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Buddhism, Judaism, and The Great Cheerio Fiasco

Buddhism, Judaism, and The Great Cheerio Fiasco

Many Jews turn to Buddhism to rise to spiritual heights. Judaism says, "Take the whole world up with you."


For 17 years, I meditated, usually three times a day. My goal was to attain a state of elevated consciousness which the Hindus call samadhi -- the experience of the total oneness underlying the apparent multiplicity of this world.

Sri Ramakrishna, the head of my ashram’s lineage of gurus, used to say that the mind is like a pond. Because of the many ripples (thought forms), the surface of the pond cannot accurately reflect the sun of Truth. When the pond, or mind, is perfectly still (in mediation), the sun, or Truth, is perfectly reflected.

Once, during my 11th year of living at the ashram, a Hindu-style spiritual retreat, I actually experienced that transcendental state. Conducting the community’s group meditation in the shrine room, I felt my consciousness rise out of my body. I left the world of time and space behind, and entered into a state of Total Oneness.

I left the world of time and space behind, and entered into a state of Total Oneness.

I was not aware that over an hour passed in that state, or that the other members of the community had tip-toed out of the shrine room to begin their morning duties. When I finally, with great difficulty, managed to “come down” and open my eyes, it took me another fifteen minutes just to reorient my mind to this world of form and motion.

The ritual worship over, I left the shrine, took off my chuddar (prayer shawl), and was engaged in folding it, when Sister Baroda approached me. I was the schedule maker, and she asked if she could switch her cooking day with someone else in the community. Up to that point, I felt like I had been descending to earth gradually, as with a wind-filled parachute, but suddenly, Sister Baroda poked a gaping hole in my parachute. I landed with a thud, and yelled at her for disturbing my rapture. Then I angrily stalked off to my room to escape the garrulous group of ashram members chatting frivolously over breakfast.


A large number of Jews currently practice Buddhism. Rodger Kamenetz, the author of The Jew in the Lotus, says, “A third of all Western Buddhist leaders come from Jewish roots.” Half of the participants in the Vipassana meditation retreat near Dharamsala, India, are Israelis. According to one estimate, three out of four Western visitors to the spiritual center of Tibetan Buddhism and the seat of the Dalai Lama are Jewish. Most of the street signs in Dharamsala sport Hebrew letters.

A recent cover story of the Jerusalem Report profiles three Jews who have been living in Dharamsala for years:

  • Venerable Tenzin Josh, formerly Steven Gluck of London;
  • Ruth Sonam, formerly Ruth Berliner of Northern Ireland; and
  • Itamar Sofer, an Israeli who fled the pressure of army service in Gaza to find peace in the Himalayas.

In describing his 253 monastic vows, such as dressing modestly and not sharing private space with women, Tenzin Josh remarks, “It’s not much different from being an Orthodox Jew.”

But he is wrong. In fact, Buddhism is -- in its essence and purpose -- the diametric opposite of Judaism.

The Four Noble Truths, which comprise the foundation of Buddhism, are:

  1. This world is suffering.
  2. The cause of suffering is desire.
  3. The cessation of suffering is the cessation of desire.
  4. The cessation of desire is achieved through practicing the Noble Eight-fold Path, which includes right speech, right action, right livelihood, etc.

The goal of Buddhism is to escape the wheel of birth and death. Since suicide leads only to reincarnation, the only effective way to escape this world is by attaining nirvana, a transcendental state of consciousness which serves as an exit pass from the wheel of birth and death.

As Tenzin Josh asserted in explaining his personal transition from a punk lifestyle in London to becoming a Buddhist monk: “Whether a punk nihilist or a Buddhist hermit, you just don’t see a point in life and want to find a way out.”

Israeli Itamar Sofer similarly explained his post-army flight to India: “What hope is there when your whole life is one ceaseless fight for personal and national survival? I just wanted to run away and find some space for myself.”


Judaism, by contrast, is a path of total engagement with this world.

The 613 commandments of the Torah are prescriptions for how to engage every part of one’s body and every component of the physical world in consecrated action. Even a “mental” or “emotional” commandment, such as “Love your neighbor as yourself,” has specific, physical stipulations, namely: Concern yourself with your neighbor’s physical welfare, show him honor, speak well of her.

The Talmud, that vast, 63-tractate compendium of the Oral Law, delves into picayune details as a way of including every imaginable physical object in its scope. Thus, in discussing which vessel is kosher to use for washing hands upon arising, the Talmud considers clay vessels, wooden vessels, animal skins, cracked vessels, broken vessels, etc., and in so doing holds each and every object up to the light of Torah. Nothing is too mundane to be dealt with, scrutinized, and either used or dismissed for holy action.

According to Kabbalah, every physical object possesses sparks of holiness.

According to Kabbalah, every physical object possesses sparks of holiness. By using an object in the way ordained by the Torah, the sparks are released and can ascend. Jews are here in this world to elevate the entire creation.

And the lower the object or activity, the higher the sparks can rise. Thus, after using the bathroom, a Jew is obligated to recite a blessing which includes the words, “It is revealed and known before Your Throne of Glory...” The sages point out that the sanctification of this lowliest of activities gives one the potential to actually rise to the level of the Divine Throne. In this light, we can understand a puzzling statement by the Gaon of Vilna, the great 18th century sage. The Gaon said that the other religions are like the heavens; Judaism is like the earth.

The purpose of the other religions is to transcend this world. The purpose of Judaism is to elevate this world, and in so doing, perfect oneself.

Nowhere is the dichotomy between Judaism and the Eastern religions so pronounced as in their approach to sexuality.

Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism all mandate celibacy as the highest path, because indulging in sex means giving in to the lower self. All the serious Bhu-Jews living in Dharamsala have renounced sex.

Torah, by contrast, takes sexuality and examines it, regulates it, prohibits it in certain relationships, and ultimately sanctifies it in marriage as the most potent way to unite with God in this world. Discipline is an essential component of sanctified sexuality. Incestuous relations, among others, are forbidden and married couples adhere to the laws of family purity, where abstention is required during the menstruation cycle.

It is a positive commandment of the Torah for a husband to sexually satisfy his wife (above and beyond the commandment of procreation). According to the Oral Tradition, the union of husband and wife is the closest that human beings can come to union with God in this world. It is the “holy of holies.”

I should note here that Indian (both Hindu and Buddhist) Tantric tradition utilizes the energy of sexual union as a spiritual tool, but Tantric sexuality is not supposed to be practiced with one’s wife. Preferably, it should be practiced with a stranger. This would be anathema in Judaism, where the highest union includes every aspect of the couple: emotional, mental, spiritual, as well as physical. That is why Judaism prohibits marital relations if either spouse is fantasizing about another person. The Shechina, the presence of God, comes to rest only when the husband and wife are acting out total oneness, on all levels.


Another salient difference between Buddhism and Judaism is that Buddhism is a non-theistic religion. Although later Mahayana Buddhism virtually made the Buddha himself into a god, the historical Gautama Buddha (who lived in the fifth century BCE) never mentioned God. Thus, the existence of God and even the existence of an immortal soul are either denied or irrelevant in Buddhism.

Judaism, on the contrary, centers totally on God. God is not only the source of all existence, but also the source of the Torah, the intricate system of ideal behavior for humankind. All wisdom flows from God’s Torah, the instruction manual for living.

Further, God is not only the Creator of the universe, but continues to sustain it moment-by-moment, while supervising our participation in it. Living with the awareness of God's Oneness, love of God, and awe of God are three commandments which should be practiced on a constant basis.

According to Buddhism and Hinduism, this world is ultimately purposeless.

According to Buddhism and Hinduism, this world is ultimately purposeless. Hinduism, which does posit a Divine creator, describes the Divine direction of this world as lila, “playful sport,” with no more purpose and meaning than a game of ball.

According to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, “The foundation of Judaism and the basis of all true religion is the realization that existence is purposeful, and that man has a purpose in life. Both man and nature have meaning because they were created by a purposeful Being.” [Handbook of Jewish Thought, 1:1 and 1:2]

It is the deep intuition of this truth which makes Jews such “meaning freaks” -- those always searching for meaning in life and events -- unable to tolerate life as a couch potato. Ironically, it is this search for meaning in life which takes many Jews to the East. There they fasten on a purpose for their lives: to attain enlightenment.

Judaism maintains, however, that the purpose of life is not just spiritual consciousness, but primarily refined action. Therefore, that purpose cannot be attained by meditation alone, but through mitzvot: minutely prescribed, consecrated actions.

Of course, spiritual consciousness, or what Judaism calls kavannah, must provide the backdrop to one’s actions. A mitzvah which is done without the consciousness that one is doing the will of God -- in order to connect with God -- does not actualize its full potential. On the other hand, exalted consciousness which does not express itself in concrete actions is worthless.

The purpose of meditation -- in which Bhu-Jews spend many long hours -- is to clearly perceive ultimate Truth, in the universe and in one’s own life. Unfortunately, one can be an adept in meditation, and still commit adultery, lose one’s temper, and be bloated with pride. I have known great masters of meditation who succumbed to all three. Spiritual consciousness, in and of itself, does not lead to proper action.


The sages of the Mussar Movement (a technique of spiritual growth articulated by the 18th century Rabbi Yisrael Salanter) explain the human mission this way:

A human being consists of a soul together with a body. The soul is ever-perfect. We do not need to work on the soul. Rather, we have come into this world to perfect the body (which includes emotions and character traits). The body is like a child with which we have been entrusted. We are obligated to feed, bathe, and rest the body properly. We are obligated to discipline the body, to get it to behave properly, to engage it in acts of kindness, to prevent it from hurting itself or others. The commandments of the Torah are physical because their object is to train the body. Judaism aims not only for an enlightened mind, but for a sanctified body as well.

Therefore, although meditation was practiced by the ancient Prophets and continues to be practiced by modern Hassidim, flights of consciousness can never be more than ancillary to Judaism.

The spiritual work of a Jew is to train the face to smile at a nasty neighbor, to teach the hand to put a coin in the palm of a loathsome beggar, to restrain the tongue from making negative remarks, to feed the stomach only permissible foods, to drill the mind in judging others favorably, to educate the heart to love God, to instruct the shoulders to carry a neighbor’s load, especially that of an enemy, and to control the mouth from lashing out in anger.

The place for blissful contemplation of the Divine Oneness is not in this world but rather in the World to Come. The purpose of this world is to be a place of challenge and accomplishment. Although Jews, especially Israelis, may yearn to escape to a place of peace, our purpose in this life is better served by situations which stretch, test and demand growth.

The purpose of this world is to be a place of challenge and accomplishment, of tests that demand growth.

In the Jerusalem Report, Tenzin Josh (Steven Gluck) defines the difference between Buddhism and Judaism: “Buddhism holds that life is suffering, but the Buddha’s teachings show a clear way out of it (through Enlightenment). The Jewish idea, on the other hand, is just try to adapt.”


Judaism does not just resign itself to a world of darkness. Judaism advocates jumping into the fray, facing evil head-on, struggling against one’s own evil urge, rooting out baseness -- in the world and in oneself.

True, it is hard for a monk not to touch money and to live without the comforts of this world. It is even harder to labor to earn a salary and then give 10% off the top to charity, especially when you need every cent to repair your washing machine.

It is difficult to live in silence and seclusion. It is even more difficult to remain focused on God and one’s highest ideals amidst the commotion and distractions of family life.

This world is a place of challenge and attainment. The greater the challenge, the greater the attainment.


For the last six months, I have been working on overcoming anger, which the Talmud equates to the sin of idol worship, because anger is the result of idolizing one’s own will. During the 15 years I lived in an ashram, the 16 years I practiced vegetarianism and yoga, the 17 years I engaged in meditation, I never succeeded in controlling my volatile temper.

Young children provide an ideal environment to work on overcoming anger. They are irrational, contrary, famous for interrupting the sleep cycle, demanding, and do not clean up after themselves. They also make messes, usually right after the floor has been washed, and when their mother is at the lowest point of her bio-rhythm energy cycle.

I thank God every day for my beloved children. But I also yell at them -- too much.

Now I am in a Mussar group in which, using the techniques of the Mussar teachers, I work to overcome my inveterate tendency to respond to stress by haranguing whichever culprit backed me into that corner.

Last Tuesday morning, my husband, a musical arranger, had an important recording session. Trying to model the ideal wife, I offered to prepare carrot sticks and humus to send for his lunch. He gratefully accepted, but, knowing my habitual tardiness, warned that he had to leave promptly at 8:30. “No problem,” I assured him. In any case, my six-year-old son had to be out the door by 8:20 to get to school on time. Ten minutes was exactly enough time to prepare the carrot sticks and package some humus in a smaller container. I was on top of it.

At 8:19, my son knocked over a box of Cheerios standing on the edge of the kitchen table. My jaw dropped in horror as hundreds of crunchy O’s landed all over the kitchen floor.

My mental computer screen flashed a dozen red X’s screaming ILLEGAL OPERATION. The mess. The waste. The money (the Cheerios were imported from America). The time. My self-portrait as the ideal wife.

I couldn’t get to the refrigerator to take out the carrots without pulverizing the blanket of Cheerios. If I took the time to clean it up now, I’d be late with my husband’s lunch. My first instinct was to yell at my son, and demand that he clean it up, even if it made him late for school. My second instinct was to lash out at my husband for his damned punctuality that put me under such pressure.

I didn’t yell. I didn’t get angry. In a calm tone, I sent my son off to school. Then I gingerly treaded over the Cheerios to the broom closet, got out the broom, pushed the mess over to one side, retrieved the carrots from the fridge, peeled and cut them as fast as I could, took the whole container of humus (it wouldn’t be too much, I told myself), put everything in a plastic bag, and, with a beatific smile, handed my waiting husband his lunch at 8:33.

I felt a wave of ecstasy sweep over me. I had done it! For this time at least, I had overcome my anger.

It was a bigger accomplishment than samadhi.

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March 31, 2001

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Visitor Comments: 71

(69) Anonymous, March 5, 2014 11:06 PM

Misrepresentation pt 3....!

PS I realise that my response might seem dismissive of your personal experience that is referred to in the article and I apologise for this - the reason for this is that the purpose of my response was limited to addressing what I perceive to be the misrepresentation of Buddhism.
PPS I now see that many others have similarly pointed out that this misrepresents aspects of Buddhism - however my comments are based on an understanding of the Buddha's teachings from the earliest recorded discourses that are available, and therefore they may be a little different.
PPPS I really ought to learn the art of brevity.

Sara Yoheved Rigler, March 6, 2014 11:50 AM

Author responds

First of all, thank you for your carefully thought-out response to my article. I lived for 15 years in a Vedanta/Hindu ashram, so, although I speak of "Eastern religions," I am more educated in Hinduism than Buddhism. Nevertheless, every book on Buddhism I have ever read refers to the "Four Noble Truths" as "Truths" and lists the first as "This world is suffering." As for your statement that "Many lay Buddhists are sexually active," this proves nothing about Buddhism's attitude toward sexuality. As we all know, Gautama Buddha left his wife and child to seek Enlightenment. After he attained it, he lived a celibate life, and when his wife eventually joined him, she became a Buddhist nun. Buddhist monasteries and nunneries over the centuries attest to Buddhism's attitude that the highest path is celibacy. By contrast, Judaism holds that the highest path is sanctified (by the mitzvot) sexuality, and full engagement with the world according to the mitzvot. Your other statements about Buddhism I accept as true, since you are obviously a sincere and educated student of Buddhism.

(68) Anonymous, March 5, 2014 10:56 PM

Misrepresentation of Buddhism pt 2

He also encouraged lay people to be careful with sexuality given its potential to cause harm.
Fourthly, to state that buddhism says that world is ultimately without purpose is not accurate. The Buddha refused to make metaphysical statements subject to speculation - his teachings are all geared towards freedom from dissatisfaction, and the realisation of a genuine happiness. He presents his teachings not as doctrines to be debated, but as tools to be used. From the buddhist perspective each and every intention act upon has a result, which can either lead to happiness or unhappiness - and from that perspective there is a great purpose to life, especially given the Buddha's message that a genuine happiness is possible.
Finally, from the Buddhist perspective one can't be truly happy if one is causing harm, or living without virtue. The foundation of meditation practise is a life of non-harming - and this is based on the understanding that ultimately we all want to be happy and at peace. From the buddhist perspective, in fact, the selfishness that is at the root of harmful deeds, such as adultery, killing, stealing etc, is ultimately at the root of our own unhappiness.
I think that all spiritual traditions are going to have bits of wisdom within them, and I do feel that this article is a little bit disparaging in tone towards eastern religions. I hope that we can all use what we find helpful in order to be truly happy and at peace.

(67) Oli F, March 5, 2014 10:56 PM

Misrepresentation of Buddhism pt 1

Whilst I do agree that there are significant differences between Jewish and Buddhist teachings, I would like to point out that, based on my understanding of Buddhism, your article gives a misleading impression of what the Buddhist teachings are about, so I feel moved to address this impression with the (lengthy!) response below. I hope you do not find this impertinent.
Firstly, the translation of the noble truths provided is misleading. The Buddha did not say 'the world is suffering' - he was well aware that there are many refined types of happiness. However, he did point out that, if you look at your everyday experience, whatever type of happiness it is, it never quite fully satisfies, and even when it does seem very satisfying, it never stays that way forever. He did, however, point out the possibility of a peace / happiness that is not subject to change.
Secondly, these 'truths' are not statements of fact to be accepted or rejected, but presented more like categories of experience. The 'flavour' of the teachings of Buddhism is a spirit of inquiry and they are intended to help people be happier and suffer less, they are intended to help people become more free of suffering, and they do this by directing people to closely examine their experience.
Thirdly, in relation to sexuality, the Buddha's teachings do not say that this is giving in to the lower self. Many lay Buddhists are sexually active. The Buddha did, however, point out that sexual craving ultimately never satisfies, and that if you are looking for true happiness, it isn't found in sexuality (although again, the Buddha would direct you to look at your experience for yourself to check this out). (continued below....)

(66) Moshe, April 17, 2009 5:13 PM

The author did not put down Budhism she said that it is more "in the heavens."

Budhism can be very good, and for many people. It can help them experience spirituality. However, it does have any emphasis on connecting the phyiscial and the spiritual, which means a) harmonizing them to function together for the good of onesleft, society, the world, and as a means to better connect to Hashem b) bringing down the effects of spirituality into the physical world I'd say there are three levels: 1) mainly concerned with the physical 2) mainly concerned with the spiritual 3) equally concerned with both These three levels exist within Jewish practice itself. However, the ultimate goal is the combining of the physical and the spiritual in the correct manner so as to connect to Hashem, to establish a good society, to be an "or lagoyim" and to inspire the world by example.

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