May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

A syncretistic Jew

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Herb Feith

My experience as a syncretistic Jew, or 'Yahudi abangan', has been an attempt to make my Judaic religion the starting point of learning to live religion in the plural. The term 'abangan' is borrowed from the Javanese, who use it to describe a 'syncretistic' understanding of Islam.

I was born in 1930 in the city of Vienna, in Austria. At that time about twenty percent of Vienna's population was Jewish. Political life in Vienna, and in Austria, was a contest between the Catholic Party and the Socialist Party, and almost all Jews supported the Socialists. In 1934 a big conflict erupted between the government of Austria, led by right-wing Catholics, and the Vienna city council led by Socialists. The Vienna city council was eventually crushed by military force.

You could say my parents were middle class. My father ran a small store selling bags; my mother was a nurse, helping a doctor who specialised in X-rays. Both were Jews but of a highly assimilated kind. My father said he was an agnostic in religious matters. My mother thought of herself as a believer in Judaism, but of a passive kind and she rarely went to the synagogue. But her mother, my maternal grandmother, was very pious and strict about religion. As long as she was alive, all the food in our home was always kosher, as the traditional Jewish dietary rules required.

My father and my grandmother had a very good personal relationship, but they always differed greatly in the area of religion. My grandmother forbade anyone to mention the name of God in my presence before I was six years old.

I became more aware of my Jewishness after Austria was occupied by the Germans in March 1938. We lived for a year under a Nazi government. I remember my parents were always talking together and with their friends about how to escape from Hitler's empire. They asked one another which country would give them a visa so that they could go there. My father spoke fluent English because he had lived in England for a year during World War I. Our family friends often asked him to write their letters for them applying to various countries for refugee status.

In March 1939 the three of us succeeded in leaving Austria behind. We went by train to Belgium, via Germany. I remember very clearly how relieved we all felt once we crossed the German-Belgian border. My parents gave thanks in a thousand languages! They often reminded me of the Jewish story, celebrated every year at Passover, about how God liberated the Jews and brought them out of slavery in Egypt led by the Prophet Moses.

We arrived in Australia in May 1939, in Melbourne. Not longer after that my mother began to attend a liberal synagogue, and I joined her. Besides synagogue on Saturdays I also attended Sunday school on Sunday mornings. My mother became more pious than she had been in Vienna. She said Hitler had turned her back into a Jew. One thing I remember clearly is how she sang the cantor in the synagogue service. She was a well-known cantor, indeed very well known in Germany before we emigrated to Australia. I recall so well the call she sang out every Saturday, the prayer called Shema, which we might call the Jewish syahadat. 'Hear O Israel, for the Lord our God is one God (Shema Yisrael Adonoi Elouhenu Adonoi Ekhod). I will sing it for you [Herb then sang it very expressively].


When I was 13 I took my Bar Mitzvah rite and had to read the Torah in Hebrew before the synagogue congregation. This meant I had been accepted as an adult Jew. After that I became a teacher in the Sunday school. But that only lasted two years. When I was 15 I began to leave the religious community.

At the time I was reading various books that turned me into a humanist. I began to think of Judaism as an obstacle. Maybe I was bored, and there was some rebellion, but I called myself a socialist and an internationalist. And I was annoyed with the Jewish insistence that we should only have Jewish girlfriends or boyfriends. They were very afraid of what they called 'marrying out'!

In 1947 I fell in love with Betty Evans, and six years later she became my wife. She was a socialist too, as well as an enthusiastic Christian, in fact a Methodist. We were students together at Melbourne University, and she brought me along to join the Student Christian Movement. For three years I was very much under the influence of that movement, which maintained a high intellectual standard. Besides the intellectual quality I was impressed by the moral seriousness of its members, who were often interested in issues of social and international justice. I was most impressed with theologians like Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr. One thing that attracted me was the admiration SCM leaders had for Gandhi.

In 1951 I began work in Jakarta, as an assistant for English at the Ministry of Information. There I had a lot of contact with the Indonesian Student Christian Movement GMKI, and with some Dutch and Swiss clergy who were teaching at the theological college.

Why did I distance myself from the Jewish religion? In practical terms it was because I wanted to marry Betty. But the decision also had to do with certain beliefs:

- the problem of 'marrying out', and the need for 'group survival'

- the Jews as the chosen people, and exclusivism - Zionism

- an aggressive Israeli state nationalism, and the pressure on Jews in the diaspora to actively support it

My admiration for Gandhi, especially for his universalism, was important to me. And poverty in Asian countries was a moral challenge. For me the sufferings in the Third World (and especially in Indonesia) became far more important than things said in the synagogue sermons when I went there. My friends who remained devoted to the Judaic religion seemed to have no interest in those Third World problems. Or if they did they were rather against the so-called Third World countries - because most of those countries sided with Palestine against Israel.

In Australia, as in America, the Jewish community grew increasingly affluent. Far more affluent than they had been forty years earlier, and with a tendency towards conservatism.

I was often cross with the arguments put forward by the defenders of the Israeli state in Australia, especially the use of the Holocaust for propaganda purposes. It seemed as if they needed to claim that this particular genocide was unique, more terrible than any other genocide.


So what is left of my identity as a Jew? I worship more often in a church than in a synagogue. Not many of the books on religion I read are written by Judaists. But I was never baptised. So I am still a Jew. But I like to call myself 'Yahudi abangan', a syncretistic Jew, in the manner of 'Islam abangan', the 'syncretistic' Javanese Islam. I am attracted by the possibility of attaching myself to more than one religious tradition. That is something we could say is especially Asian (South Asian, East Asian, Southeast Asian - not West Asian).

Gandhi said, I am a Hindu, and a Muslim, and a Christian, and a Sikh, and a Parsi, and a Jew. Sukarno spoke of himself as an adherent of nationalism, Islam and Marxism. I have been much influenced by the thought of Soedjatmoko.

Arnold Toynbee, a famous English historian, once predicted that historians of the future quite possibly will say the special feature that is most important about this twentieth century is not the atomic bomb or the concentration camp, but the first intensive encounter between the Christian and Buddhist religions.

In Indonesia today many people are unhappy with the word abangan, or syncretism. But I am attracted by its basic proposition, which is that we can learn from various religious traditions.

I appreciate the attitude of many Christians, Jews, and Muslims that we should first study our own religions more deeply before engaging in dialogue with other believers. But I do not like it when they condemn syncretism as something inconsistent with true religion. That tends towards exclusivism.

For me the purpose of dialogue between believers from religion A and religion B should be to learn. Not just to work together to face a third party. Not just to avoid the danger of conflict. Nor just to add to our knowledge of another group. The more important thing is to deepen our faith and enrich each of our spiritualities.

I am very grateful that the last thirty or forty years many Westerners have allowed themselves to learn from Eastern religious traditions. Some of them are Christians, some Jews, and some belong to the Jewish nation but no longer practice the religion.

I was inspired by the writings of an American Jew whose name used to be Richard Alpert and is now Baba Ram Dass. I was also attracted by a book entitled The Jew in the lotus, which told of the visit of a group of Western Jews to the Dalai Lama in India. The American Jewish novelist Chaim Potok discusses a similar theme. And I love Charles Durack on 'cultivating oneness', in the American Jewish magazine Tikkun.

I have to confess I have never attempted to study the mystical traditions of the Jewish religion. If I did, quite likely I would find there things that could equally enrich my spiritual life. But for me that is not the only possibility.

Herb Feith gave this talk at the Interfidei institute for inter-religious dialogue in Yogyakarta, 29 November 1998. Thanks to Samsuri.

Inside Indonesia 70: Apr - Jun 2002

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