THE GOLDEN RULE OF INTERFAITH colloquy: Don’t Confuse The Levels.
A few years ago, a “JewBu” (Jewish Buddhist) friend of mine told me a story that he felt illustrated the superiority of Buddhism over Judaism, or at least the limitations of Judaism compared to Buddhism. It goes something like this:
A rabbi once met a Buddhist monk, who invited the rabbi into his temple. The rabbi refused, saying, “I cannot enter a house of idolatry.” The monk said, “If I can prove to you that you are an idolater, will you study under me for a year?” The rabbi agreed, whereupon the monk took the Buddha statue off the temple dais and threw it on the ground, smashing it to pieces. The monk said to the startled rabbi, “Now do that with one of your Torah scrolls.” “I cannot,” replied the rabbi. Rejoined the monk, “Then who is the idolater?” Hearing this, the rabbi, flustered, agreed to study Buddhism with the monk.
Of course, as a more-or-less religious Jew, this honked me off somewhat. I couldn’t put my finger on why, though, until I thought about it more closely; it makes an unfair comparison, and one that’s unfair to both religions — proceeding as it does from a false assumption.
Simply put: the two traditions are not the same animal — and neither one is idolatrous.
Merriam-Webster defines “idolatry” as “the worship of a physical object as a god.” But Jews don’t worship Torah. We learn from it. That’s what it’s for. The Written Torah (and even more so the Oral Torah) contains our ethics, laws, customs, myths, legends, ideals, family history and campfire didactics. We do treat the scroll with respect and love since it’s our most important communal possession, but I don’t know of anyone who actually prays to it.
The same could be said for Buddhism (at least, the forms I’m familiar with). As I understand it, Buddhists seek to emulate Buddha. They don’t pray to him, and they certainly don’t pray to any of his statues.
There is a difference between the two traditions in the way they treat the material world. Torah teaches us to engage with it, in order to find/reveal the Divine sparks hidden therein. Buddha taught non-attachment to the world as the means to transcend what he viewed as its essential nature (i.e., suffering). Put another way: Buddhists ask, “How can we cope with suffering?” Jews ask, “What can we do to alleviate it?”
But there are commonalities as well. Neither faith is monolithic; there are Reform and Orthodox Jews, Zen and Theravada Buddhists, and a whole spectrum of flavor-shadings of each in between. Both traditions carry important lessons for the seeker-after-wisdom. Both teach mindfulness. Both are non-dual at their core; Judaism teaches that G?d is One in essence, and Buddhism teaches that the Universe is One. Both teach that a direct perception of that One-ness is not only important but achievable. They may differ in their methods — Jews pray, in general, and Buddhists meditate — but both approaches activate the same parts of the brain. And both Judaism and Buddhism (as well as many other traditions) emphasize service-to-others as one of humanity’s most supreme callings.
Let us work for the day when we rise above my-God-is-better-than-your-god mishegas and focus on what’s really important: this fleeting and eternal moment. Because ultimately, that’s all we ever have.