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If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me how I could be both Buddhist and Jewish, I’d be an Episcopalian by now.
Background: I am fully, fluently, fervently Jewish — my grandfather was a rabbi, as was my great grandfather and great great grandfather before him, stretching back 13 generations to the Jewish ghettos of Vilnius in Poland, where they made their livings as esteemed wise men and/or, on bad years, horse thieves. I was raised in an observant 1970’s hippie Jewish home. We lit the candles every Friday night, had 2 sets of dishes and silverware for meat and milk, but we also did yoga and learned to meditate together as a family when I was 7 years old.
As a kid, I always felt a strong connection to my Jewish identity: in first grade my best friend Alex and I created a comic book character called Dr. Rockenheimer, a nerdy but powerful rocket scientist whose catch phrase was “Jews are good news.” Personally, I don’t believe Jews are the chosen people but on the other hand, most of us didn’t choose to be Jews, either. With no tradition of proselytizing and very few conversions other than Sammy Davis Jr., if you are Jewish that means you probably are linked to the ancient Israelites and you carry genes that survived an almost unimaginable series of attempts at annihilation. So there’s a certain tribal pride you might feel, along with strange impulse to dominate the media and banking industry. For many assimilated Jews I know, that’s about it.
But when you become a father you have to ask yourself not only “Am I a Jew?” but how do I want to raise my child? I still fast on Yom Kippur, and since Lev was born, Michelle and I have begun lighting the candles on Friday nights, but I am Buddhist in a far more active way. Formally, one becomes a Buddhist by taking the bodhisattva vows, which I have done many times. The teachings of the Buddha impact my every day life — the way I wake up, how I eat, the way I fall asleep. Everything is part of the discipline of my commitment to the Buddhist path. For the last 30 years, I have spent at least an hour a day every day meditating on Buddhist teachings. I’ve attended more than 40 weeklong retreats — almost an entire year collectively.
Still, in my heart, there is no conflict between Buddhism and Judaism. Judaism is a culture and a religion. Buddhism, in my experience, is a scientific method for training the mind to be kind and peaceful and realistic. It is not inherently religious.
Buddhism is non theistic. In fact, not only does Buddhism reject blind faith in the concept of an absolute God, it rejects the idea that anything truly exists in an absolute way. According to Buddha, you, this blog, and the internet, lack even a shred of inherent existence. The word Buddha means awake. So despite the cultural trappings of a religion Buddhism is a method for waking up to reality. It’s the opposite of Ambien. And rather than being used as an excuse for Jihad, holy wars, and crusades, Buddhist meditation has been scientifically proven to be effective in creating health and happiness.
I don’t say any of this to criticize religion. But science has confirmed that humans have existed for 30 million years before the arrival of the bible and the Koran, so I prefer not to take the abrahamic fairytales too literally, otherwise my first question would be, Why didn’t God start giving a damn about humans until the last few moments of human history?
My ancestors made their livings as esteemed wise men and/or, on bad years, horse thieves.
Of course, Judaism is more than just a religion. It’s a cultural identity and it still means a lot to me: I associate being Jewish with values of social justice, respect for learning, and profound familial warmth. Before Lev was born, I always felt strongly that it was important his mother be Jewish, since Judaism is matrilineal. However I didn’t ask Michelle to convert and so Lev isn’t Jewish.
But lately a strange thing has been happening. When Lev was still in the womb, I used to chant Buddhist mantras to him through Michelle’s belly. And when he was a newborn, I would soothe him to sleep with mantras. The word mantra means “mind protection” and the ones I use are Sanskrit syllables whose meaning generally relates to wisdom or compassion, 2 key principles of Buddhism.
But recently, it seems like the only thing that soothes him at night is when I sing to him in Hebrew. And so often when he wakes up crying at some ungodly hour, I sing songs of praise to God, in an ancient tongue, with melodies remembered from Hebrew school, prayers I learned when I wasn’t much older than Lev is now. The melodies are haunting and sad and for whatever reason, he seems to respond to them. Maybe, like rye bread, you don’t have to be Jewish to like achingly sad Hebrew music.
But it’s made me think in a newish way about what being Jewish means to me. I reject blind faith and fundamentalism of all kinds. My grasp of Jewish theology is trifling. And yet. And yet.
Clearly, there’s something in the Buddhist tradition that is specifically attractive to us Red Sea pedestrians.
The most important prayer in Judaism is the shema. Literally translated, it means “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” I sing it to Lev just about every night when he wakes up crying. It’s a prayer I used to sing to myself softly in bed every night before I fell asleep as a child. And now that I reflect on the meaning — the idea that God is one — I have begun to glimpse something new. Maybe the key idea of monotheism (that God is one) is the same as the Buddha’s teaching on non-duality (that ultimate reality transcends our petty sense of self and other).
About 15 years ago I organized a series of talks between a rabbi and my teacher, the Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Gelek Rinpoche, to discuss the similarities between Judaism and Buddhism. And there are some interesting areas of overlap (especially between the mystical Jewish traditions of Kabbalah and the esoteric path that I follow, vajrayana Buddhism).
One question raised was, since Jews make up less than one percent of Americans, why do is it that 30 percent of American Buddhists are Jewish? Clearly, there’s something in the Buddhist tradition that is specifically attractive to us Red Sea pedestrians. Maybe it’s that both Judaism and Buddhism combine a focus on compassion with penetrative analytical insight into the nature of reality. Rinpoche often says that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is very close to the Buddha’s concept of emptiness.
Or maybe after millennia of wandering, the idea of sitting our tushies down on a cushion is irresistible.
Happy new year.
Dimitri Ehrlich is a multi-platinum selling songwriter and the author of 2 books. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, and Interview Magazine, where he served as music editor for many years.