I the Jew, I the Buddhist: Multi-Religious Belonging as Inner Dialogue

By Niculescu, Mira | Cross Currents, September 2012 | Go to article overview

I the Jew, I the Buddhist: Multi-Religious Belonging as Inner Dialogue


Niculescu, Mira, Cross Currents


In the early 1990s, a delegation of Rabbis from many denominations (from Orthodox to Reform) flew to Dharamsala to meet with the Dalai Lama. They exchanged spiritual insights, discussed similarities and differences between Judaism and Buddhism, and shared "survival tips." This interreligious dialogue was initiated by Marc Lieberman, a Buddhist Jew, who had founded an NGO for Tibetan people. Religion scholar and poet Rodger Kamenetz recounted the story of this meeting in his best seller, The Jew in the Lotus, to begin his exploration of the phenomenon of Jewish-Buddhists, whom he called "Jubus." Since then, the term Jubu has become a commonly used expression to designate the broad and eclectic array of Jews who practice Buddhism, and this term fails to represent the diversity of situations constituting this phenomenon. Yet academic attempts to grasp this phenomenon seem to have taken this term for granted as a new multi-religious label.

In this essay, I would like to propose an analysis that can express and address more accurately the lived realities of the so-called Jewish-Buddhists. I will show that in today's cultural context, it is more accurate to address this phenomenon in terms of an inner dialogue rather than of multi-religious belonging. Leaving aside the fascinating history and reasons for the specific connection Jews have with Buddhism, which have been addressed elsewhere (Linzer 1996, Vallely 2008, Gez 2011, Niculescu 2012), I will focus here on the performativity of this encounter: its parameters, and the way it actually "works" or rather is made to work. First, I redefine Judaism and Buddhism and explore their multi-dimensionality in today's Western contemporary societies, as both religious and secular traditions. Second, I show how, regardless of whether or not Buddhism is considered a religion, it still provokes tensions and dilemmas for Jewish-born individuals. Third, I offer a typology of inner dialogue between the reference points of Judaism and Buddhism.

Judaism and Buddhism

Two of the most frequently asked questions with respect to the Jubu phenomenon are: "What is a Jewish Buddhist?" and "Are Judaism and Buddhism compatible?" These questions require redefining Judaism and Buddhism, and examining the contemporary links between belonging, identity, and practice. Indeed in today's era of religious subjectivities, not only is it possible to practice without belonging or identifying to a tradition (for instance practicing yoga without identifying as a Hindu); it is also possible to belong and identify without practicing a religion (many contemporary Jews thus contradict Grace Davie's observation of the "Believing without belonging" [1994] phenomenon). Hence, today, practice and identification can be partial, selective, and construed in various ways.

The minimal definition of a Jewish-Buddhist designates a Jew by birth (religious or not) who practices Buddhism (whether or not he identifies with a Buddhist community). Who is a Jew and who is a Buddhist will therefore be my first question, although addressed very superficially in this essay. The first question is easier: A Jew according to halakha (Jewish law) is an individual born to a Jewish mother. Even Jews who live as Buddhist monastics are still considered Jews by this definition. According to Jewish tradition, the Torah was given to a people called Israel in a divine epiphany on Mount Sinai through Moses the prophet. Before being a religion, Judaism appears as an inherited, permanent identity.

The question of the definition of Buddhism has deep implications for the Jewish community: If it is a religion, "practicing it," that is, meditating and following Buddhist principles, can be considered a transgression of the prohibition of idolatry or Avodah zarah, or the "worshiping of foreign deities." This prohibition is fundamental to Judaism, as demonstrated by the second and third negative assertions of the Decalogue: A Jew is forbidden to "know other Gods" and to "make graven images" (and by extension bow to them). …

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