Judaism and Bhakti-Yoga

There is a striking Theological similarity between the original Biblical culture and the way Vaisnavism understands the Vedic culture of India. It is so similar that one may wonder if both are rooted in the same understanding of the Divine and human nature. Surprisingly, the religious and university scholars don't find it interesting to investigate and point out the common basis; they strive to find the differences. They are more interested in defining their own uniqueness than the common background. Therefore there is literally no serious works on that matter among Jewish scholars.

But the similarities and the current differences indicate a very interesting conclusion.

The Biblical God

A simple, non traditional reading of the Bible, reveals multiple levels of Gods that are referred to along the biblical history. The God of Eden who spoke to Adam and Eve looks like different than the God of creation. Again, the God of Abraham and Israel is seems to be another God. One looks like on lower level, one on higher level. I feel it is similar to the Vaisnava idea of different Gods; like hierarchies of controllers in a government, all of these controllers are all one but in another sense different. They are invested with the power of the same Supreme One, but their power is limited to their specific role. Accordingly, the word God may refer to either lower or higher controller, or to the ultimate controller, the cause of all causes. A lot of mystical literature is devoted to this subject within Judaism. For example, according to the punctuation of the word Y-H-V-H or ELOHIM, one may concludes to which God the word refers to.

Personal God

God is always referred to in the Bible as a person. At the beginning of the bible He is very personal and accessible, and toward the end of the Bible He is very transcendental, hardly accessible, but always a person with qualities. Never abstract. He is even described as having a human form (Genesis 1:26-27), just as in the Vedic literature. There are only few places in the Bible that discuss and describe God's form and attributes, but nowhere the form of God is denied.

Creation indicates a personal creator, endowed with form and personality[1]. The Bible starts the first chapter of Genesis with depicting God as the creator[2]. Similarly, the third chapter of Genesis also describes God as a person who is heaving relations with the residents of Heaven. One of the daily prayers of the Jews speaks about God who rules His kingdom before the creation. This is similar to the Vaisnava understanding of the spiritual world where God and His subjects reside eternally, before and after the creation.

Abraham and his sons worshiped god by erecting alters wherever they went throughout the land of Israel. At those places god appeared before them in person. This god relates to Abraham as the local or the ancestral god who protects his descendents and his land. The Hebrew god helps to fight against the other local gods of the other tribes. This is very similar to the Hindu heavenly pantheon of multiple demigods. Hindus use to worship a local god or their personal family god in order to help them fight their opponents or gain material benediction. All these gods are living entities like angels, who are empowered by God to rule the universe. If one consider them as representative of God and worship them accordingly, he is to be considered God worshiper, but if he approaches them for personal, egoistic benediction, he may even be called idol worshiper.

It is described in the Bible, and it is described further in the mystical tradition, that in the Ark of covenant, the most sacred items for Judaism, there was a deity of a couple of angels, standing in an intimate posture, being worshiped.

My professor, Yehuda Libes, said to me that the ancient Hebrews used to worship God in his Deity (Vigraha) form.

There is the famous sentence in the Ten Commandments which is used by the Jewish to condemn worshiping idols, or graven images. A different reading of that sentence reveals an entirely different meaning. The different reading says that God prohibits to worship the images of all other gods accept his image (because he is a jealous God). The first sentence in that command (You shall have no other God before me) even uses the phrase "al panay", which means literally in Hebrew "except my face". This may be interpreted as instruction that one should not worship any other face (or form), except God's face.

Jewish identity

There is no mention of identity in the bible referring to the eternal soul. The identity there refers to national, seminal link to the forefathers. But still, I found reference to spiritual identity. Once Joseph, son of Jacob, being thrown to a big ditch, was asked who he is. The answer was "I am a slave (or servant) of God[3]".

The Vaisnava philosophy is that on the material platform, one's soul, the real eternal identity, is covered by mind (nefesh, or subtle, material body) and gross material body. The Vaisnava defines his identity in terms of his soul and his eternal relations with God; that means that he is servant of God, but may accept secondary identity in terms of his birth to particular parents and culture-on the practical level.

Love of God

In the Mezuzah, which is in the entrance door of each Jewish house, the essence of Judaism is given. There one is directed to love God wholeheartedly and purely and follow his Mitzvahs, or commands. If one follows properly his Mitzvahs he will prosper, and otherwise he will be punished.

This order shows two familiar levels of religion in Judaism. A lower level-for materialistically inclined followers of God, and the higher level-for those who want pure, loving relations with God. The lower level is paralleled to Karma Kanda-the level of benefits and punishments given to the followers of the Rules and regulations of God, the Mitzvahs-for the gradual elevation toward Him or for the sake of controlling one's lower nature. The other level is paralleled to the Bhakti[4] level, or instructions on how to attain pure love of God-for those who crave for direct relations with God.

Most of the writings in the Bible deal with the lower level (and most of its lower level is dedicated to Jewish history, which contributes to the nationalistic feeling typical to Judaism), and a little is dealing with love of God-for the few individuals who crave for this. The most important and known order and direction in this regard is to love God whole heartedly (Ve'a'havta…). In this level of cultivation of love, the Bible directs one to meditate on the form of God (Psalm 16:8), thinks of Him constantly (Psalm 1:2), and constantly chants his name (Psalm 113:3 "From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, the Lord's name is to be praised", or in Psalm 7:17 "I will praise the Lord according to His righteousness and will sing the name of the Lord most high")[5]. There is also the example of King David, who performed congregational chanting of the Holy names with musical instruments in the streets of Jerusalem. He felt such an ecstasy that he forgot himself, going naked in the streets. The bible says that the way to know God and love Him is by chanting His names. One of the verses in Psalms says: "Because he hath set his love upon Me, therefore will I deliver him; I will set him on high, because he hath known my name" (Psalm 91:14). That means that by chanting the Holy names, one's desire to attain God awakes, and when one knows God through His name, one is liberated and attains Him.

In the Song of Songs of King Solomon there is a description of a lover and a longing damsel to him. There you will find descriptions of love in separation (Solom. Song, 5:8). You can find there also descriptions of that lover, whose head is compared to molten gold and is decorated with blackish, curly hair (Solom. Song, 5:11). If you want, you can see Krsna in these descriptions. It is not difficult to envision this text as coming from a Vaisnava tradition. And this text is said to be by Rabi Akiva, one of the greatest ancient biblical authorities, as representing the highest biblical understanding.

All these sentences are surprisingly similar to what one can find in Vedic and Vaisnava literature, indicating the same spiritual conclusion of both.

From personalism to impersonalism

The biblical culture was mainly culture of Rules and regulations with little philosophy. The glorious point there was simple faith. There was no concept of life after death[6], no metaphysical discussions except some vague hints, nor developed concept of Karma[7].

As the history tells, around 2,500 years ago Israel was invaded; first by Babylonians and then by Greek invaders. The result of those wars was that a major portion of the nation was shifted to Diaspora. The center of the first Diaspora was Babylonia which at that time was under the influence of Neo Platonism. By coming in contact with them, the Jewish thinkers were introduced to the Hellenistic ideas[8]. Neo Platonic philosophy is based on the Hellenistic principles of logic and reason as superior to relations, faith and revelations, or in terms of Bhakti philosophy-Jnana (logic, reason and detachment) as superior to Bhakti (loving relations with God, faith and revalations)[9]. The Jewish scholars of that time, due to the prevalent Helenistic culture around them, were inclined to, and dived into such thoughts.

Within the Islam, which was in its formative years, was a movement (called Kalam) that adapted those Hellenistic principles of the superiority of logic and reason on sentiment. They mainly reacted to and adapted the Neo Platonism as a way to explain and interpret their own faith and understanding of God. They charged the Jewish scholars that they are Idol worshipers since they limit God by attributing Him form and personality. At the 9th century, the head of the Diaspora in Babylon, the greatest Jewish scholar, Rabi Sa'adya Gaon, took the work of defending Judaism from these "baseless" accusations. He wrote a book called "Sefer Emunot Vedeot" (the Opinions and Beliefs Book), where he accepts the Neo Platonism as describing the truth about God. He claimed of course that the Bible also describes that truth. But the problem is that actually the simple reading of the Bible describes God as a person with attributes, qualities and form. Sa'adya Gaon (in short RASAG) took to the hard work of nullifying these contradictions. He explained Judaism in his book in terms of the Neo Platonism. Wherever there were personal descriptions of God in the Bible, he interpreted them allegorically or symbolically, till the reference to God with form and personality was gone. He dared even to say that the Jewish prophets didn't associate directly with and see God, the Absolute (because this is impossible), but associated just with a kind of shadow of God.

From that time Judaism changed its basis, in terms of Vaisnava philosophy, from basic Karma (religious actions motivated by punishment and reward) and its perfection in the form of Bhakti (practice of love of God), to practicing Karma (materially motivated religious activity)-for the simple, or less intelligent, and Jnana (philosophy and detachment)-for the intelligent, while considering Bhakti as sentimental manifestation of Karma and both are subordinated to Jnana. Just like the belief of the Mayavadis, or Shankara's impersonal school of India. All the scholars who came after him followed his new paradigm, alternating their explanations of Judaism between the two main Hellenistic schools of Plato and Aristotle.

The Rambam (Maimonides), the greatest medieval Jewish philosopher, for example, included in his famous book "the guide to the perplexed" the 26 philosophical points of Aristotle, utilizing them as the principle explanations of Judaism. Accepting Aristotle's philosophy as the truth, he indicated (in Sefer Hamada from Mishne Torah), in a very subtle way, that God is actually not the creator of the world[10]. He is the original existence that gives existence to the world.

Following this impersonal conclusion, and implementing it in explaining the bible and its rules (in his authoritative book Mishne Tora), Maimonides became the greatest exponent against Idolatry. He explained all the Jewish history as war against Deity worship, war against attributing human qualities to God. This became the motto of Judaism.

The Cabala, the Jewish mysticism, is claimed to be based on ancient Jewish literature and history. But the Academic scholars believe that the Cabala is mainly the product of Jewish scholars from the time of the Diaspora in Spain, who interpreted the ancient Jewish literature. The main Cabalistic book, the Zohar, was produced accordingly, during the 13th-14th century[11], sometime after the passing away of Maimonides (1135-1204). It is important to realize the time of the Zohar, since the Zohar constructs an idea of God which is a mixture of Jnana and Karma[12], idea that was foreign to Judaism before their contact with the Hellenistic schools. This is another indication how the Cabala's philosophy is an helenistic interpretation of the Jewish personalistic literature. The whole Cabalistic idea of God is based on the Neo Platonism-how the unlimited becomes limited (tzimtzum ha'eynsof). It is originally drawn from Agnosticism[13] and mixed with Neo Platonism.

In short, it seems that the Jewish people at the time of Rambam were left, after a long history of increasing distance from the living God of the Bible, with two conceptions of God-the original, personal God of the Bible, the One that answers their prayers, the God of their heart, and the philosophical, impersonal God, the "real" God according to the Jewish scholars. These two conceptions of God, one personal one impersonal, collided and fought with each other. A Jew is praying to God the person, but then he learns that the real God is not a person but an abstract idea, and therefore doesn't really hear his prayers. He is so impersonal, so beyond. Very frustrating. The people at that time wanted to overcome that duality and to return to the original, accessible God of the Bible. But they were already bound up to the philosophical concept of God, being obliged by a tradition of their greatest saints that embraced Helenistic philosophy for many hundreds of years. Beside this they were part of the western tradition of philosophy and theology (that included Christianity and Islam), which also became influenced by and based on Hellenistic philosophy.

The whole superstructure of the Cabala was invented in order to maintain the "real" philosophical God, but at the same time make Him again accessible, at least to the Cabalistic, mystical practitioners. Unfortunately, this God of the Cabala is a strange God; He is not a God that one submits to and loves. He is a God that the Cabalists, the Jewish mystics, controls and manipulates through their practices. That God is Controllable not by love, as in Vaisnava Theology, but by the power of magical/mystical practices of the Cabalists. He is magically controllable because ultimately He is not a person but a mental, philosophical construction; a transformation of the "unlimited" to a limited forms of energy and concepts. By manipulating, or "fixing God" (Tikun bameromim), the Cabalists believe that they are able to control the world destiny, and especially, the Jewish destiny and superiority over other nations.

God of the Cabala is a construction of two systems, of Jnana and Karma, where the Karma aspect is subordinated to the Jnana aspect.

The Hasidism is based on practical Cabala. Their conception of God is based again on the impersonal Hellenistic assumptions. In many aspects they are very close to Buddhism. The difference is that Buddhism doesn't make metaphysical claims, like for the existence of God, while the Hasidism do say that there is God, but consider Him to be something very close to the Buddhist's no God idea. Outwardly the Hassidics seem to practice Bhakti with their chanting and dancing. The reason is that their Tzaddikim, their saints, were acting as via media to the impersonal idea of God. In this way the simple Jews practiced their devotion toward their saints in a way that closely resemble what we call Bhakti.

Back to the original concept of God

From this analysis of Judaism it seems that originally Judaism was very close to the personal ideas of God of the Vaisnavism, or the monotheistic devotional school of India. Its premises of God and the spiritual practices were similar to the Vedic culture. But later, being apologetic to their surroundings and accepting the Hellenistic conception of God, Judaism became a mixture of two conflicting paradigms-the practice is personal, the philosophy is impersonal. Or in Vedic terms, Jnana covers Karma.

Originally, at the Bible time, Judaism was characterized by simple practice of religion with practically no metaphysical philosophy. Due to that lack of philosophy to back their personal understanding of God, their understanding of God may radically changed.

Bhakti Yoga is that personal philosophy that can counteract the Hellenistic impersonal assumptions of God that govern nowadays the western thinking, and can enable those Jews who desire so, by understanding its principles, to come back to their original understanding and relations with God-within the Bible boundaries.


[1]Creation implies someone who willed to create, who has desires, thinking power and feelings. It means also someone who has instruments to execute that will. Instruments may imply also form. The fact that the creation have form may indicate that the source of that form also has form, by the logic that one can give according to what he has.

[2]In both Biblical and Vedic traditions the creation starts from sound (As described in Yetzira book, one of the ancient mystical books of Judaism and the similar concept of VAC in the Vedas). But whereas the creator of man in the bible is attributed to the supreme lord, in the Vaisnava literature, the Srimad Bhagavatam, it is attributed to Lord Brahma, the local creator of this universe. For example, in the Bible God created the woman from the ribs of the man (Genesis 2:21-23). Similarly, in the 6th canto of Srimad Bhagavatam there is a similar description, but there it is attributed to Lord Brahma (6.18.30). It is said there that he created the woman form the better half of man's body. According to Srimad Bhagavatam, the main Vaisnava literature, Brahma is the first created being of this universe (each universe has his own Brahma), endowed with the potency to create the different species and planets on behalf of the Supreme Lord.

[3]It is interesting how two different medieval scholars related to the question of Jewish identity of being the chosen people. Maimonides said that Jews are the chosen people because they accept (or as long as they accept) the Torah, or the order of God, and Rabi Yehuda Halevi (Rihal) said that the Jews are the chosen people, therefore they received the Torah. Rihal considered the Jews to be chosen by their very birth in Jewish family. This concept of Rihal, which was meant to uplift the spirit of the Jewish at the time of the Jewish expulsion from Spain, is prominent nowadays.

Bhakti-loving relations with God. It is applied to both the process of developing the love, and the state of perfection of love of God.

[4] Bhakti-loving relations with God. It is applied to both the process of developing the love, and the state of perfection of love of God.

[5]The Jews avoid chanting directly the Holy names of God. They say the names in such a way as to spell them slightly different, fearing otherwise to offend God. This is in accord to one of the Ten Commandments which says that one should not chant the name of God for vain. Still, we see that the Bible do encourages the direct chanting of God's name as the best means to attain love of God. The Vaisnava's understanding is that chanting God's names out of love and for the sake of spiritual purification is most important for spiritual advancement. Chanting His names out of love is not in the offensive category.

[6]The only concept of life after death in the Bible comes from a dream of the seer Yehezkel (Halom Ha'atzamot Hayeveshot) who had a vision of the revival of the deads from their bones. Yehezkel grew up in Babylon, where this concept, attributed to Zoroastrian religion, was prevalent.

[7]There is in the Bible the concept of reward and punishment over generations. Sometimes the next generations are punished for the sins of the previous one, but it is not in terms of the law of Karma where the reactions to ones activitie and mentality are being carried from previous material existence to the next. It is interesting that the concept of reincarnation is being denied as non Jewish in the 9th century (Rasag denied it in his book ‘Sefer Emunot Vedeot'). As my professor (Josseph Dan) told me, reincarnation was first accepted as legitimate Jewish concept in Cabalistic book, "Sefer Habahir" at the 11th century in Spain, and developed very much at the 15th century, being integrated and adapted to Jewish philosophy by the Lurianic Cabala.

[8]One may detect earlier influences of the Greek invaders in the classical Jewish literature of Mishna and Gemara).

[9]The Gita says that the only way to know God is by love, or Bhakti. The task of Jnana, or reason and knowledge, is to assist that love by clearing the material impediments on the way to that love. In this way Jnana is subservient and assisting Bhakti. But when God becomes an object of mental speculation, in terms of analysis, generalization and abstraction, ones personal nature of God is necessarily lost. Jnana is assisted by renunciation, and renunciation is based on the absence of false ego. Many spiritual practitioners, in their crave to achieve impersonal understanding of God, take the assistance of Bhakti. They hope that Bhakti will assist them in giving up their ego, so that they will be able, through Jnana, to realize the impersonal nature of the Absolute. In this way Bhakti becomes subservient to Jnana.

[10] See Sefer Hamada (the science book) of Maimonides. If there is creation, as the bible say, there must be creator. A creator is a person. But the first assumption of Rambam, based on Aristotelian philosophy, is that God is not a person. He is something beyond and inconceivable. He is an impersonal Existence.

[11]Reference to this can be found in the book of Prof. Yeshaya Tishbi, "Mishnat Hazohar" (The teaching of the Zohar), and in different writings of Prof. Yehuda Libbes of the Hebrew university.

[12]The real God according to the Cabala is "Einsof"-a mental idea of something of no boundaries, no qualities, and of absolute oneness. One can speak about Him just by negation. That "Einsof" shrinks itself in an unexplainable way and becomes the 10 Sefirot, or 10 stages of the manifestation of God from the "Einsof". In this way the unlimited becomes gradually more condensed, more limited and conceivable. At that limited stage there is the manifestation of the so called personal God with attributes. So called, because these Sefirot are not real. They are only imagined to be real. The real God is only the unlimited without any attributes.

[13]The concept of Devil as opposing God, which is so prominent in the Zohar and the Cabala, is coming from that Agnostic belief. There is no mention of such a devil in the Bible.



מאמרים נוספים מאת גוּנָאוַתַר דָאס - ידע מעמיק

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