[This question was emailed to me for my column in Spirituality & Health magazine, but it’s concern is too narrow for the magazine’s readership. So, I am answering it here instead:]
When I scan the Buddhist books on my bookshelf I can’t help but notice the preponderance of Jewish authors: Philip Kapleau, Jack Kornfield, Joseph Goldstein, Sylvia Boorstein, Mark Epstein, Surya Das, Gempo Roshi, Norm Fischer, Bernie Glassman, Sharon Salzberg, Taro Gold, Natalie Goldberg, Jon Kabat–Zinn, etc. What is with the attraction of Buddhism to American Jews?
The attraction is so common that you might define an American Jew as someone born into an American Jewish household who was, is, or will someday be a Buddhist. There are several reasons why Jews find a home in Buddhism. Here are some of the most important:
1. You can practice Buddhism without learning Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, and Japanese. Judaism without Hebrew, however, is like a bagel without cream cheese.
2. American Buddhists aren’t pressured to move to Japan, Korea, or Southeast Asia. Liberal American Judaism without the pressure to move to Israel and the guilt over not doing so is, well, Unitarian Universalism.
3. Buddhism is non–theistic: it lacks a supernatural creator God. Judaism without a supernatural God is just an eighty–year–old Hebrew guy shouting rules from a mountain top in the Sinai desert. For many if not most American Jews the supernatural God of Torah died in Auschwitz.
4. Unlike Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims, Buddhists never went out of their way to convert, oppress, torture, and murder Jews.
5. You can practice Buddhism without a formal act of conversion. You are not required to reject your Bubbe to embrace your Buddha.
6. Buddhism is testable; Judaism is not. Buddhist claims regarding the nature of suffering, the ending of suffering, the interconnectedness of life, and the absence of permanence can be proven or disproven through meditation. Jewish claims regarding a supernatural God, the chosenness of the Jews, the revelatory nature of Torah, the gifting of Israel to the Jews in perpetuity are not testable, and must be taken on faith. Faith of this kind is in short supply among American Jews. Buddhism is more like a science than a religion, and this seems to be more in line with the American Jewish mentality. Hence the attraction of so many Jews to Buddhism.