A Place to Hang My Hat

After fifteen years of Buddhist practice, I’ve finally decided to become a Buddhist.  It’s been a slow process.

At first I was a Jew practicing meditation and learning about the Dharma.  I tried as hard as I could to retain my Jewish religious identity while absorbing what was valuable from Buddhism.  I had friends who were Jewish-Buddhist, as well as teachers who managed to straddle the divide.  There came a time for me, however, thirteen years ago, when that was no longer tenable, and I resigned from my Temple.  I wrote a letter to my rabbi:

”My reason for leaving is my own particular spiritual journey over the past several years which has resulted from my encounter with Buddhist beliefs and practices.  I’m afraid that encounter has left me feeling neither particularly ”Jewish” nor particularly ”Buddhist;” I seem to be equally ill at ease within both traditions.  For a while my lack of a spiritual home was unsettling, and I retained the hope that I could find within Judaism what I was finding outside of it.  Over time I have become more comfortable with my homelessness; this Diaspora seems like the most authentic place for me to be right now.”

In 2003 I published ”On Being A Non-Buddhist Buddhist” which expressed my continuing homelessness.  I felt at the time that ”being a Buddhist” was an oxymoron, since Buddhism meant, to me, giving up all identifications and just being present.  I wrote at the time:

“Let’s face it: Buddhism is just another religion, and religion is always an escape from uncertainty, an attempt to explain the inexplicable with the implausible.   Why leave the Jewish religion you were born into to just to join another illogical escape from life’s ambiguities that once again requires reliance on spiritual and textual authority?”  I added,  ”My native Judaism… requires…  suspensions of logic.  One is asked to believe in a supernatural Being who stands outside of the material world, and whose existence leaves no material footprint.  One is asked to believe that this Being dictated the Torah to Moses, even though all available evidence suggests that Moses never wrote the Torah…  and that it, like the Buddhist Sō«tras, is a compilation of the works of various authors who had their own unique agendas to pursue.  One is asked to assume that this Being is very much concerned with whether or not one mixes meat with dairy products, or whether one has trimmed the foreskin of one’s penis.  None of this makes very much sense, and I am unwilling to state, like the second century Christian Apologist, Tertullian, that ”credo quia absurdum est” (”I believe because it is absurd”)….  I’m not about to replace the superstitions of Judaism with the superstitions of Buddhism with its colorful heaven and hell realms and celestial beings.” [ref] Segall, S. (2003). Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings. Albany: SUNY Press. [/ref]

That’s where things stood for the longest time.  I’ve often wondered why I couldn’t keep my Jewish religious identification as many of my Jewish-Buddhist teachers and friends did.  The answer is that my personal Jewish roots while, ethnically meaningful, lacked spiritual depth.  There wasn’t all that much to hold on to.

My grandparents and parents spoke Yiddish together when they didn’t want me to understand what they were saying, but otherwise, Yiddish was a dying tongue in our home.  My grandfather went to the temple on the High Holidays, but rarely at any other time.  My father  didn’t read Hebrew, never went to Temple, and hadn’t been Bar Mitzvahed  (rumor had it his father had a falling out with the rabbi).  My mother took me to ”visit” my grandfather at Temple on the High Holidays, which meant I got to play with the fringes of his prayer shawl and hear the sound of the ram’s horn.  My parents kept a kosher home, but ate shellfish and Chinese food when dining out.  After my grandparents died, my parents gave up keeping kosher at home.

We lit candles on Shabbat, but didn’t go to temple, celebrate Havdalah, or say blessings before meals.  Our home observance of Jewish holidays were defined by what we couldn’t do: no driving, writing, cooking, watching TV, or turning on the lights (but also no praying, singing, dancing, story telling, tzedakah, or celebration.)

My mother’s religion was one of piety and respect for her parents’s traditions, but she wasn’t interested in religious matters.  While we weren’t the type of Americanized Jews who had a  ”Hanukkah bush,” my mother took me to Macy’s each December to sit on Santa’s lap.  My father was a closet agnostic with a strong ethnic identification.  He was proud of being Jewish, but didn’t believe in God.  I never found out about his agnosticism until a few years ago.

My father took an interest in Temple, but not to pray.  He organized a Bingo game to pull the temple out of financial difficulties, joined the men’s club for socializing, and eventually became its President.  When the congregation tried to dump our rabbi, my father defended him and helped him keep his position.  Our rabbi was a learned man, but cold and remote. His sermons — filled with an outdated moralism coupled with virulent anti-communism — were far from inspiring.

I went to Hebrew School three afternoons a week.  My teacher was a delightful young Orthodox woman whom I had something of a crush on.  She married a Hasidic rabbi, and I had the pleasure visiting their home to celebrate Shabbat in the Hasidic style. The joy of that Shabbat with her family and friends stays with me to this day:  I learned that religion could be more than a set of prohibitions and restrictions which occupied a small unhappy corner of one’s life, but could be a full-time commitment celebrated through story, prayer, dance, song, charity, and righteousness.  I developed an interest in becoming religious, and fantasized about becoming a rabbi.  I wore a tzitzit katan under my outer garments, prayed with tefillin, and went to temple every Shabbat.  My parents became alarmed that I was becoming too pious.  They needn’t have worried, though. This period didn’t last very long due to two other influences in my life.

The first was my interest in science.  I loved reading about physics, astronomy, and paleontology, and my parents did everything they could to encourage my interest.  My father helped me with science fair projects, took me to a rocket show at the New York Coliseum where I met Werner von Braun, and enrolled me in a summer biology program where I met Nobel Prize winner Edward Tatum.  I volunteered in the cardiac research unit at Maimonides Hospital.  I soon discovered that a literal belief in Genesis and the laws of astrophysics and biology didn’t mix.  I know many modern Orthodox Jews find a way to reconcile Orthodoxy with science, but I couldn’t.  I remember being at a Science Fair where two Orthodox boys commented on my project on DNA, saying I couldn’t believe in both Darwin and the Torah.  Perhaps foolishly, I believed them.  I decided I believed in Darwin more.

The other influence was my mother’s sister and her family.  My uncle was a photographer and avant-garde artist and their daughter hung out with folk musicians in Washington Square Park. They demonstrated as a family on behalf of nuclear disarmament, attended classical music concerts, and visited museums.  It was a whole new world to me  — modern, cosmopolitan, aesthetic, and liberal.  Its seductiveness was overwhelming.  I learned to play guitar, joined the civil rights movement, and hung out with assorted would-be poets, playwrights, actors, jazz musicians, and philosophers. By the time I left for college there was very little left  of my interest in Judaism.  I’d become like my parents: respectful of my grandparents and their ways, enjoying the familial aspects of Judaism (seders, holiday dinners), but with no real interest in the spiritual side of life.  I think that’s why my Judaism couldn’t stand a chance against my growing interest in Buddhist practice.

There are aspects of Judaism that resonate to Buddhist themes — I’m especially fond of the  Pirkei Avot, for example — and Martin Buber’s reinterpretation of Hasidic tales sounds suspiciously Zen.  But there are four basic tenets that lie at the very core of Judaism:

  1. God created the world, intervenes in it, and judges it.
  2. God made a special covenant with the Jewish People
  3. God gave the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai
  4. The Torah (and Talmud) define what is permissible and good.

If one doesn’t believe in God, his covenant, or the Torah’s divine authorship and inerrant authority, what’s left?  There’s the generalized ethical intention of the Torah — according to the Talmud, when a gentile approached Hillel the Elder (110 B.C – 10 A.D.) asking him to teach the entire Torah while he stood listening on one foot, Hillel replied: ”That which is hateful to you, don’t do to others.  That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary.”  There are the wonderful stories of the Torah and Talmud that constitute a unique cultural heritage. There are the beautiful melodies of the liturgy, the sense of communal belonging, and the joyous occasions for familial celebration.  I still love the stories and melodies, and cherish the opportunities to join together as an extended family.  I still identify as an ethnic Jew in a thousand different ways — the foods I eat, the way I speak, the way I value intellectual life and ethical conduct.  But that’s as far as it goes.

Buddhism, on the other hand, asks one to believe very little, but to find out things for oneself.  Its basic tenets — suffering is a part of life, everything is interconnected, everything changes — are  verifiable from experience.  The value of practicing mindfulness, non-clinging, equanimity, lovingkindness, and compassion are also verifiable  The harder-to-believe aspects  — rebirth, celestial beings, the surplus meaning of karma — don’t seem absolutely central to practice.  You can imagine Buddhism without literal rebirth — its harder to imagine Judaism without God.

I’m finally comfortable with identifying as a Buddhist.  After fifteen years as a non-Buddhist Buddhist, I’m taking the plunge.  I’ve decided to start the path leading to Jukai, the precept-taking ritual that means formally becoming a Buddhist in Zen.

I’m not fully sure why I’m going ahead with it.  It’s not a rational decision.  But it feels right.  It doesn’t mean I’ll stop being an iconoclast.  It doesn’t mean I’m drinking the Kool-Aid or joining the club.  It doesn’t mean I think Buddhists are better than anyone else or that everything in Buddhism is true.  It does mean I’m ready to say ”this is my path,” and I’m ready to make a deeper commitment to it, rather than always standing a little bit outside.

Toni Packer, one of my core teachers, would probably wonder about this decision.  She went the opposite route, from being a Zen Buddhist teacher, to being a Zen teacher, to teaching no-thing.  Shedding all aspects of tradition and authority was an important part of her journey and practice.    Her pathless path, like Krishnamurti’s before her, is clear and unwavering.  She would ask me to question this wish for identification, for going along. ”Why now?  What’s missing?  Can you name and identify the longing it’s supposed to fulfill and just see it?”

I can.

It’s finding a place in a new home and community.  A place that’s more consistent with who I am right now.

She would ask, ”what’s the loneliness you’re evading by belonging somewhere?  Can you just see it?”

I can.

But even though the Buddha advised us to go into homelessness — having a home isn’t all bad.  You don’t have to always stay inside, but it’s nice to have a place to hang your hat.