Friday, July 3, 2009

Rodger Kamenetz' "The Jew in the Lotus": Book Review

Rereading this fifteen years after it was published, I found it poignant and thoughtful. In '94, I'd known about Judaism but not Buddhism; now studying the latter while building upon a lifelong interest in Tibet, I realize how Kamenetz deftly moves between his secular American Jewish perspective and a 1990 encounter superficially utterly opposed to shul and shetl and shuckling. But, as he carefully delineates, both essentially different and ultimately united. This conclusion sounds facile, but he explores the fraught intersection where so many Jews have left their upbringing to find fuller lives within Buddhism, and this tension adds heft and relevance to what might have been in less-skilled hands a romanticized or castigating report.

The moral that animosity does not foster equanimity between foes early on divides Tibetan ability to see in their enemies a fellow sufferer deserving compassion from Jewish determination to pursue justice and never to forget Amalek or Hitler. I expected more about explicitly, in post-Holocaust debate, about this fundamental outlook permeating the rabbis who constituted the core of the entourage visiting the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala exile. But, exile being the key problem, the challenge may be less to recover past atrocities than to perpetuate present peace, promote future harmony, and to move wherever possible Tibetan treasures of wisdom to safety outside their tormented homeland, which has only worsened twenty years after this dialogue.

Tibet's wealth's compared to an archeological dig in Israel; from much that Jews barely understand today, they can retrieve parallel meditation and renewal practices that can appeal to disenchanted Jews tired of dull synagogues and rote ritual. For instance, the kabbalistic "ain sof" (no limit) concept meshes with "shunyata" (emptiness). The Star of David and tantric fertility symbols share a Mesopotamian inspiration as a venerable icon. "God is an atheist," renewal rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi reflects, for unlike the open space sought in Buddhism, perhaps Judaism at its core captures a lonely Creator "because God has no peer, God has no God" before Him for comfort. (251) This, ironically perhaps, becomes an emanation the writer, a poet-professor, can relate to best after a lifetime's search never expressed so.

Following ancient prophets appeals less to some Jewish-born seekers than discovering spirituality for one's self directly by dharma-doing. In transfer, neat comparisons may be lacking. The motif of the home and family that stands for Jewish continuity for the Tibetan lacks equivalence: the monastery and the celibate dominates. Yet, the joy many JUBUs (Jewish Buddhists being vastly overrepresented in those turning to dharma practice) find when leaving home and shul speaks to the profound lack of meaning many find, as Ram Dass (Hindu priest studying Hasidism, born to a prominent Jewish family as Richard Alpert) reminds Kamenetz, only outside their birth family and upbringing, for like family, one's born-religion may push a sensitive spirit's "buttons."

Interviewing malcontents like Allen Ginsberg and more composed JUBU leaders, the author finds that many of them early did not reject Judaism truly, as many were assimilated already within families who had left Orthodoxy generations ago. This is one issue that, interspersed awkwardly within a narrative that skips from October 1990 in India to later talks with JUBUs, does throw off the pace. Later chapters depart from the Dharamsala meetings to Kamenetz' valuable thoughts on Jewish-Buddhist relations outside Tibet. The book gains intensity in these closing sections, as the author faces his own enthusiasm and ambivalence and hope. (He followed this book with more journeys among Jewish mystics in "Stalking Elijah": now he's taken by studies of dreams.)

The trick becomes how to share within Judaism the vibrancy many find outside of it in dharma. And, as the Dalai Lama carefully reminds the rabbis, not to fret if some leave the fold to find inspiration. For the Jews, however, some rail at this, given the numerical impact of so many bright people leaving a diminishing population within the tribe. 30% of Jews died in the Shoah; but over 80% of rabbis were murdered who could have transmitted advanced teachings similar to Tibetan techniques that Shachter boldly struggles to pass on in compatible if countercultural form to open-minded Jews who like dharma, as one of the few teachers remaining from before the war from Eastern Europe.

So, rather than losing Jews to dharma, Kamenetz and his peers seek to inspire Jews to incorporate similar teachings into their own American lives. In exile from Jerusalem historically, the rabbis shifted from Temple sacrifice to school learning in Yavneh; Dharamsala may represent the same opportunity to make rebirth after the Chinese destruction of nearly all six thousand monasteries with a thousand years of accumulated knowledge preserved by Tibetan monks.

There's a necessity to never forget such horrors, but the Buddhists differ from the Jews crucially when it comes to how best remember them. Tibetans seem to favor, at least under the Dalai Lama's fraught diplomatic balance, to forgive rather than to take revenge: they warn that the Jews may raise up more trouble by not letting go of anger. Is anger justifiable? Is the Jewish tendency to argue and wrangle, whether over family issues, ideas, or Torah, commendable? Kamenetz considers tough questions.

He finds when meeting the Dalai Lama that, contrary to his suspicions of idolatry, the monk provides him an instant, sharp glimpse into the "quiet mind." Kamenetz welcomes this lesson, transmitted as if intuitively into the troubled soul of a disaffiliated Jew who's never found contentment in his cultural identity so much as contention. It took, he considers, three hundred years for the teachings of the Buddha to take root in other Asian countries. "It may be well that Buddhism may borrow a few dance steps from Judaism along the way" for the process may not be as one-sided as outsiders assume. Jews return to Torah too after Tibet, and in this circular pattern Kamenetz finds that their dialogue may strengthen all who meet.

(P.S. Those wanting more about Westerners talking with the Dalai Lama about Tibet may among an ever-expanding series of books find my Amazon US & blog reviews of Thomas Laird's "Tibet: A History" and Pico Iyer's "The Open Road" helpful. Review posted 6-26-2009 to Amazon US.)

Image: the hardcover's art's much better than the paperback! You can link from the author's website "here" to clips from Laurel Chiten's 1999 PBS film adaptation, which I'd never heard of until now.

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