Interfaith Inquiry – Handouts # 4 & 5 – Resources for Judaism – March 2023

Presuming that you too might read older or quite current resources in order to learn more about Judaism and other world religions, I again highlight several resources, the first being Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus. Harper Collins, 1994. This resource presents both Jewish and Buddhist insight.

In 1990 writer Kamenetz was asked to attend and record a week of encounter between noted Jewish rabbis from the U.S. and Buddhist monks with their leader the Dalai Lama who since 1959 had lived in exile at Dharamsala in north India. Having myself lived in north India in the 1960s, I quite enjoyed Kamenetz’ descriptions of landing in Delhi and traveling northward—picturesque views, food adaptations to meet kosher restrictions, and distinctives of their Sikh driver. Before fleeing in 1959, one-fourth of Tibetan men were monks. When this book was written with less than one percent of men then monks, a major purpose during exile was to train people in Buddhist dharma (religious truth). Dharamsala has since welcomed many spiritual travelers like Thomas Merton and Allen Ginsberg.

Kamenetz alludes to personal experience of Judaism along with writing chapters about a particular rabbi’s encounter with Buddhists during that week. Religiously minded Jews had come to the heart of the Buddhist world to learn and to teach. “Jewish roots and Buddhist wings” find meaning. Distinctives between groups of Jews—Orthodox, Reform (effort to streamline Judaism), or Hasidic varied patterns—appear, readers learn about the transition of some Jewish members to Buddhism, nicknamed as JUBU.

Being the fourteenth incarnation of his lineage, tasks of the Dalai Lama are identified including guiding his Tibetan people through their crisis as well as restoring Tibet and choosing between what is or is not essential. His personal qualities include a constant presence, deep receptivity, ability to take in and engage with ideas, and a ready wit. Features of protocol matter too.

Parallels as well as differences between Jewish and Buddhist history become clear, aware that “History is what we choose to remember.” Members of both religions struggle to preserve their traditions today. Interestingly, the time of Buddha resembles when King Nebuchadnezzer sacked Jerusalem (586 BCE), destroyed the Temple, and led fifteen thousand Jews into captivity in Babylon. So, followers of both religions have dealt with animosity, suffering and exile away from their homeland. But some rabbis’ view of being innocent victims resisted the Dalai Lama’s Buddhist point of view that the Holocaust experience resulted from past karma. “When your karma ripens, there is nothing to do to protect you from its consequences.” (p. 122) Did Jews respond to suffering by becoming more aggressive while Buddhists believed that a negative experience had been due to their own previous life? (185) How might belief in reincarnation enter here is a question to ponder.

Further subjects await the reader of this book: interreligious dialogue, pluralism, the idea of being “chosen,” mysticism, tikkun olam (needed repair of the world), attitudes toward conversion, and a fundamental principle of Jewish theology—the family—which extends the sacred covenant (a concept not well known to Buddhists). Research by Tibetan monks in exile today, with thousands of original Tibetan books available to them, resembles effort by some Jewish scribes during their Babylonian exile. Both experience reverence for the ancient written word.

Kamenetz acknowledges having learned about both religions through this intentional encounter, concluding that “Judaism is a way of life, a spiritual path that has three parts—prayer, study, and acts of loving kindness.” (280) [Let me know if you wish to borrow/read this or others of my books. DYN]

Remembering that March 8 is known as International Women’s Day and that during the entire month of March some folk give more attention to women’s distinct experience, we also honor women of the world who have contributed to religions of the world. I learned when living in India that women’s organizations in larger cities usually focused on some specific, basic cause for women—the need for water, safety, shelter, etc.—on March 8. You might take a few minutes to recall significant women who have taught you something of what you consider to be sacred. And, if interested, look up more info about Jewish women noted in the following resource.

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone. The Receiving Reclaiming Jewish Women’s Wisdom. Harper Collins, 2003.

From Introduction: Having gone as a girl to the synagogue every Saturday with her father, writer Tirzah was surprised to learn, when old enough to join females beyond the partition that separates women from men during worship, that “all that was sacred seemed to begin and end on the men’s side.” She then began to wonder whether there was and who might be a Jewish counterpart to the Hindu poet Mirabai, the Islamic saint Rabi’ah, or the Catholic guide Teresa of Avila. Aware that Jewish women were central to raising Jewish children, to running their homes often in addition to a business in order to allow their men to study Torah and pursue the path to holiness, the girl wondered.

Why were women ancillary? Why was the feminine approach to spirituality—inner spiritual life and the value of receiving (the literal meaning of the word Kabbalah)—barely valued? Firestone made two pledges when ordained a rabbi: to publicly remove barriers that kept women away from their tradition’s holiness and to more privately approach God via the wholeness of both outer Torah and inner receiving. One task of this book “is to help us understand that woman’s way of knowing and receiving the Divine exists and to recover it in our lives.” (31)

This book presents seven Jewish women—mystics, sages, and miracle workers—that Firestone’s research through the ages found. Only one of them, Leah Shar’abi, lived in the 20th century. If interested you might research these too: Hannah Rachel of Ludomir, second century Beruriah, Malkah of Belz, Asnat Barzani, Dulcie of Worms, and sixteenth century Francesca Sarah of Safed. (tsfaht, in north Israel).

A few quotes from Firestone: “The simple six-sided star (the Star of David) is a profound mystical symbol.” 55

The Tree of Life—the most important motif of the mystical Jewish tradition—is found in traditions the world over. Before part of the Judaic tradition, “the tree was a universal symbol originally representing the Divine Feminine and later coming to mean eternal life.” 91

“Study for the love of study is one of the highest values in Judaism . . . . “Studying ‘for her sake’ means studying because of a pure love of Wisdom.” 121 Terms like what Christians call Logos are terms for the second sephirah, Wisdom, for they all point to the fullness of God’s mind . . . Not just the accumulation of ideas, Wisdom is the ability to access the endless reservoir of possibilities, poetically termed God’s mind, by using our imagination and ingenuity.” 129-30

Notes from several other resources about Judaism written during diverse decades follow.

Susannah Heschel, ed. On Being a Jewish Feminist A Reader, Schocken Books: NY, 1983.

This collection of twenty-three chapters is divided into three sections titled: “Old Myths and Images, Forging New Identities, and Creating a New Feminist Theology of Judaism.” From the Introduction: “A learned, observant, and committed young woman (Henrietta Szold) applied in 1903 for permission to study in the rabbinical school of the Jewish Theological Seminary. . . The first group of articles on Jewish feminism, appeared in a special issue of Davka magazine in 1971 . . .In 1972 Sally Priesand was ordained rabbi by Hebrew Union College, the seminary of the Reform movement.” . . Judaism is centered around both texts and observances. (218) . . . Quoting Arthur Waskow: “Feminism calls not only for equality of women and men, but also for new approaches to prayer, religious observance, relations with others, and definitions of our humanity.” (221)

Clark Williamson. When Jews and Christians Meet. CBP Press: St. Louis, MI, 1989.

“Tanach is the name for the whole Hebrew Bible . . . We should not treat the Hebrew Scriptures in any way that suggests Christianity has superseded or displaced Jews and Judaism in the covenant with God, in God’s love or favor. . . ‘The Jews’ did not crucify Jesus but gospel writers shifted the blame for the persecution of Jesus and Paul from Roman to Jewish opponents.” . . Williamson notes that whereas the first three gospels refer to “The Jews” 15 times, John’s gospel refers to them 60 + times and the book of Acts 49 times. Do we ask: Are we alert to attitudes conveyed through this plural grouping . . . Historian Ellis Riskin suggests that instead of asking who crucified Jesus, we would do well to ask ‘what’ crucified him? . . . “Being a Jew means first and foremost to belong to a group/community . . . Christians will be unable to talk seriously with Jews until we recognize land as central to the agenda. . . Jews are radically oriented to this world and to its mending (tikkun) by the good deeds that only human beings can do. . . In Judaism one of the highest forms of worship, if not the highest, is study.”

Ellen Frankel. The Five Books of Miriam A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, Harpers: San Francisco, 1996.

Insightful titles of this informative book’s sections are: Genesis/”Individuals and Families”; Exodus/”Community”; Leviticus/”Rituals”; Numbers/”Leadership”; Deuteronomy/”Memory.”

Wilda C. Gafney. Womanist Midrash A Reintroduction to the Women of the Toran and the Throne. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 2017. Quotes from Advance Praise for this book:

“Gafney’s deep involvement in the Jewish community and in Jewish ways of reading enables her to use the ancient rabbinic method to fill in gaps in the biblical text through textually informed imagination for an audience of Christians, Jews, and others.” Bernadette Brooten

“ . . . Wil Gafney offers brilliant new readings of Scriptures while also retrieving the ancient wisdom of women from the biblical world.” Joy A. Schroeder

“Gafney invites us to deploy the riches of African American women’s wisdom traditions in our engagement in Scripture and to appreciate how such usage . . . has the capacity to positively transform the ways we read, think, and live.” Hugh R Page, Jr.