A Poet's Rediscovery of Jewish Identity in Buddhist India
HarperCollins: New York, 1994.
304 pp., $20.00 (cloth).
The Jew in the Lotus is primarily an account of the Dalai Lama's 1990 meeting in Dharamsala, India, with eight Jewish rabbis, mystics, and progressive Jewish thinkers. The conference was in part a result of the Dalai Lama's "very personal interest" in learning how to help his people preserve Tibetan religion and culture through their period of exile. The delegation, representing the panoply of Jewish schools of thought, traveled to Dharamsala to convey what they each felt to be key elements of the survival of Judaism through two millennia of diaspora. The topics explored included, among other things, the connections between Tibetan tantra and little-known teachings of Kabbalistic mysticism, as well as the similarities between Jewish and Vajrayana meditation practices.
During his stay in Dharamsala, Kamenetz's own Jewish identity was indirectly challenged when he came into contact with others of his faith—intelligent, sensitive people—who had turned to Buddhism. Kamenetz found that he could not offer these people any reason to return to Judaism while maintaining his own reactionary, negatively defined sense of his Jewish self. The book, then, is also to a large extent the author's struggle to create for himself a new spiritual/Jewish identity, predominantly adhering to the Dalai Lama's suggestions to integrate the mystical Jewish teachings he encountered in Dharamsala.
Though much of the time Kamenetz lets the participants speak for themselves, quoting verbatim, when left on his own he often resorts to very odd, sometimes inappropriate wording. Upon encountering a second woman who had converted to Buddhism after meeting Lama Yeshe, a Tibetan lama who teaches Westerners, Kamenetz dubiously claims, "Lama Yeshe had struck again." In addition, Kamenetz is prone to speculative, sweeping generalizations that attempt to universalize the experience of those he encounters, generalizations that often reflect the same stereotypes Kamenetz himself derides. At one point he seems to imply that many Jews turn to Buddhism as an escape from the intense intellectualism of their heritage. "Only those who've lived in intellect" he writes, "can know what it means to desire to escape from it." Overall, however, deficiencies in style are well compensated by the significant contributions of the people involved in the conference.
With little previous knowledge of Jewish mystical practices, and even less of Tibetan Buddhism, Kamenetz, who went as an observer, began by admitting,
a certain prejudice that maybe Jews who went over the deep end into Buddhism would lose their individuality and become like zombies.
It was surprising, then, to have him later offering personal conjectures connecting Jewish and Buddhist thought, and the keys to the survival of Tibetan Buddhism in exile. This turnaround, from self-proclaimed ignorance to seeming authority, leads one to question the validity of his insights.
Throughout the book, discussions of Tibetan Buddhism serve as a springboard to illuminate similar, though heavily suppressed teachings of apocryphal Jewish mysticism, with which even most learned Jews are unfamiliar. Initial preconceptions and possible misinterpretations aside, it is obvious that as a result of this process, Kamenetz developed a sincere respect for Tibetan Buddhism.
Kamenetz's purpose in writing the book seems to be threefold. On one level, it is an attempt to help ease the pain of those who have had someone close to them reject Judaism in favor of exploring the Buddhist dharma. The Jew in the Lotus approaches Buddhism from a specifically Jewish perspective, and in that sense it is a rare work. Because Kamenetz regards Buddhism with a great deal of respect, it could help make it easier for family and friends to appreciate the decision of someone who has turned to Buddhism.
Another goal of Kamenetz's is to reconcile what he refers to as "JUBUs" (Jewish Buddhists) with their Jewish roots, showing that Judaism, like Buddhism, has a rich mystical heritage. Primarily, though, his book is a call for a pluralistic renewal of mainstream Judaism that would more actively incorporate the ancient techniques of Jewish meditation that have long been hidden from popular practice, so that Jews seeking a deeper spiritual experience might find it within their own tradition. It is ironic, then, that in the attempt to exhibit a blueprint for Tibetan survival to the Dalai Lama, the Jewish delegation served to reveal just how much of their own tradition has really been long lost, and all but buried. All three of these concerns are directed primarily toward a Jewish audience. Those who have no interest in or no attachment to Judaism will find little that speaks to them in this book that cannot be found elsewhere.
Toward the end, Kamenetz offers a final summation of his call for Jewish renewal: "My midrash [biblical interpretation in the Jewish tradition]: to be complete, Jews need to be more inclusive." Such an assessment is not exactly pushing the envelope. Later, he fumbles ahead to the very predictable call for an inclusion of the feminist perspecve, respect for gays and lesbians, and care for the planet. While none of these ideals is in any way unworthy, his inclusion of them seems merely perfunctory.
Kamenetz's midrash situates The Jew in the Lotus in a kind of in-between space. For those who have already left Judaism to explore other traditions, such a call to a more open view will probably seem obvious, or at the very least simplistic. On the other hand, for those still inolved in traditional Orthodox Judaism, this plea for pluralism will most likely be too far out of earshot to be heard, much less heeded. In the end, however, for those who fall between these two extremes, The Jew in the Lotus could represent an important first step toward a personal spiritual renewal.
Jonathan Eliot is a student of Buddhism at McGill University in Montreal.