What Jews Can Learn from Buddhism

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What Jews Can Learn from Buddhism

Nathan Katz is professor and chair of religious studies at Florida International University in Miami. Among his dozen books are Buddhist Images of Human Perfection (2nd ed., 1989) and The Last Jews of Cochin: Jewish Identity in Hindu India (1993, co-authored with Ellen S. Goldberg).

That's Funny, You Don't Look Buddhist: On Being a Faithful Jew and a Passionate Buddhist, by Sylvia Boorstein. Harper San Francisco, 1997.

"I am a prayerful, devout Jew because I am a Buddhist".

Sylvia Boorstein's claim is that she is both a Buddhist and an observant Jew. This is a significant, difficult claim. She is not saying she is Jewish by ethnicity and Buddhist by practice and conviction. That claim might be lamentable, but it is not difficult or very important. A respected teacher of Buddhist meditation, she writes: "I am describing how my meditation practice and Dharma understanding have made me more awakened as a Jew."

This claim is a challenge to anyone who takes Judaism seriously because it implies that practicing Buddhism adds something to Judaism which was otherwise absent, and that if Buddhism can enhance one's Judaism then in some sense Buddhism must be "kosher."

More than that, Sylvia Boorstein is not alone in her contention. Her journey is not simply idiosyncratic but it reflects the experience of an indeterminate number of synagogue-attending, kashrut-observing, Torah reading, shomer Shabbat Jews. I often lecture on this and related topics as scholar-in-residence in synagogues, and it never fails that during kiddush, some congregation members talk with me about their experiences in such-and-such ashram, or at a vipassana retreat, or under this or that guru. And they all tell me essentially the same thing: that their spiritual peregrinations have made them better Jews.

Sylvia Boorstein's claim is an important one because it speaks not only for her, but for many. What are we to make of it?

Whether we are aghast at the thought that avodah zarah (commonly translated as idolatry) is being sanctioned Judaically, or whether we believe in a post-modern ecumenical openness, reading this book forces one to like Sylvia Boorstein. Here is a sixtyish Jewish woman with intelligence, humor, great warmth, and an indomitable spirit. She has the depth of character which invites confidence and intimacy. Her book is a very personal one, chronicling her mid-life discovery of Buddhism, the experiences triggered by meditation, her yehidut (one-on-one encounters with rebbes) in Jerusalem, and her teshuva (return) to Judaism without leaving Buddhism behind.

One has to like Sylvia Boorstein's book because one has to like Sylvia Boorstein.

One has to like her book even if it is at times precious, as when she describes an Israeli acquaintance as "the first person in the Upper Amazon Basin to put on tefillin while reading Padmasambhava's Tibetan Book of the Great Liberation."

One has to like her book even if she expresses a Pollyanna-ish, yet defensive, lack of concern that her children have all married Gentiles because "they are married to wonderful people."

One has to like her book despite its lack of intellectual rigor in raising and dismissing without reflection the crucial issue of avodah zarah, idolatry. After all, for the observant Jew Sylvia Boorstein claims to be, the issue of avodah zarah must be one of the thorniest.

One has to like her book because she is able to articulate how Buddhist meditation led her to Judaic observance: "Practicing mindfulness I felt peaceful and happy. Feeling peaceful and happy caused me to say blessings. Saying blessings reminded me of prayers, which I had found comforting as a child, and inspired me to pray again... I'm fairly sure my Sabbath observance is a direct consequence of my monastic practice. The possibility of a regularly scheduled day set aside for mindful recollection, meditation, and study--one that I could ritually celebrate with my family--is compelling. …