Between Ancestry and Belief: "judaism" and "hinduism" in the Nineteenth Century

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This article argues that thinking about disputed conceptions of religious conversion helps us understand the emergence of both Jewish and Indian nationalism in the nineteenth century. In today s world, Hindu nationalism and Zionism are most often understood to be in conflict with various forms of Islamism, yet the ideological formations of both developed in the context of Christian colonialism and, from the perspectives of Jewish and Indian reformers and nationalists, the remaking of Hinduism and Judaism in the image of Christianity. Even as they internalized some aspects of Protestant criticisms of "Judaism" and "Hinduism," nineteenth century Jewish and Hindu reformers opposed definitions of "Judaism" and "Hinduism" based upon what they regarded as a one-sided emphasis on individual belief at the expense of ancestry and national identity. In making arguments about what constituted "Judaism" and "Hinduism" respectively, Jewish and Hindu reformers also rejected what they claimed was the false universalism of Christianity, as epitomized by Christian missionizing. For Jewish and Hindu reformers of the nineteenth century, "Jewish" and "Hindu" ties to ancestry marked not a parochial intolerance of others, as many Christians had long maintained, but a true universalism that, unlike Christian missionizing, allowed, promoted and embraced human difference. In these ways, contested characterizations of "Judaism" and "Hinduism" in the nineteenth century set in motion a series of arguments about conversion that became central to Jewish and Indian nationalism, some of which remain relevant for understanding conversion controversies in Israel and India today.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)194-219
Number of pages26
JournalModern Judaism
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 1 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cultural Studies
  • History
  • Religious studies
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Political Science and International Relations


  • Abraham Geiger
  • India
  • Israel
  • Swami Vivekananda
  • Warder Cresson
  • conversion
  • religious freedom


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