Jews On The Road To The East

Lisa Loden

For many Israelis, Judaism has failed to bring inner peace, answers to the Mideast conflict, or meaning to the chaos of the world. For these people, the religions of the Far East have a strong power of attraction.

Israelis (and Jews) can be found throughout the Far East, where they take part in a wide variety of religious activities—from yoga to meditation classes, from Reiki workshops to tai chi sessions and Buddhist lectures. After searching in vain for meaning in Judaism—or more often, not even bothering to search in Judaism—many Jews and Israelis seek answers in the great spiritual bazaar of India.

Peace and love are increasingly rare commodities in Israel, and many of these young Israelis are looking for an alternative to the constant pressures of life in the Middle East. The Eastern religions teach that peace and love come from within the individual and not from the chaotic external world. Exotic, mystical, universalistic Buddhism is very different from the staid, legalistic, exclusive Judaism that most Israelis know. Tantric Buddhism with its mix of sex and mysticism is especially attractive to the Israeli seeker.

Who are these Israelis who seek for answers in Hinduism and Buddhism? For the most part they are alienated, liberal, assimilated, and non-observant. There are also Orthodox Jews who try to broaden their religious horizons through Buddhism. As one young yeshiva student said, “I feel I can take a lot from Buddhism and use it in my Judaism without becoming a Buddhist. I’m here to see how I can grow spiritually.”

For many it seems to be a single desperate search for peace. I. S. was a tank commander in Gaza at the height of the first Palestinian intifada. “War brutalizes you,” he says. “What hope is there when your life is one ceaseless fight for personal and national survival? I just wanted to run away and find some space for myself.” And he did. “Buddhism has shown me a way to liberate myself from constant worries and helped me master my emotions.”

For many of the seekers, it’s very important to stay Jewish. The message to Israelis is: You are still a Jew, but your religion has changed. To become a Buddhist, you don’t change your identity, you change your way of thinking. Buddhists consider their faith more a philosophy than a religion, and they encourage their followers to remain in their own traditions.

Another matter of interest is to see how many of these Israelis, searching for something they couldn’t find in Judaism, find fundamental points of agreement between the two religions. In both Judaism and Buddhism there is a preoccupation with the problem of suffering. Another example of similarity between the two traditions is from the Shema prayer: “Guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile.” This is equivalent to the fourth Buddhist precept of right speech. Buddhists maintain that the wording is even the same as the Buddha would have used.

It’s because of such overlaps and similarities that some Jews go to India in search of Buddhism and find Judaism instead. Some of them return to Judaism through the Kabbala (Jewish mysticism), and others end up as Chabad (a sect of ultra-orthodox Judaism) emissaries helping guide Israeli seekers back to Judaism.

This phenomenon of Israelis looking to the East has become a major part of the Israeli landscape. In every city and in many of the shopping malls there are now “new age” stores that market everything from incense to crystals, tarot cards, and books (translated into Hebrew) on Buddhism and the occult.

The constant insecurity of life in Israel and the apparent bankruptcy of the Israeli Orthodox establishment lead many to spiritual searching. We are also witnesses to a subtle paradigm shift as another religion, in this case Buddhism, becomes an acceptable option that implies no loss of Jewish identity. In this our message is similar: To be a believer in Jesus does not involve a loss of Jewish identity, in fact faith in Jesus strengthens and establishes Jewish identity. It is in this context that Caspari Center works to both strengthen local Jewish believers in Jesus and make the gospel accessible to non-believing Israelis.

Adapted from Caspari Center’s June 2001 newsletter.