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There are significant differences to be found in the large group of Jews who, in the past 25 years, have affiliated with the ancient Eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism and the mixed religions. This article will attempt to illustrate the differences, and will conclude with a brief look at some of the similarities as well. This mixture of Eastern religions can basically be divided into three main groups. First you have the Jews who mix Judaism with Hinduism - Hinjews. Some of the Hindu movements that are prevalent in the west are naturally also familiar in Jewish circles. This is of course most obvious in Israel where the Hara Krishna, OSHO , and Sai Babba movements are active. The other main group is the Jewish Buddhists who are so well known in the US, that they have been given the acronym JUBUs. The last and also the most pervasive of these movements is the network called New Age Judaism. This incorporates many different groups, which nevertheless have enough in common to designate them as a separate Jewish movement.
Hinjews The numerous examples of Jews that have joined various different Hindu movements date back from the hippie days of the 1960's. Sara Levinsky Rigler is an example of one such Hinjew. In an article titled “India to Israel” she voices an opinion held by many Jews (and Christians) at the time: “I was seeking God, so of course I did not look in Judaism. Instead I went to India. It was the heyday of the Sixties, during my junior year at Brandeis (University). I found a guru and started meditating.” Even though the guru encouraged her, as a Jew, to examine Jewish mysticism, she started with Hindu meditations: “Months of meditating in India had convinced me that there was a spiritual dimension to reality, that life held treasures greater than the physical world could offer, and that by following the proper methods I could elevate myself to the ultimate state: God-consciousness.” While in Israel she tried to see if Jewish mysticism could bring her to the same state, but she only came into contact with scholars who were studying Kabbala; she returned to the US disappointed. “The day after graduation, I joined an ashram, an Indian-style spiritual community, situated on twenty-one acres of woods in eastern Massachusetts. I stayed there for the next 15 years.” The ashram Sara Rigler joined, was founded by Swami Paramananda (1884-1940) before WWII. The ashram belongs to the Hindu Ramakrishna order. This movement is one of the largest reform movements within Hinduism. It was spread early in the west, due to the mission work of the leader, Swami Vivekananda (1862-1902). Vivekananda represented Hinduism at the so-called world parliament of religion, which was held in Chicago in 1893. The Ramakrishna mission built up a series of Vedanta centers in the US and Europe after the conference. The religious foundation of these centers is the Hindu Vedanta philosophy, which represents a monotheistic form of Hinduism known as Brahman, which claims that everything is connected to the oneness of the world. Brahman is the true reality behind everything, according to Vedanta philosophy. Sara Rigler is therefore an example of a Jew who submerses herself deeply into an established Hindu movement, thereby through meditation, discovering the true reality. (After many years in the Ramakrishna movement she rediscovered her Jewish roots and now lives in Jerusalem). It is difficult to say how many Jews are actively involved in the different Hindu centers in the US and Europe, but the most widely spread movements in the west are all active in Israel, where it is easier to obtain a general view of their size. In Israel the three significant guru movements are: OSHO, Hare Krishna and Sai Babba. In addition there are a number of different yoga schools that are more or less aware of their connection to Hinduism. The OSHO movement was started by the Indian, Rajnees Chandra Mohan (1931-1990). After having taught philosophy at different Indian universities, he started an asharam in Poona, India, in 1974. As a guru he was called Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh, and he quickly gained many disciples – the so-called Sannyasins. With the help of his psychological knowledge he combined many different traditions in the meditations he developed: yoga, Buddhist breathing exercises, western philosophy, Hindu tantra, etc. Because of the tantra element, and the associated perverted relationship to sex, he was dubbed the sex-guru by the western media. He moved to the US in 1981, and bought a large farm in Oregon where he, at one time, kept 74 Rolls Royces. Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh returned to India in 1984 due to tax fraud and started calling himself OSHO. After his death in 1990 the movement continued to exist with its many centers worldwide. Many followers, including Israelis, still journey to Poona, to participate in teaching and meditation. According to an OSHO follower at a Israeli New Age festival in 2002, there are about 200 Sannyasins in Israel, but many more Israelis participate in the numerous meditations held regularly. The follower felt it was hard to say exactly how many OSHO followers there were in Israel but he would estimate it at about 3000. There do exist plans to build an actual OSHO asharam where the Sannyasins can live permanently, but so far most of the followers have regular jobs. On the weekends and at the meditations, they don their red suits to join in the powerful meditation together. The number of Hara Krishna followers (the so-called devotees) in Israel, is estimated to be equal to the number of OSHO followers – i.e. a core of roughly 100-200 dedicated followers and a group of less devoted followers numbering about 3000. A comparison with Denmark, whose population size is roughly the same size as the Jewish population of Israel, can help to evaluate these numbers. There are 50-100 Hara Krishna devotees and 300-400 less devoted followers in Denmark. The many different yoga movements that are represented in Israel also indicate that there are many Hinjews in the Israeli society. There are a number of different Israeli yoga centers represented on the Internet; among them is the “Ashatanga yoga” which is presented as a Hebrew version of Hata Yoga. Sahaja yoga, started by a woman, has five centers in Israel, while only one contact address can be found in Denmark . Judging by these tentative figures it would seem that the percentage of Hinjews in Israeli society, compared to the rest of the western world, is substantially larger. At the same time it appears that very few go all the way, leaving Judaism to become complete Hindus. Therefore it is legitimate to use the term Hinjews to designate Jews that incorporate different Hindu ways of thought and meditation techniques.
JUBUs In 1995 the author Rodger Kamenetz wrote, in the book The Jew in the Lotus: “Today in American universities there is an impressive roster of Buddhist scholars with Jewish backgrounds, perhaps up to 30 percent of the total faculty in Buddhist Studies.” Other sources have exhibited similar figures when indicating the number of Jews among western Buddhists. In any case, there are so many Jewish Buddhists that the acronym JUBU has been invented. Jews can be found in all the main Buddhist movements, and most Buddhist schools have centers and followers in Israel. But why are so many Jews interested in Buddhism? In her book, “That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist,” Sylvia Boorstein gives her opinion, saying that Buddhism offers a complete, mature, sophisticated, spiritual path. She elaborates on this remark saying: “The Buddhism that had come to the West offered a clear explanation for suffering and tools for the direct, personal realization of a peaceful mind. It required practice, not affiliation. It was a great spiritual path. It promised transformation.” Many of the Jews that join Buddhist movements express that Judaism has not offered them a satisfactory, spiritual way of life. They have experienced Judaism as a club membership or an initiated family that would offer support in times of trouble. Rabbi Michael Lerner, who is involved in the Jewish Renewal Movement, thinks that the Jewish attraction to Buddhism is due to: “the impotency of much of American Jewish life, its inability to sustain the spiritual or psychological energies of its youth, and its total failure to be witness to God’s presence on earth.” The other cause of the attraction of Buddhism is its explanation of the problem of suffering. At the core of Buddhist teaching are the four noble truths about the end of suffering. “The first time I heard my Buddhist teachers explain the Four Noble Truths ... I thought, “They’re telling the truth. These people are talking about exactly what I’m worried about. They know what the real problem is. And they promise a solution.” My friend Howie Cohn, another Jew teaching Buddhism, told me, “The first time I heard the Four Noble Truths, I cried,” The fact that the problem of suffering is not equally important in all forms of Buddhism indicates that Jews turn to Buddhism for a number of reasons. Through the centuries, after Sakyamuni Buddha (sixth century BC), Buddhism has evolved in many different directions, but it is possible to point out three main movements. Hinayana Buddhism, meaning the little craft, which is called theravada Buddhism by its followers, (those who follow the ancient teaching), is the southern Buddhism, i.e. the form of Buddhism found in Sri Lanka, Thailand and other south Eastern Asian countries. Mahayana, meaning the big craft, is the form of Buddhism found in China and Japan. Zen Buddhism is a part of Mahayana Buddhism in Japan. A special branch of Mahayana Buddhism is the Tibetan Buddhism, which was developed under heavy influence by the occult tantra and shaman elements, which dominated Tibet before the arrival of Buddhism in the seventh century AD. In all these traditional schools there are Jews who have converted and live as monks in Thailand or in Tibetan monasteries in India or Nepal, or who meditate under close supervision by Zen masters in Japan. To designate them as JUBUs would be misleading as, in most cases, they are fully adopted into the traditional schools. Each of these traditional schools has its own westernized movement, where the traditional Buddhism is more or less mixed up with western religious thinking, attitude and cultural behaviorism. In the majority of these western versions of traditional Buddhist movements you find Jews, and many of these movements also have centers in Israel. One of the Tibetan movements has five centers in Israel and there are also several Zen centers there . Jews who become involved with these western versions of the traditional Buddhist schools will naturally combine them with elements of their Jewish background. If the order of the acronym JUBU indicates the percentage of Judaism and Buddhism, this group should perhaps be called BUJUs instead, as it would seem that the religious and spiritual aspects come mainly from Buddhism, while the culturally determined elements, such as world view and view of human nature, are derived from the Jewish background . A certain western form of Buddhism has been developed through the years, which attempts to combine the different traditional forms of Buddhism and adapt them to a western way of life. This group takes the most fruitful elements of the different schools and incorporates this combination with western thought and individual lifestyle. An example of this is the Western Buddhist Order, which, especially in the US, has quite a few members. My experience with Jews from this group is also that they are more BUJUs than JUBUs; for example they would rather speak about the divine than about God. In this division, JUBU designates the specific Jewish version of Buddhism. A significant difference from the other combinations is that it is possible to speak about God, and even God as the creator. In her book, Sylvia Boorstein explains how she struggles with the concept of God, but also how she experiences the proximity of God through her meditation. “This is the closest I can come to describe my experience of God as the Source of all creation. This is not the God I 'believe in'. This is the God I know and trust with all my heart.” Amongst JUBUs the traditional concept of God is combined with the Buddhist meditation practices. The Kabbalistic concept of God facilitates this. In the Kabbalistic system it is a fundamental idea that God is totally hidden, inaccessible and infinite. The Ein Sof (Infinite) is utterly unknowable. In some Kabbalistic interpretations Ein Sof is translated as "nothing." En Sof has been compared with the Eastern (Buddhist) idea of Shunyata,which can also be translated nothing. In a dialog between Dalai Lama and some Jewish rabbis the two concepts were compared. In his personal account Rodger Kamenetz says: “As the Dalai Lama had carefully phrased it, there is “a point of similarity” between the Kabbalistic ain sof and the Buddhist shunyata. It would be exaggerating to say they are identical. The Kabbalistic approach emphasizes that God is No Thing. But it still affirms an absolute existence – even if ineffable. In the Buddhist approach, all existence is empty because none of it has inherent reality, or absolute reality in itself.” Kamenetz felt a tremendous excitement in this dialog between Kabbalistic Judaism and Tibetan Buddhism. “The most obvious and fundamental difference between the two religions is zero and one, Buddhist nontheism and Jewish monotheism. But now that the angels were talking, shunyata had met ain sof." In a similar meeting Rosie Rosenzweig makes the same comparison between shunyata and Ein Sof. “All feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness come from emptiness. This certainly sounded like the Ayn Sof, the G-d of no end.” The combination of the Jewish concept of God and the “Godless” Buddhism is thereby facilitated by the Kabbalistic perception of God. This is also the case with the concept of reincarnation. Reincarnation is a part of Kabbalah and Hasidism. To the writer of Zohar, the concept of Gilgul (rotate, reincarnation) is a punishment that is put upon human beings that commit certain sins or fail to keep some of the laws. In the Hasidic movement Gilgul was given a more central position. The early Hasidim seized on the concept of Tikkun (repair, heal) and made it even more the responsibility of the individual, by shifting the focus from the cosmos to the individual soul. Every soul has its purpose to develop Tikkun. Until the soul has fulfilled its purpose and achieved perfection, it is condemned to Gilgul. Because the concept of reincarnation is a recognized part of Judaism, it is possible to combine Buddhism and Judaism. Even though there are many differences between traditional Eastern religions and Judaism, it is obvious that the Kabbalistic ideas of Gilgul and Ein Sof are stepping stones into Judaism for Eastern religions and New Age thinking.
New Age Judaism New Age Judaism has not formed schools and umbrella organizations, and does not have head Rabbis like Reformed and Conservative Judaism. Like in New Age in general, New Age Judaism is a network where the different parts do not necessarily look upon themselves as part of a movement. New Age Judaism is a “do it yourself” or “homespun” religion. Every individual can make and practice his own religion. The individual is not dependent on a group that does the same. You can choose a practice, a meditation, a healing technique or something else from the religious supermarket. In this supermarket there is everything from A to Z (Astrology to Aura and Zen and Zohar). When you choose you don’t necessarily look for truth, but you try to find out if it works. You use whatever you have chosen until it doesn’t fit you anymore. Then you throw it away, and choose another practice that is offered on the New Age market. Choose, use and toss. The consumer culture that influences our materialistic western world has been transformed into the religious world, and a “spiritual materialism” has been developed. In New Age Judaism it is not the Hindu or Buddhist traditions, but the Kabbalistic mystical tradition that is seen as the backbone of the network. “Many of us have looked for spiritual truth and mystical experience in India, Japan and elsewhere, never even knowing that a treasure chest of riches was available in our own spiritual backyards.” Many of the Hindu and Buddhist ways of thought have a Kabbalistic explanation. The following New Age Jewish explanation of a soul connection to a universal soul is very similar to the Hindu explanation of Atman (the soul) and Brahman (the universe). “How do we become more giving and less selfish? First, we recognize that we are all interconnected. We are taught through the Kabbalah that each person is part of a larger original soul that we call Adam.” As we have seen, the idea of reincarnation is incorporated into New Age Judaism through the Kabbalah. But according to Melinda Ribner, the Jewish idea of reincarnation is more advanced than the Hindu and Buddhist idea: “ The Jewish view of reincarnation is somewhat more elaborate and complex than Hindu or Buddhist perspectives. While the Buddhist and Hindu views state that the soul reincarnates as the same person in a new body, the Jewish perspective claims that this sometimes happens but mostly it does not. According to Judaism, the soul consists of five levels: nefes, ruach, neshama, chaya and yehida. When the soul reincarnates, it will most likely not be the soul entirely as it was before. Only the levels of the soul that need fixing have to reincarnate.
Even though this interpretation of the Buddhist view of reincarnation is not entirely correct, because Buddhism also operates with five levels of the soul, it is clear, that in this case the origin of the idea of reincarnation in New Age Judaism is the Kabbalah mystique. Even though many scholars find this form of New Age Judaism far from the Kabbalah mystique and even from Judaism, it is this New Age mixture of Eastern religions, Kabbalah and Judaism that has become the most widely spread of the three cocktails that we have dealt with in this article. New Age Judaism has profited from the position of the Kabbalah mystique in Judaism, and become an independent Jewish movement.
Conclusion As we have seen, it is possible to distinguish between three main movements that combine Eastern religions with Judaism. Hinjews combine Hinduism and Judaism; JUBUs combine Buddhism and Judaism, and finally New Age Judaism, which, through Jewish mysticism, incorporate many Hindu and Buddhist methods and ideas into networks that have come to form a separate, independent Jewish movement. Even though these three combinations are an example of the same phenomenon, there are significant differences between them. One difference is which of the three, Hinduism, Buddhism or New Age, that Judaism is combined with. Then there is the degree of synthesis between the two given religions. There appears to be an elite of monks and nuns and similar who become very dedicated. Other than that, there is a much larger peripheral group that occasionally participates in different courses and retreats. In spite of these differences we are definitely dealing with a collective phenomenon – a combination of Eastern religions and Judaism, that is the fastest growing Jewish movement today. This movement is still evolving.
Appel, Allan: High Holiday Sutra Boorstein, Sylvia: That’s Funny, You Don’t Look Buddhist, San Francisco 1997 de Lange, Nicholas: An Introduction to Judaism, Cambridge:2000 Kamenetz, Roger: The Jew in the Lotus, San Francisco: 1995 Winther, Judith: Jødedommen, Copenhagen: 2001 Pedersen, Heinrich: Hinduismer, Copenhagen: 1997 Ribner, Melinda: New Age Judaism, Deerfield Beach: 2000 Rosenzweig, Rosie: A Jewish Mother in Shangri-la, Boston: 1998