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  • Reflections on Jewish and Christian Encounters with Buddhism
  • Harold Kasimow

A thousand years hence, historians will look back at the twentieth century and remember it not for the struggle between Liberalism and Communism but for the momentous human discovery of the encounter between Christianity and Buddhism.

—Arnold Toynbee

Beginning in the 1960s many American Jews and Christians have become fascinated with the Buddhist tradition and have immersed themselves in the study and practice of Buddhism. In this presentation I will examine how Christian and Jewish leaders have responded to this phenomenon. Some have been quite suspicious of such interreligious and cross-cultural encounters, claiming that Buddhism is a great threat to their religions. However, others have argued that their encounters with Buddhism have led them to deeper insight into their own traditions and have helped them to become better human beings. Their practice of Buddhist meditation has been a way for them to develop sensitivity to God and greater commitment to their own traditions. Still others have converted to Buddhism; it is estimated that of the three million Buddhists in America, fully one million are converts from Christianity and Judaism.

Because of the complexity and diversity within Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism, I will focus on the responses of leading Orthodox Jews and Roman Catholic Christians to Theravada Buddhism and to the Zen school in Mahayana, the two forms of Buddhism to which many Americans are drawn and with which I have some personal experience. I will first examine how members of the Jewish and Christian traditions view other religions, because an individual’s perception of the encounter is shaped by how their religion views the Buddhist tradition. This will help us understand why religious authorities find this fascination with Buddhism so problematic.

the jewish-buddhist encounter

Historically, Judaism has largely been interpreted by its thinkers as the only true religion. However, this does not mean that members of other faiths may not attain [End Page 21] salvation. According to the Talmudic Doctrine of the Seven Commandments of the Sons of Noah, “the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come,” that is, all human beings can attain salvation who establish courts of law and who refrain from idolatry, murder, blasphemy against God, incest, theft, and eating the limb of a live animal. Jewish authorities claim that because Christianity and Islam worship God they are not to be considered idolatrous, although some question the monotheistic nature of Christianity because of the doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation. However, there is no question that members of Asian religions are practicing idolatrous worship, avodah zarah (“strange worship”). They are therefore in violation of the Noahide Law not to worship idols.

With some exceptions, Orthodox rabbis in recent times agree with Rabbi Avigdor Miller (1908–2001) that “Buddhism, Shintoism, and all other religions of the Far East are forms of idol worship.”1 For Rabbi Miller the Torah contains all the knowledge that is necessary for Jews, and to even study another religious tradition is an affront to God. That this attitude toward the study of alien texts is common today is evident from the reaction of Rabbi Chaim Zvi Hollander to the suggestion of Rabbi Zalman Schachter that it is permissible to explore Asian forms of spirituality. Hollander charges that “Zalman Schachter’s incredible advice is a direct contradiction of the Almighty’s request that we not seek out and explore the spiritual modes of the Goyim, even if it is for the purpose of enhancing our spiritual experience in the service of our God.”2 He further states that “the practice of any religion other than Judaism is for a Jew an act of Avoda Zara.”3

For Rabbis Miller and Hollander, blending Judaism with the Buddhist tradition, which is not concerned with a creator God and which rejects the idea of self, is inconceivable and more dangerous than Jews who convert to another religious tradition. However, even among the Orthodox, there are divergent views. Irving Greenberg, one of the outstanding liberal Orthodox rabbis of our generation, after meeting with the Dalai Lama wrote, “the Dalai Lama taught us a lot about Buddhism, even more about menschlichkeit...


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