> Spirituality > Spiritual Odysseys

Conflicts of a Buddhist Jew

May 9, 2009 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

Hebrew school and ignorance drove away a generation of spiritual Jews. A new book beckons them back.

My friend Henya, after years in the Jewish renewal movement, decided that it was not feeding her spiritually. She divorced her husband and went off to India. There, in the foothills of the Himalayas, she found a guru. She moved into a cave near the guru, adopted the Sanskrit name "Janaki," and immersed herself in sadhana, Hindu spiritual practices.

On one of my trips to India a few years later, I visited Janaki in her remote Himalayan retreat. She met me dressed in an ochre sari, wearing her prayer beads. Other than her light complexion, she was indistinguishable from the myriad of saddhus (spiritual renunciates) wandering around India. Then she led me into her cave. When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, the first thing I saw, prominently displayed on the wall of the cave, was a hand- printed poster in Hebrew with God's ineffable name surrounded by Hebrew Scriptural passages.

The scene was strangely symbolic. Amidst all the trappings of a highly committed Hindu practitioner, hidden in the deepest recesses, was a cherished Jewish identity.

This incongruous juxtaposition abides in the hearts of many Jews who follow Eastern spiritual paths. Sylvia Boorstein is a popular Buddhist meditation teacher, author and founder of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center. In her book That's Funny, You Don't Look Buddhist, she describes how excruciatingly difficult it was for her to define herself as a Buddhist rather than a Jew. Even as a Buddhist delegate at a major interfaith conference, when her turn came to introduce herself by name and religion, the best she could manage was: "My name is Sylvia Boorstein. I grew up as a Jew, and I teach Buddhist meditation."

She writes: "Some friends of mine, aware of my great respect for Buddhist understanding and of my dedication to practice, have been surprised at my renewed interest in Judaism. 'Why,' they wondered, 'would you want to complicate yourself with Judaism?' It's not a question, for me, of deciding to complicate myself with Judaism. I am complicated with Judaism."

During my own 15 years as a monastic member of a Hindu ashram, I experienced a similar ambivalence. Feeling spiritually failed by my Conservative Jewish upbringing, I had sought and found a satisfying path in Hindu meditation and spiritual practices. Yet, I sometimes felt like a wife who divorces her first husband because he never brought home a paycheck and marries a second husband who supports her in grand style only to feel, whenever she encounters her first husband, that, unaccountably, she still loves him.

For many Jews in Eastern paths, their dual identity remains a low-grade ambivalence. For others, it poses a wrenching conflict. David Gottlieb, who grew up Reform, is a writer who has worked in theater and public relations. After years of studying and practicing Buddhism at a Zen center near Chicago, he received lay ordination as a Zen Buddhist in 2002. "I am a Zen Jew struggling to resolve these two identities," he writes.

Since more than one-fifth of all American Buddhists are Jewish, this issue of dual identity may be widespread. "My Zen practice caused increasing discomfort and friction," recalls David, "not only within myself but between me and my wife. In time, I came to see certain elements of Buddhist meditation as extremely helpful to me personally, but the adoption of Buddhism as a religion to be a source of internal and external division."

David's religious conflict was exacerbated by his wife Galit, who had a strong Jewish identity and education. Soon after starting to meditate at the Zen Center, David brought Galit to see the center and to meet his teacher, a female Zen priest.

There, the priest, dressed conservatively in clothes that say, "Hi, I'm a Jungian therapist," greets my wife and shows her the meditation hall…

"Why are there statues everywhere?" my wife asks.

"Well," my meditation teacher says, "the statues of the Buddha are there as reminders of the essence of what we call 'Buddha Nature.' They represent a certain kind of centered, aware, solid presence that we each have and can cultivate within ourselves."

"In my religion," my wife says acidly, "we call that idol worship. It's strictly forbidden."

"Well--" my teacher begins.

"Oh," my wife interrupts, "by the way, it's my husband's religion, too. And it's the religion we're raising our children in, just so there's no confusion."

"I understand," the meditation teacher says.

I begin staring intently at my shoes.


David's conflict continued to fester as he became more deeply involved in Zen practice even while faithfully attending their local Conservative synagogue. Finally, his wife's discomfort became unbearable. "David," she told him, "your practicing Buddhism is a knife in my heart."

At that point, David decided to write to Rabbi Akiva Tatz, a South African-born physician and author who has a reputation for plumbing the spiritual depths of Judaism. Since the affinity of Jews for Eastern paths is a push-pull dynamic of attraction to the East accompanied by aversion towards many aspects of what they consider to be Judaism, David sought answers for the issues that turned him off about Judaism. With disarming honesty, he labeled his 15 questions, "A Jewish Buddhist's complaints about Judaism and comparisons of Judaism with Zen."

All true learning starts with an implicit admission of ignorance.

"They are complaints or objections," he wrote to Rabbi Tatz, "due partly to my experience and partly to my ignorance."

All true learning starts with an implicit admission of ignorance. Most Jews who spurn Judaism attribute their complaints to their negative experience of afternoon Hebrew school, ostentatious synagogues, and vacuous bar/bat mitzvah lessons. Many years ago, I heard a tape of a panel discussion by Ram Das, Jack Kornfield, and a couple other luminaries of Eastern spirituality in America addressing a question that went something like, "Why don't we relate to Judaism?" Their discussion focused solely on their negative experiences growing up Jewish. Not one of them mentioned the possibility that perhaps -- just perhaps -- they had never learned Torah in the deep way they had learned Buddhism or Hinduism.

In admitting that his "complaints" were partly due to his own ignorance, David Gottlieb opened the way for a dialogue with a rabbi that was dazzling in its illumination. Their two-year correspondence has recently been published as a book, Letters to a Buddhist Jew. In its depth and wisdom, it is, in my estimation, one of the most important Jewish books published in English in recent times.


David Gottlieb's 15 questions span such subjects as God, chosenness vs. universality, self-knowledge, Torah from Sinai, legalism, spiritual vacuity, suffering, meditation, and joy. Although some questions relate to basic Buddhist concepts such as "emptiness," most of the questions and all of Rabbi Tatz's profound answers relate to issues that will edify any thinking Jew.

The book analyzes all of the major differences between Buddhism and Judaism. The cardinal difference regards God. Buddhism is a non-theistic, some say atheistic, religion. The Buddha, in all his teachings, never mentioned God.

David: Although Zen Buddhism does not deny the existence of a Divine force at work in the Universe, it does not focus on a God who must be obeyed or, more importantly, believed in. Buddhism focuses on what can be experienced, and although many believe they can experience God… can they, really?

Rabbi Tatz: David, what exactly is the meaning of "does not deny"? If that means accepts the existence of God, then not to go on to investigate what God is, says and does would be either madness or willfully evil…

If, however, "does not deny" means simply "has no interest in," we are faced with a logical problem. There cannot conceivably be anything more important than the existence of God. In the light of God's existence literally everything takes on vastly greater proportions; not only do moral obligations, for example, take on meaning in the deepest sense, but the very notion of meaning itself comes to life. In a godless Universe, does anything really matter?

A second divergence is that Buddhism, like all meditative paths, asserts that the meditator can experience ultimate reality directly; one need not subscribe to beliefs one cannot corroborate through one's personal experience. Rabbi Tatz analyzes this contention. He points out that to deny the reality of all that cannot be directly experienced is not only egocentric but also spiritually limiting: "No matter how broad my consciousness may become, if I never approach those dimensions beyond my conscious apprehension I may be excluding the major part of reality from my worldview and my world-work."

The focus of Judaism is not on the self, but on relationship.

Another key difference is the practice that constitutes each of these spiritual paths. The Buddhist "Eight-fold Path" includes right thought, right speech, right livelihood, etc. It is a quintessential process of working on oneself to increase awareness (mindfulness) and eliminate attachments in order to attain enlightenment. The focus is ultimately on self-development. The essential practice of Judaism, on the other hand, is the performance of commandments as the means of developing a relationship with God. Its focus is not on the self, but on relationship.

To the extent, Rabbi Tatz asserts, that "Buddhism posits no more to its view of human development than the training of mind and the refining of experience to the exclusion of a relationship with God; if it sees awareness of the Universe without awareness of its Source as sufficient, that would not be valid for Jews."

Ironically, many Buddhists regard God as a limiting concept, as a mental trap to be avoided in the quest for pure "emptiness." Sylvia Boorstein recounts how in the middle of an extended meditation retreat, she experienced what she understood to be the "presence" of God. When she reported this to her teacher, his response was: "Be careful, Sylvia. Don't reify."


The chapter on idolatry is scintillating in its brilliance. Although Buddhist Jews are adamant that the statues of Buddha so ubiquitous in Zen centers do not constitute idolatry because they are merely meditation aids, representing the calm, centered self, Rabbi Tatz explains that this is the very crux of idolatry.

After a detailed elucidation of the "devolving chain of causation" from the higher worlds to the lowest, physical world (ours!), he defines idolatry as "the idea of relating not to the supernal Source of all existence, the ultimate Oneness, but to the channels that bring down energy into the world." And what is the motive for focusing on anything lower than God? "The underlying reason for forgetting the Source and remembering the intermediate levels is the most basic of all vested interests: the focus on self."

While it is easy to see that a primitive idolater worshipping the rain god has only his crops and prosperity in mind, Rabbi Tatz shows how all focus on the intermediate channels, such as the most subtle and sophisticated elucidation of astrology, is really a product of egocentricity. Likewise, a statue of a pagan deity and a Buddha statue representing the enlightened self are both projections of self:

The heart of the difference [between Judaism and idolatry] is this: true service understands that God is everything, I am only to serve; idolatry understands that I am everything, and my gods are to serve me. … You will note that images of idolatrous worship are very often human in form. Idolatry is really worship of the self, and the graven images are projections of that self.


You cannot stand outside an open door and complain about being excluded. Come in! And bring your children.

At several different points in their correspondence, David brings up the problem of access. While Buddhism is "extremely accessible," he writes, "Judaism, on the other hand, is confoundingly inaccessible, and the deeper one tries to go, the denser the thicket of laws, and texts, and beliefs, and practices gets."

David: The highest level of Jewish scholarship no long reaches even a sliver of the Jewish people. We are in danger of becoming an illumination aristocracy, where an anointed few delve into layers of knowledge for which the majority of us are ill-equipped, and becoming more so. More minds each day are not just numbed but positively alienated by their de facto exclusion from the levels of Jewish knowledge to which only the illuminati retain access.

Rabbi Tatz: Who is excluding you? Torah wisdom is there for the taking. It costs effort, there is no doubt about that, but it is available to anyone who is ready to invest that effort. Certainly our sages are our aristocracy, but theirs is not an inherited status. Torah is not inherited; it is acquired by single-minded devotion. It has been said that Torah is an aristocracy of authority, but a democracy of opportunity…

No one is being excluded from Torah any more than from Buddhism; just as you made an effort, I am sure, to discover Buddhism, an effort must be made to discover Judaism. It is true that there is a language problem and a lack of textual skills, but these are not insurmountable…

You cannot stand outside an open door and complain about being excluded. Come in! And bring your children.

Ultimately, any Buddhist Jew who is true to his Buddhism must engage his Judaism, for the simple reason that Buddhism subscribes to the Law of Karma. About 14 years ago, Ram Das (born Dick Alpert), the most sought-after Eastern spiritual teacher in America, was a guest at my Shabbat table in the Old City of Jerusalem. Asked why he had made this pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which included talking to some leading rabbis, Ram Das replied that he had to face the karmic reality that he had been born as a Jew. Clearly he felt there was something he was supposed to learn from Judaism.

David's Gottlieb's objections are, he says, based on both his experience and his ignorance. Nothing can undo the negative experience, the sense of superficiality and spiritual stagnation, of Jews who grew up in the American Jewish mainstream. There is, however, an antidote for the ignorance: Letters to a Buddhist Jew.

🤯 ⇐ That's you after reading our weekly email.

Our weekly email is chock full of interesting and relevant insights into Jewish history, food, philosophy, current events, holidays and more.
Sign up now. Impress your friends with how much you know.
We will never share your email address and you can unsubscribe in a single click.
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram