Jewish Buddhists: A Meld of Mezuzahs and Mantra?
Jewish poet Rodger Kamenetz journeyed to India with a small group of rabbis and other Jewish leaders. They went to meet and dialogue with the Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who lives in India, exiled from Tibet by a most repressive Chinese regime. The Dalai Lama wanted to learn the secrets of Jewish survival to apply them to his own exiled people.
The book that arose from this expedition, The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India,1 is the poet’s candid reflections on his own Jewishness and on the attraction that Buddhism holds for a significant number of Jews. He calls these Jewish Buddhists JUBUs.”
A who’s who of JUBUs include “a great-granddaughter of Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, [who] was a Buddhist nun,…an Israeli paratrooper who was a bhikshu, a monk,”2 and David Rome, the former head of the Jewish publishing firm Schocken Books. Rome sold the company in 1987—but not before spending four years at the helm of Schocken as a practicing Buddhist.3 Perhaps the most well-known “JUBU” is poet Allen Ginsberg.
Many of the JUBUs are looking to integrate “Jewish roots and Buddhist wings.”4 Some hold on to their Jewish identity (by celebrating Jewish holidays) more than others. One JUBU considers that the appeal of Buddhism is that it avoids the issue of who’s got the truth and who doesn’t.5
Kamenetz is not satisfied with this state of affairs. He offers an alternative: a renewed Judaism that offers real spirituality to Jews so that they need not turn to Buddhism or anywhere else. He’s singing an old song, but in this case the voice heard is not that of the orthodox establishment, but of a self-professed secular Jew.6 He candidly chronicles his own struggles with what it means to be Jewish. Without fully knowing why, he senses that it is not enough to be secular, but that life calls for spirituality of some sort. He is uncomfortable with the notion of Jews becoming Buddhists. For him this means that they have left the Jewish fold.
Yet he views the whole phenomenon of Jewish Buddhists with great sympathy and understanding. Rather than analyze the “failures” of Judaism, he concentrates on the elements of Judaism that are closest in thought to Buddhism: the mystical and meditative traditions of Judaism, including the kabbalah. He points out that most Jews are unfamiliar with kabbalah and don’t realize that the same kind of spiritual banquet is available to them in Judaism as they are finding in Buddhism.
One can understand his aversion to the idea of Jews abandoning the Jewish community. Yet his approach is problematical: in his search to balance the reality of Jewish identity and the need for a spirituality that “meets the needs” of contemporary Jews, Kamenetz is forced to jettison the very source of Jewish ethnic and spiritual identity: the Bible. The unintended result can be likened to what happens when a captain responds to the ravages of a storm by tossing overboard not only the ballast but also the passengers. Or, rather, when a vessel comes alongside, sees what it thinks is a sinking ship, and tosses out passengers, captain’s log, and captain all at once.
What does Kamenetz believe? His Indian odyssey has “shown” him that Jews are not uniquely chosen: “I decided that the most important baggage Jews carry is an absolute conviction of our significance because we are Jews, because we have survived.”7 In this he put himself in the company of popular Jewish writer Blu Greenberg, who remarks that God could choose others and give a unique calling to each.
Kamenetz views truth through the lens of religious pluralism-where many varieties of religion co-exist and stand side by side-and he wonders whether it is possible to forfeit any claim to having absolute truth without falling into total relativism. He wants to minimize the differences between religions so as to minimize the need to choose one over another: “I felt, though I couldn’t really explain it, that there had to be a place, a very high place, where the circle of dancers was whole and the differences weren’t differences anymore.”8
Most importantly, he acknowledges that the impelling force to move from Judaism to Buddhism has little or nothing to do with God. For most, if not all, Jewish Buddhists, it has much to do with what they want to experience. “It was clear that all the JUBUs dismissed out of hand the idea that God could be compelling or real.”9
In this regard, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi presents Kamenetz with a disturbing thought: “Your God is a true God. That is, your God is real”-meaning, apparently, that whatever God you find or make or choose is the true God for you.10 Kamenetz responds: “I am caught in this dilemma: God is reality-or nothing.”11
It is apparent that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is an obstacle to overcome for one who wants to go further into mysticism: “The closer one gets to an experience of unity with God, the less relevant the traditional images and languages become. The imagery of father, king and judge that so deeply concern many JUBUs—and obviously create a barrier—dissolve in the contemplation.”12
Ultimately, Kamenetz calls for a “renewal” of Judaism by de-historicizing it, a Judaism “stripped away of all its historical baggage, the long history of anti-Semitism and the defenses it has aroused.”13 He calls for “a kind of neo-Hasidism, because without an infusion of Jewish spiritual fervor in prayer and blessings and observances, the reason to stay Jewish, the juice, will be lost.”14
Kamenetz wants both to capture a meaningful spirituality and to offer a rationale for a continued Jewish identity. But he really has not worked out what “staying Jewish” involves other than a connection with the Jewish community (which even some of the Jewish Buddhists affirm for themselves). It is all very aesthetic, all very subjective, all very poetic—and it hangs in the air, ready to plummet at any moment.
Where Kamenetz calls for “renewal,” the God of the Bible calls for “repentance.” Where Kamenetz cannot capture what it means to be Jewish and live Jewishly, the Scriptures affirm that we are chosen to be a holy people, called by God to convey a message of truth to the entire world.
Perhaps it is the last point that sticks in the throat of so many. Those who claim a “corner on the truth” are generally perceived as arrogant and narrow-minded. Yet “truth” in the Bible is more than just correct facts. It is also integrity in personal relationships.
Though honesty and sincerity come across in Kamenetz’s chronicle, one unfortunately can be sincerely wrong if one’s religious search comes down to “meeting my/our needs.” In the Scriptures, God asks us to meet the needs of others, and to “repent” of our self-seeking ways. In doing that, we are in fact promised an inward renewal and an experience of God.
While some Jews look to Buddhism, they would do well to consider the words of a Jewish teacher of the first century, Jesus of Nazareth, who said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matthew 5:8).
First-century Jewish men and women knew that being pure in heart meant turning from our sins, from our self-absorbed behavior and thinking, and turning to God, to the real personal Creator who made not just the world but the Jewish people. And the promise is that such people will “see God.”
Truth hasn’t changed. Without such a God, there is no intrinsic meaning in being Jewish, no final purpose in religious experience, no reason to choose any religious system except for reasons of personal preference. I doubt that Kamenetz would agree with that. He is striving to find the meaning, the value, the reason, at the same time as he is striving for spirituality.
Nevertheless, it is only in the God of the Bible that we find reasons and answers. Otherwise, we are left only with the inchoate musings of our own minds, where choices depend not on reality but on the preference of the moment.
Endnotes 1Rodger Kamenetz, The Jew in the Lotus: A Poet’s Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1994). 2Ibid., p. 30. 3Ibid., p. 258. 4Ibid., p. 44. 5Ibid., p. 258. 6Ibid., p. 156. 7Ibid., p. 95. 8Ibid., p. 146. 9Ibid., p. 157. 10Ibid. 11Ibid. 12Ibid., pp. 239-40. 13Ibid., p. 260. 14Ibid. p. 287.
Scholar in Residence, Missionary
Rich Robinson is a veteran missionary and senior researcher at the San Francisco headquarters of Jews for Jesus. Rich has written several books on Jewishness and Jesus, and he received his Ph.D. in biblical studies and hermeneutics from Westminster Theological Seminary in 1993.