Sheldon, Come Home:

It’s Time for Jewish Meditation to be Jewish

 

An excerpt from my new book, Worlds Apart, Paths Crossing: Buddhist Mind and Jewish Soul, which addresses the profound interest among Jews today in Eastern, and particularly Buddhist, forms meditation and spirituality.

By now you’ve probably heard the joke about the Jewish grandmother from New York who makes a difficult trip to the Himalayas to see a guru.  ‘What does a Jewish grandmother want with a guru?’, you ask.  Well, after encountering many obstacles and delays on her long journey, she is finally ushered into the master’s presence and says, ‘Sheldon, come home.’

     This classic piece of ethnic humor has offended some JUBUs (Jewish Buddhists), but this kind of good-natured one-upmanship is characteristic of ethnic humor.  Just think about the self-deprecating jokes and stories about the fools of the town of Chelm.  But more to the point, it really is time for Sheldon to come home.

     Why?

     Actually, Sheldon has already made some tentative steps towards coming home.  Jews no longer have to go elsewhere to learn meditation. For example, the Reform movements Department of Adult Jewish Growth has sponsored an annual meditation Kallah.  Many Jewish meditation teachers have brought back what they’ve learned from the two most widespread forms of Buddhism among Westerners, Zen and Vipassana (Insight) meditation.  These forms of meditation are now presented in the Jewish context as universal forms of spirituality.

     However, as we begin to accept the phenomenon of meditation in Jewish settings, it is time to make some distinctions and ask some hard questions.  What is meditation?  What is Jewish meditation?  Are there universal forms of meditation?  Is Buddhist meditation kosher but Christian meditation treif?

Having left Judaism as a teenager, I practiced Tibetan Buddhism for twenty years.  During that time, I also became a professor of Asian Religions.  When I returned to Judaism, I searched for a practice of meditation as profound and vast as the practice I had learned from my Tibetan teachers.   In my search I did not merely seek out traditional Jewish meditation techniques that would be like the Buddhist ones I learned, nor did I simply try to introduce Buddhist meditation into Jewish practice.

      Neither of these approaches, which are quite common today, dig deeply enough.  For example, Buddhists chant mantras.  If we Jews repeat a verse from Biblical scripture many times over for meditative purposes, does that make it a ‘Jewish mantra’?  If Biblical angels have wings, then we feel somehow comforted to learn that Tibetan Tantric deities have wings too.  But in finding such similarities do we even ask, let alone answer, the questions: What is a mantra?  What is an angel?  What is meditation and what is it for?

Want more? Read an excerpt from my last book, Kingdoms of Experience, at amazon.com.

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