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Why is Buddhism so attractive to Jews?

Talk by Dusty Klass, Rabbinic Student, HUC_JIR LA

Friday, August 15, 2014

In 2002, David Bader published a mini coffeetable book - Zen Judaism: For You, A Little Enlightenment.

An excerpt:

“the Buddha spoke of Four Abodes – the Abode of Lovingkindness, the Abode of Compassion, the Abode of Sympathetic Joy, and the Abode of Equanimity. This is far too many abodes, unless you have a lot of help. Stick to one abode, and maybe a small second abode for weekends.”[1]

The front cover of the book depicts a tallit-wearing gentleman, seated in the half-lotus position, clinging to a bagel in one of his outstretched hands. While this is obviously not the stuff of academics, it does show the cultural depth to which Judaism and Buddhism have melded in the United States.

My first night of college, having just moved to California, I met a fellow freshman who possessed the most Jewish name I could imagine: David Joseph Weintraub. When I asked where he grew up, he responded without blinking an eye, “a Zen Buddhist vegetarian farm in northern California.”

“Toto,” I thought, “we are not in Seattle anymore.”

Fast forward to my study-abroad year. In preparation for a final paper in my World Religions class, I sought out the Jewish section of the library and happened upon the infamous Jew in the Lotus, which I proceeded to read cover to cover.

Two years later, I turned in my undergraduate thesis: “J’s, B’s and JUBUs: Jewish meditation and the Jewish-Buddhist connection in contemporary California.”

As a future rabbi, and as someone for whom Judaism had always “worked”, I was intrigued by how many white American Buddhists were of Jewish origin. I didn’t get it – Judaism was the place where I found myself and felt most like myself. What was it about Buddhism that attracted so many Jews? And what was this meditation thing everyone was raving about?

In the beginning, my goal was to simply explore the term “JUBU”. Breaking the term down helped clarify the three main ways in which I see Jews interacting with Buddhism. I labeled these three types of interactions that of the “Internet JUBU”, the “JUBU” turned “OJ [observant Jew]”, and the “Buddhish JUBU.”

“Internet JUBUs” can be characterized by their use of online resources to write about and further explore their interest in Judaism and Buddhism. They have read books like The Jew in the Lotus and find an affinity within the traditions or teachings of Judaism and Buddhism. Though sometimes stereotyped as ‘fluffy’ or not ‘truly’ religious, Internet JUBUs may well be seriously practitioners and as such, may also fall into a second JUBU category.

The path of the “JUBU-turned-OJ”, a term coined by scholar Nathan Katz, follows a pattern: it begins with some level of Jewish upbringing that fails to hold spiritual water. After a period of disillusionment and searching, these lapsed Jews discover Buddhism and all it has to offer. Though the length of time spent in Buddhist practice varies, the end result is the same; somehow, Buddhism leads them back to Judaism.

The last category, “Buddhish[2] JUBUs”, run the gamut. Buddhish JUBUs are characterized by their capacity to fully blend Judaism and Buddhism. Sylvia Boorstein, author of That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, and an observant Jew, is one example of a Buddhish JUBU. Sylvia maintains both her Jewish identity and her Buddhist identity and finds no conflict between the two. In one chapter, she writes about a period of time when her meditations became more and more intense, and biblical phrases kept coming to her mind to define and explain these experiences:

“I felt filled with light, in fact, saw bright light, all with my eyes closed. I was ecstatic. The phrase ‘And G-d said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light, and G-d saw that the light was good’ arose in my head. I thought, ‘It’s about the beginning of consciousness, not the beginning of the world.’” [3]

 This explanation utterly combines Jewish and Buddhist ideas. Boorstein’s meditation led her to a new way of looking at Genesis that makes sense not only in the Torah but also in light of Buddhism.

So, why do Westerners in general and Western Jews specifically turn to Buddhism?

 

Three reasons:

First, when Judaism is the problem, Buddhism becomes the solution. For many Jews, the rigidity of organized religion and the baggage Jews bring to their Judaism presents a barrier to worship, spirituality, and God. In contrast, Buddhism is seen as welcoming and loosely structured.

Second, Judaism has become a religion you can “practice” in a purely cultural way. Jews don’t have to attend Shabbat service, or believe in God, or even like Judaism – they feel connected to Judaism and other Jews anyway, regardless of how little they may “do” Jewishly. Thus, when cultural Jews begin asking deep questions and seeking spiritual answers, they don’t even think to turn to Judaism. Instead, and especially as it has been presented in white American culture, Buddhism presents itself as “instant spirituality, just add meditation.”

Lastly, Judaism has adapted so many times to various cultures throughout history, taken on so many characteristics of the places Jews have settled, that Judaism (and especially liberal Judaism) has become porous. Jews incorporate texts and practices from other religious traditions into their own practice in ways that feel authentic to those Jewish practitioners.

 

Let’s look at each of these responses in a little more depth.

When it comes to perceived problems within Judaism and perceived solutions in Buddhism, Jewish Zen Priest Norman Fischer summarizes it quite well when he says that “Judaism, this great religion for life, has left a lot of people frozen, guilty, and afraid, unable to jump into life for fear of breaking God’s rule; and Buddhism, this great religion for death, has become famous for fostering a broad free quirky enjoyable approach to life.”[4] Founder of the Renewal movement Reb Zalman Schatcher-Shalomi[5] z’’l has said that: “the synagogue…appears to allow little room for the celebration of the spirit.”[6] He has also pointed out the difficulty of gaining a Jewish spiritual understanding without first finding a way of “dealing with” Hebrew.[7] These quotes summarize the main problems within American Judaism: perceived constraint due to religious boundaries, difficulty in finding spirituality in the synagogue setting, and struggles with language.

The idea of the East as a more spiritually rich and/or mystical counterpart to the West is not new. The 1960’s were full of spiritual searching via Eastern routes. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi himself initiated the Beatles into TM [Transcendental Meditation], and many Western 20-something’s followed their lead. During a time when organized religions seemed full of the restraints and rules, Eastern religions and their seemingly simplistic methods of worship became idealized. This searching did not stop in the 1960s.  If people were disillusioned by Western religion then, they are even more so now. Buddhist practice and especially meditation is seen as something one can dabble in safely. There are even proven medical benefits!

Now, as for the challenge of Judaism as a “secular religion” (now there’s an oxymoron!) and Buddhism as “instant spirituality, just add meditation”. Jewish Meditation teacher Lyle Poncher once described his childhood Passover experience as having “about as much spiritual content as that chair.”[8] For those like Poncher, for whom Passover and other Jewish practices were mostly just extended-family gatherings, Judaism was simply not the place to go looking for spirituality.

Reb Zalman challenges the resulting turn to Buddhism, explaining that Buddhism in American has been stripped, and is presented without its “moral and ethical demands.  [But] take a look at the precepts that a Buddhist monk has to keep. They’re just like the 613 that we have!”[9] Were cultural Jews to know a “real” Buddhism, suggests Reb Zalman, they would find similar barriers. He also points out one of the greatest distinctions between Judaism and Buddhism: Buddhism is at its core a monastic religion, whereas Judaism is a lay, communal religion.

The requirements for living life as a true, enlightenment-seeking Buddhist eventually requires taking monastic vows. In contrast, Judaism has no such distinction. Each Israelite individually and all Israelites collectively witnessed God at Sinai, and midrash teaches that we are still receiving God’s revealed word, daily – if only we would listen. Furthermore, as Maimonides teaches, Judaism is about moderation, not monasticism.

And what of Judaism’s porousness, its ability to incorporate outside traditions and practice? Many have sought to find justification for Jewish meditation in ancient Jewish practice – and like most things, it is there if you seek it. But Rabbi Alan Lew z’’l made a wonderful comment during my interview with him in preparation for my thesis. He said:

“You know, there may or may not have been something like meditation in ancient Judaism, but to me it’s totally irrelevant…of course there was a history of contemplative spirituality in Judaism, but none of them resembles meditation very much… On the other hand, here we have this long tradition of meditation which we’ve learned from the Buddhists, which doesn’t really have that much to do with Buddhism except that the Buddhists were the ones that preserved it…You know, we have coins from 5,000 years before Buddhism began of pictures of people sitting in the lotus practicing meditation, so it seems to be a part of the universal inheritance of human beings rather than something that’s attached to any particular religion…and our way of using it is to meditate in coordination with traditional Jewish spiritual activities.”[10]

For Lew, meditation does not “belong” to Buddhism. Buddhism is merely the meditation vehicle. Furthermore, this is not uncommon in Judaism – in fact, it is somewhat like eating latkes during Hanukah: latkes are historically potato pancakes, a secular German side dish. However, they have become irrevocably Jewish and are sold in box-mix form in the kosher aisle in grocery stores throughout the United States due to their importance as a Hanukah food, during which they are eaten in remembrance of the miracle of the oil.  Likewise, meditation, mostly commonly associated with Buddhist practice, has become adopted into Judaism as an alternative form of spiritual worship.           

So, how do Judaism and Buddhism interact, and what can Jews learn from this trend? We see that Buddhism often becomes a path to turn to for those whose perception of Judaism sours, or when Judaism is seen as devoid of spirituality for them. We learn from Rabbi Alan Lew and Reb Zalman, and from Sylvia Boorstein that tools most readily found in Buddhism - like meditation - can enhance a spiritual practice, and that doing so does not have to require departure from Jewish practice.

In the six years since I completed my thesis, knowledge of and exposure to specifically Jewish meditative and spiritual practice has grown significantly. “Jewish yoga” and meditation classes are being offered at many synagogues, and Jewish spiritual retreats have become popular. Jewish leaders and practitioners are beginning to take note of and respond to this desire for more readily accessible spirituality. In addition to incorporating outside practices into Jewish prayer, some folks have been plumbing the depths of Jewish tradition, seeking to better understand Jewish mysticism or working with niggunim, wordless tunes, to explore what Jewish chant might look like.

Does Judaism still come with a lot of baggage? For some people, yes. Organized religion always will. Do the basic tenets of Buddhism continue to appeal to Jews seeking to make a change toward the spiritual? Definitely. The philosophical pieces of Buddhist thought are wonderfully compelling.

These truths may never change.

But how we grow and adapt within these truths, how we work to create a Jewish community that invites spirituality and depth – that is a worthy task.

Shabbat shalom.




[1]           David M. Bader, Zen Judaism: For You, A little Enlightenment (New York: Harmony Books,

2002), 102

[2]           The term “Buddhish” was coined by Charles Prebish as an alternative to the term JUBU.

Lionel Obadia, “Buddha in the Promised Land,” in Westward Dharma: Buddhism beyond Asia,

ed. Martin Baumann, Charles S. Prebish (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002)

[3]           Sylvia Boorstein, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist (San Francisco: HarperCollins 1997),

42

 

[4]           Norman Fischer, Jerusalem Moonlight: an American Zen Teacher Walks the Path of His

Ancestors. (San Francisco: Clear Glass Press, 1995), 125-126

 

[5]           One of the most influential members in the story of Jewish Renewal in America and another one

of the participants in the Dharamsala trip documented in The Jew In the Lotus.

 

[6]           Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, as quoted in Judith Linzer, Torah and Dharma: Jewish Seekers in

Eastern Religions (New Jersey: J. Aronson, 1996), 2

 

[7]           Interview with Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, in Beside Still Waters: Jews, Christians, and the Way of

the Buddha, ed. Harold Kasimov et al, (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003), 92

 

[8]           Interview with Lyle Poncher, 1 May 2008.

 

[9]           Interview with Zalman Shachter-Shalomi, in Beside Still Waters: Jews, Christians, and the Way of

the Buddha, ed. Harold Kasimov et al, (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003), 93

[10]          Interview with Alan Lew, 18 February 2008 

 

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