What is an Amer­i­can JewBu?

So­ci­ol­o­gist Emily Si­ga­low demon­strates Jewish Bud­dhists are not a mono­lithic group

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • GLENN C. ALTSCHULER The writer is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can Stud­ies at Cor­nell Univer­sity.

In 1893, Charles Strauss, the 41-year-old owner of one of the old­est and largest lace goods busi­nesses in New York City, be­came the first con­vert to Bud­dhism in the United States. Al­though his par­ents were Jews, Strauss ex­plained that he had not been in a sy­n­a­gogue more than half a dozen times in his life. A Jew “in spirit” when Jews came un­der at­tack, he was at­tracted to Bud­dhism be­cause with­out “pos­tu­lat­ing a God” it of­fered a “sub­lime ethics,” a “liv­ing force” com­pat­i­ble with sci­en­tific rea­son­ing, aimed at the wel­fare of plants, an­i­mals and hu­man be­ings. It taught com­pas­sion, self-re­straint, good deeds and fru­gal­ity.

Al­though it is dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine who “qual­i­fies” as a Bud­dhist these days, so­ci­ol­o­gist Emily Si­ga­low, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Im­pact and Per­for­mance As­sess­ment De­part­ment at the United Jewish Ap­peal-Fed­er­a­tion of New York, points out that the per­cent­age of Jews “in Bud­dhist cir­cles” is sig­nif­i­cantly higher than their share of the pop­u­la­tion of the United States.

In Amer­i­can JewBu, Si­ga­low re­views the his­tory of Jewish-Bud­dhist en­coun­ters. The de­mo­graphic, spir­i­tual and suc­cess­ful mi­nor­ity “so­cial lo­ca­tion” of Amer­i­can Jews, she in­di­cates, helps ac­count for their at­trac­tion to Bud­dhism. Si­ga­low also ex­plains the im­pact of the “meet­ing and mix­ing” of Ju­daism and Bud­dhism and the “repack­ag­ing” of med­i­ta­tion on the “peo­ple, or­ga­ni­za­tions, dis­courses and prac­tices” of both re­li­gious tra­di­tions. Draw­ing on archival re­search, field work and in-depth in­ter­views, Amer­i­can JewBu is an in­for­ma­tive study of a fas­ci­nat­ing phe­nom­e­non.

Si­ga­low ac­cepts the con­ven­tional wis­dom about the rea­sons Jews grav­i­tated to­ward Bud­dhism. In the first half of the 20th cen­tury, she writes, the Jewish spir­i­tual seek­ers came from wealthy fam­i­lies. Their ver­sion of Bud­dhism was com­pat­i­ble with a mod­ern, lib­eral, uni­ver­sal­ist or even sec­u­lar spir­i­tual per­spec­tive. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Jews played a sub­stan­tial role in the trans­for­ma­tion of Bud­dhism in the United States.

Dis­sat­is­fied with the highly ra­tio­nal and in­tel­lec­tual form Ju­daism had taken, they sought spir­i­tual ex­pe­ri­ences with a ca­pac­ity to ad­dress the stresses of ev­ery­day life. Down­play­ing monas­ti­cism, dogma, rev­er­ence to the Bud­dha and bow­ing prac­tices, lead­ers and teach­ers of Jewish de­scent em­pha­sized the pri­vate ex­pe­ri­ence of si­lence and med­i­ta­tion, the eth­i­cal pur­suit of so­cial jus­tice and the psy­chother­a­peu­tic di­men­sion of Bud­dhism.

Jewish Bud­dhists, Si­ga­low demon­strates, are not a mono­lithic group. Some view Bud­dhism as their pri­mary mean­ing-mak­ing sys­tem, em­brac­ing a Ti­betan cos­mol­ogy, in­clud­ing the na­ture of ex­is­tence and en­light­en­ment, karmic re­birth, and med­i­ta­tion tech­niques in­volv­ing visu­al­iza­tion of deities, mantras (chanted phrases), mu­dras (ri­tual hand ges­tures), and man­dalas (rep­re­sen­ta­tions of en­light­ened worlds).

BABY-BOOMER JEWISH Bud­dhists of­ten em­brace their new com­mu­ni­ties be­cause they are anti-ma­te­ri­al­ist, po­lit­i­cally lib­eral or rad­i­cal.

Oth­ers view mind­ful­ness and med­i­ta­tion as tech­niques to en­hance their com­mit­ment to Ju­daism. Their med­i­ta­tion classes in­clude To­rah read­ings, chants of Jewish prayers, dis­cus­sion of Jewish hol­i­days and mys­ti­cal tra­di­tions.

“Take what works from Bud­dhism,” Shoshanna Cooper, a found­ing Jewish med­i­ta­tion teacher, told Si­ga­low. “Leave the rest and move on.” Sev­eral re­spon­dents main­tained that re­fram­ing tra­di­tional ob­ser­vances – like bra­chot (bless­ings) over food – as mind­ful­ness-in­fused mean­ing into what had seemed to be “oblig­a­tory or even sense­less per­for­mances.”

Si­ga­low char­ac­ter­izes a third group as “dual be­longers” who draw on as well as trans­late be­tween both re­li­gious tra­di­tions.

They of­ten con­nect to Ju­daism as an as­cribed iden­tity, a sys­tem of be­lief and cul­ture, usu­ally es­tab­lished at birth, fixed and im­mutable, part of who they are and where they came from. They de­fine Bud­dhism, on the other hand, as an achieved iden­tity, a con­scious choice em­bed­ded in what they do.

Amer­i­can JewBu re­minds us that like all re­li­gions, Ju­daism and Bud­dhism are “liv­ing, mov­ing” tra­di­tions, char­ac­ter­ized by “flux and mix­ing” in re­sponse to chang­ing his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances and so­cial con­di­tions, and not stasis or uni­for­mity. Act­ing of­ten as in­flu­en­tial in­ter­preters of Bud­dhism in the United States, Amer­i­can Jews, Si­ga­low em­pha­sizes, al­tered “the spirit and ul­ti­mate mis­sion” of Bud­dhism.

The process be­gan with a rad­i­cal sec­u­lar­iza­tion of Bud­dhism. It was fol­lowed by ef­forts to in­still within Bud­dhism “a so­cially ac­tive and psy­chother­a­peu­tic ethic,” de­tached from most dog­mas and tra­di­tions, made avail­able for all to ex­pe­ri­ence, and in a sense “whitened.” While Si­ga­low notes that Amer­i­can Bud­dhists have not adapted Jewish cus­toms and ob­ser­vances into their prac­tice, these ef­forts have also re­sulted in “re­sacral­iza­tion in Jewish forms.”

Si­ga­low ends her book by won­der­ing, provoca­tively, or per­haps puck­ishly, whether the in­creas­ing in­ter­mar­riage be­tween Amer­i­can Jews and Bud­dhist Asians might be fol­lowed in the 21st cen­tury by con­ver­sions to Ju­daism, the emer­gence of Bud­dhists as lead­ers and in­ter­preters of Ju­daism, and/or the in­cor­po­ra­tion of Jewish ob­ser­vances and cus­toms into Bud­dhist prac­tices.

Af­ter all, as her book demon­strates, mi­nor­ity re­li­gious tra­di­tions in the United States have not adapted only by as­sim­i­lat­ing into the (Protes­tant) ma­jor­ity. They also “re­con­fig­ure them­selves by bor­row­ing and in­te­grat­ing el­e­ments from each other through a process shaped by their spe­cific lo­ca­tions in so­ci­ety.”

(Jes­sica Ri­naldi/Reuters)

LEONARD CO­HEN, one of many fa­mous Bud­dhist Jews, ac­cepts an award in 2012 for song lyrics.

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