some thoughts before I go to the Orient …. on jews, buddhists and extraterrestrials
I’m leaving for the alien shores of China, Cambodia and Vietnam and reminded of a dialog in Rodger Kamenetz’s jewel of a book: The Jew in the Lotus: The book tracks the journey of “eight high–spirited Jewish delegates to Dharamsala, India, for a historic Buddhist–Jewish dialogue with the Dalai Lama”
Early on in the narrative, the Jewish protagonists realize, to their dismay, that while many of the 300+ million Buddhists have heard of Islam and Christianity, they have not, for the most part, heard of Judaism. For someone who has dedicated his/her life to a belief system that claims to be the word of the Master of the Universe (ריבונו של עולם) … this is a demeaning experience to say the least…. For a Jew, confronted with someone who has never heard of Moses to have to use the “Have you heard of Jesus.. he was Jewish?” calling-card it is no doubt humbling. Writes Kamenetz:
Our Sikh driver had heard of Muslims and met some Christian tourists. To him, Jews were news. That pricked my vanity. I didn’t like to think that in vast areas of the planet, the story of my people is unknown. … After all, Jews make up less than half of one percent of the world’s population. There are as many Sikhs in the Punjab as Jews on the planet. … Just outside my car window there was enough human tragedy, comedy, and heartbreaking struggle to fill a dozen Torah scrolls.
I decided that the most important baggage Jews carry is an absolute conviction of our significance because we are Jews, because we have survived. On Route One, the whole grand story of Jewish survival, the tremendous importance I attach to my history, my Torah, shrank in perspective: to a single line, a single letter. I felt absurd: in the middle of India, did it really make any difference that we were Jews? (pp. 26-27)
Kamenetz and his band of Rabbis were not the first Jews to be asked the question: “Who is a Jew and who is this God of which you speak?. Remember in Exodus 5: 2 Pharaoh challenges Moses and Aaron: “Pharaoh said: ‘Who is the LORD, that I should hearken unto His voice to let Israel go? I know not the LORD, and moreover I will not let Israel go.'”
‘וַיֹּאמֶר פַּרְעֹה–מִי ה’ אֲשֶׁר אֶשְׁמַע בְּקֹלוֹ לְשַׁלַּח אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל: לֹא יָדַעְתִּי אֶת-ה
In a recent article in the Science section of the New York Times, Dennis Overbye asks Do Aliens know it’s Christmas – How Possibilities of Life Elsewhere Might Alter Held Notions of Faith. For those interested in this new track in theology called astrotheology, the Times article provides a comprehensive survey of opinions and (primarily Christian) opinionators in this field.
I was struck by a comment from Geoffrey Marcy, an exoplanet explorer and holder of the Watson and Marilyn Alberts Chair in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence at the University of California, Berkeley.
Surely, earthlings were not the only beings in the Milky Way blessed in God’s eyes, he elaborated, saying that he liked to tease public audiences with the question. “Conversations about religion with intelligent beings from an exoplanet might jolt humanity into realizing how parochial our beliefs are,” he said.
For a Christian the question becomes, how do extraterrestrials get “saved” if they were never visited by Jesus or if their ancestors had not participated in the Original Sin in Eden? For Jews who believe that non-Jews need follow only the seven laws of Noah, the question is less intense but still nagging…. How can there be fully developed religions and cultures who have not heard of the Flood, an Exodus from Egypt and a return to a geographical Zion?
With travel being so costly and with Virgin Galactic suffering a recent setback, how fortunate am I. As a Jew, I don’t need to visit outer-space or await the arrival of extraterrestrials to discover those who have not heard of my God, His prophets or His chosen people and their escapades…
So, I’m off to the Orient and looking forward to being both humbled and enlightened…
On another, yet related note, I cannot help but ponder the attraction that Buddhism has on Jews… to the degree that there’s even a word (Jewbu) and Wikipedia page for Jewish Buddhists.
A fascinating explanation for this affinity was given by Shlomo Carlebach in a rare interview recorded by Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi at the Torah and Dharma Conference in Berkeley in 1974. 
In 1974, there was a conference – “Torah and Dharma” – in Berkeley, California, focusing on the connections between Judaism and other traditions like Sufism, Zen Buddhism, and Yoga. Representatives of the different traditions were invited, including Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman. Shlomo, as often happened, was double-booked and couldn’t come. There were keynote talks, smaller seminars, and panel discussions. The final panel had all the teachers together for the last questions and answers.
Someone in the audience asked the question: “It appears to me that the Sufis, the Yogis, and the Zen teachers on our panel are all Jewish! Can anyone explain what’s going on?”
There was a murmur from the audience and from the panel. Zalman rose to the occasion. “Before I left for the conference, I called up Reb Shlomo and said, ‘Shloimele, I’m about to go to the conference in Berkeley. I know you really wanted to be there, too. Do you have anything you want to say to them? The tape recorder is hooked up to the phone and recording.’ And this is what he said in answer to your question.” And with that Zalman pressed the start button on a tape recorder sitting on the table in front of him.
This is a paraphrase of what Shlomo said. It is one of those classic teachings of his that I have been retelling ever since: My sweetest friends, I’m so sorry I couldn’t be with you for this holy gathering, but I’d like to share with you one thought I have, so please open your hearts. The Torah teaches that a Cohen, a priest, must remain in a state of purity if he is to serve God in the Holy Temple. Among the things that would disqualify him was contact with a dead body. The question arises: What was the nature of the impurity? Did the dead body have cooties or carry disease? It appears that the problem was quite different. The impurity stemmed from the confrontation with death: its concept and its reality and the thoughts and feelings around it.
Coming in touch with death, a person can’t help thinking, “What kind of God makes a world with death in it? If I were God, I’d do things very different; I’d do things better.”
Let’s put it this way. When you come in contact with death, you can’t help being a little angry with God. And if you are a Cohen, how can you be angry in your heart with God, and then go into the Holy Temple to serve Him? It just doesn’t go. So the priest had to wait until sunset, and take a mikvah, a ritual bath, and then he could return to serve God the next day.
These laws of the priesthood regarding serving God became the basis for many of the Jewish laws of mourning. If your father or mother, brother or sister, son or daughter, husband or wife died, from the time of their death until they are buried, you are technically exempt from most positive commandments. For example, you don’t have to say blessings, because that’s a form of thanking and serving God, and right now, you may be in a frame of mind of being a little bit angry with God. So you aren’t obligated to say those blessings.
And you know, my sweetest friends, today we don’t have a Beit HaMikdash, a Holy Temple, and although we still have Cohanim, priests, we don’t have animal or incense offerings to serve God in the Holy Temple. Today we serve God through offerings of words of Torah study and words of prayer. Today our rabbis are like our priests, serving God through teaching Torah. But if you are angry with God, you can’t teach Torah. You can say the words, but the love and light within them do not flow through them.
So please open your hearts. The saddest thing is that today our teachers and rabbis haven’t just touched one dead person. They’ve been touched by Six Million dead people. And they are so angry with God, so angry with God. Gevald, are they angry with God! And because they are so angry with God, all their words of Torah are just that: words. There’s no light, no taste, no meaning, no melody in them.
But young people today are so hungry for that light, for that meaning, for that melody – for the deepest inner dimensions of truth. And if they can’t get it from Judaism, they’ll go anywhere that love and light are to be found.
Thank God our hungry, searching, younger generation found some traditions that weren’t so angry with God, and they could get the love and light and meaning that they so craved. And today in Judaism, Baruch HaShem, thank God, we have a whole new generation of teachers who haven’t been touched directly by the Six Million (or maybe they have taken Six Million mikvahs from tears of sadness and then another Six Million mikvahs from tears of joy). And their words are filled with light and joy and love.
God willing, now people can come back to Judaism to quench that deep, powerful, longing for God’s love and from our own tradition. I bless us all that we should find that beauty in Torah, in Shabbos, and in the deepest depths of the heart of our holy and ancient and living tradition.
Thank you so much. God bless you all. Good Shabbos, Good Shabbos.