Rodger Kamenetz
HarperCollins: New York, 1994.
304 pp., $20.00 (cloth).

The Jew in the Lotus is primarily an account of the Dalai Lama’s 1990 meeting in Dharamsala, India, with eight Jewish rabbis, mystics, and progressive Jewish thinkers. The conference was in part a result of the Dalai Lama’s “very personal interest” in learning how to help his people preserve Tibetan religion and culture through their period of exile. The delegation, representing the panoply of Jewish schools of thought, traveled to Dharamsala to convey what they each felt to be key elements of the survival of Judaism through two millennia of diaspora. The topics explored included, among other things, the connections between Tibetan tantra and little-known teachings of Kabbalistic mysticism, as well as the similarities between Jewish and Vajrayana meditation practices.

During his stay in Dharamsala, Kamenetz’s own Jewish identity was indirectly challenged when he came into contact with others of his faith—intelligent, sensitive people—who had turned to Buddhism. Kamenetz found that he could not offer these people any reason to return to Judaism while maintaining his own reactionary, negatively defined sense of his Jewish self. The book, then, is also to a large extent the author’s struggle to create for himself a new spiritual/Jewish identity, predominantly adhering to the Dalai Lama’s suggestions to integrate the mystical Jewish teachings he encountered in Dharamsala.

Though much of the time Kamenetz lets the participants speak for themselves, quoting verbatim, when left on his own he often resorts to very odd, sometimes inappropriate wording. Upon encountering a second woman who had converted to Buddhism after meeting Lama Yeshe, a Tibetan lama who teaches Westerners, Kamenetz dubiously claims, “Lama Yeshe had struck again.” In addition, Kamenetz is prone to speculative, sweeping generalizations that attempt to universalize the experience of those he encounters, generalizations that often reflect the same stereotypes Kamenetz himself derides. At one point he seems to imply that many Jews turn to Buddhism as an escape from the intense intellectualism of their heritage. “Only those who’ve lived in intellect” he writes, “can know what it means to desire to escape from it.” Overall, however, deficiencies in style are well compensated by the significant contributions of the people involved in the conference.

With little previous knowledge of Jewish mystical practices, and even less of Tibetan Buddhism, Kamenetz, who went as an observer, began by admitting,

a certain prejudice that maybe Jews who went over the deep end into Buddhism would lose their individuality and become like zombies.

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