Article Library / India, Israel and the Jewish People

India, Israel and the Jewish People

From the 9th or 10th century on, India appears in the books of several of the most important Jewish writers – rabbis, philosophers, historians, and travel writers. India is not a central issue but it is a part of the intellectual inventory of the Jews of the Middle Ages, as it had been in Hellenistic times. From then on, Jewish attention focuses on three different, though sometimes connected, subjects. In the past, interest was limited to Indian civilization and Indian export products. Now, some continue to write about these subjects, but others (and sometimes the same ones) write about the Jews living in India, or about the lucrative India trade. That Jews were living and flourishing in India was an interesting novelty. A second novelty is the rejection by some authors of Indian religion, or what is presented as such. The Israeli scholar A. Melamed characterized the image of India in Medieval Jewish culture as oscillating “between adoration and rejection.”64 This description is certainly true for the two best-known Jewish philosophers of the time, Yehuda Halevi and Maimonides. Whether it can be applied to Jewish medieval culture as a whole, lasting four or five hundred years is questionable. It is certainly true that no unifying theme dominated the image of India among the Jews of the Middle Ages, in contrast to the positive image that prevailed in Hellenistic times.

The historian of religion R. G. Marks counted at least 19 Jewish texts written between the 10th and 14th centuries that speak of India.65 His collection is heterogeneous. It includes the most important works of the period as well as some long-forgotten books. During this period many Arab travelers visited India and some wrote travelogues that mention the presence of Jews in the country. In contrast, only one of the Jewish authors writing about India, the Karaite scholar Jacob al-Qirqisani (10th century), is believed to have visited the country himself. His Book of Lights and Watchtowers describes Hindu customs and compares them to Jewish religious practices and those of other nations.

Saadia Gaon (892-942): Saadia Gaon is regarded as the dominant Jewish philosopher and religious scholar of the early 10th century. A life-long struggle pitted him against the Karaite school of Judaism, which rejected the oral law as transmitted in the Talmud. Jacob al-Qirqisani was one of his main opponents. Saadia Gaon lived in Bagdad, on the way to India, and knew a lot about the country. His main philosophical work, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions, mocks “the masses of this country (Babylon) who labor under the impression that whoever goes to India becomes rich.”66 Another phrase of the book gives examples of people who fight against reality, such as “Hindus who have hardened themselves against fire, although it burns them.”67 This is a neutral ethnographic observation, presented without animosity. A third reference mentions the Indian Brahmins as a model to emulate as they maintain and transmit their traditions.68 Saadia also wrote an important commentary on the early Kabbalistic book, Sefer Yetzirah, in which he correctly credits India with inventing the decimal system and commends India as having separated the numbering system from the letters of the alphabet.69 Saadia apparently believed in an Indian influence on Sefer Yetzirah.70

Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164): Abraham Ibn Ezra was one of the foremost Bible commentators of Spanish Jewry. He was a philosopher, poet, mathematician, and astronomer. His competence in mathematics and science largely explains his respect for the “wise men of India” and, perhaps, a certain affinity for Indian civilization. He helped to bring Indian mathematical symbols and ideas to Europe’s attention. Similar to Saadia Gaon, his attitude to India was positive although he knew there were major differences between Jewish and Indian beliefs.

Yehuda Halevi (1075-1141): Yehuda Halevi was the iconic poet and philosopher of Spanish Judaism’s “Golden Age,” and the first consequential “Zionist” in a modern sense.71 His longing for the Holy Land drove him to abandon everything and emigrate to Israel where he perished under unknown circumstances. Yehuda Halevi was a close friend, and perhaps son-in-law, of Abraham Ibn Ezra, but did not entirely share the latter’s respect for India. His famous philosophical treatise, Sefer Kuzari, is ambivalent about India and even employs insulting language. The Kuzari is a fictional tale in which the king of the Central Asian Khazar people questions a philosopher, a Christian priest, a Muslim imam, and a rabbi in order to identify the only true religion. As the rabbi’s arguments surpass those of his competitors, the king decides to convert to Judaism.

Sefer Kuzari refers to India five times. Halevi twice uses the “King of India” as a metaphor for God himself, which for a pious Jew is very significant. The rabbi asks the Khazari (king of the Khazars), if he were told that the King of India (that is God) was an “excellent man” who established justice in his country, would he revere him?72 No, says the Khazari, maybe the Indian people love justice, independently of the king. But, he asks the rabbi again, if the king’s messengers would bring him extraordinary presents only procurable in India, would he then believe in him? This time the Khazari answers yes. The “presents” in this allegory are the miracles God had performed in the past. Another of the book’s argument recalls King Solomon who received visitors from all over the world, from “even as far as India,” who came to spread his wisdom.73 But then the narrative turns hostile. The Khazari challenges the rabbi: does it not weaken your belief when you hear that the Indians have antiquities that are “millions of years old” – much older than anything the Jews can show for themselves? The rabbi replies that it would indeed weaken his belief if the Indians had a “fixed form of religion, or a book … in which no historical discrepancy could be found … apart from this, they are a dissolute, unreliable people, and arouse the indignation of the followers of religions through their talk, while they anger them with their idols, talismans and witchcraft.”74

It is uncertain how Yehuda Halevi got his ideas about India. He lacked Saadia Gaon’s actual contact with the country. For him, India was a land of hearsay. But he knew Indian traders while he was in Egypt waiting to set out for the land of Israel. A particularly prominent Jewish merchant and scholar of the time, the Egyptian Halfon ha-Levi ben Nethanel, possessed a trading network that stretched from Spain to India. Halfon and Yehuda Halevi maintained a long-lasting friendship, immortalized by the poems Halevi dedicated to Halfon. Halfon’s Judeo-Arabic archive, parts of which were first published in 2013, is an important source of information on Yehuda Halevi during the period he wrote his Kuzari.75 A review of this material might show whether Halfon had strong opinions about India, which he communicated to his friend. But the Kuzari’s outburst does not have to be linked to any conjectural personal experience of Jewish traders. Perhaps the conditions of the Jewish people when Halevi completed his book explain his sweeping condemnation. At the end of his life, Judaism was a despised faith. The threat of persecution hung over the Jews in both Muslim and Christian lands and was growing. The Kuzari is a testimony of national distress and revolt. Perhaps Halevi’s message was that Jews were not inferior to their tormentors and religious competitors, they were superior to all of them, Christians and Muslims, and even the far-away Indians who, according to an earlier comment in the Kuzari had long before recognized King Solomon’s wisdom. The reference to the Indian visits to Solomon could then be read as a possible key to Halevi’s negative comment.

Moses Maimonides (1135-1204): Maimonides was aware that there were Jews in India. He was pleased to report that they knew his Mishneh Torah, his famous codex of Jewish law. Maimonides’ younger brother, David, was a trader in precious stones who visited India regularly. He perished on his last voyage to India when his ship sank. After David’s death, Maimonides continued to invest in the India trade through other merchants.76 In spite of these personal links, Maimonides’ knowledge of India’s culture was as fragmentary as Halevi’s. He shared Yehuda Halevi’s ambivalence about India. As he respected science, he described Indian sages as true scientists, who, among other things, helped to develop the science of astronomy.77 On this, his position was similar to that of Abraham Ibn Ezra. On the other hand, his main philosophical work, the Guide for the Perplexed, contains four references to India, two of which criticize Indian idolatry. Maimonides speaks of the Patriarch Abraham who, he asserts was educated in the religion of the mythical Sabeans in Mesopotamia. They worshipped the stars as gods, but Abraham eradicated their idolatry, as Maimonides knew from Midrashic tales. Most people praise Abraham for this “except some ignoble remnants of the nations left in the remote corners of the earth, like the savage Turks in the extreme North and the Indians in the extreme South. These are remnants of the Sabeans who once filled the earth.”78

Maybe Maimonides knew of the well-known Indian (and not only Indian) adherence to astrology and regarded it as the essence of Hindu worship. But there is no basis for the assertion that Sumerian and Babylonian religions, which worshipped the sun, moon, and stars as divinities, migrated to India and became dominant there. Apparently, either Maimonides’ brother David had scant or no knowledge of Hinduism, or did not share his knowledge with his famous sibling. Still, a second comment by Maimonides does show some familiarity with the Indian reality: “Most idolaters objected to killing cattle, holding this species of animals in great estimation. Therefore the people of India up to this day do not slaughter cattle.”79 This was another reprimand of Indian religion. God had ordered the Jews to sacrifice animals in order to abolish animal worship, explained Maimonides. However, the prohibition of Avodah Zarah, idolatry, did not seem to impede the India trade of the Maimonides brothers, just as the Talmud had not raised obstacles to the India trade of the Babylonian Jews.

Sefer Yosifon (10th century): For hundreds of years, the most popular and widespread Jewish history book of early medieval origin was the Sefer Yosifon. Written in simple Hebrew, it was accessible to a large Jewish public and was often quoted, even by Biblical and Talmudic commentators.80 Written by an unknown author of the late 10th century, it became one of the first printed Hebrew books (1476). It went through dozens of Hebrew editions and appeared in many translations. The Yosifon presented a Hebrew version of the “Alexander Romance,” a collection of tales about Alexander the Greats’ fictitive visit to India where he interacted with philosophers and Brahmins who lived a life of abstinence and preached stoic attitudes.81 Alexander had to admit the moral superiority of the Indian sages over their Greek counterparts. “As the inhabitants heard of him, they sent him wise men with books to say: ‘if you come to fight us, it will be completely useless because we have nothing that merits your anger – but if you yearn to enjoy what we do have, don’t come in strength and with force, come with mild words and pleasant language. You like war – but we like wisdom.’”82

Some of the Yosifon manuscripts and other, independent Hebrew Alexander stories have the Brahmins – called bargamnim – using Biblical and Talmudic expressions and allusions. Moreover they claim to be monotheists. This was an obvious Jewish attempt to “Judaize” the Indian Brahmins and claim common wisdom, morality, and other similarities between Indian and Jewish cultures.83

When Karl Jaspers published his book on the “Axial Age”, On Origin and Goal of History (1949), where he postulated as mentioned above a spiritual kinship between Prophetic Judaism and Indian wisdom, he probably had no idea that long before him there were apologetic Jewish writers who postulated the same, albeit by generously twisting Indian history and philosophy.
There were other fictitious travel stories commending the wisdom of the Indian sages. One was Mishlei Sindebar (Parables of Sindebar), which appeared in Hebrew in the 13th century and must have been quite popular, judging from the large numbers of extant manuscripts. Similar tales existed in Latin and Arabic. In fact, a popular “Alexander in India” story was part of the medieval culture of Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.

In these tales there was no mention of Jews meeting Indians, but the number of Jews who read the Alexander Romance in the Yosifon and similar legends was probably many times greater than the number of readers who were familiar with the critical India references by Maimonides and Yehuda Halevi. For many medieval Jewish readers India was primarily a land of wisdom and wonders, of monsters, three-colored giant scorpions, talking trees, wise men who walked naked, six-handed humans (possibly derived from a depiction of a Hindu or Buddhist divinity) and those, head deprived, with torsos bearing eyes and mouths.

The novelist Mendele Mocher Sforim (1836-1917), known as the “Grandfather of Yiddish Literature,” wrote his own work of fiction published in 1878: The Travels of Benjamin III. There, the Jews Benjamin encounters quote the Yosifon to him, warning that his travels will meet no fewer obstacles than those of Alexander.84 Mendele’s readers knew the Yosifon, even in the late 19th century. How could they not be enthralled when they read that Alexander wrote to his teacher Aristotle how he learned what his sad fate would be:

“A voice in Indian language came out from the tree, but those who knew the language did not want to translate it to me because they were afraid until I swore to them that nothing bad would happen to them. And they said: Know, Alexander, that soon you will perish at the hands of your own men and those near to you…in Babylon you will die… and you will not see your mother again and not the land of Macedonia.”85