Jewish Converts to Buddhism and the Phenomenon of "Jewish Buddhists" ("JuBus") in the United States, Germany and Israel

Scientific Essay 2012 20 Pages

Jewish Studies


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Who is a “JuBu”? Attempt at a definition

3. How “Buddhists with a Jewish background” gradually became “JuBus”
3.1 Jewish Buddhists in Germany
3.2 Birth and development of a JuBu phenomenon in the USA
3.3 The adaptation of a Buddhist way of life in present-day Israel

4. What makes Buddhism so attractive to Jews?

5. Bibliography

6. Endnotes

1. Introduction

It is more than 120 years now since Buddhism began to get a foothold in western countries and began, slowly and steadily, to become at home here. [1] The first historically-attested convert on the soil of the USA was Charles T. Strauss who, at the 1893 “World Parliament of Religions” in Chicago, declared his conversion to Buddhism and took his Buddhist vow in a small, solemn ceremony in the present of an Asian master. Strauss came from New York and was the son of Jewish parents. [2] After this key event, Buddha-Dharma, the “doctrine of the Enlightened One” seems to have exercised a remarkable power of attraction for many Jews. Thus Buddhism owes its transformation and growth in the west to many intermediaries with a Jewish background: Philipp Kapleau, Bernard Glassman, Nyanaponika Mahathera, Ayya Khema, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Sylvia Boorstein, Rabbi Alan Lew, Nathan Katz, Lama Surya Das, Thubten Chödron, to name but a few.

A glance at the Buddhist centres of the great east and west coast cities of the USA shows that up to 30% of their members are of Jewish descent. [3] The renowned Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa, from Tibet, once joked that there were so many Jews among his disciples that he would be able to found a special Buddhist school for them, the “Oy Vey School of Buddhism”. [4] In these centres, some of the members assert that they are “passionate Buddhists” and “faithful Jews” at one and the same time. [5] This phenomenon of “Jewish Buddhists” has become so widespread and striking since the boom of eastern wisdom teachings in the 1960s and 1970s that a specific term has established itself in the USA (not without resistance), namely, “JuBus” or “JewBus” as an abbreviation for “Jewish Buddhists”.

The interest in Buddhism on the part of many Jews has even entered Jewish humour:

A Jewish lady, in old age, decides to travel to the Himalayas to visit a famous Buddhist Lama. Everyone tries to persuade her against it, her family and the members of her community, but she sticks to it: she is going to Tibet! So she sets off and lands in Lhasa after many hours on the plane, continuing her journey along gravel roads in an old, dilapidated bus until she has to abandon it and drag herself on foot up the agonizing ascent to the lama’s remote mountain monastery. Having arrived there she is first of all told to go away, but stubbornly refuses. She undertakes an exhausting and complicated ritual of cleansing; she fasts, maintains silence and meditates for days, until the monks finally take pity on her and allow her into the presence of the Lama. The monk who accompanies her to the Lama’s great throne-room acquaints her with the protocol and ritual and warns her that she must utter no more than four words. She agrees. Two great, heavy bronze doors open and the two of them proceed, with much bowing, along the hall towards a large, golden Buddha. In front of it, on a golden dais, wrapped in a saffron robe, sits the famous Lama with crossed legs, sunk in profound meditation. Bravely the old lady goes up to him, gives him a resounding slap on the ear and says, “Sheldon, come home already!”[6]

At first sight, the enormous attraction that Jews feel towards Buddhism since it came to be practised as a religion in the west, and especially the syncretistic JuBu phenomenon among the “baby-boomers”, seems to be somewhat paradoxical. After all, both Buddhism and Judaism are very old, completely independent religions that have formed civilizations, and in many areas their doctrines and practices not only contradict, but seem clearly to exclude each other.

How can “taking refuge in the Buddha” be reconciled with the first two commandments of the Decalogue? The highly provocative question put by Hannes Stein in an article in the Jüdische Allgemeine in 2008 was, “How can anyone erect an idol and at the same time hold fast to Judaism?” -- “JuBus manage it!” was his succinct comment. [7] The paradox is intensified by the fact that for more than 2000 years it has been the Jewish people who have held fast successfully, more or less, in the face of pressure towards assimilation in the diaspora and in the face of the missionizing ambitions (not always free from violence) of their non-Jewish neighbours. Yet, in spite of this, Buddhism manages, in many cases, to overcome the primitive Jewish horror of conversion.

The aim of this article is to shed some light, as far as it is possible at the present time, on the part played by Jews in the spread of Buddhism since its arrival in the west as a religious practice. We shall also take a look at the “special case” of JuBus among Jewish converts and suggest a tentative definition.

2. Who is a “JuBu”? Attempt at a definition

Buddhism and Judaism are two extremely complex and many-sided religions that have developed over thousands of years and in very different directions. Quite probably there are as many Buddhisms and Judaisms as there are Buddhists and Jews. This is what makes it so difficult to establish definitions that are straightforward and yet adequate. As regards the word “JuBu” there is a further complicating factor: not everyone who is given this label is happy to wear it. This is the case, for instance, with Rabbi Alan Lew and the Jewish religion researcher and Buddhism expert Professor Nathan Katz: both of them were convinced and practising Buddhists for a number of years, eventually finding their way back, via this detour, to the way of life of practising Jews. Alan Lew, even after he had become a Rabbi in conservative Judaism, maintained his practice of meditation and became known as the “Zen Rabbi”.[8] He had spent ten years of his life in a Zen monastery; yet, following his Teshuva, his return to Judaism, he no longer wished to be described as a Buddhist and expressed his view that it was impossible to do justice to either religion if one mixed them up in one’s spiritual practice.[9] For this reason he would not accept being referred to as a “JuBu”. The situation was similar with Katz: although he still uses mindfulness exercises in his spiritual life, he sees himself today exclusively as an orthodox Jew.[10] The Canadian musician Pemi Paul, by contrast, who had an orthodox Jewish bar mitzva and definitely regards himself as both Jew and Buddhist, prefers the term “BuJu” to “Buddhist Jew”.

Where does the term “JuBu” come from? It is common knowledge that it was used by Rodger Kamenetz in his bestseller The Jew and the Lotus, New York 11994. There he traces it back to the Jewish-American opthalmologist Marc Liebermann, who referred to himself, in a conversation with Kamenetz, as a “JUBU”.[11] Liebermann says of himself that he had “Jewish roots and Buddhist wings”[12], and by this he meant that he had integrated both religions equally into his life, and that both had enriched his spirituality in their own particular way. He is therefore one of those Jews in the USA who practice both religions in different proportions; no one can know how many of these there are.[13]

Who is a Jew, when does one begin to be a Buddhist, and how does one become a “JuBu”? According to Halakah, the Jewish religious law, it is relatively easy to say who is a Jew. Jonathan Magonet, a well-known Reform Rabbi in Great Britain, maintains “that at least two components determine Jewish identity – the ethnic and the religious. […] A Jew is someone with a Jewish mother, or else someone who has converted to Judaism as confirmed by an acknowledged religious authority.”[14] Strictly applied, this definition excludes people with a Jewish background on their father’s side, or who were adopted by Jews without having made a formal conversion. This would apply to Steven Seagal, Robert Downey Jr. and Orlando Bloom, who are sometimes introduced as “JuBus”.[15] On the other hand Allen Ginsberg, Goldie Hawn, Jake Gyllenhaal and the recently deceased Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys, can all be safely regarded as “JuBus” – if that is something they would accept.

It is harder to say who is a Buddhist, or rather, from what time a person is a Buddhist. Is it enough to possess a Buddha figure and read Buddhist literature? Or does one become a Buddhist by practising Zen meditation and mindfulness exercises? Or is it enough to believe – in whatever way – in the teaching of Buddha? Or is it necessary, perhaps, to join a community, a “Sangha” and solemnly take the Buddhist vows? In the west, being a Buddhist (or not) remains generally a matter of how one describes oneself; in which case the boundaries can be very different.

Ultimately the concept “JuBu” seems to be fairly arbitrary, whether one applies it to oneself or “labels” someone else with it. It cannot be denied that many Jews find spiritual nourishment in Buddhism without immersing themselves very deeply in the religious practice.[16] So it is worth putting the critical question: Do the “genuine” JuBus (in the sense of a group consciously living a spiritual synthesis of two religions) really constitute an identifiable group among Jewish Buddhists? Or are they perhaps only a small peripheral phenomenon within a more or less larger group of “genuine” Buddhists, who happen to have grown up in a Jewish family and have attracted particular attention from the media because of their “curiosity” factor? Unfortunately, as we have said, we have no exact figures. Professor Katz suggests the following concise definition: a JuBu is someone who, while engaging in Buddhist practices, affirms his Jewish descent and identity. No specific term is necessary for the others, who are simply “Buddhists with a Jewish background”.[17] It remains true, as we said at the beginning of this paper, that the latter group made a contribution to the spread of Buddhism in the west that can hardly be overestimated.

3. How “Buddhists with a Jewish background” gradually became “JuBus”

Faced with the striking numbers of Buddhists of Jewish descent in the USA it is easy to forget that, until the middle of the 1930s, German Jews too had a notable affinity with Buddhist teaching and practices. Their contribution to the spread of Buddhism in Germany was much higher than one would expect, given the fact that they represented less than one percent of the population at the time.

3.1 Jewish Buddhists in Germany

There is historical evidence that, at times, about one-third of the Buddhists in Germany were born Jews.[18] This development was brought to a lasting end by the Holocaust in which many German Buddhists of Jewish descent were murdered or forced to emigrate.[19] For this reason there was no emergence of a German JuBu phenomenon during the Buddhism wave of 1965-1975.

Among Buddhism’s harbingers in the German-speaking world were the Asia expert and scholar of Jewish descent Karl Eugen Neumann (1865-1915) and the mathematician and engineer Friedrich Zimmermann (1851-1917) who had converted from Judaism to Buddhism and in 1888 published a “Buddhist catechism”.[20] Other Jewish converts to Buddhism of German origin are Sigmund Feninger (1901-1994), better known by his Dharma name “Nyanaponika”[21], and the Buddhist nun Ayya Khema (1923-1997)[22], born Ilse Kussel to a very prosperous and fully assimilated Jewish family in Berlin. In contrast to Nyanaponika , in later life she deliberately held fast to her Jewish identity and way of life, seeing in it no conflict with her life as a Theravada nun.[23] Ayya Khema had received an excellent education, and during her flight from nationalsocialist Germany, in Asia and the USA, she became acquainted with orthodox Judaism and with Buddhism. After a period of searching for meaning, and of equally wide and intensive reading of spiritual writings from the various religious traditions, including the Kabbalah, she was eventually ordained as a Buddhist nun in Sri Lanka at the end of the 1970s. In the following years up to her death she engaged in a busy life of travel and teaching, finally settling in the Buddha House that had been founded in the Allgäu [Bavaria, Germany] in 1989. If anyone could be considered as a German-speaking “JuBu” on account of the fruitful synthesis of two religious ways of life, it would be Ayya Khema.

3.2 Birth and development of a JuBu phenomenon in the USA

The US American JuBu phenomenon is a child of the late 60s and 70s of the last century. Its vanguard was the “Beat Generation” that was particularly attracted towards Japanese Zen and, influenced by the poet and committed Buddhist Allen Ginsburg (1926-1997), of Jewish descent, Buddhist teachings and practices experienced a boom in western countries. Vajrayana and Theravada teachers from Tibet and south-east Asia travelled to the west and Buddhism gradually adopted the role of a politico-religious counter-culture: it was felt to be experience-based, encumbered with no historical baggage, peaceable, tolerant and non-dogmatic. In the perception of many young people, therefore, it presented a positive alternative to so-called “western Christian civilization” with its history of violence, and so could help to create a new, positive identity in contradistinction to their parents’ generation.



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Jewish Buddhists JuBus JuBu Phenomenon Judaism Western Buddhism Buddhism in the West Religious Conversions



Title: Jewish Converts to Buddhism and the Phenomenon of "Jewish Buddhists" ("JuBus") in the United States, Germany and Israel