In college, I have discovered how traditional my once liberal minded community at home can quickly become. Unleashed from my Jewish day school into the wild reality of college, I allowed myself to pop my Jewish bubble and delve into my campus’s diverse religious life. Some weeks I experimented with the Hillel, while others were spent with the Christian Fellowship, Catholic Student Union, and the Asian Student Association’s meditation and Buddhist groups. My first semester has been nothing short of unique as I divided my time equally among the different religious traditions, picking and choosing the beautiful parts of their faiths to shape my own and excluding the conflicts. I figured that a new college zip code translates to a new religious identity as well, and I have been truly content as a college spiritual seeker.
The phone calls with my family and friends, however, proved that this love of spiritual experimenting was certainly not mutual. For every conversation that I shared my excitement about new classes and passions outside the Jewish world, I heard a cautionary and hesitant silence on the other end of the line. For every week I spent with the Black Students Association or Buddhist student club, I felt a moral obligation to attend a Hillel event because of the lingering nervous silence that I imagined coming from my grandparents. Finally, in order to assure the nervous loved ones around me—and myself-- that my spiritual quest is simply to find common ground, I called a Buddhist. Since Jews today are somehow more open to Eastern religions, I figured calling an Evangelical missionary would strike too many nerves within my traditional minded family and friends. Given that my school’s religious tolerance is far greater than its diversity, I called Allentown’s local Buddhist temple in hopes of learning which aspects of Buddhism are fluid in different communities and which cause tension in my Jewish bubble.
The Tibetan Buddhist monk patiently listened to my spiritual journey filled with its peaks and downfalls and laughed genuinely when I asked what kind of sheltered white Jewish girl enjoys religion hopping. His answer---heartfelt and frum—has impacted me in ways that no textbook or article ever will: “You can be Jewish. You can be Buddhist. You can be Christian. People, however, will use their titles to rip off whatever prefix you give yourself. But you are also Emily. And that name, no matter what title it follows, is indestructible. No power in the world—except perhaps God—can take that from you. Everything else is simply extra.”
How is it that a Tibetan Buddhist monk who had never even met me before assured me that my identity is secure, yet my community is so internally concerned with these other religions that secure it for me? Communities across the Jewish spectrum, while too divergent from one another to even eat at the same table, all seem to agree that Jesus, the Buddha, Allah, and Ganesh are the “Others” and are clearly not Jewish. Jews use all these “extra” titles—Christian, Buddhist, Atheist, Muslim— in order to define ourselves relationally; we are so quick to define ourselves by what we aren’t rather than who we are and what values we stand for.
I heard a story of a traditional Jewish man whose neighbor was a devout Buddhist Bhikshu, or priest. The Jewish man, convinced that the Buddha shrines in his neighbor’s home revealed his idolatrous religion. One night, irritated by the idols glistening from the priest’s window, the Jewish man marched over to the house and knocked furiously on the door. Upon answering the door, the priest welcomed in his neighbor to which the Jewish man responded angrily, pointing at the Buddha sitting on the window: “Your faith is idol worship! How could you worship a statue and convince people that that god as the Jewish god?!” The Buddhist priest, taken aback, walked over to his Buddha, opened the window and dropped it from out of his home, letting it shatter to pieces on the ground. “Let me see you do that with your Torah,” he responded.
Sometimes I feel as though our community is guilty of following the footsteps of that Jewish neighbor, only realizing the tenets of our faith after separating ourselves from those outside of it. Perhaps there is a thing or two that can we learn from the Buddhists, whose values of the Self leave the Other feeling just as peaceful and reassured. Perhaps if we learn how to see the beauty of our faith rather than pinpointing the flaws in that of someone else, we will reach common ground. Perhaps if we learn how to interact meaningfully with the religious others rather than draw harsh boundaries in between us, then the spiritual quests like mine in college will be treated exactly as they should be: as unique walks of faith that help make our Judaism wholly and holy.