Judaism: Jews in India

Defining Features: Jews in India, as elsewhere, believe in only one God. However, the term "Jewish" had double significance: 1) A particular ethnic group, specifically members of the tribes of Benjamin and Judah, out of the original Twelve Tribes of Israel, or 2) Participation in Jewish religious life. Although the Jewish philosopher Maimonides articulated the tenets of Jewish orthodoxy in the 12th century, there is no one particular set of beliefs one must adhere to in order to be Jewish (since not all Jews are orthodox).

That said, Jewish orthodox beliefs deal largely with interpersonal relationships and the person and character of God. These include that:

  • God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent
  • God alone should be worshipped
  • God is a spirit
  • He is the creator and source of life

However, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that Judaism traditionally places a great deal of emphasis on adherence to Judaic law, which is far more extensive than the initial Ten Commandments. A person must keep the law and commandments in order to earn salvation (meaning it's a faith largely rooted in good deeds) and repent when s/he has failed to do so. But what a person does is considered to be more important than what they believe.

Sacred Books:

  • The Talmud (composed mainly of the Mishnah, a collection of Jewish legal opinions and debates, and the Gemara, the subsequent legal analysis)
  • The Tanakh / Old Testament
  • The Torah (the Five Books of Moses at the beginning of the Tanakh: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy)

Founder: No human founder. The bond between God and man existed in the beginning. The sacred covenant between God (Yahweh) and the man Abraham and his descendants marked the genesis of the seed-nation of Israel and, thus, the Jewish people.

Where: Mesopotamia, specifically "Ur of the Chaldees"

When: Undefined (the covenant with Abraham occurred around 1300 BC)

Arrived in India: Debatable. There was more than one wave of Jewish immigration into more than one area, none of which have a well-defined history. However, it is likely that the earliest group of Jews in India arrived on the west coast of India sometime before the completion of the Second Temple in the 2nd century BC. It is believed these Bene Israel were early arrivals because they did not know anything about Hanukkah, which was a festival added in to celebrate the rededication of the Second Temple in the time of the Maccabees. Another theory, however, is that the Bene Israel originate not with the tribe of Judah or Benjamin (that is, the "Jewish" tribes), but from one of the other Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, possibly Asher or Zebulun (which have oil pressers).

Divisions of Jews in India: Primary groups of Jews in India include the Bene Israel, Cochin Jews (also called Malabar Jews), and European Jews. Smaller groups include the Ashkenazi Jews (a European sect), Baghdad Jews, and Manipur Jews.

Jewish Holidays: Standard Jewish holidays receive a comprehensive treatment on the Religion Facts site, but I'll be adding an Indian-specific segment of this in the future. One holiday that is Indian in origin is Malida.

Malida is a thanksgiving ceremony for Bene Israel Jews in India, in which prayers and praise are offered by men at home as they sit around a plate of fruit, roasted rice, spices, and flowers. It recognizes the Prophet Elijah as a forerunner of the Messiah and also commemorates their own Elijah legends, which they believe tells of two separate visits Elijah has made to them: one in the beginning, when they were shipwrecked off shore and he revived them; the other much later, when he is said to have left a footprint at a village called Khandala.

Even traditional Jewish holidays take on a unique character on the subcontinent. For instance, Indian Rosh Hashanah may include curries and halwa and other Indian varieties of the traditional components of the sacred meal.

Where Do Jews Fit in Indian Culture and Caste System?

Despite their position outside the Hindu caste system, which would technically make them "untouchable," Indian Jews have not experienced the same level of persecution as encountered elsewhere, including Europe. Rather, they traditionally have often been categorized according to the caste they would have been in, had they been Hindu -- that is, according to their occupation within the community.

Interestingly, that has led to the Bene Israel of the west as being grouped largely with Sudras (the laborer caste, or varna) due to their long-standing occupation as oil pressers. Meanwhile, Cochin Jews in the south were often treated as Vaishyas, a slightly higher caste, because they were merchants, and who at one time administered their own principality.

Yet even within these larger groupings comes a grading based on ethnicity. It is unclear whether this not-so-subtle form of discrimination is due to prejudice in favor of those presumed to descent directly from one of the tribes of Israel, or if it is solely based on color, favoring the light-skinned here as in other facets of Indian culture -- perhaps a combination of the two.

In any case, the color-based subgrouping exists and may be broken out as follows:

  • Bene Israel: Gora, or white (both parents Jewish); and Kala, or black (father Jewish, mother not). The two groups do not intermarry, and although they worshipped together at some point in the past, Kalas did not have all the same privileges as Goras and could not blow the shofar.
  • Cochin Jews: Meyuhassim', or black (also called "Privileged"); and Pardesi, or white (mainly of foreign descent, as from Syria, Egypt, Germany, Spain, Iran). Again, the white Pardesis are sometimes considered superior to the black Meyuhassim'. There is also an additional subgrouping, called Meshuhararim, comprised of former slaves or their descendants.

Interestingly, Indian Jews are still not a government-recognised minority, despite years of campaigning to that end.

Traditional Jewish Rites in India

Adherence to religious tradition varies from group to group, but generally, baby boys are circumcised on the eighth day after birth, according to Jewish tradition. Individuals largely follow basic Jewish dietary laws, abstaining from pork and sometimes even abstaining from beef, which is a carryover from mainstream Hindu culture.

Marriage for Jews in India also merges traditional religious custom with that of the surrounding culture. For instance, marriage partners are still frequently agreed upon between the bride's and groom's fathers via professional matchmakers. However, the Hebrew betrothal precedes the wedding itself. The Jewish Encyclopedia contains a detailed article regarding the customs of Cochin Jews in this regard, including what happens at weddings, births, etc., including disposition of the dowry.

Remarriage of widows and of levirate marriage (in which a wife marries the dead husband's younger brother) do not take place generally, but rather follow Hindu custom.

Modern Indian Jews

In the 1950s, following the rebirth of Israel as a nation, many Indian Jews immigrated to Israel to join in the larger community of Judaic culture. Others left India for other far shores. The modern community is small but vibrant. There are currently about 5,000 Jews in India. Most of them live in or near Thana, a suburb of Mumbai.

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