Book Review: Spiritual Journey Home: Eastern Mysticism to the Western Wall

Nathan Katz

(Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2009), 192 pages

While the mere mention of a Jew believing in Jesus still raises eyebrows in the Jewish community, here a Jewish Buddhist (JUBU) gets a respectful hearing, as evidenced by the mostly positive reaction to Spiritual Journey Home: Eastern Mysticism to the Western Wall, by Nathan Katz.

Katz, Professor of Religious Studies at Florida International University, also serves on the faculty of both the Hindu University of America and Chaim Yakov Shlomo College of Jewish Studies. As the liner notes to his book state, his academic career “has been mirrored by an eclectic, lifelong spiritual quest among Swamis and Sufis, Lamas and Rebbes.”1

In the ethnic sense, one does not stop being a Jew by practicing Buddhism. But are the main tenets of Bible-based Judaism compatible with Buddhism or Hinduism (of which Buddhism is an offshoot)? I say Bible-based Judaism because some extra-biblical Jewish writing, including the Talmud and the Zohar (Kabbalah’s main text) provide some wiggle room for apparent congruence with Buddhist teachings.

For example, Katz writes:

Torah teaches us that ever since the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, the dining table (shulhan) in our home has fulfilled the sacred role of the Altar in the Temple (shulhan ha-mizbe’ah)… Our rabbis, with spiritual genius, pointed us to our own homes, our own mundane lives, to replicate what before was only done through elaborate rites in one of the most spectacular edifices of the ancient world.2

Katz likens that teaching to the Hindu, Sufi and Buddhist emphasis on living daily life in the presence of the sacred. But when Katz says that “Torah teaches,” he includes extra-biblical writings. The specific teaching about the dinner table replacing the altar is from the Babylonian Talmud. But where in the Hebrew Scriptures does it say this?

Katz says that his most life-changing experience was his encounter with a dakini, a female Buddhist deity as he lay awake in his bedroom at a Buddhist pilgrimage point outside of Kathmandu:

I felt the presence of an intruder. Turning toward it, I was alarmed that an old beggar woman was beside me, palms extended accompanied by a plaintive wail of “paisa, paisa,” (“Coins, coins”) … . Fear and anger rose in my mind, and I raised my arm to brush away her extended hand—but my hand passed right through her!3

Katz remarks, “At first I thought she was a ghost. To this day I am not sure whether she was a hallucination or a dream or a goddess or the Holy Shekinah (Divine Presence) Herself. In any case, her presence was simultaneously repulsive and attractive.”4

Katz’s account implies that either a human can become a god (contrary to the teaching of the Hebrew Scriptures) or that God can become human. Although Christianity teaches the latter (that Jesus was God in human form), the New Testament never portrays Jesus as repulsive.

Interestingly Katz returns to Orthodox Judaism at the end of his quest, but does not give up Buddhist meditation or other Eastern religious practices. He writes:

Newly observant Jews have written intriguing books about their journeys of teshuvah (literally, “return” to a traditional practice of Judaism). Most of the authors now reject their past experiments with yoga or vipassana meditation, and I guess that is where we differ.5

Katz says that a meeting in New Delhi in 2007 settled the matter for him. The Chief Rabbi of Israel and the Head of the Hindu Dharma Acharya Sabha met and affirmed that they worship the same God. “The Judaic issue of ‘idolatry,’ or avodah zarah,” says Katz, “has been swept off the dialogical table.”6

But do Jews and Buddhists really worship the same God?

Katz sees little difference between Jewish and Buddhist meditation: “Some of the techniques are so very similar. Mentally repeating sacred words, perhaps the Shema or a phrase from Psalms, is technically no different from Hindu mantra repetition or Sufi dhikr practice.” But what god is Katz calling upon?

Katz learned the Tantric practice of visualization, known as deity yoga:

This teaching is found in sadhana (practice) texts… . The sadhana is an especially vivid description of one of the Tibetan pantheon’s myriad deities, which are explained as aspects of the enlightened mind. Depending on the personality and character of the practitioner, a deity is selected as the object of the meditation.”7

Isn’t this is in direct contradiction to the first of the Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods before (besides) me” (Exodus 20:3)?

Katz runs up against the second commandment as well: “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4). He attempts to skirt the issue:

On the apparent level, Hinduism has many gods who are depicted by murtis, statues or idols… . Yet when the swami speaks of God as the Light, beyond all form and distinctions, this apparent level of understanding is put into question. And the more one delves into the philosophies underlying Hindu practice, the more the apparent level is exposed as a mere comic book version of a profound and serious theology.8

Comic book or not, Katz admits, “At the same time, some of the practices of Hinduism cannot be affirmed from a Jewish standpoint.”9

The Hebrew Scriptures state:

Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord. (Deuteronomy 18:9–12)

Yet Katz traffics with mediums. He describes a visit to the home of the State Oracle of Tibet:

The medium for the Oracle, who was an unassuming Buddhist monk, described his experiences as a medium… . The monk’s descriptions of his sources and roots as a medium were remarkably similar to Biblical techniques for prophecy.10

I find it troubling that Katz cannot distinguish between prophecy given directly by God in the Hebrew Scriptures and the occult practices of mediums.

Katz seems to have experimented with everything under the sun:

I learned to cast astrological charts and consult the I Ching; I read Gurdjieff, practiced yoga, and even considered UFO cults … and the channeling of Edgar Cayce… . I joined psychological encounter groups and, given my theatrical interests, became involved with psychodrama, as well as my own Jungian analytical therapy. I felt that I learned from each of them.11

Katz believes in reincarnation:

Naturally enough, I am often asked to explain my passion for India… . I cannot explain it at all, but, of course, my Indian friends can. With knowing smiles, they tell me that in my last life I was most assuredly Indian. And since I have come to learn that reincarnation (gilgul in Hebrew) is a basic assumption in Judaism’s esoteric traditions, who I am [sic] to deny it?12

Note that Katz appeals to Jewish “esoteric traditions” rather than to the Hebrew Scriptures, which traditional Jewish scholars outside the stream of Jewish mysticism generally agree does not teach reincarnation.

Rather than causing him confusion or spiritual schizophrenia, this Jewish-Buddhist’s syncretism enabled Katz while at Williams College to simultaneously serve as adviser to Hillel’s Jewish Student Association and the Buddhist Meditation Society! “This unlikely pattern had replicated itself throughout my life,” says Katz.13 He says that Elie Wiesel affirmed him in his journey: “Somehow, Wiesel was telling me, Jews who ‘go east,’ even to the point of joining Hindu or Buddhist orders, might be doing a deeply mysterious tikkun [repair].”14

Katz, a professor of religious studies, has never studied Christianity. “To be frank, I was less interested in Christianity than in any other of the world’s religions, and never took a course in it,” Katz admits. “To this day, I probably know less about this, the largest religion in the world, than any other.”15

What would Katz have concluded had he explored the New Testament?  We do not know.  This reviewer encourages you to consider that the Jewish-Christian connections are grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures. Jewish-Buddhist connections? More like a short circuit.

-reviews by Matt Sieger

1 Nathan Katz, Spiritual Journey Home: Eastern Mysticism to the Western Wall (Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 2009). Note: All succeeding endnotes refer to this book.

2 p. xiv.

3 p. xiv.

4 p. xv.

5 p. xvi.

6 p. xvii.

7 p. 36.

8 p. 42.

9 p. 42.

10 pp. 109–110.

11 p. 25.

12 p. 10.

13 p. 73.

14 p. 75.

15 p. 21.