Seeking spirituality coming home

July 03, 1994|By Jeffrey M. Landaw

The central problem in "Middlemarch" is that Dorothea Brooke wants to be a saint in a culture that can't handle such ambitions in men, still less in women. Rodger Kamenetz' account of a meeting in 1990 between the Dalai Lama and a group of Jews interested in esoteric spiritual practices suggests that American Judaism's much-publicized problems keeping its people in the fold are the same, at the root, as Dorothea's.

The Lama's purpose in inviting the Jews to Dharamsala, his northern Indian headquarters, was simple. Facing a long struggle against the Chinese occupation of Tibet, he wanted to know "the secret of Jewish spiritual survival" for the 2,000 years before the State of Israel. The Jews' motives for accepting his invitation, and perhaps ours in reading about it, are more complex.

If you think that Jews have been represented in Eastern religions far beyond their numbers, you're right: "Various surveys show Jewish participation in such groups ranging from 6 percent to 30 percent. This is up to twelve times the Jewish proportion of the American population, which is 2 1/2 percent." Jews are so numerous, and so prominent, in Buddhism that they've evolved a group name for themselves: Jewish Buddhists, or JUBUs.

Mr. Kamenetz never asks whether you can be both a Jew and a Buddhist. He takes the JUBUs' word that they can have, as an old friend puts it, "Jewish roots and Buddhist wings." Most Jews, not only the Orthodox, would strongly disagree, but explaining why would require a kind of attention to their first principles that, as Mr. Kamenetz points out, many North American Jews lack.

Mr. Kamenetz is sharp and funny on growing up Reform Jewish && in Baltimore in the 1950s, about the time I was growing up Reform in New York. His bar mitzvah was "a terrifying and elaborate social event that most resembled marrying my mother in public -- but one devoid of large religious significance." The ghettoized Jewish Baltimore of those days, where it was easy to define Judaism by what it wasn't and let Christianity give all spirituality a bad name, was not the place to satisfy an appetite for transcendence.

This goes far to account for Jews' drift away from their old faith -- and, though Mr. Kamenetz doesn't mention it, for main-line Protestantism's similar troubles. "Like Allen Ginsberg, most Jewish Buddhists I spoke to came from secular backgrounds," he writes. "In this they resemble the vast majority of two generations of American Jews. I'm convinced that the Judaism we were exposed to was primarily exoteric, preoccupied with social and political issues, and often embarrassed by expressions of spirituality." Jonathan Omer-Man, who comes from the mixture of traditionalism and counterculture called the Jewish renewal movement, complained: "There are more Jews seeking the esoteric in Dharamsala than there are in my synagogue in Los Angeles."

The traditional way to encounter the mystical and ecstatic side of Judaism Mr. Kamenetz is seeking would be through Orthodoxy. But Orthodoxy, with its "uncomfortable sense of boundaries being raised higher and higher," leaves him cold. That side of Orthodoxy certainly exists, but it's not the only one -- and the Orthodoxy I've seen has done far better than the other denominations at getting its people to remain Jewish. As Mr. Kamenetz says, "If there are so many different truths in the world, . . . why go through all the trouble of preserving any particular tradition. Why continue as Jews?"

At some point in this book, you'll confront your own appetite for transcendence, or lack of one. If you came to greater respect for Orthodoxy, as I did, through the intellect, it's likely to raise your eyebrows when Mr. Kamenetz says of the summit participants: "Together they had raised the dialogue between Jews and Tibetans from the world of knowing to the world of intuition. And that was a very high place to be." Or when he takes in perfect stride a visit to an oracle through whom demons offer prophecies.

Those aren't the only occasions where readers may wonder if Mr. Kamenetz understands the depth of the waters he's navigating. The book is full of vivid observations and provocative speculations -- he wonders about contacts between ancient Judaism and the Eastern religions, and compares the Dalai Lama to both Melchizedek, the righteous king-priest encountered by Abraham, and Yochanan ben Zakkai, who saved Judaism after the fall of the Second Temple by shifting its emphasis from

priestly rites and sacrifices to broad-based prayer and study.

But his approach is impressionistic, not scholarly. There are no -- references to any texts in the original languages. The book contains one definite howler -- rendering the Hebrew term for saints as "hasidim" (pious ones) rather than "tzaddikim" (holy ones).

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