Sylvia Boorstein. San Francisco: Harper, 1997. 170 pages. $20.00, cloth.

Reviewed by Garrett Smith and Matthew Friedland.

That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist sounds like it might be a comment made by a Jewish comic from the Catskills. However, the essentially serious message of this latest book by Sylvia Boorstein is summarized by the subtitle, On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist.” Boorstein, a Jew who has been practicing Buddhism for twenty years, is the founder of a meditation retreat in California. In addition, she teaches Buddhism at various retreats each year. She grew up in a strongly Jewish home in Brooklyn—both religiously and culturally—but as she neared adulthood, she became far less religious. In recent years Boorstein has become what she would call a “devout Jew.” Much of her odyssey is based on how she attempts to reconcile her Jewishness and her Buddhism.

One of the reasons why this is a noteworthy book is that a significant number of Westerners studying Buddhism are Jews. I (Garrett Smith) know this first-hand, since before I became a believer in Jesus, I spent time at a Buddhist meditation retreat in Thailand. I recall meeting many other Jewish people during my stay. We spoke openly of both our Jewishness and our desire to learn Buddhism. Boorstein’s perspective is that Buddhism expresses a truth about the nature of life, whereas being Jewish refers to our identity. Most JUBUs (1) would agree.

In a strange way, many of the struggles Boorstein undergoes parallel those experienced by Jewish believers in Jesus. She seeks to integrate her Jewishness and her non-traditional beliefs. At an interfaith conference, she faces members of the Jewish community, wanting them to understand that she is still Jewish, and passionately so, even though they may think otherwise.

Boorstein’s argument throughout the book is that, no matter what she believes, her Jewishness is never compromised. For her, Buddhism is a philosophy which accurately portrays the nature of life: namely, that our suffering comes because of our desires and wants and the nature of life. We can live peaceful lives by simply ceasing to strive. This philosophy is something different from her understanding of her Jewishness. Jewishness to her is cultural; it is a question of identity. She is a Jew.

Therefore, Boorstein can practice her Buddhist beliefs in a Jewish framework and find a sense of peace and joy and reconciliation. She uses the Bible, various rabbinic sayings and Jewish liturgy to express her Buddhism. For example, below is her handling of Psalm 121 as found on page 79 of her book.

For followers of Yeshua, Boorstein’s views pose serious problems. The author does not believe in the Jewish Scriptures as a revelation of the Creator God to his Creation, but rather as a holy book or spiritual guide for the Jewish people. It is seen as a cultural interpretation of essential spiritual truths. She does not embrace the historicity of the Bible nor the personhood of God as the Bible expresses it. She regularly twists the plain meaning of Scripture to conform to her philosophical outlook.

For Boorstein, God is not personal but more a description of a state of mind or the source of all things in an impersonal sense. There is virtually no belief in a God who is Creator, personal, holy, and before whom we are accountable. There is no sin and no need for a Savior. There is no belief in a Messiah, much less one called Jesus.

Boorstein’s amalgamation of Buddhism and Jewishness is mostly utilitarian; its main purpose is to achieve personal peace in this life. For instance, Buddhism would agree that anger is bad, not because it is an offense before a holy God, but rather because it is personally detrimental.

What then can a believer learn from this book? It is quite helpful in understanding the recent trend, small though it may be, of Jews turning to Eastern philosophy. In fact it can aid any believer who has Jewish friends involved with Buddhism, Eastern thought, or New Age movements. For such a friend who insists that one cannot be both Jewish and a Christian, one might effectively ask why one can be both a Buddhist and Jewish. For those who agree that one can be either Buddhist or Christian without abandoning one’s Jewishness, the question might then focus on the uniqueness of Jesus as compared to the person of Buddha.

The style of That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist makes it very easy to read. It essentially weaves anecdotes of three to four pages in length which offer different insights on the Buddhist-Jewish connection. Most of the book uses storytelling and lessons. There is a lot of name-dropping. Boorstein recounts her meetings with a number of noted rabbis to discuss her beliefs. She speaks of teaching Buddhism to rabbis at some of her seminars. She reminisces about her conversations with the Dalai Lama. There is a liberal sprinkling of Hebrew phrases throughout the book as well as mention of the Scriptures and of Jewish liturgy.

For related articles, read Garrett Smith’s personal story, “Out of the Flowing Water”. Then read the article “Jewish Buddhists: A Meld of Mezuzahs and Mantra?”. For further material that responds to Buddhism from a biblical viewpoint, see Beyond Buddhism: A Basic Introduction to the Buddhist Tradition by J. Isamu Yamamoto (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1982)—unfortunately now out of print but available through libraries or by trying online bookstores.

(1) A term used by recent writers on this subject to refer to Jewish Buddhists.

A Jewish Translation of Psalm 121 A Buddhist Translation of Psalm 121
1. I lift where will my help come from? 1. Look at Nothing. Everything is revealed.
2. My help is from God, Who created heaven and earth. 2. Rest in the radiance of Natural Mind.
3. May God not permit your foot to waver, may your Guardian never slumber. 3. The joy of your discovery will strengthen your dedication to unwavering mindfulness.
4. Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps. 4. Because the perfection of emptiness, as the Source of creation, is always, always, accessible.
5. God is your Guardian, God is your shelter at your right hand. 5. Whenever this is clear to you, wisdom and compassion will guide you.
6. The sun will not harm you by day nor the moon by night. 6. You will be safe.
7. God will guard you from evil; God will protect your soul. 7. Your actions will be impeccable.
8. God will guard your going out and your homecoming from this time forth and for all the future. 8. Untroubled by fear and confusion. You will be peaceful and happy always.
—From That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, p.79

Garrett Smith serves on staff with Jews for Jesus. Matthew Friedland served with The Liberated Wailing Wall, Jews for Jesus’ traveling Jewish-gospel music team.