Is Hinduism Idol Worship?

Rabbi Gil Student writes:

Avodah Zarah is loosely translated as idolatry or polytheism. I don’t know much about Hinduism but as I read Dr. Nathan Katz‘s memoirs of his journey from studying Hinduism to becoming an Orthodox Jew, I was surprised by some of his comments. He suggests a few times that perhaps Hinduism is not avodah zarah. He is not an authority on Judaism but most Jewish scholars do not know about Hinduism with the same depth that he, a professor of the subject, does.

He writes in his book, Spiritual Journey Home: Eastern Mysticism to the Western Wall:

The question of one God versus many gods confounds every westerner who approaches Hinduism. On the apparent level, Hinduism has many gods who are depicted by murtis, statues or idols. Idolatry, of course, is not only condemned in the Biblical second commandment, it even contradicts the much less doctrinaire seven Noahide commandments that are said to be obligatory for all descendants of Noah, which is to say everyone.

Yet when the swami speaks of God as the Light, beyond all form and distinctions, this apparent level of understanding is put into question. And the more one delves into the philosophies underlying Hindu practice, the more the apparent level is exposed as a mere comic book version of a profound and serious theology. At the same time, some of the practices of Hinduism cannot be affirmed from a Jewish standpoint. (p. 42)

Most of us think of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the three western monotheisms, as though monotheism never existed in India. Some politely refer to them as the three Abrahamic faiths, as Abraham is taken to be their father, either in a literal or a spiritualized sense. These western religions are assumed to be distinct from "eastern religions," which are characterized by a cyclic view of history and multiple deities. Indeed, that is one way to make a general distinction. But it is not the only way, as I tell my students… (p. 46)

For an observant Jew, participation in this sort of dialogue raises issues of avodah zarah, a derogatory term meaning "other people’s worship," something to be avoided at all costs by observant Jews. Is Tibetan Buddhism avodah zarah, or is it another name of God?… Yet, the question is not simple. Ample halakhic authorities, from Sa’adia Gaon to Maimonides, sometimes held accommodating views regarding other religions. Somehow this liberal thread has receded into the background, and more rigid views have come to the fore. The texts do not hold a monolithic view… (pp. 114-115)


The chief rabbinate already declared it not avodah zarah.


or…? id=20070211001

Their respective Traditions teach that there is One Supreme Being who is the Ultimate Reality, who has created this world in its blessed diversity and who has communicated Divine ways of action for humanity, for different peoples in different times and places.

The representatives of the two faith communities recognize the need for understanding one another in terms of lifestyles, philosophy, religious symbols, culture, etc.

Look at the 2nd Summit…adership- Summit

See the second affirmation

2. It is recognized that the One Supreme Being, both in its formless and manifest aspects, has been worshipped by Hindus over the millennia. This does not mean that Hindus worship ‘gods’ and idols’. The Hindu relates to only the One Supreme Being when he/she prays to a particular manifestation.

JOE POSTS: I’ve traveled in Asia, and I believe that if Hinduism is not Avodah Zarah then there is no AZ and there never has been. You’ve got lots of statues of gods, and people offering food to them and dressing them and doing I don’t know what else. I don’t claim to know much about Hindu theology but you clearly see people praying to god X for one thing and god Y for another thing. I don’t see why the opinions of some Hindu intellectuals should obviate the clear practice of the general public. There were Greek philosophers who also believed in one transcendent deity: did this make their religion kosher?

NACHUM LAMM POSTS: Gil, a very important distinction here is between what the Hindu priests (or, as a friend of ours who knows far more of this subject than we do puts it, "the modern orthodox Hindu intellectual") knows to be true about their religion and what the hamon am believe. But then again, I imagine many Christians have an imperfect view of their religion as well. Jews too, come to think. I wonder what halakha says about that.

Another distinction that must be made is between monotheism and pantheism (or panentheism), which is what Hinduism really is. I.e., one god, but he’s everything.

A final point that must be made is that there’s no single authority in Hinduism; in fact, there is no "religion" called "Hinduism." Hinduism is, essentially, the wide range of beliefs of the peoples of India. In fact, the Indian government doesn’t even distinguish between Hinduism and related but distinct religions such as Sikhism (clearly monotheist, by the way), Jainism, and Buddhism (which need not even have a god, and often "borrows" one or more).

JOSEPH POSTS: The Rambam (Machalos Asuros 11) writes that the Christians are plain idol worshippers.

The Noda B’Yehuda writes (YD 148) that it is a common mistake to think that Goyim are not commanded against schituf. The reality is they are. The error, he says, comes from a Rama that says you are allowed to cause a non-Jew to swear to his god, since he is not swearing to an idol but just adding his idol to Hashem, meaning schituf.

But the NB"Y points out that all this means is that the Goy does NOT declare the idol to be a deity in the oath, but the belief itself that a deity shares power with G-d is really idolatry. Only the oath is permitted, since it does not express his real belief.

Other poskim concur with the Noda Beyehuda.

And although there are some poskim who do hold that Goyim are not commanded against schituf, but it doesn’t make a difference anyway, because that only means that the Goyim are not sinning for being idol worshipers, which is between them and Hashem, but as far as we are concerned, we are commanded against schituf, and that makes them idol worshippers to us (Responsa Binyan Tzion I:63).

ILANA POSTS: I agree with the distinction several posters have made already – deep Hindu philosophy, which emphasizes an absolute unity (as Nachum Lamm says – panentheism)- is not necessarily accessible to a majority of Hindus. I suspect that in rural villages, slums, etc., worship of the various deities and images is p’shuto k’mashma’o idolatry. Rambam explains that avodah zarah was originally a corruption of avodat Hashem, and that its practitioners eventually lost awareness of the One G-d and worshipped only the lesser pantheon. I would not be surprised if many practicing Hindus are on that level.

I don’t think that ANY actual avodah zarah is quite as simplistic and stupid as what is portrayed in the Tanach (eynaim lahem v’lo yiru etc.) The intention of the nevi’im was to ridicule AZ, not to present a balanced picture. But the fact that actual AZ is more philosophically sophisticated than this caricature does not mean it isn’t avodah zarah.

Connecting to the divine through an idol (I think this is called darshan?) is a central element of Hindu practice. Whatever the theology behind it, it seems to me that this should be at least as forbidden as the golden calf.

ETAN POSTS: Nowadays avoda zara does not really exist. This is because in order for a person to be an idol worshipper he/she has to really believe in the power of that god. Nowadays, it is very rare to find a Jew that is 100% certain of G-D’s power. I mean, how many people have you ever met that sincerely believe that Moshiach is coming tomorrow and have made preparations?

The Idol must be given its status by a person that truly believes it has power. Like the Egyptians believed that the Sun could actually cause things. Nowadays, it is much more common for someone to believe in No god than any god or G-D.

Since it is so rare for anyone this day and age to believe in an idols power to cause anything, like rain, there can’t be any real avoda zara. Also, the Gemorah in Yuma even talks about how the desire for man to worship idols was taken away.

NACHUM LAMM POSTS: I’m remembering a story R’ Norman Lamm once told: He was sent to India in the 1950’s or ’60’s as part of an OU delegation to bolster the Jewish community there. He discovered something troubling: It was common practice for Indian Jewish women, at the same time as they lit candles Friday night, to make an offering to a small idol they had alongside it. (Syncreticism is very common in South and Southeast Asia, by the way.)

He shared his dilemma with us: On the one hand, this is as avoda zara as it gets. On the other- and yes, there is another- they had been doing this for hundreds, even thousands, of years. A bunch of modern rabbis from the US weren’t going to come in and just tell them to stop. So they had to think of a more nuanced approach which, of course, would stop the practice.

(The larger point, of course, was that nuanced approaches may be neccessary even in the most extreme cases.)

However, this leads me to another issue: If we say that the beliefs of the hamon am of Hindus- as opposed to the clergy- matters- and I think it does- where does it end? Do we say the same of Christians or Muslims? Do we say the same about Jews who, essentially, daven to angels or to a rebbe? (And I’m not even thinking about some of the more extreme streams of thought in Chabad today.)

In addition, if we take Joseph’s point- that the (father) god of Christians cannot be the Jewish one- how far does that go? Can’t we say, with even more justification, that Allah is not Hashem? Do we require, perhaps based on the Rambam’s idea of Chasidei Umot HaOlam, that it’s either pure Noahidism or nothing?

Isaac Balbin: Which "simple Hindus" have told you this? I think where they live, for example (say, in a monotheist country like the US) would be important.

Ilana Elzufon: I’m not saying you’re wrong, but there’s certainly avoda zara in this world that matches a more simplistic view (even if no one actually believes that a block of wood has power). Primitive religions today, and certainly back then, for example. And it seems that ancient Greeks, at least until a certain point, literally believed in anthropomorphic beings who lived on Mount Olympus and came down to make trouble every now and then. Some historians think it was a form of mass (or reinforcing) psychosis that was somewhat common back then and doesn’t really exist now.

In any event, I strongly agree with Gil. One thing that troubled me in the whole wig fiasco (well, a lot troubled me, but still) was that there wasn’t much attempt to understand theology, just practice- if that.

SIMCHA POSTS: An earlier comment by Norman Lamm is on the mark – Hinduism is truly a family of religions. There are Vaishnavas and Shaivas. Within Vaishnavism there are Sri Vaishnavas and Gaudiya Vaishnavas. Within Sri Vaishnavism there are tankalai and vadakalai. This is just scratching the surface. All have differing practices and differing beliefs. The true sadhu meditating on the Ganga will practice his Hinduism differently than the brahmin priest in Sri Rangam. It is just too simplistic to say "Hinduism is ….". After much study and time in India – I can only say that the spirituality and the consciousness of the reality and presence of G-d in the life of even the most simple Hindu believer is amazing – and there is much which Jews and orthodox Hindus share in common and which we can learn from each other.

MICHA POSTS: I work in technology on Wall Street. To give you an idea of the culture, in some firms it is quipped that the way you can tell who is a Russian Jew in our department is to see who doesn’t look Indian. (Obviously an exaggeration, I’m neither.) So over the past 2 decades in the industry, I’ve talked religion with a number of Hindus.

First, there is no one Hindu party line. Personal belief is valued, and therefore the most one can speak about is a range of typical beliefs. That said…

What the book teaches is that there is one Deity. However, they consider that Deity so incomprehensible, it’s impossible to relate to it. Instead, it appears to man that there are 3.1 million gods. Each god, though, is really just one human perception of the same underlying single deity.

I mention this, despite Gil asking we not get into Hindu theology, to show the contrast to Catholocism as understood by Tosafos. It’s not "three [million] persons in one godhead", it’s one godhead that only looks like millions of persons. I think there are numerous Protestant churches that understand trinity this way, but that’s not what Tosafos was talking about.

In trying to apply halakhah to that, there are bits I don’t know:

1- The monotheism is submerged by the
notion that it’s impossible to relate to the One Deity. It therefore remains an intellectual concept and plays no role in worship.

What does that mean halachically?

Is it like the Rambam’s description of dor Enosh, who worshipped the entourage of the King and only later generations forgot the King? Or is it close enough to the notion of pirtzufim to be within Noachide law?

2- It’s quite likely that the man on the Indian street doesn’t know what the book says. He’s following the religion culturally.

Which version of the religion do we assess?

This came up with the Indian hair wig issue. The theory taught at the temple is that the petitioner is forsaking hair because it’s about beauty and physicality. However, they found that many of the people coming to the temple thought they were sacrificing their hair to the god — taqroves avodah zarah, which vould render the goods prohibited.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
This entry was posted in Hinduism, Judaism and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.