible School. Around 13 I stopped going to church and it was also around this time that I declared myself an atheist. Long story made super short, I stayed an atheist until college when I began studying world religions, anthropology, and philosophy.
I think there’s an irony in there by becoming more open to religion while in college.
Before making my journey into Judaism, I was a practicing Hindu for about 4 years. I started out, I think as most westerners who come into an eastern religion, as an Advaita Vedantin (non-dualist in laymans terms) before becoming initiated as a Sri Vaishnava back in 2014. Sri Vaishnavism - the worship of Narayana/Vishnu, his avatars such as Krishna, and his consort Sri Lakshmi - was essential in forming a lot of how I approach religion today. Seeingour human institutions like art and culture as means of trying to understand the divine, and it was the religion that brought me back into believing in a personal God.
I practiced Sri Vaishnavism for nearly 2 and a half years. Until mid-2017, when I could no longer ignore my call towards Zion. With my teachers blessings, I removed my poonal (cotton thread that initiates into certain Hindu schools receive and wear over their shoulder), contacted my current converting Rabbi, and began my journey into Judaism. Judaism was always a religion that I had an admiration for - even during my non-religious stage - and I distinctly remember feeling a strong, instinctual attraction towards for a numbers of years. Even when I practiced Hinduism fully.
On some level, Hinduism isn’t a religion that meshes well with Judaism. With the elaborate rituals that often involve images and statues and concepts such as many beings and gods which are worshiped. Yet, on a personal level, I try not to let that bother me. I have friends and acquaintances of all religions and of no religion. Even though I try my best to follow what my faith teaches, I see no reason to isolate non-Jews from my life or to never associate with people just becasue they don’t believe the same thing as me.
But sometimes, even with that value in mind, boundaries can tested.
A few days ago, I visited the very people who had initiated me into Sri Vaishnavism. I had not seen them in quite some time and, despite me no longer affiliated with their religious tradition, I still keep in touch and consider them to be my friends. I show up to their house, catch up with some friendly conversation, and ate some amazing vegetarian food.
Then about around noon there was a religious ceremony for Krishna.
For a part of it I stayed around. They chanted a few kirtan (religious songs) and recited some verses and gave lessons from the Bhagavad Gita. As far as these went, didn’t mind so much. I didn’t chant along and there were some aspects of the lessons which I could apply to my own religious convictions (such as the love and omnipotence of God). However, afterwards, they began a ritual with offerings and worship to murthis (statues) of Radha-Krishna. For this, I respectfully stood to the side while everyone else partook.
While I saw the incense, the chanting, and the devotion occurring, I felt a twinge of sadness. Like I was saying good-bye. I felt a bit of nostalgia for my times as a Hindu. The ritual, the people I’ve met, and engaging with a millenium old tradition. In a way, those feelings were not not different from what I feel about Judaism.
But then I remember, these wonderful memories are just that: memories. I will always have them with me, but there ultimately is a reason why I no longer practice Hinduism. Despite the good it has done in my life, I no longer could believe in it. Nor could I pretend to do so. In a way, visiting my friends was also a way to finally say good-bye to this other tradition. I no doubt know that I will visit again and I will always fondly remember my time as a Hindu, but perhaps this visitation was also a way for me to emotionally, as well as intellectually, let go.
I know more traditional Jews would say that I shouldn’t have gone to such a thing, as it is Avodah Zara (foreign worship), but I saw no real issue with my presence there. I partook in the things that I felt comfortable with, and when the more explicitly religious stuff began, I made my boundaries known and respected theirs. There was no reason for them to have to accommodate me when I knew what would occur.
This is the nexus of people in a religiously pluralistic society. I see no reason to isolate myself from people whom traditional Judaism would call “idolaters”, but there is also no reason for me to expect them to change their ways to make me more comfortable. Or, alternatively, for me to not consider my values and boundaries either.
Perhaps it’s because of the people I attend classes with in graduate school, but I get a general impression that many see interfaith gatherings or interactions as being most effective when “boundaries are dissolved” and “we can all worship as one.” An example I can give is a book we read for a class, where a church got rid of it’s outward Christian symbolism for the sake of making it for pluralistically friendly to non-Christians.
I disagree with this. I see no reason for any tradition to give up what makes their tradition unique for the sake of interfaith dialogue or plurality. I think it is a mistake to try and do so. The best interfaith interactions come from when we recognize and celebrate our differences and find commonalities despite said differences. That’s what I got form visiting my friends. We may no longer worship Krishna together, but still were able to come together to celebrate loving God (whomever that may be to any individual), to celebrate good company and the relationships which bind us together, and to celebrate good food.
To me, that is the beauty of having religious boundaries while having multi-religious people in your life. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
This articles was originally published here