Over the years, the Jewish High Holidays have waxed and waned in significance for me. They were probably most profound when I was a child, when they were unavoidable due to familial obligation. They loomed before me forebodingly for weeks. But the foreboding was not arising from fear of divine judgment. It was simply anticipation of excruciating boredom.
By now, as a longtime Zen practitioner, I have spent so many hours sitting silently and staring at a blank wall that a High Holiday service seems quite lively by comparison, especially if I haven’t eaten for 22 hours and am fantasizing about blintzes. Sure, services can still feel excruciating at times. My wife is usually unavailable to help me keep our two toddlers alive and stimulated for hours on end. (She gets a pass; she’s the rabbi.) The upside is, now I enjoy the sermons more–when I’m able to pay attention, that is.
You would be right to ask how someone so bored by the ritual forms of his Jewish upbringing ended up married to a rabbi and doubling down on his Jewish identity. The short answer is that I eventually found teachings and practices that helped me accept and enjoy the circumstances of my life.
The longer answer begins when, dissatisfied with my native forms of Judaism, I started to seek spiritual assistance elsewhere. I began studying Buddhism when I was 15 or 16, had settled into Soto Zen by the time I was around 20, and have been spiritually at home, wherever I am, ever since.
Along the way, I’ve picked up a distinction that’s helped me explain just where that home is. I describe myself as a “Buddhist Jew,” as opposed to a “Jewish Buddhist.”
Most of the Jewish people I know who have taken more than a passing intellectual interest in Buddhism belong in the latter category, Jewish Buddhists. While they proudly relate to being Jewish as a matter of descent, background, history, and so forth, their Buddhist lineage and practice is now central to how they understand themselves. When I was younger, I thought I was a Jewish Buddhist, too.
By my second year of college, though, I had found Jewish peers doing Jewish stuff in which I wanted to partake—an absolutely unprecedented situation for me. Even as I was studying Buddhism in class and joining my classmates for zazen every day, I was going to Hillel on Friday nights and learning what my native ritual forms actually felt like from the inside. My first spiritually powerful High Holiday services were on campus in what were really fairly typical circumstances. The shocking difference was that everyone around me was my age and had actually chosen to be there. I started to really connect with the ritual, but even more so with the community. So much so that—in that panicked “what am I going to do after college?” way—I even briefly considered rabbinical school, wondering if it would be possible to reshape Judaism into something that would have worked for me as a kid.
After college, however, it was much harder for me to find a Jewish community that gave me the same sense of connection. My Zen practice was flowering, and it was in the zendo that I found my fellow travelers—and inner stability.
I found Zen to be something of an antidote to my most difficult conditioning. Where Judaism was hyperconceptual and hyperintellectual, Zen could not be simpler: Just sitting is the whole of the practice. Where Judaism seemed to demand the same things of everyone in the community, Zen nourished each person’s independent, indescribable experience. Growing up, the experience of being made to perform Hebrew liturgy in front of the entire congregation made me anxious in ways that still feel present in me today. Whereas the Zen sanghas I sat with seemed to delight—with actual laughter!—in accidental variations from the ritual forms that I don’t even want to call “mistakes.”
These crucial differences healed me. But so had the connections I had made in college, for the first time, with other Jewish people my age. As time went on, I became determined to find space in my life for both.
When my now-wife declared that she wanted to enroll in rabbinical school, I agreed to go along, knowing full well what that meant. I fully intended to keep up my Zen practice, but this change of scene meant our life would revolve around Judaism. It was time to find a synthesis.
As I dove deeper into the Jewish world than I had ever been before, I realized a twofold change in myself.
For one, I had found the unshakable and ever-present, centerless center of zazen. As a child, I thought holiness was reserved for certain places and times, whether one was ready at those times or not. Now, I realized one may never be ready, but that’s OK, because everything, just as it is, is holy at all times. It became so interesting to experience Jewish ritual like this: no different from any other activity, yet practiced with such caring attention by people I love. Participating in this way resonated deeply with me, given the particulars of my life. I recognized that I wouldn’t be who I am without Jewish forms of practice and the people who carried them through the centuries.
What’s more, I realized the way Zen holds space for the ineffable experience of each person was also possible in a Jewish space. Whatever one is going through is held, in the Jewish tradition, by the container of ritual and the seasonal cycles of observance. I found new compassion in this realization. Some people in the room were having transformative spiritual experiences, and I loved that for them. Other people in the room were bored out of their minds, just like I was as a kid—or maybe still am! I loved that just as much.
As deep into our Jewishness as my wife and I now are, married for six years, I am actually in my most committed period of formal Buddhist practice. With my parents, wife, and children looking on, I took Jukai (lay precepts) at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center in the fall of 2020, receiving the dharma name Kyosaku.
But I did so as a Buddhist Jew. Buddhist is the adjective, describing my practice and approach, but my Jewish identity and culture is the noun—the particular manifestation of the practice as this incarnation, me—as I center my family, relationships, and community observances.
When I sit in High Holiday services now—that is, when I’m not chasing kids around in the back—I sit with the Zen orientation of appreciating everyone’s radically personal experience of these forms we all share. Sure, our community is not a typical American synagogue—for example, half the time we’re on a mountain or in the woods, not in a building. But as a Buddhist Jew, my Jewish community is vaster than I ever thought possible, and I take refuge in helping make it a refuge for others.
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