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The Great Awakenings

The Essence of Contemporary American Religion

Part Thirty-Seven

By Shlomo Phillips © 1989
(most recent update March 05, 2015)

Recorded Live on Facebook
Video 8:
Parts 34 - 38

The JUBU: Jewish-Buddhists

Other Jews took a very different path.

The developing Eastern-inspired universalism crossed all religious and socioeconomic boundaries. It was part of a trend that had been slowly building since the Third Great Awakening and the Parliament of World Religions as discussed previously. Now Spiritual Universalism was again picking up steam through the efforts of people like Ram Dass and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (founder of the Jewish Renewal movement within non-Orthodox Judaism) - not to be confused with Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liady of the Orthodox Hassidic CHABAD-Lubavitch sect. Coincidentally, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi was ordained through Chabad but later left to pursue a different path as we discuss shortly.

While historically Judaism has sought (with varying degrees of success) to avoid merging with other belief systems and to maintain strict devotion to HaShem, the God of Israel, alone; the new social drive towards universalism was becoming ever more seductive. American Jews could now be accepted as just another ethnic minority if they would embrace the Secular paradigm of the times and reject their Old World ways and beliefs. Especially offensive to the new Jews was the Chosen People idea. It had to go!

Since the Trefa Banquet of 1883 American Jews had largely embraced Reform Judaism and rejected the traditional forms of the Covenant. For many Reform Jews the Jewish people had not been specifically chosen by HaShem at all (if He even exists). Jews were merely a reflection of the universal quest for ethnic meaning, not the Chosen People of a literal God. As just another ethnic group Jews were now finding themselves more accepted in American society than they had ever been anywhere else. They had largely assimilated into the dominant Secular Humanist culture and were fast losing their distinctiveness as the ancient Covenant people (a Covenant most now regarded as a superstitious remnant of the past).

Just as the Baal Shem Tov had noted the lack of meaningful personal spirituality within traditional Orthodoxy (giving birth to the various Hassidic sects), so too certain American Jews were now hoping to rekindle Judaism within their assimilated non-Orthodox and Agnostic sects. Some of these Jews found their way to Israel and the kibbutz agrarian movement, while others began assimilating more alien doctrines into their Reform Jewish ideas.

These ideas came largely from the East, but in a reworked American New Age context. Others incorporated Pagan ideas such as the goddess earth mother, Gaia. Especially incorporated from the East was the Buddha Dharma. These "Jubu" (or Jewish Buddhists) typically confuse the Buddhist concept of anattā (or not-self) with the Hasidic concept of ain Soph (i.e. the Eternal One prior to self-manifestation in time). Based on this misunderstanding the JuBu finds no essential difference between the two religions even though they are completely different and contradictory if one understands the Buddhist concepts as Buddhists do.

For some, the various unorthodox interpretations of Kabbalah created an interdisciplinary space where they felt they could return to a more traditional, if heterodox, observance. Were he alive today the Vilna Gaon would surely be shaking his head: "See I warned you!"

Some non-Orthodox Jewish communities have now begun moving toward more traditional observances and understandings. This in part is what is drawing the Reform and Conservative movements closer now. Since the re-birth of Israel in 1948 many Jews of all movements (including the non-affiliated groups) have been rediscovering the richness of Derech HaShem (the Way of God) in ways their parents had largely allowed to fade (due to assimilation, the War, Secular Humanism, etc). And yet in some ways the non-Orthodox are farther from traditional Judaism than ever before because so many of them have replaced HaShem with a Buddhist Force similar to George Lucas' in Star Wars. This arises from a misapplication of the term "echad" or One. Being One does not negate His Existence. HaShem is "I Am."

In quest of this new JuBu religious consciousness Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (August 28, 1924 - July 3, 2014) was part of a group of Jews who travelled to India to meet with the Dalai Lama. This historic trip is chronicled in Rodger Kamenetz' popular book The Jew in the Lotus (JL). The expression "JUBU" (Jewish-Buddhists) was first published in that work (and was considered a positive by the author). The phrase itself is a pun on the Tibetan mantra: Om mani pad me hum. This witty nickname reveals the fundamental shift that is still very much alive in American religion in general and within non-Orthodox Judaism in particular. Historically no religious Jew would have embraced such a term. It would have been considered deeply offensive, anti-Semitic, and bordering on idolatrous for a Jew to name him/herself after another god or religion.

That it is an offensive term can be demonstrated. Understanding what the mantra means and how some Jews came to embrace it, reveals a lot about the paradigm shift of this period and its continuing consequences on Judaism and its future. Traditional Judaism has survived because of it uniqueness. Will an assimilated Buddhist Judaism that denies it uniqueness continue to exist as new persecutions come? It seems doubtful. More likely these new forms will fade away with time and traditional, Orthodox, Judaism will survive.

First, this popular mantra can not accurately be translated despite the popular but inaccurate ascription: "Hail, the Jewel in the Lotus"(i.e. what is of value is sequestered within the consciousness of the Higher Self which exists amidst the mire). This is not exactly how Theravadin Buddhists understand it.

The mantra is not intended to be a translatable sentence. Om mani pad me hum is a meditative revelatory key or affirmation of Sound-Vibration intended to invoke the blessings of Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara (aka Chenrezig), the Buddha of Great Compassion. The idea that a Torah observant Jew would desire communion with a Shamanic Buddhist deity like Avalokitesvara would have been unthinkable prior to the Fourth Great Awakening.

The growing American Humanist paradigm rejects the literal existence of God, gods and spirits. Many non-Orthodox Jews today do not believe in God as described in Rambam's Thirteen Principles of Judaism let alone the gods of other religions. It was not that the rabbis were seeking an audience with Avalokitesvara, a god they did not believe in and probably had never heard of. They viewed the mantra as a psychological focusing tool rather than as a religious formulae of evocation as accepted by the Buddhists. These men would not have worshipped the Buddha (one hopes). But where does one draw the line between worshipping a god and redefining him for ones own uses?

The predominant religious belief of the US now is that "truth" is everywhere and can be taken and reworked from any source and merged into ones own belief system. This belief is as old as the Roman Pagan Nicolaitan dogma, even older (note Nic). For traditional Jews, without relying on Torah there is no foundational authority to regulate religious hybridization. With Torah we know that the practice is condemned. How odd that when "Messianic Christians" do this with our religion many Jews become irate and yet many of these same Jews feel enlightened doing it with other religions!

Those who embrace this Nicolaitan belief system can justify anything, even bowing before literal idols. If all that matters is ones intention, and given that the idols have no actual existence of their own, what's the harm? All the more when the God of Israel has been de-personalized into a universal consciousness devoid of independent existence (compare this belief with Exodus 20:5, 34:14, Numbers 25:13 etc)? This is a very slippery slope that is leading many Jews ever farther away from Torah and from HaShem. It is because of this growing practice among some non-Orthodox Jews that many Torah observant Jews are beginning to question if these Jews are even Jews at all! And the gulf is widening.

Assimilation remains the biggest single threat facing the Jews of the Diaspora. It has led led many to trade the God of our Patriarchs for an interpersonal collective consciousness that can neither see, hear nor choose from among the nations. Few maintain real emuna (active faith) in HaShem as Sovereign God today. In an insightful piece on the state of Jews in America consider this:

"...spiritual rootlessness is no less horrendous than physical insecurity... The dangers of spiritual impoverishment were greatest exactly where external pressures were weakest or non-existent" (quoting the Zionist leader Ze'ev Jabotinsky from over 100 years)

...Other than Chabad and perhaps Birthright what American Jewish organizations or movement in the last 15 years can claim to have an impact on this generation of American Jewry? Which one of them will claim to impact the next generation (or two)? Precious few and it's simply terrifying....

"Mark Twain in 1899 wrote: "All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?" Answering this question and ensuring the people of Israel remain immortal remains the foremost Jewish problem in America (source)
Torah study, belief, and practice has historically kept the Jewish people theologically Jewish. Many Orthodox Jews today are convinced that the lack of Torah knowledge and observance will eventually lead to the extinction of the non-Orthodox sects and possibly of Judaism outside of Israel, New York and a handful of other communities. The majority of Jews today are non-Orthodox.

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