A full bite in Mumbai

Published: May 05, 2019, 07:30 IST | Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre

Florida-based Fulbright scholar Dr Yudit Kornberg Greenberg, author of The Body in Religion: Cross Cultural Perspectives, takes 20 Mumbai students on an exploration of religious practices centered on the human body

A full bite in Mumbai

Sumedha Raikar-MhatreHolding fresh apricots from Bukhara in one hand, and a page-long selection of Jewish texts in the other, Dr Yudit Kornberg Greenberg, Cornell Endowed Chair and Professor of Philosophy and Religion, 60, enters her weekly class for The Body in Religion graduate seminar course at the K J Somaiya Center for Buddhist Studies. While reserving the apricots for the tea break -- to be served with peppy tales from her recent scholars' residency in Uzbekistan -- the Fulbright-Nehru Scholar zeroes in on a sampling of religious texts, from Judaism to begin with, dealing with sexual norms, taboos and practices. It is interesting that her Jewish Studies Program at Rollins College in Winter Park (Florida, where she has been teaching since 1989) follows similar modus operandi, thanks to her specialisation in comparative religion, gender and cross-cultural views of love and the body. In fact, many Rollins graduates, since the nineties, have been introduced to India through Dr Greenberg's study visits stretching from Madurai to Varanasi! She has herself been to India for more than a dozen times, the latest visit more defined by the Somaiya Vidyavihar campus.

Collective exploration is the highlight of Dr Greenberg's classroom, as evident in the unfolding debates. Students have contrasted Western and Asian divergent notions of health and healing as followed in diverse religions; pondered on conflicting views on asceticism and spiritual detachment in Christianity, Jainism, and Buddhism; contrasted multiethnic religion-based feasting and fasting practices. Particularly animated was the session on body modification rituals (circumcision and tattoos) and notions of female modesty with relation to dress codes. Students have either reviewed pop art manifestations of societal attitudes or shared personal journeys about acceptance or disapproval with regard to an aspect of the body. A yoga graduate appraised two movies -- a lesbian romance and a coming-of-age gay love story -- which underscored society's 'essentialisation' of heterosexuality as the only normal paradigm.

Dr Greenberg at the class dedicated to the implications of gendering of mind and body in religious texts. Pics/Sameer Markande
Dr Greenberg at the class dedicated to the implications of gendering of mind and body in religious texts. Pics/Sameer Markande

This columnist sat in the class dedicated to the implications of gendering of mind and body in religious texts; with shared focus on treatment and attitudes towards heterosexual, homosexual and transgendered individuals in various cultures. Dr Greenberg starts by asking students to first read out operative portions from various rabbis' quotes (1st to 6th Century C.E.) which relay opposing positions (negative, reserved, positive and liberal) held by the Jewish spiritual leadership on various types of sexual behaviour -- be it normative consensual marital sex, or prohibitive homosexual sex, or a supposedly private act of masturbation. The rabbis have laid down the model conduct in each sub-category, whether it is disapproval of intercourse in the standing position or averting sex in the daylight. The Talmud approves of sexual desire between a man and woman, clearly spelling out the woman's right to pleasure and the husband's obligation to ensure his wife's fulfillment. However, Dr Greenberg also sensitizes the class to rather daunting rabbinic perspective which indicates male privilege in the sexual act: 'He may have intercourse with her whenever he so desires and kiss any organ of her body he wishes, and he may have intercourse with her naturally or unnaturally, provided he does not expend semen to no purpose.' With the mention of wasted semen, students gush with laughter and begin to share similar dictates in Hinduism, Christianity and Islam which also recommend 'productive' sexual activity with procreation as the end result that too confined within wedlock.

Dr Greenberg's pedagogy rests on the interactive classroom where students' personal insights complement the curriculum. "In the multi-hued global world that we live in, such classrooms help us to overcome prejudices. It is healthy when you can critique, and yet openly laugh at paradoxical religious beliefs across religions," she feels the success of her four-month course lies in its capacity to raise academics who can correlate ancient texts with current realities; they catch the nuances in the global debate over female genital mutilation or the row over entry rights of menstruating women in India's Sabarimala temple. In fact, her book The Body in Religion: Cross-cultural Perspectives, 2017, also aims at a similar sensitisation about attitudes of nine major religions towards the human body. "If we want to know the ancient and present 'authorities' that control, discipline and honor our bodies, we have to visit each other's traditions with an open mind," declares the scholar whose third Fulbright award term (first in Romania, 2012 and second at Haryana's Jindal Global University, 2015) has given her several opportunities to expand her experience of multiple faiths practiced in Mumbai.

The Body in Religion course ran parallel with colorful off-class experiences. It coincided with Dr Greenberg's Fulbright-sponsored tour to Uzbekistan. She mentored students of University of Mumbai and presented a paper at the second Khoja Studies Conference in its Kalina campus, moderated a session at the Fulbright Annual Conference in Kochi. She spoke at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Finding Radha, and was the keynote presenter at the Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace Conference held at Cotton University in Guwahati. As became practice, she would bring in strands of her experiences into The Body in Religion course after every sojourn. For instance, she shared her disappointment over the all-male priest class at Guwahati's Goddess Kamakhya temple. Her students were quick to spell out similar unfair gender equations in the ecclesiastical class India wide; which has further confirmed her plans to visit the female deities (guarded by male priests) on the current home ground, beginning with Mumba Devi. That gives one more reason to her accompanying engineer-husband to tease her about her profound interest in all things Indian (from yoga to prasad bhoga), more so in Mumbai. He has often told her that she was a Hindu in her very last birth!

Spirituality and religious practices are central to Dr Greenberg's identity, not necessarily the practices emerging from her own Jewish faith, but also included are cultural rituals of other faiths. She was raised in a traditional Jewish home in Jerusalem which has carried her over the years as an undergrad student in the US, also in her tenure at Berkeley while studying for the PhD. She visits her family in Israel regularly, and in her travels, participates in inter-faith religious dialogues. Even in her four months in Mumbai, she was actively involved in the synagogue in Kala Ghoda; not to forget the day she took her students for the Sabbath service. In the words of her student Chintan Girish Modi, her lectures are educational expeditions in which "faith is a valid source of learning, and not the opium of the masses." In fact, she feels the academic field of religious studies opens windows for wider cultural understanding and from where stem new intellectual challenges.

In her comparative analysis of Hinduism and Judaism, she has begun writing on similarities between the Gita Govinda and the biblical Song of Songs. She is also researching the Bene Israeli and Baghdadi Jews of Mumbai; tracing the unsung history of Bollywood actresses of Jewish origin, for which she has interviewed family and community members of the bygone figures! As she says, a visit to Mumbai always leads to another one!

Sumedha Raikar-Mhatre is a culture columnist in search of the sub-text. You can reach her at sumedha.raikar@gmail.com

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