2016-06-30
Most Jews with a Buddhist practice tend to hate the term "JuBu." I didn't invent the term, but I helped popularize it by using that shorthand to talk about Jewish Buddhists in my book, "The Jew in the Lotus," which chronicled Jewish leaders' dialogue with the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala, India. Though still relatively small in number, JuBus represent the growing phenomenon of religious "hyphenation" in this country. Now, in addition to JuBus, I've heard of UUJews or Jewnitarians for Unitarian Universalist Jews, HinJews, for Jewish followers of Hindu teachings, and Jewfis, for Sufi Jews. There are, no doubt, other combinations.

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.)

Unlike Judaism, Islam is a creedal religion, as is Catholicism with its catechism, and other forms of Christianity. Jewish identity, however, is so deeply rooted in history, with so many strands of feeling, culture, joy and pain, that a creed just does not seem adequate to express what it means to be a Jew. That's why Maimonides' creedal project failed to catch hold. The "ani ma'amim" is important to many, but it's not essential. I know for a fact there are plenty of Jews who do not believe in the coming of the Messiah or the resurrection of the dead, which are the last two of Maimonides' articles of faith, and quite a few who if push comes to shove don't believe in God, which is the first item on the list. Nonetheless, Jewish nonbelievers would be very offended if you said they weren't Jews. In fact, they may well participate actively in their synagogues and may, in their Jewish family life, observe many or all of the Jewish holidays and so on.

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.

But some people-especially Jewish theologians-do worry.

A few years ago a Harvard professor of Jewish theology gave a rather pointed lecture called "The Jew in the Christmas Tree," the title playing off my book. His point, I believe-he never actually engaged me personally so I heard this second-hand-is that, from a Jewish perspective, becoming a Buddhist is just as "bad" as becoming a Christian. And how "bad" is that? Pretty "bad." Because of the history of persecution over the last thousand years especially, Jews have traditionally regarded those Jews who practice Christianity as having left the fold. That's because Christianity has historically presented itself as a replacement for Judaism-with a great deal of success, I might add-so that even many Jews will refer to the Torah as the Old Testament, not realizing that this means that their book has been superseded by a newer covenant. That was the Harvard professor's point: From an outside point of view, it might seem puzzling or contradictory to say that a Jew who practices Buddhism is still a Jew but a Jew who practices Christianity is no longer a Jew.

Within the Jewish community, this increasing hyphenation-like increasing intermarriage-has been seen predominantly as a crisis. I view it more as an opportunity. Both hyphenation and intermarriage reflect the open-and opening-nature of our society, the breaking down of barriers between religions, ethnicities, and races. I think God is pretty pleased by this. First of all, it's clear God loves variety-one glance at the blessed variety of nature and of human nature can tell you that. God loves mix-and-match, and so clearly God is on the side of the hyphen. Second, the curse of all religion is triumphalism, the insane belief that "My religion is right and the rest of you are going to go to hell." Almost every religion on the planet is plagued with this virus of triumphalism. But people who take the trouble to learn two religious languages are less likely to be bigots, less likely to be dogmatic, less likely to hate. God bless the hyphen.