Jews who worry that this hyphenation will result in the dilution of Judaism should know that most Jewish Buddhists aren't yet at the point of seriously trying to bring together two different religions to form something new. To do so is no easy task. But Jews do seem more eager to encounter Buddhism than adherents of other faiths. I was recently riding in a hotel van in Columbus, Ohio. My driver, a young man in his twenties, told me he was a Cairene, an Egyptian from Cairo, and a Muslim. I asked excitedly about the mosque in Columbus. For some reason the very idea makes me happy-it gives me hope that America, in spite of its current paranoia on the international scene, is actually developing under our noses an extraordinarily rich and various religious culture, one more open and diverse than any that's ever existed in any land on the planet. My driver told me he was married to a Christian, but that it wasn't a problem religiously. He explained to me that a Muslim is permitted to marry a Jew or Christian but not a Buddhist. Jews and Christians are considered by Muslims to be believers in God, while orthodox Buddhists are not.
That was a fascinating bit of religious sociology to learn while rolling along in a Holiday Inn van in the great American heartland of Ohio. It also explains the larger picture of which the JuBu phenomenon is just a detail-because the hyphenation of religious identity is also reflected in the increasing pace of intermarriage between members of different religious groups.
Nevertheless, based on what my Egyptian driver was saying, there certainly can't be such a thing as a Muslim-Buddhist. So why can there be something called a Jewish-Buddhist? Because Judaism has never presented itself as a creedal religion. The medieval philosopher Maimonides did try to create a creed for Judaism, the 13 principles of faith, later formulated for synagogue prayer as the "ani ma'amim" or "I believe." But whether any given group of Jews actually subscribes to these statements in a whole-hearted way is difficult to say-there's simply no occasion formally in which Jews are required to swear allegiance to them. (Even a bar or bat mitzvah, which seems like a ritual swearing-in ceremony, is at its root more of a literacy test.)
Jews are attracted to Buddhism, especially as presented in the West, because it is also not a creedal religion. The Buddha was a brilliant teacher who emphasized exploring and experiencing the nature of reality for one's self. The four truths of the Buddha are just that, truths-you don't believe "truths," they are either true or they are not in your experience. "Suffering exists" is not a belief at least as I understand the word belief. It's a testable hypothesis-more like Newton's saying that "A body at rest tends to remain at rest." You can't break a natural law, because if you can break it, it's not a law. This experiential quality of Buddhism-and the front-loading of meditation practice in the Western versions-has made some Jews feel very comfortable acquiring Buddhist practices without necessarily losing their Jewish identity.
It's not a perfect fit, however. For Jews who do believe in God, combining that belief with a Buddhism that asserts that such belief is ignorance, as Tibetan Buddhism teaches, would be impossible. Of course, many people who call themselves Jewish-Buddhists are basically Jews who do Buddhist meditation practice. They are not necessarily committed to the four noble truths of the Buddha; they just find that meditating is relaxing or helpful. The truth is, they may not be thinking all that deeply about the doctrinal implications. They may be quite happy to identify themselves as Jews and belong to a synagogue as well as a meditation group, or they may simply blend the two identities and practices together without worrying too much over contradictions.