When a Quaker becomes a Buddhist lama, or a Hindu becomes a Muslim Imam, the story is clearly one of conversion. When a Jew becomes a Wiccan priestess or a Catholic monk, the story is not so cut and dry. The nearly unique nature of Jewish identity-nearly, but not entirely, consider what happens if a Cherokee woman becomes a Buddhist nun- raises questions.

According to general views and to the Jewish tradition itself, the person remains a Jew. According to the Jewish religion, they remain bound by Jewish religious law and are simply in violation of it when they, say, leave an offering for the Great God Pan or eat a roast Ham at a Church dinner.

This unique set of cultural truths sets the backdrop for Allan Levin’s recent book Crossing the Boundary: Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths. In this diverse book, which manages admirably to combine probing intelligence with a lack of judgmentalism, Levin interviews sixteen Jews who are leaders in other spiritual traditions. Levin himself grew up a non-religious Jew who became active in the radical left and then seriously pursued personal enlightenment, first with a neo-tantric community and then with First Nations spirituality, before returning to find meaning again in his Jewish identity and traditional Jewish values (although not Orthodox ones in his case).

If this sounds familiar to you, it should. It is a path trodden by many Jews after the Holocaust and the ascendancy of modernist, conformist Judaism left younger Jews without spiritual leadership or an alternative Jewish culture willing to be an escape from the cultural-political mainstream.

What sets Levin apart is his quest to follow up on the trajectories of his contemporaries who have settled in other religious traditionsHis list includes heavyweights like Krishna Das (the most popular yogic chant master alive, a ubiquitous presence in Yoga classes from Berkeley to Kensington Market); Sharon Salzberg (a founding teacher in the American Vipassana/Mindfulness movement); Starhawk (perhaps the most important crafter of feminist/politically engaged neo-paganism) and Ken Cohen (modern master of Chinese spirituality and Qigong who has had an outsize influence on western Daoism). Aside from those luminaries Levin also interviews a Catholic Priest, a Vedantic Nondualist, a Sufi, a Sikh, a Medicine Man, and others.

The fascinating roster Levin has gathered only brings to mind all the other names he could have included: Bhikkhu Bodhi (founder of Buddhist Global Relief and a leading English language scholar of Theravadin Buddhism), Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfeild and John Kabat-Zinn (all pioneers in the Buddhist- inspired Mindfulness movement) and Norman Fischer (former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center and leading interpreter of Soto Zen Buddhism in the West), or Jewish Buddhist teacher Jay Michaelson (a frequent contributor to the Forward), for example, and the list goes on and on. 

The book probes interesting questions about Jewish identity, values, and recent historical experience, but also more general human questions about the nature of religious identity and loyalty and the nature of the spiritual path itself. Throughout the book gems from those interviewed abound.

One such provocative gem: Ken Cohen, the Jewish Daoist and teacher of Native American spirituality, says “Americans tend to have a problem with dual expertise in the spiritual or theological realm, though not in the academic. We believe that one religion excludes the other, as though there were only one correct path to God. People might look askance if someone claimed to a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim sheikh. Similarly, to be a Taoist as well as a practitioner of Native American spirituality may seem odd. Yet I have equal training in both. They are both my life’s passion.”

In another Levin asks Starhawk, perhaps the most important crafter of popular feminist neo-pagan spiritual practice, if anyone calls her by her Jewish name Miriam Simos. She replies drily, “Only the authorities.”

In fact Starhawk is strongly connected to her Jewish roots. What she  enumerates as her inheritance from her Jewish lineage hits on themes shared with many others interviewed: “What I take from it, culturally, is all those things that make you who you are: how you talk, the sense of humor; appreciation of intelligence and intellectual freedom; a sense of ethics and justice. Also, that religion is about what you do and not just what you say or believe. What you should do about creating a just world.”

Starhawk is in fact surprisingly interested in Jewish continuity for a pagan priestess, telling Levin that she would have raised her children “Jewish and Pagan” (she was sadly not able to have any of her own) and that “it would be a great loss if there no more Jews.”

On the other side of the fence are teachers like Isaac Shapiro and Krishna Das, who seem not to think of their Judaism and to regard it, on the whole, neutrally to negatively.

“For the most part, I think of religion as a crock of shit”, comments Krishna Das, whose life had revolved around his Guru Neem Karoli Baba and the path of kirtan (the chanting of divine names) for the last forty years. Das makes a separation between spirituality and religion, placing his heroes entirely in the former camp. “When I read about the lives of the saints from all religions, they are all the same. The Baal Shem Tov is the same as any of the Indian saints.”

“Maharaj-ji pointed us towards the real Jesus”, says Das. “‘He lost himself in love.’ A Jewish boy who made good, and they made crap out of it later.”

Das himself describes how he “renounced being Jewish” as a kid long before he took up the spiritual path, as a result of anti-Semitism. “By accident or some karmic blip, I got born into this physical family and now I’m going to get hit on the head for it. Fuck that.”

Where Judaism was a source of separation and hurt for him, later India was a paradoxical source of acceptance and connection. Despite being a total outsider, Das experienced love and acceptance in India and felt immediately at home there. Asked if he considers himself a Jew, Das said, “I don’t consider myself anything. I’m trying to be human.”

“Everything I could say about my Jewish friends who are [spiritual practitioners], I could say about my non-Jewish friends, except maybe their lack of a sense of humor.”

 

Another theme shared by many in the book is a critical attitude toward the state of Israel. Starhawk has long been a pro-Palestinian activist. “Everyone is called to step out of looking for only their own interests and really look at the world in a broader way. I feel really strongly that if we don’t as a people, particularly around the issue of Israel and Palestine right now, that it will be devastating….the real depth and richness of Judaism will get funneled into this rigid, autocratic, and often militarized view of what Judaism is supposed to be.”

In the end Levin puts forth the counter-intuitive and provocative thesis that being a “boundary crosser’ (an interpretation of the word Ivri, or “Hebrew” that goes back to Rabbi Gershon Winkler) is fundamental to Jewish identity, so that those Jews who have crossed the boundary to practice in other religions are actually manifesting the essence of Judaism.

To my mind, it is hard to defend this thesis unless there is something unique and definable that Jews are carrying with them across the boundary. If there is a set of values that Jews carry into other traditions in order to manifest them in that particular language and form of life, then there might be something to Levin’s thesis. Levin tries to show exactly that, even when the evidence for it is slight, as in the case of Krishna Das.

A Jew who crosses into other traditions to learn from them and manifests Jewish values inside of it could, according to Levin’s thesis, be argued to be a type of exemplary Jew. One can indeed point to a set of values that some of the Jews interviewed in the book share (exemplified by Starhawk’s list above) but by this logic, not all would qualify as this kind of boundary crosser. No matter how legitimate and moving Krishna Das’ spiritual path is, it is hard to see him as engaged in uniquely Jewish activity, and he clearly does not regard it that way either.

With that caveat, Levin’s exploration of Jews who are spiritual leaders in other traditions is valuable, as a historical document, an exploration of Jewish identity, and a discussion about spiritual pluralism and religious identities.

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Matthew Gindin is the Pacific Correspondent for the Canadian Jewish News, and writes regularly for the Forward, the Jewish Independent, Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and The Wisdom Daily.


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