Visiting Noah’s Children in Vizag, India

Editor’s Note: Meylekh (PV) Viswanath is an Indian Jew who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey and teaches Finance at Pace University in New York City. He is currently on sabbatical in India, where–in addition to a project on tribal livelihoods in Odisha state in Eastern India–he has also made time to visit the Bene Israel community in Mumbai for Passover as well as attend a Bnei Ephraim community wedding in Andhra Pradesh in South India. He is also working on a project to use economic analysis to understand early medieval Buddhist monastic practices.

Ravi Obadiah introducing Meylekh to the Bnei Noah congregation on Friday night (Photo by Meylekh Viswanath)
Ravi Obadiah introducing Meylekh to the Bnei Noah congregation on Friday night (Photo courtesy of Meylekh Viswanath)

In this article, Meylekh Viswanath presents a picture of his encounter with a Noahide community in India.

Noahidism is a growing world-wide phenomenon in which its adherents are usually of Christian background and they try to take on the role that Biblical and Rabbinic Judaism assign to gentiles. They consider themselves in relationship with the God of Israel through the seven laws specified in the covenant between Noah, representing all humanity, and the God of Israel.

Getting to Visakhapatnam, or Vizag Just before the end of the 2016 secular year as I was preparing to leave for Israel en route to India, I got an unexpected message from the rabbi of our local synagogue. He was forwarding to me a message that he’d got from a rabbinic bulletin board, posted by a Rabbi Shlomo Grafstein. The gist of the message was that Rabbi Grafstein had just spent a few days teaching a congregation of Bnei Noah, that they were very dedicated and needed authentic translations of Tanakh, the Jewish bible. I wrote back to my rabbi, agreeing to take a copy of the Artscroll translation which was the only thing that I could find at short notice. I had been given the mailing address for the leader of the congregation, Ravi Obadiah, but no email address or phone number.

However, I wrote Rabbi Grafstein and was able to get Ravi’s email contact information. After a few weeks in India, when I had settled my immediate affairs in order, I thought to contact Ravi. I sent him an email and the very next day, I received a phone message from him inviting me to visit them.

I did know of the existence of Judaizing communities in Andhra Pradesh (an Indian state immediately south of Odisha, where I am currently conducting research on market access and tribal poverty), groups that call themselves Bnei Ephraim, and I had even heard of a Bnei Noah community from my good friend from Mumbai’s Bene Israel community, Sharon Garsulkar, but I knew next to nothing about them. All I knew about Bnei Noah was what I had read in the Talmud, but of modern Noahide groups, I knew next to nothing.

I wasn’t even sure how I would communicate with them, given that I spoke no Telugu, which is the local language in Andhra Pradesh, and I wasn’t sure whether the Bnei Noah spoke any Hindi or English. During my initial conversation, though, I discovered that Ravi’s family actually came from Tamil Nadu. This meant that there would be at least one person with whom I could speak in an Indian language, Tamil.

We decided that I would go to Visakhapatnam, a middling city with a population of more than 2 million souls, located on the eastern coast of India, about 500 miles southwest of Kolkata, and about the same distance northeast of Chennai.

From Bhubaneshwar, I would take a train on a Thursday evening, towards the end of the month of Tevet, arriving after 10pm in Visakhapatnam or Vizag, as it is also known.

I arrived in Vizag station, where I was met by Obadiah and another member of his congregation who bundled us into an autorickshaw, and off we sped to his house in a part of old Vizag. He made sure that I was not hungry, gave me some water to drink and we settled down to exchange information and chat. Vizag being on the coast and hence hot and humid, we also turned on the fan (it was about 87°F in the middle of the night).

Little did I know that we would be chatting until 3:45 in the morning! About 5 hours of intense conversation! We started off with some uncertain exchange of information, uncertain mostly on my part because I had no inkling of what this Bnei Noah community did or believed in. But Obadiah had no hesitation and plunged into conversation, listening to my story about my own personal history, providing some details about his congregation and then into a headlong discussion about Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Bnei Noah and other faith groups.

Who are Bnei Noah?

Ravi Obadiah, leader of the Bnei Noah group, praying on Sunday morning in the sanctuary (Photo by Meylekh Viswanath)
Ravi Obadiah, leader of the Bnei Noah group, praying on Sunday morning in the sanctuary (Photo by Meylekh Viswanath)

While the Jewish Bible says nothing about Bnei Noah, there is some discussion about the toshav ha-arets. These were non-idolatrous non-Israelite inhabitants of the land of Israel who had some rights in spite of not being Jews and therefore not keeping all the commandments required of the Israelites; for example, there were cities of refuge available to the toshav, as well, in case he should commit unintentional murder.

Most of the normative discussion in the Bible, though, is for Jews and how they should relate to the toshav: whether they are allowed to take interest on loans to the toshav, whether they are required to support indigent toshavim, whether they can give them non-kosher meat to eat and so on. The Talmud does discuss the existence of certain laws that apply to all non-Jews (the commandments to the children of Noah). There is also a limited discussion there as to how these commandments are to be interpreted. In particular, there is discussion as to whether the details of the commandments are the same for Jews as for non-Jews. However, it is very difficult to lay out a full code of law based on this sparse discussion. Jewish organizations, such as the World Noahide Center and the World Noahide Community, however, by equating the obligations for Jews and non-Jews, are able to use Jewish sources to create a detailed set of study materials.

For example, the Beth El Noahide Center meets on Skype every week with a rabbi in Jerusalem to study the Rambam’s text called “Shmoneh Perakim” or “The Eight Chapters (on Ethics)” which the Rambam wrote as an introduction to Pirkei Avot, “The Ethics of the Fathers,” to guide Jews to improve themselves.

In any case, this was the variety of Noahidism that Ravi practiced.

Hazon Ovadya – the Vision of Ravi Obadiah Obadiah’s story was fascinating.

He was born into a middle class family in Visakhapatnam with a background of mixed Roman Catholic and Hindu traditions – his mother was born Roman Catholic and his father had converted to Catholicism from Hinduism – but mostly attended a Catholic church.

After obtaining a degree in Computer Science, he got a good job and was headed for a successful, if unremarkable, career when a motorcycle accident at the age of 22 got him thinking about the purpose of life. He started reading the Bible for inspiration and started questioning what he was doing. Soon after this time, the entire family, under the leadership of Obadiah’s father, moved away from Catholicism in more charismatic directions which involved prayer healing. They started praying regularly at home as a family and eventually became the nucleus of an evangelical church called Bethel Holy Church, which met in their house.

Obadiah’s father underwent pastoral training and became the head of a congregation initially of about twenty individuals but which soon ballooned to a hundred members. At the age of twenty-nine, Obadiah became a full-time evangelical charismatic minister. After his father’s passing away when he was 33 years old, Obadiah took over the church and dedicated his life full-time to his new vocation. Many people were attracted to Obadiah’s vision of the Bible as the source of advice about how to live one’s life, not simply on moral matters, but even on a more mundane everyday basis. Many of his congregants were Roman Catholics who wanted a closer, more personal relationship with God. Obadiah, himself, through his dedication and earnestness, proved to be a good leader of his flock.

At Ravi Obadiah's mother's birthday celebration on Friday night (Photo by Meylekh Viswanath)
At Ravi Obadiah’s mother’s birthday celebration on Friday night (Photo by Meylekh Viswanath)

As an example of Obadiah’s desire to take the Bible at its word, he read verses such as Joshua 1:8 and decided that Bible study had to be a full-time endeavor. As it says there: “This book of the Torah shall not leave your mouth; you shall meditate therein day and night, in order that you observe to do all that is written in it, for then will you succeed in all your ways and then will you prosper.” Obadiah himself cites the verse in Deuteronomy 4:6, which already even then was leading him to a Jewish understanding of the Bible: “And you shall keep [them] and do [them], for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who will hear all these statutes and say, “Only this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”

He started a full-time Bible school for children who would dedicate themselves to become the pious of the nations. Over time, through his studying and his teaching, he became convinced of the falsity of Christian beliefs. Ultimately, in 2012, he decided to leave the Christian faith.

About a score of his congregation stayed with him, many of them women; amongst them was his own family, including his siblings. After another year of searching, he came to know of the seven commandments given to the nations of the world and of the Noahide movement. Bethel Holy Church became Bethel Synagogue. Around this time, he got in touch with the Brit Olam-Noahide World Center through Skype and received initial help and direction, which affirmed his determination to model his congregation as a group of the “pious of the nations.” Eventually, Obadiah contacted Rabbi Moshe Weiner, the author of “The Divine Code,” a book which gives detailed instructions based on certain Jewish understandings of what is required of non-Jews, according to the Talmud. This gave the fledgling group a basis for how to conduct their daily life. (Rabbi Weiner also gives the group monthly classes on Skype.)

Further contact with Rabbi Moshe Perets, a Chabad rabbi who operates through the World Noahide Community, provided them with regular online courses. Meanwhile, another group of Telugu speakers from Guntur, about 250 miles to the southwest, had already decided that they wanted to be full-fledged Jews.

Some of them also believed they were descendants of the lost tribe of Ephraim and started calling themselves Bnei Ephraim. Yehoshua Yacobi, the son of one of the founders of the Bnei Ephraim community, made aliyah and started living as a converted Rabbinic Jew. He has been helpful in arranging for additional Skype classes with Rabbi Yaron Gilor, and providing translation from Hebrew into Telugu, since not all of the Bethel Noahide community, particularly the children, are able to understand English well. What is amazing, though, is that there are now about ten young children ranging in age from five to sixteen, including Obadiah’s own children, who spend their entire week pursuing study of the Bible and other texts, such as Rabbi Weiner’s book and the Rambam’s Shmoneh Perakim or “Eight Chapters on Ethics.” While they do study other subjects such as English, arithmetic and science, these are secondary to their Torah studies.

The Children of Noah

Entrance to Bethel Synagogue, the Bnei Noah prayer hall (Photo by Meylekh Viswanath)
Entrance to Bethel Synagogue, the Bnei Noah prayer hall (Photo by Meylekh Viswanath)

In addition to these young children who have never had a secular education at all, there are some older youths, some of whom started with a secular education and are now pursuing a Noahide education exclusively. One of these, a very sharp and intelligent young man, is Yedidyah. Yedidyah is Ravi Obadiah’s sister’s son.

Obadiah’s sister is a high school teacher who teaches primarily geography in the secular school system; she is a very lettered person and who speaks fluent English. Yedidyah gets instruction from his mother on secular subjects, but spends his entire time studying Torah with Obadiah. He, too, speaks fluent English, but one casualty of this focus on Torah is that he does not have a good understanding of written Telugu (his everyday language, living in the Telugu speaking state of Andhra Pradesh) and Tamil (his mother tongue). But this is not seen by him or by Obadiah as a sacrifice, no more than do the the Chareidim in Lakewood, NJ, or Borough Park, Brooklyn, with their children’s education. On the other hand, Yedidyah (and many of the other children) can quote fluently from the Bible, is learning to leyn from the Torah using an Ashkenazic trope, can blow the shofar, and is very knowledgeable on prescribed Noahide subjects. I took a Shabbos afternoon walk with Yedidyah and found him to be a very smart, personable, healthy– and in no way deprived– teenager. Since he is Obadiah’s nephew, he also speaks Tamil, his mother tongue.

This allowed me to converse with him intimately. Of course, he is only sixteen years old and like all Indian sixteen year olds, accepts what he has been taught, and what he has been taught is the superiority of Judaism. This, then, is the path that he is following and that he seems quite content to follow. There is an effort to enroll him in a yeshiva, such as Ohr Somayach, where he can study Hebrew, the Bible and anything else that a Bnei Noah is allowed to study, with perhaps the strong possibility that he can formally convert once he is more knowledgeable. I have no doubt that if he is given the opportunity to learn, he will ultimately convert and will, ultimately, become a steadfast and observant Jew. For now, though, he is in Vizag and the path ahead is not so clear. Ohr Somayach may or may not materialize.

While Yedidyah, having been brought up under his uncle’s tutelage and not having known anything other than a philo-Judaic Christianity followed by an anti-Christian Noahidism, didn’t have any doubts about the validity of his path in life, the same was not true of many of the older youths and adults. I am not suggesting that they necessarily questioned the Noahide approach to the Word of God for a non-Jew.

However, what certainly characterized many of them was a willingness to ask questions, a critical approach to what I presented them with. Of course, this may have been because the Judaism I showed them was a non-triumphal, non-millenarian, universalistic Judaism that didn’t rule out the validity of other ways to God. This was in contrast to what they had been taught, and they kept asking questions trying to reconcile the two approaches or, perhaps, to find the flaw in my thinking–perhaps the one unacceptable assumption that led me to my conclusions. Either way, it was a pleasure speaking to this group of people. I had, somehow, expected an acquiescent group of listeners and even started my talk on Friday night emphasizing the importance of asking questions. It turned out there was no need for me to have made this point. They were quite willing to ask questions and not hesitant at all.

There were two boys in particular who stood out. One was Balu, a young man of about 24, from a Hindu background, not quite Noahide, who came to attend services to figure out what the truth was, where he stood, etcetera. The other was Karthik, a 30-year old, born and brought up in the Hindu faith, but having attended tuition classes given by Ravi Obadiah since the age of six. Karthik is quite close to Ravi and has followed him in his path through Christianity to Noahidism. In spite of his mother’s objections to his divergent path, he is steadfast in his devotion to Obadiah. Both Balu and Karthik peppered me with questions when I gave my talk on Friday night about my personal faith journey, but from different points of view.

Balu, still in search mode, wanted to know how I had made my decision and, furthermore, having made my decision, how could I still insist on the validity of the road that I had chosen not to travel. The notion of several compatible truths was very difficult for him to accept, even though it is a very Hindu concept. The Rigveda, probably the most ancient Hindu text, says: Let noble thoughts come to us from all sides (1.89.1). But Balu was clearly not comfortable with whatever version of Hinduism he had been brought up with, which may well also have been as insistent on its version of the truth (pace the Rigveda), and so he was not about to buy my message. He must have asked me the same question in a variety of ways about six or seven times until I eventually joked that I now had proof that I was not good at explanations.

Karthik, on the other hand, also asked questions, but his questions were more directed towards understanding my approach to see how he could integrate it with what he already knew and what he already believed. Not necessarily accepting it wholesale, but not necessarily rejecting it, either. Karthik’s approach was a lot closer to that of Ravi Obadiah, though Obadiah clearly was making up his own mind–an independent thinker–while Karthik was more of a follower.

Not Quite Preaching to the Choir

image: The Bnei Noah enclosure's terrace, where Friday night services are held (Photo by Meylekh Viswanath)
The Bnei Noah enclosure’s terrace, where Friday night services are held. (Photo by Meylekh Viswanath)

My own stay in Vizag was filled with interesting activities. At the top, of course, was my conversations with Obadiah that continued throughout the weekend (from Thursday night to Sunday noon). Obadiah’s relatively conservative approach to Judaism (and hence to the Bible) leads him to believe that all ways of worshipping God, other than the World Noahide Community’s understanding of the commandments of a Ben Noah, are unacceptable and forbidden paths for a non-Jew. My approach is much more accepting of other religions, based on my conviction that God could not have abandoned all of non-Jewish humanity for so many thousands of years until a certain group of Jews brought God’s Judaism inflected commandments to them. Certainly, the approach of the Meiri, a 13th century Jewish scholar and rabbi who emphasized immorality and lawlessness as the defining characteristics of avodah zarah (forbidden worship), is a lot more convincing to me as an expression of a compassionate God. As such, I argued for ways of understanding Christian practices and Hindu practices, but Obadiah certainly didn’t always agree with me. Notwithstanding our disagreements, though, we had many exciting conversations throughout the week. What was clear to me, though, was Obadiah’s deep affection and care for his congregation, particularly the children, and his desire to bring those who were ready for it to a complete transition to Judaism.

Of course, I had emphasized to Obadiah that I was not a rabbi, but, in spite of that, he had asked me to give several talks; I ended up giving one talk for about an hour and a half on Friday night, another on Shabbos day for about two hours and a third one Sunday morning for about twenty minutes. Since Obadiah had to translate for me, everything took twice as long. Also, Obadiah did not simply translate, but rather since he knew how to speak to his congregation, he would paraphrase what I said, add examples and illustrations– in short, provide a midrash rather than a targum. Sometimes it felt like he was adding so much commentary that the point of my original words were lost; since I know other South Indian languages, I was able to (rather dimly) grasp the gist of Obadiah’s words, even if I couldn’t speak in Telugu. At such times, I would restate my views and sometimes Ravi would modify his words. Most likely, though, Obadiah’s additions clarified rather than changed my meaning, but I was eager for a more direct connection with the audience rather than the limited one I could have through my meturgaman (translator).

Following my talks, particularly the ones on Shabbos, there was a question and answer session. On Friday night, I spoke about my own spiritual journey, and there were some some particularly intense exchanges of questions, answers and challenges, once again on issues of the validity of alternative ways to God. As an Indian, and a South Indian to boot, I think I was able to connect to them at a level that may have been missing in their interactions with American and Israeli rabbis–even if my message wasn’t necessarily entirely consistent with their beliefs. In any case, I did represent for them an alternate model of an Orthodox Jew!

On Shabbos morning, I was asked to speak on Pirkei Avos, and I chose to speak on Mishna 15 in Chapter 1: “Shammai said: Make your Torah study fixed (keva), say little and do (aseh) much, and receive everyone with a cheerful countenance.” However, rather than use the English translation, I worked with the Hebrew text and used the different ways in which the Hebrew words for fixed and do could be interpreted to try to give them a feel for how dependent the Hebrew text is on interpretation, and specifically, interpretations that differ from standard ones that are reflected in standard English translations (let alone Telugu translations that are very likely based on Christian understandings of the text). Before I left on Sunday, I was asked to speak again to the children who had gathered for their weekly Skype instruction from Rabbi Gilor, and I spoke to them briefly. Ravi saw something significant in my choice of the Pirkei Avos text because he had been emphasizing regular Torah study to his congregation, and Rabbi Sheldon Grafstein, apparently, had also spoken on this theme. In my own talk on Friday night, when asked about how the community arrived at answers to questions regarding halakhic practice, I had mentioned the concept referred to in the Babylonian Talmud (Pesachim 66b), in regard to Jews: “Even if they are not prophets, they are [nevertheless] the children of prophets.” Obadiah felt that this was certainly true and appreciated my own lay remarks to the community.

A Brief Taste of Kahuna!

Santhi and Ajay, parents of the newborn baby, Shelomit (Photo by Meylekh Viswanath)
Santhi and Ajay, parents of the newborn baby, Shelomit (Photo by Meylekh Viswanath)

On Friday night, in addition to my talk, there was a momentous event. A couple of days after Obadiah and I had agreed on my visit to Vizag, he asked me if I would name a baby girl that had been born about three weeks previously.

Although I was conscious of the honor that was being done me and the weightiness of what I was being asked to do, I did not feel that I could disagree. (In a way, I felt like a Cohen who unexpectedly visits an out-of-the-way Jewish community and is asked to do a pidyon-haben, the redemption of firstborn Jewish children!).

I asked for details about the child, the names of the parents, the siblings (she was a first-born), and anything that would allow me to choose an appropriate name. I was only asked for a name from Tanakh. Ultimately, partially based on the mother’s name (Shanti, meaning peace in Sanskrit), I chose the name Shelomit, which also comes from Shalom, meaning peace. Shelomit is also the name of the daughter of Zerubavel, the son of Shealtiel, who is descended from King David through King Solomon, and thus an auspicious name. Zerubavel, further, was instrumental in the rebuilding of the second Temple.

The parents and the grandmother, who was also there, were very happy with the name and appreciated my explanations. Not knowing what would be a proper ritual for a Bnei Noah baby-naming, but nevertheless feeling the need for some formality, I modified the blessing that is given in the synagogue when a baby girl is named. There was a real feeling of solemnity in the atmosphere at this time and I could see the broad smiles on the faces of the parents. I discovered later that there had been some recent problems in the lives of the family, partly related to the fact that the mother was much more committed to the Noahide way of life than the father. They felt that the name of their new daughter was a harbinger of peace and good fortune for their family.

From Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai back to Rabbi Ishmael

Every moment of my stay with Ravi, both before Shabbat, during Shabbat and after Shabbat, he demonstrated his allegiance to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in his machloket with Rabbi Ishmael as to whether one should devote oneself to Torah study the whole time. Now at the end of my stay, I felt that I was going back to the world of Rabbi Ishmael, whom I follow along with Abbaye in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Berachot, 35b).

As an example of how Obadiah personified Torah learning even when he was not actually studying religious texts, let me give some examples of how he attended to me during my stay. As a result of this attention, during my entire time in Vizag, I felt very honored and appreciated for what I was accepted as bringing to the Bnei Noah community, a sense of a connection with the word of God. Obadiah and the members of the community were ready to help me with anything I needed.

For example, on Friday night, Obadiah wanted me to be able to do Kiddush over grape juice, even though I am not normally able to do so on most Shabbosim in India, since kosher grape juice is not available.

However, Obadiah brought me grapes and a thoroughly cleaned mixing machine. I explained to Obadiah that he could not handle the grape juice at any stage in the crushing process, and not even the mixing machine, once the grapes had been crushed. Obadiah was very careful about all of this. Then, after Shabbos, he asked me what I needed for Havdalah and was very meticulous in getting everything done correctly. Another example of the respect that was given to me was the request by the two daughters of Obadiah, who came to me on Sunday morning and asked me to give them a blessing. As I left on Sunday morning to catch my train back to Bhubaneswar, I left behind me a group of about twenty young individuals of all ages learning the Rambam’s ethical strictures from an Ashkenazi Israeli Chabad rabbi on Skype, with rapt attention, knowing that they were privy to the Word of God, though in slightly foreign garb. I couldn’t help thinking that this was an extraordinary demonstration of emunah, faith, in Hashem and I truly felt blessed having been part of it for a weekend.