This week I had two remarkably similar conversations, one about Judaism and one about Buddhism, which revolved around the ingredients of religious identity. The first conversation came about when my Modern Jewish Thought class (taught by the one and only Sam Shonkoff) used traditional havruta study methods to study an unusual text: sections 48-49 of the Brandeis Center lawsuit I mentioned here. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

  1. The Jewish people share not only religious laws and traditions, but also a deep
    historical sense of Jewish peoplehood. The Jewish people’s history, theology, and culture are
    deeply intertwined with the land of Israel, the birthplace of Jewish religion and culture, and the
    place to which Jews have expressly yearned to return across centuries of forced diaspora.
    Throughout millennia of exile and persecution, the Jewish people have continued to recognize
    Jerusalem (also known as “Zion”) and the land of Israel as the Jews’ ancestral homeland. To this
    day, Jews pray facing toward Jerusalem. The Jewish calendar, Jewish life cycle events, Jewish
    law, and Jewish prayer reflect the deep historic and ancestral connection of the Jewish people to
    the land of Israel. For example, more than half of the 613 commandments included in the
    Pentateuch relate to, and can only be fulfilled in, the land of Israel. YOTAV ELIACH, JUDAISM,
  2. For most Jews, Zionism is as integral to Judaism as observing the Jewish Sabbath
    or maintaining a kosher diet. Of course, not all Jews observe the Sabbath or keep kosher, but
    those who do clearly are expressing critical components of their Jewish identity. Similarly, not all Jews are Zionists, but for those who are, the connection to the Jewish state is integral to their Jewish identity.

There is a lot to unpack here, first among which is the question whether Zionism is part of the Jewish religion or part of Jewish peoplehood or part of something else. Paragraph 49 seems to package Zionism alongside Shabbat and kashrut, and parts of Paragraph 48 tie Zionism to Israel-related mitzvot. But the beginning of Paragraph 48 suggest that, even for non-religious Jews, Zionism is a fundamental part of their identity–if they are Zionist. Which leaves me and, I assume, others, with the question: are there some things that are essential to every Jew’s Jewish identity? It looks like the assorted ingredients change from person to person: a secular Israeli might be completely alienated from Shabbat, mitzvot, kashrut, and all that jazz (perhaps through bitterness over the religious orthodoxy) but has strong ties to Israel and familial heritage. A convert to Judaism as a consequence of marrying a Jew might live in Atlanta or Paris, have no relationship with Israel whatsoever, but has a deliberate commitment to the faith through its intentional adoption. A member of a New York Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva might or might not have a link to Israel but does have the heritage and orthodoxy tie. Is there any ingredient of this package that seems to be at the core of Judaism for all these people? Strip away all the components that any one person might have and others don’t, and what’s left? Judaism becomes elusive and slips through your fingers.

We had a similar conversation today in my Buddhism in the West class, taught by the incomparable Scott Mitchell. Throughout the semester, a big part of what we did was collapse categories often assumed by people about Buddhism, some of which involved a taxonomy of Buddhisms that distinguishes between “Asian Buddhism” (assumed to have been imported from its countries of origins and thus supposedly pure/unspoiled) versus “convert Buddhism” (assumed to reflect modern sensibilities and be practiced by white people, who focus on what the Buddha taught on the basis of a canon of classical texts without “ethnic trappings” like chanting or making offerings). As Natalie Quli argues,

I suggest that, by beginning with an essentialized Asian Buddhist “tradition,” many scholars have become preoccupied with protecting authentic, “traditional” Asian Buddhism from the contamination of Western-influenced “Buddhist modernism.” This simplistic model of Asian versus Western, traditional versus modernist, repeats the stereotype of a passive Asian and an active Westerner, perpetuating the researcher’s inclination to “save” Asian (and by extension, Asian American) Buddhism from the West. Others have used this dichotomy of the passive Asian/modernist Westerner to promote a new, supposedly “culture-free” form of Buddhism in the West that is unlike the traditional, conservative Asian Buddhism against which they paint it.

To more deeply understand Buddhists in the global ecumene, we must abandon nostalgic notions of “pure” cultures and traditions and recognize the presence of multiple and hybrid identities—such as both Asian and American, or Asian and Western. Many Buddhist scholars have relied on an unarticulated Western Self/Asian Other dichotomy, manifesting in a “hierarchy of field sites” that discourages studies of Western Buddhism, including both Asian Americans and non-Asian American converts, continuing to cultivate those old colonial fantasies of pure cultures and pure traditions.

Natalie Quli, Western Self, Asian Other: Modernity, Authenticity, and Nostalgia for “Tradition” in Buddhist Studies, Journal of Buddhist Ethics 16 (2009).

The existence of many hybrid Buddhisms, and the futile quest for unattainable “authenticity,” raises another question: Is there anything at the core of Buddhist identity? Friends in class, who belong to various Buddhist traditions, tried to come up with something and came up rather short. Someone suggested the Lotus Sutra (but what about Theravada Buddhists?); another suggested the Three Jewels (the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha); another suggested chanting; I proposed the Eightfold Path; someone else said maybe the Bodhisattva vow. Many of these would be familiar to many Buddhists, but the emphasis would be different; and then there are people born to Buddhist families and surrounded by Buddhists, who are Buddhists themselves but do not actually practice. Strip the components that are not shared, and what’s left of a Buddhist identity is as elusive as what’s left of a Jewish identity.

This is an especially important question to those of us seeking a spiritual life in a secular humanistic community. Without commandments, without a God, without necessarily a connection to Israel, what is Jewish about a secular humanistic Jewish congregation? The IISHJ has an answer to this, and here it is from Rabbi Adam Chalom:

Why Be Jewish? Rabbi Adam Chalom

The answer to the question “why be Jewish?” is going to be different for different people. For me, tonight, the answer is lighting candles with my son, my mom, and my partner, singing Hanukkah songs, and finding some extra light in the darkness, especially if it comes from a dinosaur-shaped hanukkiah.

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