The Jew in the Lotus : Buddhism & Judaism

Dear Rabbi Fried,

I recently read a book called “The Jew in the Lotus,” which chronicles the visit of a group of Jews to have a dialogue with the Dalai Lama in India. I was both intrigued and troubled by the continual attempt to show common threads between Judaism and Buddhism. What I’m most troubled by is that I don’t have the knowledge to know if the modes of meditation in Buddhism and Judaism are truly similar, and I was hoping you are familiar with the book and can offer some insight.


Dear Heather ,

I am familiar with the book, and I feel it is a must-read for anyone involved in outreach or leadership of the Jewish community. I don’t say this due to the material offered in the book, rather because of the profound insights one will glean as to the reasons so many intelligent, thinking Jews leave the fold to seek other religions as a source of spirituality. It underscores, time and time again, how we as a people have failed to get across the beauty and spirit of Judaism to so many Jews who truly seek a more spiritual experience. 

This book should be a powerful wake-up call to the Jewish community as we attempt to analyze and deal with apathy, assimilation, cults and intermarriage. Although that book was written quite some time ago, the causes for disaffection from Judaism mentioned there are, unfortunately, alive and well today, perhaps to an even greater degree than then. A change in focus would seem to be in order.

Although there is some truth to some of the commonalities mentioned in The Jew in the Lotus, it’s important to know where those commonalities end. Both classical Judaism and Buddhism put a very heavy stress on the spiritual realm, and utilize various forms of meditation to connect to that spiritual realm. 

Some of the concepts embraced by the eastern religions, we believe, actually were taught to their forbearers by our patriarch, Abraham. This is derived from the verse, “Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac. But to the concubine-children who were Abraham’s, he presented gifts; then he sent them away from Isaac…eastward to the land of the east.” The Talmudic sages explain that the “gifts” were modes of spirituality which exist in the world, but run contrary to the Jewish way. Hence, he “sent them away from Isaac” to separate those ideas from us. He “sent them…to the land of the east,” where they established the eastern religions based upon those “gifts,” leaving Isaac to continue Abraham’s legacy of founding the chosen people and teaching monotheism to the world.

That being said, the two religions of Judaism and Buddhism are diametrically opposed in almost every way. Judaism may seem to have less of a stress on meditation, since it so stresses the practical, i.e. the mitzvot. The truth is that the classical sources strongly stress meditation as part of the action, thereby elevating the action of the mitzvah to higher spiritual realms. Buddhism has no stress on practical fulfillments, rather stresses the meditation as an end in of itself. This “pure spirituality” detached from the physical realm is in its very essence anathema to Judaism, which attaches all spiritual concepts to the physical world via the system of mitzvos, thereby revealing the deeper, spiritual underpinnings of the physical world. 

A much greater difference, however, is in “what”, or Whom, is being worshipped. Jewish meditations are designed to bring one closer to, and to be more spiritually connected to, the Creator of the universe. We strive to achieve a love-relationship with the Almighty. The Buddhists, however, when they transcend the physical real through their meditation and worship of the Buddha, achieve their highest level of awareness which is that of “absolute nothingness.” They strive to reach the area where there is no god or anything else. 

In contrast: one of the highest, transcendental levels of Kabbalistic meditation is to achieve a feeling of nothingness, which means that nothing physical has its own separate existence, but depends solely upon the will of God. Our “nothingness” brings us to the most profound awareness of God, indeed to the achievement of a oneness with God; theirs brings them to the ultimate denial of anything, including their god, by “going beyond” their god.

Many comparisons between Judaism and Buddhism contained in the “The Jew in the Lotus” were borne out of an unfortunate lack of the knowledge and understanding of Judaism. Many shallow comparisons are made seemingly to “feel good” through finding similarities between the two religions, thereby justifying the disaffection of the “BuJews” with the claim that their newfound beliefs are somehow within the fold. (Even those Jews retain their feelings of Jewish guilt!)

A deeper understanding of Judaism reveals how far apart they truly are. We were blessed with a Torah which has satisfied our spiritual needs for over 3,300 years. This satisfaction will continue, provided we study deeply what’s in it, to know how to connect to the profound spiritual treasures within. 

I’ll never forget what I was told by a boyhood friend while home on a visit to my hometown, Indianapolis. I asked a friend, Blair, what he’s into these days, he responded that he’s trying out Zen Buddhism. I asked him what about, perhaps, looking deeper into his own Judaism. He replied that he had been through all they have to offer in his temple, and one thing he knows is that there’s no spirituality there, and it’s spirituality that he’s looking for! How sad, but how true that the “Judaism” that he had been shown was indeed bereft of anything spiritual. (I often say one can be so open minded that their brains fall out!)

Perhaps if we show our young people the profoundly deep spiritual messages in Judaism they will no longer see the need to seek beyond their own backyards! 


Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried

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