Why Jews Turn Toward the East

Why Jews Turn Toward the East

By Rabbi Richard Baroff

The two oldest religious traditions in the world that still matter are those that began in the land of Israel and on the subcontinent of India. They are very different from each other, like oil and water.

The European peoples knew shockingly little about Indian spirituality until the 19th century. The Buddha himself — beyond dispute the greatest historical figure produced by Indian civilization — was almost completely unknown in the West before that time. When Westerners thought of Oriental civilization, they usually referred to the Islamic world.

Because of missionary work, something was known of China and Japan before that time. India was terra incognita.

By the late 19th century Hindu mystics were found in the West. Vivekananda, Tagore, Gandhi and others became well known outside the British Raj. Beatniks in the 1950s were turned on to Eastern spirituality.

In the 1960s the Beatles and others introduced transcendental meditation, based in yogic mysticism. Many hippie types were looking for gurus and swamis. Richard Hittleman’s “Yoga for Health” became popular. Hindu philosophy had become chic.

After the Second World War many GIs were stationed in Japan. They brought back the Japanese versions of Buddhist ideas, particularly Zen. Through the writings of D.T. Suzuki and Eugen Herrigel’s “Zen in the Art of Archery,” Zen Buddhism entered the counterculture.

Later, other schools of Buddhism — the Hinayana traditions of Southeast Asia and the Mahayana schools of India and China — became better known. The Dalai Lama became an ambassador for the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet.

Because Jews, including Alan Ginsberg and Ram Dass, were overrepresented in the Beatnik and hippie movements, Jewish exploration in America of Eastern religious traditions was (and still is) common.

Many American Buddhist leaders have obviously Jewish names. Bujus and Jubus refer to Buddhists from Jewish backgrounds.

In the 21st century there is indeed a great deal written about the intersection of Judaism and Buddhism. Rodger Kamenetz’s “The Jew in the Lotus” became a best seller.

Many Jewish spiritualists are clearly attracted to the very different mystical traditions of the East, Buddhism in particular. The concurrent fluorescence of interest in Kabbalah is in part an attempt to address the obvious attraction of Buddhism, and to a lesser extent Hinduism, to many Jews in search of meaning.

Jubus and Bujus are not a threat to the Jewish people’s future in the way secularism is. However, the disproportionate number of born Jews in the ranks of the Buddhists is a symptom of the lack of spiritual connection to our tradition for too many who are yearning for enlightenment.

Enlightenment is available within the Jewish tradition. Even enlightenment through meditation is available in Judaism as it is in Buddhism.

In addition, Judaism is always immersed in ethics. Buddhism is also a religion of ethics — most of the Eightfold Path is about morality and not meditation. But in the West, converts to Buddhism seem more oriented toward the quest for serenity (Nirvana) and not toward the achievement of a more moral life.

At the same time, Judaism is very different from the Indic tradition of Hinduism and Buddhism. The exotic nature of these religions is part of the allure. Yet it is a failure of exploration within real spiritual Judaism that has made this modest exodus to the East possible. This can be changed.


Rabbi Richard Baroff is the head of Guardians of the Torah.

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