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I've pondered for a while on the possible links between Jewish and Buddhist thought. I have been on Buddhist retreat with people who identify as Jews. Also there is the Buddhist Jew phenomena as exemplified by Leonard Cohen. In addition some of my favorite authors appear to have Jewish background - Sharon Salzberg, Larry Rosenberg, Jack Kornfield etc...

So leading on from this and also inspired by this answer - is it possible to summarise what Buddhist and Jewish thought have in common. I appreciate that this is a big topic but I wonder is it possible to put together the main 3 or 4 points that they might have in common and why there appears to be such a connection between Judaism and Buddhism.

  • Note that Jews are substantially over-represented in new religious movements, especially Eastern ones. This is attributed to the low religiosity of many Jews. (Melton, 1999, Sharot, 2011) – sondra.kinsey Nov 3 at 21:03
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I'm glad to see my previous answer proved inspiring / thought-provoking.

Following up on that: I'm speaking from the Jewish perspective, specifically the Hasidic perspective. My knowledge of Buddhism is pretty limited, so I will not really be able to give too many points, and I'm sure if you dig into my answers you find specifics that don't line up in the two faiths. I know that there are probably more points where Buddhism and Judaism differ strongly, noticeably when it comes to religious cosmology, attitudes towards deities/G-d, and views on an individual's purpose in life. The same is probably true for almost any two religions -- the specifics are often VERY different.

However, I do feel that Buddhism and Judaism have these broader themes in common:

  1. The concept of an enlightened individual who serves as an exemplary model: In Judaism we have the Tzadik, akin perhaps to the Bodhisattva. Both are individuals who have attained a special degree of awareness about the reality of existence, which somehow "pulls them out" from the normal frame of reference perceived by normal humans. Both are truly selfless individuals (i.e. individuals devoid of personal ego), who possess the potential to abandon the confines of human existence, and yet who nonetheless persist in engaging in the human world for the sake of others. Both are individuals who attain a clarity of vision which gives them far deeper insight into the cosmic order.

  2. An emphasis on self-refinement through specific practices: The laws (mitzvot) associated with Jewish observance are akin the Noble Eightfold Path, both of which provide the individual with a means to increase their spiritual refinement and sensitivity. Diverging from these practices is seen in both religions as only deepening our enslavement to the very things we wish to escape.

  3. A strong emphasis on mental/intellectual cultivation as a means to promote righteous action: Particularly in the Hasidic movement Chabad-Lubavitch, with which I am affiliated, we place huge emphasis on training one's mental faculties to control the emotional faculties. The specifics of this abstract idea are of course complicated, but I find it VERY similar to the concept of Mindfulness, which promotes a rational, objective viewpoint that gives one the clarity to pursue true, meaningful things, while avoiding vain pursuits of personal passions. Mindfulness is a concept which I find so relevant to Jewish observance, that I've gained tremendous personal spiritual inspiration by incorporating it into my own worldview.

I suspect a large part of the reason why many Jews are involved in Buddhism, and one of the reasons I know I find Buddhism more "approachable" than other religions, is that Buddhism presents an extremely existential, personal, non-judgmental system, and human-oriented approach to spiritually, which does not immediately seem to conflict with Judaism's very concrete, objective presentation of a Deity-oriented reality.

Quoting Bhante Gunaratana from Mindfulness in Plain English (from which I have admittedly gotten almost all of my knowledge of Buddhism): "[Buddhism's] flavor is intensely clinical, much more akin to what we might call psychology than to what we would usually call religion." I suppose that "flavor" is less of a turn-off than that of another, say Abrahamic religion, all of which have very specific, belief-oriented models of the universe.

Hope this helps!

  • A very nice and thoughtful compilation, thanks for that (although I'm not the asker of the question... :-) ). In some sense I see more "compatible" aspects, so to say. One, for instance, is the rule for regular, periodical times for reflection and self-reflection, which I recognize as a cultural achievement, like the time for sabbat which must be free from worldly business to allow to really concentrate on spiritual matters, for daily pray corresponding in monastic buddhism to a fixed daily scheme for meditation, listening to spiritual talks, and the two-weekly nightly uposaka-ceremony... – Gottfried Helms Feb 17 '15 at 14:11
  • ... for reflection and self-reflection of possibly un-"healthy" steps in the open social. Also there is a somehow sophisticated discussion about a basic difference in the mentality between the hebraic and (for instance) the hellenistic approach to the world, where I feel, that the (ancient) buddistic approach is more with that (as I understood the discussions) "hebraic mind" than with the "hellenistic mind" in which contemplation of idealistic concepts play a very basic role for the modeling of the experienced and interpreted world. Sometimes I see even a bit more, but am not yet "expert" ... – Gottfried Helms Feb 17 '15 at 14:19
  • ... enough to say here more. (However: in general I think, this Q&A-site is for more focused questions/answers, but well, sometimes one (i.e. me at this moment) shows more interest than surely it should be expected...) – Gottfried Helms Feb 17 '15 at 14:22
  • I had no idea there was such a thing as the Tzadik in the Jewish traditions. You have opened my eyes to a world of wonderment. Thank you. – sova Feb 19 '15 at 12:56
  • @sova glad to help! the term "tzadik" is often used colloquially to mean a good person, but it is also a specific, spiritual concept. happy to answer any questions you may have on it. best! – Ian Taylor Feb 19 '15 at 20:38
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My impression of Judaism & Jews is they are constantly reinventing themselves; to the point that it is difficult to specify what exactly is 'Jewish thought'. Whereas Buddhism has remained unchanged for 2,600 years (apart from some degeneration). In Buddhism, we are stilling falling back on the old ancient scriptures as our reference point.

If Buddhist thought was compared to Jewish thought at 600BC, there would be little in common, apart from some basic morals, which were even held by very primitive religions. The very fact that Judaism rejected Christianity at the time of Christ and was still stoning sinners to death & crucifying blasphemers shows little in common with Buddhism in ancient times.

Yet with the growth of Buddhism, Christianity & Islam, particularly with the Jewish religion becoming centred in places such as Alexandria & Persia (eg. Babylonian Talmud), obviously Judaism kept reinventing itself to keep up with the world religions.

A uniqueness of being "Jewish" is you don't necessarily have to be religious. For example, the founders & leaders of Zionism were generally atheists, yet still call themselves "Jewish".

Thus, this Jewish tendency towards reinvention has seen many Jews invent many new revolutionary philosophies, such as Communism, which, while being staunchy atheist, has a remarkable resemblance to Old Testament monotheism & classless society.

I get the impression Jews are brought up to study, learn, lead, talk, display their knowledge & even market. Thus the Jewish-Buddhist phenomena in the US-vipassana lay community. However, I am personally not aware of many Jewish monks, apart from Bhikkhu Bodhi, who is a scholar.

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