Alan Lew Z”L – Between Paul Williams and Paul Knitter

Rabbi Alan Lew, (1944- 2009) was the spiritual leader of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom. He was in the forefront of attempting to cultivate a spirituality bridging Judaism and Buddhism.

Lew’s coming of age as a Jew actually happened as he sought to deepen his Zen Buddhist practice. Disillusioned by the Judaism he’d experienced as a child, Lew was considering becoming ordained as a lay Buddhist priest. But he found himself unable to sew a priestly garment while on a retreat in the 1970s at Tassajara, a Zen center in Carmel Valley. As he meditated on that resistance, Lew said that “there was some sense of conflict between my being ordained as a Buddhist with my being Jewish.” It became a turning point, leading Lew toward Judaism, and ultimately to rabbinical school.

Lew seems to have a Buddhist view toward reality, its root metaphors without the religion itself. Life is a great sea of Being, an endless flow, we are all interconnected, and feel other people’s suffering. He formulates Judaism as mindfulness using the metaphor of “layered grid of awareness” as a bridge idea, both Buddhism and Judaism have a layer grid of awareness. Jewish prayer is about energy exchange and mindfulness.

That we are afloat in a great sea of being, an endless flow of becoming in which we are connected to all beings.” (This is Real, 16)
We die to the world every time we breathe out, and every time we breathe in, every time our breath returns to us of its own accord, we are reborn, and the world rises up into being again. (Ibid, 17)

Every spiritual tradition I am aware of speaks of a kind of layered mindfulness, a sensibility that works up and out of the body, to the heart and then to the mind and then finally to the soul. The Buddhist sutra On Mindfulness describes this kind of layered grid of awareness, and the Kabala, the Jewish mystical tradition, speaks of it too. According to the Kabala, we start out with our awareness in Asiyah – the world of physicality, the world of the body, our most immediately accessible reality. Then we become aware of the heart, yetzirah – the world of formation or emotion, that shadowy world between conception and its realization in material form. From there we move on to the world of pure intellect, Briyah, or creation, and then to Atzilut, the realm of pure spiritual emanation. (Ibid, 190)

I would visualize the words as an energy exchange – the words going up to God and God’s attention coming down. Prayer began bringing me to the same place my Zen practice had taken me… Before I prayed, I would study, in a prayer shawl and teffilin, sitting in half-lotus (One God Clapping, 154)

So yoga and directed meditation became part of the practice I offered at my synagogue. The meditation group changed the whole tenor of the Friday night minyan. Suddenly the service had great density and feeling… My goal was to help Jews deepen their Jewish practice with Buddhist-style meditation techniques, (Ibid 287)
Meditation and Jewish practice lead us to experience the oneness of all beings. We are all connected; each of us is created in the divine image, and other people’s suffering is our own. (Ibid 296)
But the first noble truth is that everything is suffering, and both Judaism and Buddhism insist that the only appropriate response to this suffering is to turn toward it, to attend to it. Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, is “The Hearer of the Cries of the World,” and the Torah God is repeatedly described as hearing the cries of the oppressed. (Ibid 297)

I am used to the critique that Bu-Jews remove the religion from Buddhism and only leave the meditation However, I found in one review of Lew compare him unfavorably with Paul Williams, The Unexpected Way. So I read the latter work. Williams was a trained professor of Buddhism, familiar with the languages and the religion of Buddhism, who converted to Catholicism later in life. Williams study of Buddhism lead him to reject a religion without a theistic God, revelation, redemption, reward, and providence. He wrote a coherent, rational, and theological critique of Buddhism from a catholic point of view. The book was not one of those bad books for Jewish outreach kiruv that know neither Buddhism nor Judaism, and have little rationalism. This was a defense of theistic religion. Reading Lew in light of Williams, one is struck by the lack of any engagement with the theology of Judaism or Buddhism, beyond the metaphors. Lew comes off as more pragmatic than grasping the path of enlightenment, in either tradition. Or here is the debate in another context:

Rabbi LEW: It’s perfectly all right to use elements of one practice to nourish another, but you have to have a sense of what your central practice is, and you have to have integrity about following that path.
Nathan Katz practiced Buddhism for 15 years, and thinks there are irreconcilable differences between the two religions.
Professor NATHAN KATZ: I would say the fundamental difference between the two traditions is one is theistic and one is not. And even if you take the most esoteric, Judaic concepts of God, they still don’t reconcile with the Buddhist criticism of all concepts of God.

On the other hand, I just read Paul Knitter’s Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian. Knitter as a progressive catholic, ex-priest, boldly proclaims himself a syncretic who follows two religions. Knitter describes how his seminary students see it as adultery. Buddhism lets him give up the traditional categories of God, religious language, and revelation. The book harvests the last quarter century of American appreciation for Buddhism as a contribution for religion. Alan Lew avoided Buddha, Buddhist ritual, and Buddhist holidays and created what he called “Buddhist style” practices for import into Judaism. Knitter is not satisfied with Buddhist style and feels that accepting refuge in the Dharma does not conflict with being a Catholic.

Are there other solutions for Judaism? Are there other places to make the division between Judaism and Buddhism? For example, one of the sometimes readers of this blog who lives a haredi life in Brooklyn wants to write a book on non-dual Judaism from the sources of Judaism- Chabad, Rav Nahman, Nefesh HaHayyim, and Ramak. This would directly present Jewish thought, in a way that Lew does not. But at the same time, it would not reject the insights of seeing oneself in the Buddhist mirror. A Jewish theist who knows Kabbalah may not have to throw out the best that they see reflected elsewhere. Any thoughts?

Copyright © 2010 Alan Brill • All Rights Reserved

9 responses to “Alan Lew Z”L – Between Paul Williams and Paul Knitter

  1. I have a lot to say but I’ll try to be brief. Rabbi Lew and your reader from Brooklyn are top down people. They suggest taking developed systems, where we barely know our way about, and where both are experience distant full of non empirical concepts, and creating some synthesis. In Yiddish we would call this stamm geredt, it’s just talk, far removed from our bodies and our experiences.

    Consider Lew’s description of breathing, “We die to the world every time we breathe out…”an anal retentive idea if there ever was any, and not true to our own experiences. When you do a body building exercise, most people do the hard part when breathing out, because it is then easier to mobilize strength and energy. When we try to move qi around the body through breathing and yoga exercises, the energy is pushed with the breathing out. Why? Because it is easier that way to get something done, stretch, calm the body, etc. .

    The same for this talk of being connected to everybody…stamm geredt. There is by now a huge scientific literature on how we move our limbs, how the mind’s intention connects to the action. It turns out the brain shows great neuroplasticity with one part making up for the other, and creating new neural pathways. A popular summary can be found in the book “The Brain that Changes Itself.” From the NYT review ” The discovery that our thoughts can change the structure of our brains…is the important breakthrough in neuroscience in four centuries. “ The simple problem of how to move a finger with half a brain, the simple problem of how yoga works, how the mind can gain control over a body, is a bottoms up approach. Before climbing into atzilus and controlling the shefah flowing into the universe, or connecting with the suffering in ‘’all beings”, doesn’t it make more sense to start with the two things we know we MIGHT be able to control, our minds and our bodies?

  2. Thanks for this new posting.

    I hear what you’re saying about the inevitable disconnect between the Buddhist and Jewish world-views and paths that Alan Lew, a”h, tried to straddle. But it deserves mention that one of my cyber-chaveirim from Berkeley, who has long circumambulated Orthodox Judaism, told me that Alan Lew was always urging him to be more medakdek be-halakhah. Evidently he did more than just promote Buddhist practices and values in Jewish garb — which wouldn’t place much emphasis on dikdukey mitzvos.

    As for the comment from “evanstonjew,” I confess that it rubs me the wrong way.

    First of all, the posting quoted Alan Lew as having stated: “According to the Kabbalah, we start out with our awareness in Asiyah – the world of physicality, the world of the body, our most immediately accessible reality. Then we become aware of the heart, yetzirah – the world of formation or emotion, that shadowy world between conception and its realization in material form. From there we move on to the world of pure intellect, Briyah, or creation, and then to Atzilut, the realm of pure spiritual emanation…” Isn’t that a “from the bottom up” directive?

    EJ also took umbrage to Lew’s remark: “We die to the world every time we breathe out…” deeming it “an anal retentive idea if there ever was any, and not true to our own experiences.” “Our own experiences” is a highly presumptuous phrase. And I don’t think Freud would agree with his diagnosis. In fact, I don’t see the connection at all — since Lew is not proposing holding one’s breath, but proposing that a certain way of contemplating the breath may free us of self-imposed boundaries.

    Maybe what really bothers EJ is the mystical language and metaphors. This could just be a personality (or “shoresh neshamah”) clash. But it seems to me that this reaction might stem from nurture, and not just nature. Our frum culture, with its focus on the concrete and hyper-development of the analytical intellect too often stifles our capacity for spiritual vision… although B”H I know enough exceptions to the rule in the Chassidic world to keep from succumbing to despair!

  3. I was forwarded, with her permission, the following email from a woman called E.C.

    I once heard Alan Lew speak at a synagogue in Northern NJ, and I’m not sure that I would consider him an expert on the interface of Judaism and Buddhism. He was mainly telling his story and wasn’t at all positive about Kabbalah. He even said that he disagreed with Sylvia Boorstein on this. Also, although I don’t know for sure, but from the description of what he was doing in the Zen monastery, it doesn’t sound like he was preparing to become a lay Buddhist priest, but that he was going to sew a rakusu and take lay Buddhist Precepts. That makes one a lay Buddhist, but not a priest. When I heard Rabbi Lew speak, I was there with two people — a Jewish woman I met in a Yoga class and her Jewish husband who was student of Daido’s at ZMM. [She means the late John Daido Loorie, founder of the Zen Mountain Monestary in Mt. Tremper, NY.] The woman was very concerned about her husband and whether he was still Jewish, since he had taken the Precepts. We spoke with Rabbi Lew after his presentation, and when the man gasshoed to Rabbi Lew, the rabbi did not return his gassho and said, “I see that the Dharma is alive and well in Northern New Jersey.”

    Since there are no coincidences, you might find it interesting that just this morning I went on the Mt. Equity Zendo website and read the current newsletter, compiled by Eric Daishin McCabe, Dai-En’s transmitted student. There was a lengthy article on the Jesus and Buddha classes that were presented at MEZ. A woman who is both a long time Zen student and a Catholic wrote about how she straddles the line and her experience of these classes. It’s fascinating to see that the teacher who sent me away because I was privately talking about Rebbe Nachman now has her transmitted student, Rev. Daishin, giving classes on the interface of Buddhism and Christianity. Apparently now lots of people feel you can honor your birth religion and also be a Zen Buddhist. I sent Daishin a short email commending him on being open and perservering on the path. (If I had stayed the course and become Rev. Kesho, would I be teaching a class on Jewish mysticism and Buddhism?)

    Going back to the blog, I found the comment interesting because Zen is experiential and doesn’t separate body and mind. As for breath work, when we teach meditation, we teach people to count their outbreath. This is true of every Zen place I’ve ever attended — first counting the outbreath one to ten, starting over at one, if you lose count, back to one. Then, after some time, one might be instructed to follow one’s breath. Visceral practice.

    Can we combine both traditions? Can we? We do. Lots of people do. When I prepare for Pesach, it’s Passover Mind. Like Sesshin Mind, I’m focused and it becomes “whole body and mind.” Is it Dogen? Is it crossing the Sea? Both? Neither? Who knows?

  4. I want to comment at length, but being a day before Passover, there’s not enough time.

    So for now, I’ll add a short note.

    Alan was a study partner/student of mine for one lovely Summer. He describes it in his first book, though he understood some of the details of the experience differently than I.

    And I did six week-long Jewish meditation retreats with him and his partner Zoketsu Norman Fischer at the Elat Chayyim Center and the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center over the period of two years.

    Alan, once he returned to Judaism, did not consider himself a Buddhist in any way. He was a Jew, and his practice was very traditional, with only a few concessions to what he saw as his mission to educate his congregants and students about Torah and Halakha.

    And he did not mix Buddhism into either his personal practice nor what he taught to others. When he co-taught a retreat with teachers from the Renewal world (where primary textual and teaching sources were often not Jewish), Alan told me that he was uncomfortable. Those co-teachings were experimental for him, and I feel that he would not have continued them.

    He was able to make those Jews who had found spirituality in the Zen Buddhist and Vipassana worlds feel comfortable in an authentically Jewish context. Perhaps this is what you mean that he was a bridge between Buddhism and Judaism. To date I feel that he was unique in this ability. No one has arisen yet to fill his shoes.

    The foundation of his meditation practice was to find and inhabit the silence, and then to develop a practical meditation practice that proceeded from that point. Whether you call that starting practice zazen or hosh-ka-ta is a question of semantics, not practice. Since many of his students were more familiar with eastern sitting practice than Jewish forms, they often sat cross-legged on cushions so it looked liked zazen, but I feel that was unimportant to Alan.

    Alan and Norman’s goal was to use meditation as a way to encourage and support normative Jewish practice, including t’filla (prayer), Shabbat and Torah study. In this they succeeded, and Makor Or continues this today, under the direction of Norman, Dorothy Richman and Pamela Reitmen. In my opinion as an Orthodox Jew, there was nothing extreme or non-normative about Alan’s practice or teachings.

    E.C. is correct that Alan, before he awoke to his Jewish soul, was sewing his rakusu in preparation for lay vows, not priestly ones. He never got there, ending up at the Jewish Theological Seminary after also considering ordination at Yeshiva University’s seminary.

    Another important point: Alan was and Norman still is a poet (an accomplished one too). Neither of them are theologians, not would they pretend to be. They teach/taught what works based on their own experiences. Their experiences were/are extraordinary.

    While Alan told me that he experienced three enlightenment events (two of them very much in the classical Kensho mode) during his period in the Zen Buddhist world, he and Norman said that, after 13-years, none of their Jewish students at Makor Or (in San Francisco) had come to that state. I’ll leave for another post their opinion of why that was so.

    This is already longer than I intended, so I’ll leave it here.

  5. It’s now khol ha-moed (the intermediate days) Passover, so I’ll continue.

    Brill wrote:

    “Lew comes off as more pragmatic than grasping the path of enlightenment, in either tradition.”

    By “grasp” do you mean that he simply understood it well? Or “grasp” as in “reaching for and clutching”?

    Alan Lew, when he was in the Zen Buddhist world, was a member of the San Francisco Zen Center, a Soto Zen community founded by Shunryu Suzuki. In that context, enlightenment is not sought, pursued or grasped. One practices seriously, and then if enlightenment comes, it comes.

    If I recall correctly, what you frame as a debate between Alan Lew and Nathan Katz was really a series of quotes that were assembled for a media article or program. Practically, I don’t think that Lew and Katz disagree. Both are saying that if you’re a Jew, you should practice as a Jew. Both allow for wisdom from non-Jewish sources to advise them, as long as it doesn’t conflict with Judaism. Katz for example, has a warm relationship with Hindu teachers and has documented how sometimes their advice brings him to a deeper appreciation of his Jewish practice. As best I can tell, Katz is, and Lew was, a Jew — nothing else. Neither syncretize.

    Brill wrote:

    “…This would directly present Jewish thought, in a way that Lew does not. But at the same time, it would not reject the insights of seeing oneself in the Buddhist mirror. A Jewish theist who knows Kabbalah may not have to throw out the best that they see reflected elsewhere. ”

    I think that a Jewish theist who knows Kabbalah wouldn’t need to reflect the “best that they see reflected elsewhere” as being, for example, Buddhist, because they could frame it completely within a Jewish context. For example, Rabbi Abraham Maimonides did that with Sufic practice. Non-dualism as “ein ode milvado” has no need to reference the Heart Sutras’s “form is emptiness; emptiness is form”. So unless they were trying to address Jews who were more comfortable with the language of Buddhism — i.e., outreach — or doing interfaith work, they wouldn’t have any need to reference Buddhism.

    The Jewish equivalent to Knitter’s Catholic background would be Orthodox or “Conservadox”. I expect that if you’re looking for a counterpart to Knitter’s syncretistic approach in Judaism, that you’ll have to look to Jewish Renewal (Jeff Roth, Rami Shapiro or David Cooper), or to Sylvia Boorstein (who has a Conservative Jewish practice). It’s there that you’ll find Sufi dhikr or kirtan sometimes practiced in preference to hisboninus, and Vipassana in preference to Mussar. All of them are to some degree willing to syncretize rather than to re-discover in the traditional Jewish context what inspires them from other religions . By their own words Roth and Boorstein syncretize with Theravadan Buddhism, Shapiro with Advaita Vedanta (Hinduism), and Cooper with Sufism and Zen.

  6. Rabbi Abraham Maimonides did that with Sufic practice.

    I am not sure how far the generalization goes. He respects what the Sufis do and he is reading their books but he has a teshuvah where he comes done hard on a teacher doing dhikr with his students.

    I am also less sure that “eyn od milvado” is the same as the Heart Sutra.

    When does the Heart Sutra metaphors and cosmology come into conflict with the Jewish vision? Or when do we move from “seeing the best in others” into syncreticism?

  7. Len Moskowitz

    Regarding Rabbi Abraham Maimonides, my reference was limited only to his statement in his “Ha-maspiq” that the local Sufis had preserved some of the practices of the Jewish prophetic schools that were lost to Jews over time. From context, it seems that he wanted to reclaim them. Do we know how he came to that conclusion and was able to isolate exactly what it was that they preserved?

    “Ein ode milvado” and the part of the Heart Sutra that I quoted are absolutely not the same, and it was not my intention to assert that they were. What “ein ode milvado” means in Jewish context evolved over many years — it doesn’t mean only one thing. As far as I understand what the Heart Sutra means, I’d say that there is potentially some room for perceiving some overlap between Jewish approaches to oneness/duality and Buddhist ones. Being that Buddhism does not have the experience of the revelation at Sinai, and much of Buddhism is not theist, there’s a huge gulf between the two religions. Finding common ground, if that’s even our goal, is not a simple task.

    • he wanted to reclaim them.

      The problem is that we are missing most of the chapters of the maspik and he speaks in general terms. He does want to reclaim full prostration and the prophetic path. But we do not know for sure which concepts he would take and which he would not. One does get a sense that he would reject the monism of al-Hallaj and even the theosophy of Ibn Arabi might, or might not, be too much for him.

      Being that Buddhism does not have the experience of the revelation at Sinai, and much of Buddhism is not theist, there’s a huge gulf between the two religions.

      This was the original point of my post that I was impressed that the Christian drew theistic lines in the sand and the Jewish literature has yet to do that (except for some uninformed kiruv literature). I was less interested in the Rabbi Alan Lew A”H as a person but his presentation. It seems the Jewish side consists of Torah, mizvot and tefillah with the Buddhism serving as a reason for the commandment, to learn from them about presenting Judaism in a contemplative way. My question is what is gained theologically? Not just that people are attracted to it or that it is kiruv- rather what is gained to the fundamentals of Judaism? And where are the limits of chaning a cosmology?

  8. Len Moskowitz

    From what I ‘ve learned, Buddhism started as a body of exercises in attention, posture and breath, with a related body of ethical prescriptions (the Vinaya for monks and nuns), and only much later became what we would call a religion. In its original form it might be seen from a Jewish perspective as a “khokhma”, a form of secular wisdom, and considered by Judaism as neutral, much as physical exercise might be.

    As Buddhism spread, first within India and then eastward, with each culture that it met it picked up and merged into itself the local religious context. While that allowed it to survive and thrive (in its original form it might not have), it also picked up aspects that made it in some cases antithetical to Judaism. Some of those aspects are the Mahayana cosmology (for example, the Trikaya and the narrative of the Lotus Sutra), ancestor veneration, offerings to spiritual beings, bowing to icons, use of altars, the formulation of karma and many others.

    My sense of Rabbi Alan Lew’s presentation was that he treated Zen meditation exclusively as a khokhma, a neutral wisdom, devoid of any religious context. I don’t think that he was at all concerned with the question you’re asking (what is gained theologically).

    He was a poet, not a theologian. He was not a scholar of either religion. He successfully translated his experiences. He translated what book knowledge he had in ways that a scholar would probably find inadequate.

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