Global Jewish Reflections | In Nepal, Balancing Curiosity and Cultural Sensitivity

When JDC Entwine's Andrew Belinfante visited Nepal in 2018, he reflected on the challenges and opportunities of inhabiting a different culture.

By Andrew Belinfante - Director of Engagement, JDC Entwine | April 28, 2021

Andrew Belinfante poses for a photo at the Monkey Temple in Kathmandu.

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

In my travels as the Director of Engagement with JDC Entwine, I’ve learned the value of missed opportunities. Engaging with the world is, at its essence, about the places we go, the people we meet, the experiences, traditions, and rituals we seek connection through, and sometimes the moments we miss.

In each place I go, I look for traditions which provide opportunities I wouldn’t be able to experience in any other part of the world—something particularly unique to the place and the people that live there. I look not only for experiences that teach me about who this community is, but traditions that help me understand the community’s values

In each place I go, I try to balance curiosity with cultural sensitivity, and forge an intimacy through mutual exchange.

I try to balance my curiosity with cultural sensitivity, and I attempt to forge an intimacy arising from getting to know another through mutual exchange.

Experiencing the traditions of another people isn’t always simple, especially when their traditions may conflict with our own. This tension arose when I traveled to Nepal in 2018 and first heard about their open crematoria at the Pashupatinath Temple in Kathmandu. I felt a deep desire to understand why open crematoria exist—and I certainly wanted to visit them—while simultaneously wrestling with a personal dilemma raised by a rule embedded in this week’s Torah portion—Parashat Emor.

Emor contains a long list of guidelines and regulations required of the Jewish people. It encompasses everything from instructing Jews to refrain from working on shabbat (the sabbath) to laws about divorce and sacrificing animals with blemishes. It also instructs that High Priests—kohanim—should not encounter the dead. This is something the rabbinic tradition adds on to by noting that kohanim cannot visit grave sites of people outside their immediate families. My family is of this lineage and I therefore had to seriously ask myself if I felt comfortable visiting a grave site.

Andrew Belinfante

I pushed myself to think creatively about the intersection of my grounding in Jewish tradition—and my family history—and my desire to connect with people who have different traditions than my own. For me, the long list of rules we read about in Emor are not simply a list of instructions on how we should live our lives, they are rituals which deeply reflect the people and community we are and how we interact with others.

By simply seeing Emor’s behaviors as rules, we cannot appreciate their deeper underlying meaning. By framing these traditions as rituals, we can feel more connected to them and what it means to explore them, and new experiences, through a wider lens

On the day before my trip to the Pashupatinath Temple, I came down with the stomach flu and wasn’t able to visit the crematoria. After all of the hype, the reading and the preparing, the wrestling with if I should go or not, I couldn’t get out of bed. All of a sudden, a new perspective rushed over me. In this missed opportunity, I found a new meaning to the rituals (and rules), that have guided my encounters with the world

I discovered the ritual of the decision-making process embedded in choosing whether to participate in new experiences or not. What would I have missed if I chose not to go? What did I miss by not being able to? What becomes possible when we experience new things? My colleague and teacher, Rabbi Ethan Tucker of the Hadar Institute, eloquently examines this in his reflection on a family funeral he attended. He writes

After the burial [of my mother-in-law] at the cemetery, we returned back to her home, where a few people were already at work setting up the… first meal eaten by the mourners once they return home. One of the women asked one of the men who was setting up whether he was with the caterers. He replied, ‘No, I am a kohen, so I can never go to the funerals; instead, I set up the food for people when they return.’ I recall it as an overwhelming moment, when the purpose of this mitzvah [commandment] leapt out of the scrolls and pages of law into the world of living empathy it was meant to create. The kohanim don’t just avoid death in order to fulfill a theoretical biblical mandate for life. Their near complete exclusion from the rituals of death is meant to keep them focused on actually creating a culture of life, untainted by the brokenness and sorrow that surround loss, and the horror of confronting a soulless, lifeless human body.

What I know to be true is that each ritual, in and of itself, possesses value and meaning. For the kohanim who cannot visit the grave of distant family members, a greater sense of their obligations can perhaps be found in the comforting community they create for the mourner when who arrives back at home; for the deeply spiritual grieving sibling of a person in Nepal, there is comfort in experiencing Hindu tradition’s practice of cremation to ensure the promise of rebirth.

The JDC Entwine group poses for a photo while visiting a temple in Kathmandu.

I lament not being able to visit the Temple that day for many reasons. Above all, because I didn’t fully quench my curiosity and because the experience itself, and the mutual exchange that would have accompanied it, have become the most fulfilling part of my personal travel customs. But when I view it through that wider lens, through the context of ritual rather than rule, I’ve been able to uncover another powerful tool to explore the world around me, and the people who inhabit it.

In the void of that missed opportunity, in the preparation to confront something that challenged my own traditions, I found the blessing that comes with a new deeper exploration of my own rituals and those of others. It will make my next encounter with the world, with new traditions, and in teaching my own to others, all the more fulfilling, and all the more meaningful.

Activist, community builder, and Director of Engagement at JDC Entwine, Andrew Belinfante travels the world connecting global Jews and building awareness around humanitarian aid and disaster relief work. Andrew received a Master of Science in Education from Bank Street College of Education. 

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