JewBu Jack Kornfield On Jewish Identity

From The SF Gate:

I want ask you about your personal story. You were born into a Jewish family. What sort of religious orientation did you have?
It was somewhat limited. We observed the Jewish holidays. I studied for my bar mitzvah and attended Sunday school. It was about being culturally and historically part of the Jewish people and then being a good person — that’s kind of the gist of it.
There is a phenomenon of many Jews becoming Buddhists, or “Jewbus” as they are called, especially here in the Bay Area. Why do you think some Jews are drawn to Buddhism?
I really don’t know. I do know that within my family and the community there was a great tradition of learning and understanding that is common among Jews. And I see the same love of learning and understanding among other Jewish people who have become Buddhist practitioners. So maybe that is one part of it.
Do you retain any connection to Judaism at this point?
Yes. My daughter was brought up learning about Jewish history and celebrating the holidays. She is also Christian from her mother’s side, so she was baptized at San Francisco’s Glide Memorial church. And we also lived in a Hindu country for a long time, so she has that influence as well.
When my daughter was younger, she was asked, “Well, what are you?” And she said, “Gee, I’m Christian and Buddhist and Jewish and Hindu” and some other things — I don’t know what else was in there. In her simple answer — she was like nine years old at the time — was a reflection that underneath all these different religions there is a commonality that at best involves treating one another with great care and respect based on love, virtue and integrity.

Full story.

15 thoughts on “JewBu Jack Kornfield On Jewish Identity

  1. “Why do you think some Jews are drawn to Buddhism?
    I really don’t know. ”
    Oy vey…stop being so coy. I don’t buy Jack’s answer at all. He wants to reduce the stereotype i.e. Jews embracing Buddhism, to one of choice and uniqueness. Kinda reminds me of W. Allen denying that he has any resemblance to the characters in his films. Or that he’s not really so neurotic (watch Wild Man Blues and you’ll see that Allen in all his neurotic glory).
    It’s quite clear that Buddhism provides Jews with a spiritual path that runs counter to what Rabbinic Judaism provides. A wonderful book about said topis is:
    The Art of Amazement by Rabbi Alexander Seinfeld

  2. Shtreimel, sorry bro. but I beg to differ (not our first time, hehe).
    I know some (and never enough) about both worlds. Dare say I know a lot less about Judaism, and somewhat more about Buddhism than your esteemed self. But I know enough about spiritual practice – as a direct experience of trying to relate subjectively to that which is beyond the ‘Me’ and ‘Mine’, to make the following observation: That it is not an issue of Buddhism providing a spiritual path running counter to Rabbinic Judaism. It is that Jewish practice, as a viable spiritual voyage for this day and age, seems to have become too foreboding, too alienated, and often too extreme (as in gender issues, or banning the internet) for a lot of people who are seeking spiritual nourishment to consider it seriously. It is as if the title of observing Jew has been kidnapped, and is being dragged further and further into the nether regions of peculiarity and condescending intolerance to that which is different or individualistic.
    As such, in many streams – be it Buddhism or New Age, or Indian walkabouts, or even ‘rainbow’ Judaism – there are many Jewish people who are looking for a connection and find it outside the shul’s doors. I am in no position – Katonty, as they say – to pass value judgement as to the validity or truthfulness of these alternatives or how they stand in contrast with each other. But I can vouch that Buddhism deals less with the complex issue of theology and what construct of G-d is right or wrong and more with what kind of practice one can undertake to reduce suffering in one’s life. I dare say that is one of its attractive elements. I am not sure I can follow your point – W. Allen is neurotic all right (hmmm, I don’t know many who are not). But if you are implying all Jews that have converted (or practicing) Buddhism in one form or another – all of them are actually of one kind (a streoptype) – you do not say what kind, so I will not assume – I can only conclude you have not met that many. People walk the talk of many languages. And the art of amazement, after all, must derive from the same amazing source…
    Twilight zone moment – the spamblock word is ‘preconceptions’… Cheers, and to your health 🙂

  3. Judaism’s extreme? Buddhism bans all alcohol consumption, like Islam and Mormonism, and Buddhists are often expected to meditate for hours or days on end, or become monks for a few years. Judaism encourages some alcohol consumption, and says everyone should get married and have kids and live a normal life in the real world, instead of retreating from it. Sounds more moderate (and fun) to me.

  4. Abel, that’s a bit like saying every Jew is expected to be Yeshiva-Bocher forever. Monkhood is a personal choice of some people who want to take their practice to another level, and most people do not. There are five precepts which every lay person who is Buddhist suppose to practice (in a nut shell – no killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct or indeed using intoxicants) and though one may comfortably argue that the last two leave life somewhat less of a wild ride than many people nowadays care for it is hardly extreme and definitely a good receipt for a healthy life. I think three of these match the so called Noahide Laws anyway…
    And besides, that’s exactly the point I am lamenting – that the mantle of who is considered to have a ‘normal life’ as a practicing Jew is appropriated by groups who view others with less fervent approach as not kosher, or not good enough to be considered practicing the religion. A good example is the industry which sprung – at least in Israel – around who is considered an authority to certify for Kashrut. Another is the kind of violence perpetrated by different groups of religious Jews – in amongst themselves, or to neighbours who do not leave by the same codes.

  5. Komai,
    You seem to know little about the true beliefs and customs of Judaism. It is simple to sit back and criticize that which you don’t understand. Why don’t you do some research on what it means to be Jewish and maybe you can contribute something worthwhile.
    Judaism is a beautiful religion and set of beliefs. Judaism is more than religion because it requires it’s members to do more than believe in G-d. It is required of every Jew to study and to understand the nature of G-d. This is the primary purpose of a Jew, to have a relationship with his/her creator. All the ritual and observance are there to assist in the relationship. The Mitzvoth are a physical way of expressing divine attachment. We are commanded to treat others with respect and act with humility. You should check out what the 613 mitzvot are, and you will realize that the goal is to produce people with good character traits. This is something which Buddhism doesn’t do. I don’t claim to understand Buddhism, but it seems to lack any clear definition about what is good and what is bad, or maybe like other religions there is no such thing as bad {sitra achra}.
    Judaism is a belief system based on written and oral laws. This is what we call Torah. Torah explains how to resolve issues concerning kashrut, monetary issues, etc. I think it is great that Judaism is system of laws, making it clear what is right and what is wrong. All of the laws stem from wisdom of the Torah.
    Regarding the “holier than thou” sentiment… All religions have people who are more or less observant, and therefore they will feel that they are superior. This occurs in Xtianity, Islam, and even in Buddhism…
    In my synagogue, everyone is on their own spirital adventure. Some may have a good understanding of G-d and his nature, others may just be beginning their trip and need to learn a lot. We are not judgemental, and when people stray from the path we remind them of why we observe things the way we do. Everything has a purpose and a meaning in Judaism, and it is good that this is so…
    Shema Yisrael,

  6. I practice Buddhism but within a halachically flexible orthodox Jewish lifestyle – but I also believe that the Lubavitcher Rebbe is the Messiah. “You Are The Buddha” & “Moshiach Now” are really two sides of the same coin – Does that make me a Flexidox Lu-bu?

  7. as a (somewhat) frum jew, and fan of buddhism, i would say that there is great appeal in buddhism for american jews. specifically, there is a relief to have a practice (that is demanding and promising) without a story. How nice to not have to believe that you are special, or that your tribe is special or in all the story line of judaism. it’s just you and Reality.

  8. One reason so many Jews seem to be attracted to Buddhism may be that Buddhism’s focus on meditation and spirtuality appeals to liberal Jews unfamiliar with the meditation traditions of their own faith, and uncomfortable with the Orthodox world. According to famous Orthodox writer Aryeh Kaplan, meditation used to be a much more central part of the Jewish faith. He suggests that the Amidah was originally meant as a meditation, and that the prophets ran kind of meditation schools, almost like gurus.
    Buddhism can be understood as a “improvement” on Hinduism, just like Islam and Christianity were supposed to be “improvements” on Judaism. Instead of a zillion gods, no gods. Instead of a caste system, equality. It makes sense to a degree. But compared to the Torah, it falls short. Though against sexual misconduct, Buddhism never had a true code of sexual morality. And sure enough, prostitution is of unparalleled prominence in the Buddhist world. That’s just one example.
    (With Christianity and Islam, of course, their improvements caused big problems. Both did away with the requirement that people convert of their own free will, leading to centuries of bloody religious wars (not to mention modern Islamic terrorism, which wouldn’t be possible without the jihad idea.) Christianity banned divorce, ruining countless lives, and got rid of the Jewish emphasis on education. Enter the dark ages.)
    Buddhism has its appeal, and I enjoy reading Buddhist literature now and then. Everyone can probably learn something from it, particularly the meditation traditions. But Judaism offers a more reasonable life, with an emphasis on both spirituality and repairing the world, rooted in a set of books (the Torah) that has shaped the world like nothing else, and which the half the world already believes in.

  9. Michael,
    “You seem to know little about the true beliefs and customs of Judaism.” I agree I know little compare with what there is to know. I dare say I probably know about it little more then you imagine.
    “We are commanded to treat others with respect and act with humility… the goal is to produce people with good character traits.” – While no doubt that is true with certain – hopefully many – individuals, the religious communities I grew up around obviously missed the point than. However kosher, the proof is in the pudding. Your synagogue sounds wonderful, but it ain’t typical of those in the neighbourhood where I grew up (Jerusalem).
    I am not saying that a genuine and sincere “relationship with his/her creator” is not available or indeed the purpose of Jewish practice, I just see that it is often buried underneath layers of trauma and intolerance. Arguably, considering the collective experience of Judaism through the ages, this is not without a reason. So the question is not if this is a fair conclusion or not. Neither is it a question of which spiritual tradition has more value. The question is about why people who are born into an all encompassing faith and deep tradition such as Judaism are asking around or indeed finding answers in a different stream of practice. I say that for people who are sincere and earnest in their seeking, often the Buddhist code of practice is attractive because it is un-encumbered by the weight of chosen roles and ever-stricter rulings by ever sterner Rabbis.
    As to the idea Buddhism lacks clear definitions of what is good or bad – and I am no authority here – but this might be a confusion born out of semantics. Good or bad for what? There is practice that potentially leads to liberation, and it is called the ‘right’ practice (as in right speech, right understanding etc.) So, I guess you could say it is ‘good’ for alleviating suffering, which is the purpose of the teachings.
    Abel: “Though against sexual misconduct, Buddhism never had a true code of sexual morality. And sure enough, prostitution is of unparalleled prominence in the Buddhist world. That’s just one example.” – Most prostitution is SE Asia was historically driven by Chinese cultural influence, and nowadays largely exploited older Western man of the Judeo-Christian upbringing. This has little to do with religious values and much to do with gender imbalance (hmmm, where did I see that before?). Talk to the people who operate the religious helpline in Israel and see how much anguish they hear from orthodox youngsters who are either wrought with guilt for having masturbated or – heaven forbid – discover they hold homosexual tendencies. And, I guess the fact Israel, together with most Buddhist countries, is listed as a tyre 2 country on the Trafficking in Persons Report, is an indication of how great a conduct we uphold. Is the potential for learning how to live an honourable and righteous life available though Judaism? You bet. Is it guaranteed? Not really. Right now, more then half of the world believe in the existence of heaven and hell – do they merit an independent existence without such belief? In other words, is there an ultimate and non-subjective truth? This is the beauty of spiritual practice – that it affords us the connection with the sense that there is an overall goodness, a natural state of things which we should strive towards (tikun) on order to restore balance. All religions offer the possibility that is it possible, and they are all ‘right’ for the people who choose them. ‘Each chooses his or her own bridge, and the important thing is not to be afraid…’

  10. I’d like to think the human trafficking in Israel is more a product of the mafia types who came along with the influx of Russians to Israel than with the religion. Historically prostitution also entered SE Asia through India. So of course it didn’t come directly from the religion, though I think the religion meant a cultural environment that was less likely to resist it.
    You’re right that each religion can be good for people. But each has its negative tendencies as well as positive tendencies, which can make things worse. Islam and Christianity have their exclusiveness (believing everyone else is going to hell), which thankfully Buddhism and Judaism have never had. Each religion has problems that need to be confronted. But even though I firmly believe that no religion is the one right religion for everyone, and that no one is going to suffer in the afterworld simply because of their beliefs or affiliation, I think some paths are probably more true in an objective sense, and more likely to lead to good results. I would place Judaism at the top of the list, and Buddhism second, but who knows. I wonder if a JuBu or Noahide-Buddhist religious amalgam will arise one day.
    Of course you probably realize that Buddhism in practice around the world has plenty of problems. Among the general Asian population, as opposed to the institutions geared toward Westerners, it mixes easily with paganism, idol worship, and traditional sexism. That’s one thing about Judaism you can count on: no idols. Sexism’s another matter….
    On another topic, I think the reason Hassidic types would give for why Jews are attracted to Buddhism is that Jews tend to have a strong inner drive toward religion and spirituality. Since Christianity has troublesome identity implications, and Muslims tend to hate Jews, spirituality-rich Buddhism is a likely destination. I guess this would also explain the large number of Jews in cults and new religions (and even quasi-religions like Marxism or Objectivism.) But I think non-Jews probably have just as much spiritual inclination. Maybe it’s just that because of the Reform movement and modern Israeli secularism, millions of Jews grow up with such watered down religion that they want something more substantial, and have such a negative image of observant Jews that that path doesn’t seem attractive.

  11. yes its true – many jews are drawn to buddhism. but it appears that jews are drawn to EVERYTHING. Jews are into feminism, anarchism, the arts, commerce etc etc. jews have over-active minds which gravitate to strong participation in discourses. so the fact is that jews turn to buddhism not because of any lack in judaism, but because jews are intellectual discontents who are always searching, and moving. this is good for individual growth, but bad for us as a community, as we should all be putting a high proportion of our creative energy into OUR culture / community / religion

  12. Abel,
    Funny to have our little chat over this corner while everyone is storming about the jewschool vs. truejewschool (have you seen Monty Python?).
    It seems we more or less agree with each other (!) as my original point was meant to say what you have summed up beautifully in one sentence:
    “… millions of Jews grow up with such watered down religion that they want something more substantial, and have such a negative image of observant Jews that that path doesn’t seem attractive…”
    Shall we conclude by a wish:
    May all beings get in touch with the pan of creator that speaks most to them…

  13. Well, Abel you have no understanding of Christianity evidenced by what you have written. No one can be converted against his/her will to Christ,any ‘forced’ conversion would be null and void. Ours is an interior faith as much as a faith with outward observances and ritual. Also Catholicism places great emphasis on education and the education of women. The universities of Europe and American give testimony to her work in this area. Give an informed opinion or spare us your ‘cereal box’ approach to other religions. You are, at the very least, a very ill informed individual.

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