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Jews and American Buddhism
February 27, 1998    Episode no. 126
Read This Week's November 7, 2008
BOB ABERNETHY: Here's another statistic, not as scientific, but it intrigued us. It seems as many as one third of American Buddhists are Jews. Some of you noticed this connection as well. Last fall, after our stories on American Buddhism were aired, several people called asking about these ties between Jews and Buddhism. So what is it about Buddhism that attracts so many Jews? And what does this mean for Judaism? We asked our chief correspondent, Maureen Bunyan, to find out.

MAUREEN BUNYAN: They've come to be known as Jew-Bus, a nickname for the surprising high number of Jews exploring Buddhism. Although Jews make up almost slightly more than two percent of the total American population, as many as 30 percent of American Buddhists are Jewish.

Rabbi ALAN LEW (Congregation Beth Sholom, San Francisco): Buddhism and Judaism are both mindfulness practices. They are both based on the direct experience of this world. And I think this makes them different from other religions.

BUNYAN: Whatever the similarities, the fact remains that some Jews are looking to Buddhism rather than Judaism for the answers they seek.

Rabbi LEW: Judaism is a deep, profound, rich spiritual path. But you would hardly know that from what you saw in the American synagogue.

BUNYAN: For many Jews, the heart of that profound and rich spiritual path was lost in the Holocaust. Among the millions of European Jews murdered were some 80 percent of its rabbis and spiritual teachers.

RODGER KAMENETZ (Author, THE JEW IN THE LOTUS): After the shock of the Holocaust, there was a kind of emphasis on survival, on building things up, building synagogues and institutions. And that was necessary.

SYLVIA BOORSTEIN (Author, THAT'S FUNNY, YOU DON'T LOOK BUDDHIST): What's been increasingly left has been the ritual of the forum and in the face of modernity.

BUNYAN: Another reason Jews are looking beyond their own religion is the tolerant, progressive nature of Judaism itself.

Ms. BOORSTEIN: Intellectual inquiry was very much emphasized. People were encouraged to respect other religious traditions, actually, to look at them or to study them. So I think people felt empowered to go and look.

Rabbi Z. SCHACTER- SHALOMI (Professor Emeritus of Religion, Temple University): Christianity, for many Jews, has the sense that you're leaving Judaism, you're betraying your heritage and so on. Somehow, with Buddhism, it didn't feel that way.

BUNYAN: That's because being a Buddhist doesn't require a formal break from Judaism.

Ms. BOORSTEIN: You don't have to take a vow. You don't have to leave anything or join anything or sign up for anything. All you have to do is come and see.

NORMAN FISCHER: And historically, at this moment, Buddhism is extremely accessible, because people find that -- never mind all the Asian trappings, just sit down, cross your legs, breathe, and don't move for a half an hour, and something happens.

BUNYAN: Something happened for Norman Fischer when he embraced Buddhism in 1970. Raised as a conservative Jew, today Fischer is Co-Abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center.

Mr. FISCHER: For many years I practiced Buddhism and did not have anything to do with Judaism at all, but the illness and death of my parents, to honor them, brought me back, and also just my karma, to have a dear, dear friend, who is a fellow dharma student, who became a rabbi.

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BUNYAN: That dear friend is Alan Lew, whose path to the rabbinate included a 10-year detour through Buddhism. Lew was brought up with minimal Jewish observance.

Rabbi LEW: My discovery of Judaism really began at the monastery, which I don't think was part of the design. You don't find this at any of the manuals of Zen Buddhism.

BUNYAN: In the late 1970s, Alan Lew turned down the invitation to be ordained as a lay Buddhist monk.

Rabbi LEW: In some strange way, which is still very difficult to articulate, it had to do with my feeling of being Jewish, that I couldn't do this thing, I couldn't take this step. I couldn't make this kind of eternal commitment to another spiritual practice.

BUNYAN: Sylvia Boorstein had no such conflict. She is a practicing Buddhist and an observant Jew.

Ms. BOORSTEIN: There was nothing in my experience of beginning to study Buddhism or to practice mindfulness meditation and lovingkindness meditation, which are the principal practices that the Buddhists taught, that ever seemed to challenge my being a Jew at all.

BUNYAN: Alan Lew also sees a synergy between the religions. He even teaches meditation at his synagogue. But he doesn't believe you can practice Buddhism and Judaism at the same time.

Rabbi LEW: It's perfectly all right to use elements of one practice to nourish another, but you have to have a sense of what your central practice is, and you have to have integrity about following that path.

BUNYAN: Nathan Katz is professor of religious studies at Florida International University. He practiced Buddhism for 15 years, and thinks there are irreconcilable differences between the two religions.

Professor NATHAN KATZ: I would say the fundamental difference between the two traditions is one is theistic and one is not. And even if you take the most esoteric, Judaic concepts of God, they still don't reconcile with the Buddhist criticism of all concepts of God.

BUNYAN: For Judaism to survive, some say Jews must remain within their faith, so their numbers don't continue to diminish.

Rabbi SCHACTER-SHALOMI: Imagine one of my children would go into Buddhism and not want to come back, would I not feel a certain kind of pain? Certainly I would.

Professor KATZ: According to Judaic belief, we entered into a covenant with God at Mt. Sinai. To seek refuge in the Buddha rather than in God is to violate the very principles upon which our relationship with God is based.

BUNYAN: But some suggest the Jewish-Buddhist affinity might, in the long run, be a blessing.

Mr. KAMENETZ: I don't think Judaism is losing people to Buddhism, I think that Judaism in the future, it will become more and more informed by Buddhism.

Mr. FISCHER: I think this would not be the first time in the history of the Jewish tradition that an encounter with another culture would bring back energy and renew Judaism.

ABERNETHY: We should point out that many Jews who are exploring Buddhism have not left Judaism. In fact, many of those we talked to say Buddhism may ultimately strengthen their connection to their own faith.

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