The dilemma of being Jewish and practicing Buddhism is not theoretical. As all who embark on the Buddhist path quickly realize—regardless of whether they practice vipassana meditation, Zen, or Tibetan Buddhism—an overwhelming number of both Western teachers and their students come from a Jewish background.
In her first two books, senior vipassana meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein told wonderful everyday stories that bring ancient Buddhist teachings into modern-day life. In her third book, That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, Boorstein shows that the Dharma can also be found in Judaism, and that it is possible, as the subtitle of the book boldly asserts, that one can be both a faithful Jew and a passionate Buddhist.
A Jewish Buddhist (or a Buddhist Jew—choose whichever description makes you more comfortable) might view this double allegiance as a dilemma, wondering whether her Buddhist practice makes her no longer a Jew or whether her Jewish practice makes her not a Buddhist. Throughout the book, Boorstein illustrates this point by recounting various instances where she felt discomfort in telling practicing Jews that she was a Buddhist meditation teacher. (The book’s title comes from one of those instances, when after one such statement, a Jewish temple leader exclaimed, “That’s funny, you don’t look Buddhist!”) She also describes her reluctance to reveal to her Buddhist teaching colleagues that she had become an observant Jew. Only after making such declarations to both groups, did she realize that her discomfort was internal and that the announcements proved to be “non-events” to the people around her.
Boorstein’s heartfelt answer to the Buddhist/Jewish question is that a Jew practicing Buddhism can still remain a Jew, and even more so. She explains that by letting her Yiddishkeit (Jewishness) show—by being most fully and authentically herself—she has become a better Buddhist. And, conversely, her Buddhist practice has made her a better Jew. Thus, she can state today: “I am a real Buddhist. I’m not an ethnic Buddhist, but I’m a real Buddhist, and I’m also a Jew. I’m not a person without a country. I am a person who has dual citizenship.”
The original intent for the book was to explain why Jews are attracted to Buddhism, to answer the obvious two questions: “Why Jews?” and “Why Buddhism?” However, as Boorstein explains, “For me, the imperative of the book changed. People seemed less interested in ‘Why is this happening?’ and more eager to know ‘How is it possible to be both a Jew and a Buddhist?’ Their interest was personal, not general. They wanted to know, ‘How do you do it?’ and ‘Can I?’’’
To answer these questions, Boorstein reveals her life story: from her childhood as a Jewish girl growing up in Brooklyn (labeling her grandmother as her first Buddhist teacher), to becoming a Buddhist meditation student and teacher, and now also to being an observant Jew who regularly goes to the synagogue, lights Sabbath candles and keeps kosher.
Boorstein shows over and over again how the two traditions, while using different language, often send the same messages. Thus, the Buddhist pledge “I vow to end all suffering” can be found in the Talmud as “Whoever saves a single soul saves the whole world.” The Buddhist description of emptiness is found in the Jewish teaching of havel, or insubstantiality. The Buddhist concepts of metta (lovingkindness) and karuna (compassion) are found in Hebrew, respectively, as chesed and rachanim. Likewise, the Hebrew word Hineyni found in Genesis (Abraham saying to God, “Here I am”) is a call for mindfulness and for being fully present in the moment. In one chapter, she even takes an entire psalm and shows both its Jewish and Buddhist interpretations.
This is a wonderful book which speaks to all—especially, but not only, to Jews—who have entered Buddhism from another religious tradition. To read the book is to say, “If Sylvia Boorstein can be both a Jew and a Buddhist, so can I.” And her bodhisattva qualities, which have made her such a beloved teacher, shine throughout. In Yiddish, we simply say that she is a mensch (a real human being).
Sylvia Boorstein is not the only one to explore the current Buddhist/Jewish connection. In October 1990, Rodger Kamenetz, a Jew, poet and professor of English at Louisiana State University, traveled to northern India with a group of Jewish scholars and rabbis to meet with the Dalai Lama. He describes the event in his book The Jew in the Lotus.
This book can be read on many levels. On the one hand, it is a wonderfully written travel book, telling the journey of four rabbis (three male and one female) and four Jewish scholars as they make the trek from Frankfurt to London to New Delhi and then the 300-mile-long schlep by car to Dharamsala to meet with the Dalai Lama—bringing a Torah along with them. Kamenetz is a good listener and observer, and his descriptions of their travels and the interesting characters they meet along the way are sometimes poignant, sometimes funny, but always interesting.
Kamenetz vividly describes the different personalities of the eight Jewish delegates as they prepare to and finally meet with the Dalai Lama. The most interesting is Rabbi Zalman Schachter. “As early as 1973, Zalman had attempted to bring elements of vipassana meditation into a Yom Kippur service, as a way of enhancing prayer on that day of self-examination.”
Like Boorstein, Kamenetz tackles the issue of Jews turning to Buddhism for spiritual solace. He labels this the JUBU (for Jewish Buddhist) phenomenon, and discusses his “take” as to why Jews are drawn to the dharma. Unlike Boorstein, however, Kamenetz does not practice Buddhism, and so his observations are those of an outsider who wants to understand the phenomenon by interviewing living Jewish Buddhist masters. He finds that most such teachers still retain a link to their Jewishness, whether through jokes, Jewish-flavored dharma stories, or use of Yiddish words. Echoing Boorstein’s integration of Buddhism and Judaism, Kamenetz observes: “These scraps and remnants of Jewishness made me wonder if JUBUs from strong Jewish backgrounds might be evolving a blend of Judaism and Buddhism.”
Ultimately, Kamenetz—who until this trip was a nonpracticing Jew—rediscovers his Jewish identity by seeing Judaism as a spiritually rich religion with much in common with Buddhism.
Kamenetz also describes the sad parallels between the persecution suffered by Jews throughout history and the ongoing destruction of Tibetan Buddhism and persecution of the Tibetan people by the Chinese. As one of the delegate rabbis, after learning of Tibet’s struggle, poignantly observes: “This is what the destruction of the Temple must have been like in Jewish history.” Another rabbi makes a different parallel: “The Chinese came to your people as the Germans came to ours.”
Kamenetz’s book has been wildly successful. Not only was it reissued in paperback, but various “Jew in the Lotus” conferences, focusing on the Jewish/Buddhist connection, have now been held, with Kamenetz as star speaker. What’s next? Since this dialogue was filmed, look for Jew in the Lotus: The Movie, due out in early 1988. Read the book first; I’m sure it will only enrich your appreciation of the film.