Reckoning at Nariman House
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Reckoning at Nariman House

Looking back at the horror at Mumbai's Chabad house, finding hope in its rededication

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The author, at right, wearing a brown shirt, stands next to Rabbi Nachman Holtzberg, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg’s father, at the inauguration of the new shul at Nariman House in Mumbai. Chabad.org

The last time I visited Nariman House – Beit Chabad in Mumbai was in 2009, less than a year after the horrific terrorist attack there.

I had been on my annual visit to India, but I was not sure whether I wanted to see Nariman House again. In 2008, my daughter and I spent a Shabbat at Chabad-Nariman House with Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, whom everybody seemed to call Gabby, and his wife, Rivka. My memories of the house were very positive. I had particularly strong memories of Gabby’s pleasant nature and openness. Still, when some acquaintances at the Indian Express asked to go back to Nariman House, I had mixed feelings.

Until that point, I had only audio memories of that night, when I acted as an interpreter to another Chabad rabbi, speaking to one of the terrorists by phone in an unsuccessful attempt to save the Jewish victims. This visit, however, was much a more real and vivid testimony to the events of Thanksgiving Day, 2008. I noted the bullet holes on the walls of Nariman House, along with the message painted in Hindi and English by the Hindu and Muslim neighbors: “We condemn the terrorist attacks of 26-11-2008.” Over time, there were fewer and fewer newspaper reports, and the memories faded from my immediate consciousness. Still, as a Jew and as an Indian, and as somebody with a close connection to the terrorist attack, I could not forget it entirely.

Last month, though, five years after my last visit, I had a much more hopeful and serendipitous encounter with Nariman House. I was in Mumbai to work with Gabriel Project Mumbai, an NGO founded by an Israeli, Jacob Sztokman, who is involved in the issues of education and hunger in the Mumbai slums. Unbeknownst to me, Jacob had arranged for me to go to Nariman House for its grand opening. So that Tuesday, August 25, I found myself at the chanukas habayis – opening ceremony – for the new Beit Chabad.

Rabbi Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, Chabad’s education wing, began by noting that Chabad was not looking for vengeance. The initials h”yd, which stand for “Hashem yikkom damam”- “may God avenge their blood” – are added to Rabbi and Rebbetzin Holtzberg’s names, but Rabbi Kotlarsky made it clear that the business of vengeance would be left to God.

“We are not fighting the darkness with an AK-47,” he said. “Our way to get rid of the darkness is by adding more light.” What I would like to talk about here is the particular kind of light that I believe Chabad hopes to add in India.

I am not privy to Chabad’s decisions and intentions, but words and actions reflect intentionality. It is that intentionality that I will try to decipher. Speaking from the podium that afternoon, Rabbi Kotlarsky said: “For reasons we will never know and never fathom, six pious people, along with 158 others, were torn from our grasp in the most barbaric and inhuman of ways.” Not just six pious people, but also 158 other human beings – Muslims, Christians, and Hindus. After the events of November 26, Jews talked almost exclusively of the six Jews murdered in Mumbai. As a Jew, I understood their personal concerns, but as an Indian and as a human being, I couldn’t understand the lack of acknowledgment of the greater Indian tragedy. So when Rabbi Kotlarsky referred to the 158 innocent others who were killed at the same time in Mumbai, it struck a chord with me.

I don’t believe Chabad ever meant to minimize the importance of the Indian victims, but there may have been a certain lack of awareness of Indian sentiment. The outpouring of support for Chabad and for Israel in India in the years following November 26, 2008, certainly must have made Chabad more aware of the Indian context of the terror attacks. The importance that Indians place on what happened at Nariman House can be seen in Indian media’s coverage of the reopening of Nariman House. All the major papers covered the incident, not just in their Mumbai city pages, but as national news; and not just English language media, but also vernacular newspapers like Loksatta (Marathi) and Navbharat Times (Hindi).

This, however, is not the only expression of Chabad universality that was evident as Mumbai’s Chabad house reopened. The second and perhaps more important was the presentation, at a dinner reception later that evening, of plans for a museum at the Nariman House site. Only three floors of the six floors of Nariman House Chabad Center are ready now. There is a mikvah at the entrance level of the building, there is an industrial kitchen on the first floor, and there are plans to open a restaurant where the synagogue and offices are, on the third floor. The fourth, fifth, and sixth floors have been kept as they were left, devastated by the ravages of the terrorists and the local security forces, with gunshots and wreckage everywhere. Chabad plans to open a museum on these floors.

While the lower floors will be used to fulfill the primary mission of Chabad houses everywhere, it is on the upper floors that Chabad Mumbai will try to accomplish a mission that I believe is unique to this Chabad house. The focus of this museum will be the sheva mitsves bnei noyekh – the seven commandments that the Jewish tradition teaches us are directed to all of humanity.

The culmination of the reception later that night was the presentation about the museum. In a sense, the museum was the evening’s main attraction. Rabbi Kotlarsky introduced a young New York museum designer, Nick Appelbaum, and a young Chabad rabbi, Moshe Gourarie of Toms River, to talk about the museum. Rabbi Gourarie was introduced as the person charged with ensuring that the museum would reflect the teachings of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, the last Lubavitcher rebbe.

You could have expected Rabbi Gourarie to have been a grizzled veteran of the Chabad movement, well-versed in the writings of the Lubavitcher rebbe. Certainly I did. I am sure that Rabbi Gourarie is well-versed in the rebbe’s literary output, but his relative youth suggests that his interpretation of the rebbe’s message will be a novel one, likely to reflect a more global outlook.

While it is well-known that the late Lubavitcher rebbe introduced a stunningly successful outreach mission to unaffiliated and even disenchanted Jews around the world, it is less well-known that in stark contrast to most chasidic leaders, Rabbi Schneerson made it a point to address non-Jews as well as Jews in his speeches and national television broadcasts. And the basis of his reaching out to non-Jews was the dissemination of the seven universal commandments, the sheva mitsves bnei noyekh.

So although the museum’s theme most likely is unprecedented in Chabad houses, it is connected to the Lubavitcher rebbe. And I believe that this theme is very appropriate to India. The reason that people from all over the world – and particularly from the West – flock to India for spiritual succor is Hinduism’s universal focus. God or the Divine in Hinduism is unconnected to any specific Indian history and is characterized by an unpartitionable unity of essence.

A few days ago, I saw the message “Hum Sab ka Bhagwan Ek” on an autorickshaw in Mumbai. It is a Hindi phrase that can be translated in a couple of ways. One is that the God of all religions is the same; the other is that our God is One. Both interpretations are appropriate and emphasize the universality of the Indian understanding of God. Thus, answers to the nature of the Divine are much more accessible in Hinduism than in other traditions, which are more characterized by prohibitions on deep inquiries. Judaism, however, especially in its rabbinic form, has developed a valuable system of laws for the organization of society, the likes of which is lacking in Hinduism.

Such an assertion might seem to be ridiculous, given the existence of numerous dharma shastras – codes of conduct – that lay down the rules for various aspects of human life, such as commerce, food, purity, marriage, and so on. However, these codes do not include the intricate binding of the divine with the mundane that you find in the Gemara. In contrast, the talmudic exposition involves not just the application of laws to daily life, but more importantly, the linking of these laws with overarching ethical principles, such as “Love your neighbor as thyself,” “Do not do unto others what is hateful to you,” “Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow.” and others.

In addition, compared to the Jewish system of halacha (and to a lesser extent, Islamic Sharia), Hinduism has been a lot less successful in developing a system that can respond to external shocks and that can renew itself in response to new environmental demands. While the seven universal commandments in Judaism are separate from the 613 (and more) commandments to Jews, the presentation of these seven commandments will invite Hindu and Indian attention to the importance of linking the moral organization of society with the spiritual.

By no means am I claiming that Indians or Hindus are immoral. We are brought up to live moral lives. We are told we should not steal, kill, or lie, that we should care for the weak, give charity, and so on and so forth. However, the concern for the stranger, which is so pronounced in the Jewish Bible, is a relatively recent phenomenon in sectarian India.

I believe that while India can and does teach Jews and the world about the Divine, Jews can teach India about the moral and social implications of belief in the Divine.

The seven universal commandments in the Jewish system consist of six prohibitions – against inappropriate worship of God, murder, theft, sexual immorality, blasphemy, and the eating of flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive. There is also a positive commandment – to maintain a system of laws to provide justice. Here we see two commandments – inappropriate worship and blasphemy – relating primarily to the divine, while the other five pertain primarily to social order. This revolutionary juxtaposition of the divine and the social, and the relative importance given to the social over the divine, are two aspects of the seven universal Jewish commandments that will cause the Indian to stop and take notice.

On the other hand, the lack of particularistic commandments foreign to Indian culture also may take Indians by surprise. There is no requirement to believe in any particular manifestation of the divine; in fact, there are almost no creedal requirements at all. This is in contrast to Christianity, with its emphasis on Jesus, and Islam, with its emphasis on Muhammad. From the conceptual point of view, most Indians lump Judaism along with Christianity; from the visual point of view, especially of late, Judaism is represented in Indian minds by men with beards wearing black coats and hats. This presentation of the sevenfold nature of the universal about Jewish tradition will go a long way to correct Indian misunderstandings of Judaism.

The inauguration of the new Nariman House – Chabad Centre in Mumbai represents an important stage in the development of Jewish-Indian relations. On the one hand, it represents a more open and friendly Chabad approach to Indians and Indian culture; on the other, the new museum will provide a point of view that will complement and help uplift Indians’ world view.

Meylekh Viswanath of Teaneck is an Indian Jew who teaches finance at Pace University. As part of his research, he investigates economic issues in the Talmud. In addition to believing that the God of the Jews is God of all the world and has a special relationship with every human being, he also believes strongly in the importance of the diaspora and of diaspora communities for the continued strength of the Jewish people and the Jewish nation

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