Tuesday, May 12, 2015

What "The Jew in the Lotus" Can Teach Christianity

I just finished reading a book called "The Jew in the Lotus", which is the true story of a group of Jews - coming from Orthodox, Reformed, and secular, as well as JUBU (Jewish-Buddhist) traditions - who go to visit the Dalai Lama, as told by Jewish poet Rodger Kamenetz.  The Dalai Lama was interested in learning how Judaism survived in exile for so many centuries, considering that Tibetan Buddhism was now in a similar position after their own holocaust and exile at the hands of the Chinese. It is so interesting to see how, throughout the story, the various Jewish figures in the story learn more about their own tradition through the experience - not only because they are now seeing Judaism through each others' eyes, but through Tibetan Buddhist eyes as well. The author, a secular Jew, comes out of the experience with a deep appreciation for the mystical side of Judaism - which he had never known anything about. And it is incredible to see how accurately he pinpoints a diagnosis of the problems with his own religion - he spends much of the book questioning why so many Jews were leaving their faith for Buddhism in the 60's and 70's, and why Judaism has not survived well in America.

One of the more interesting points in the book for me involved the discussion - prior to meeting the Dalai Lama - of what to call him.  The conventional way to address the Dalai Lama is "His Holiness".  And while some of the members of the group were fine with this, others were uncomfortable with this form of address - they were concerned with "being halakhically correct" (conforming to Jewish law).

The group asks Karma Gelek, the Secretary of Cultural and Religious Affairs, what he thought, and he admitted that there were other titles for the Dalai Lama, but said "if you could say His Holiness, that would be the usual way."

Kamenetz writes:
It wasn’t so much words as their historical resonances. How could Karma Gelek ever understand how Jews felt about “His Holiness,” or the association Jews would make immediately with the pope and from there to the long history of persecution, proselytization, inquisition, and martyrdom? How to explain the peculiar tang of a title like kap gun once it got translated to “saving leader”? When Zalman heard it, he immediately asked, “Are there other forms, not weighted with salvation?” To a Jew living in a Christian world, this was a perfectly understandable reference, but in the ears of a Buddhist monk, Zalman’s question must have sounded puzzling.

However, Karma Gelek did notice the various reactions and retreated on the “His Holiness” front, observing quietly, “If you would say rinpoche, nothing’s wrong.” (Rinpoche, which means precious one, is a general honorific for tulkus.)

But it was too late. Now Zalman Schachter was hot on the case, taking up Blu’s cause as his own—driven too by his curiosity and loving to explain Jews, Judaism, and himself to Karma Gelek, “We would like to say a word in honor—it’s not that we don’t want to honor—it’s like saying we understand, we honor you as a source of teaching and blessing for your adherents. Could we say, great teacher?”

By now, Karma Gelek had become totally flexible. “Yes, yes,” he said, barely audibly.

But Lieberman and Sautman objected. “That’s too low.”

So Zalman raised the ante, “How about illustrious teacher?”

Unfortunately, “illustrious teacher” was not a traditional Tibetan phrase. “Jewel of wisdom” was offered by Michael Sautman, but finally Karma Gelek ended the discussion when he observed that all such names were very formal and that “His Holiness usually doesn’t like formal things.”

I took a walk with Yitz Greenberg after the meeting with Karma Gelek broke. We walked for a while in silence. Something about the whole focus on this tiny point bothered me. It reminded me very strongly of what I didn’t much like about religious Judaism, an obsessive, niggling quality. Or as a young woman learning about Jewish culture had told me once, to her, Judaism is an old man saying no. With Jews so divided into factions, and some of the factions so self-preoccupied and self-obsessed with tiny points of practice and law, how could we reach out to other groups?

I knew that in some ways that same intensity about language was also what I relished and delighted in, in both Jewish religion and the Jewish mind. It had delighted me that morning with Moshe’s and Zalman’s midrash. But when the guidance system failed, Jewish verbal intensity seemed to nosedive, spiraling down into smaller and smaller circles.
Rodger Kamenetz
I loved getting this little glimpse into the paradox of Kamentz' struggle, because in so many ways it mirrors my own.  I love exploring the sacred language of the Bible, and discussing the finer points of language and meaning - but this can so often devolve into obsessive and petty arguments that either seem to have absolutely no relevence to life, or seem to ignore how certain points of view are causing real damage to people (the LGBT issue is a perfect example). 

But what's so fascinating about the story is that as it proceeds, the dialogue with the Dalai Lama ends up helping this diverse group of Jews to learn more about their own religion.  Through seeing their religion through the Dalai Lama's eyes, as well as learning about Buddhism, they end up learning more about the beauty of their own tradition then they ever imagined.

Kamenetz writes about how one of the Rabbis - Rabbi Yitz Greenberg - processed this phenomena:
“All religions,” he said, “not just Judaism, are now being placed in a new situation. At first I thought the culture was forcing us. But I’ve come to believe this pluralism is God’s will. Can you learn to propagate your religion without using stereotypes and negative images of the other? If we can’t, all religions will go down the tubes - and good riddance - because we’re a source of hatred and demolition of other people.”

One thing Yitz had done was demolish my own prejudices about Orthodoxy, at least his brand of it. His Judaism was not an old man saying no, but rather an extremely intelligent and very real engagement with contemporary life.

Other, more fundamentalist Jews, as well as Christians and Muslims, resist pluralism as yet another seduction of contemporary life to be shunned. They view themselves as pious keepers of the faith in a world of sinful secularists.

By contrast, Rabbi Greenberg was finding true piety in dialogue. He told me that afternoon at Thekchen Choeling, “Dialogue is an opportunity to learn the uniqueness and power of the other and then see if I can now reframe my own religion to respect that power, to stop using negative reasons why I’m Jewish. It leaves me no choice but to be a Jew for positive reasons.” Pluralism challenges Jews to discard old stereotypes about themselves and about others.
Later on, Kamenetz says that "[h]is experience was that dialogue with other religions could be deeply clarifying of his own."  (This is an experience I share.) 

It is so fascinating to me that the generous spirit of the Dalai Lama - who invited these Jews to come share their "secret" with the Tibetans - is what opened them up to looking at their own religion with fresh eyes - as if seeing it for the first time. 

After their visit, Kamenetz undertook a quest to give "exit interviews" to Jews who had left the faith for Buddhism.  The insights he gains from this are invaluable in many ways.  He found that many of them were frustrated with the rigid adherence to tradition that was so irrelevant to their current context.  Kamenetz writes of how, after the Holocaust, Orthodox Jews became very suspicious of outside culture and in many ways contributed to a protective withdrawal from the world.  They pushed for a very strict, legalistic form of Judaism that claimed to be the only true form of Judaism (sound familiar, Christians?).
Kamenetz relays a fascinating illustration from one of the Rabbis, Zalman Schachter:
“We’re invested in a tradition so we have a continuity. The best people to invest in tradition are conservative. But the best people to spend it are those willing to take a risk.

“Our treasures - what a fantastic bank account we have grown. The past and the tradition have a vote but can’t have a veto, because we are in unprecedented conditions. Now there’s an understanding emerging that we are an organic part of all species, that religions are the organs of humanity.”
Later, he writes:
Jewish Buddhists felt that the bank account of Judaism had been empty for them when they came to make a withdrawal, whereas they had found real spiritual wealth in Buddhism.
When Kamenetz conducted his "exit interviews", one of the things he found was that most often, they'd never even heard of the teachings of Kabbalah (a mystical tradition of Judaism), which interestingly enough seemed to be the area that the Dalai Lama was most interested in.  Kamenetz speaks of mysticism being a "back door" that was kept secret in Judaism, having been viewed negatively by the status quo of Judaism.  There was a scorn towards Kabbalah because it rejected a literalistic and legalistic attitude towards their scriptures and as a result was seen as very eccentric (hmm, that sounds so familiar to me...).  Meanwhile for Buddhism, mysticism was their front entrance.  Kamenetz writes of the result for these Jews who had left their background for Buddhism:
With their own esoteric teachings inaccessible, most JUBUs grew up with a Judaism heavy on ethnic pride, obsessive about preserving itself, about maintaining Jewish identity at all costs. And Jewish pride, Jewish chauvinism, Jewish particularism - the idea that we are special, a chosen people - seems to contradict the very universalistic prophetic messages Judaism also teaches. Perhaps they wouldn’t put it this way, but if examined closely, it appears that some JUBUs left Judaism because of their Jewish ideals.
On the other side of this problem, Kamenetz sees that "the Reform Jewish strategy pretty much succeeded in assimilating Jews into American life. When JUBUs spoke against Jewish particularism, one could feel that Reform Judaism had succeeded all too well. An ethical ideal of universal justice, freed from the particulars of ritual, left many Jews free to leave the fold. We could be secular, or Buddhist, and still feel connected to these universal values."
In one particular exit interview, Thubten Chodron said, regarding "the Old Testament God", that she "didn’t like his personality. He was vengeful, he had qualities I wouldn’t want to develop, that my parents taught me were wrong. Harming others because they harm the people that you like. Smiting others because they criticize you or worship somebody else. When you’re a kid on the playground, because somebody plays with somebody else, that doesn’t give you the reason to jump in and assault. This kind of jealous, vengeful God - I can’t worship that. I can’t see that as holy, I don’t want to become like that.”

Kamenetz says:
I tried to suggest that “people evolve different conceptions of God” and wondered if “the God and Judaism you rejected is one most Jews would reject also, if it isn’t a very unsophisticated child’s view of Judaism. As we mature, we realize that concepts of God as father, king, or ruler are baby steps toward some greater understanding.”

Chodron answered, “Then they should teach that to people. If there are wider notions of God, that’s what they should teach to the children - not that God is up there watching you and you be good or you’ll get punished.”

Kamenetz diagnoses the problems of his own religion with an ingenious precision, and his diagnosis sounds so similar to the problems I see in Christianity today:
I began to suspect that Jewish identity, as it has evolved in the West today, could be a real barrier to encountering the depths of Judaism. In other words, being Jewish could keep you from being a Jew.


But after talking to Pemo, Chodron, and Alex Berzin, I was also convinced there was a more fundamental problem: a defensive attitude. Young Jews growing up in America are intellectually curious and they demand a more open-minded approach to spirituality. The questions about God that Chodron had asked should have been answered - I gathered that instead they were ignored or suppressed.
The challenge that the Dalai Lama offered these visiting Jews was to make Judaism more beneficial instead of asking Jews to hold on to tradition out of guilt. Kamenetz writes:

One of the members of the party - Professor Nathan Katz - stated the lesson the Dalai Lama had taught them in terms of communicating the beauty the Jewish traditions had to offer, rather than teaching their people to be on guard all the time - "If you have nothing to offer them, there’s no sense holding on to them. And if you have something to offer them, there’s no reason for them to leave."

In today's religious climate in the West - with millions of the younger generation leaving the church (this has been dubbed the "rise of the nones" - I've written about this here and here, and see this recent article from the Pew Research Center), and with the pluralism that cannot be hid from in the face of the internet age - Christianity could learn much from this story. I highly recommend this book to anyone of any religious background - it is about finding yourself through open and generous dialogue, and that is an important lesson to learn.

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