Philosophy Weekend: Choosing My Religion

New York City News Religion

I wrote an article this week for Jewcy, a new online magazine devoted to Jewish culture in all its shapes and forms. It's about being a Jewish-born Buddhist, and it's called Speaking Up For The Bu-Jus.

I've been fascinated by religions -- all of them -- since I was a little kid. I guess that's why I now claim two, not one, for myself. I've also been very influenced in my life by the great teachings of Jesus, who was every bit as powerful a philosopher as Buddha. But the historical trappings of Christianity don't please me much (I don't think they'd please Jesus either), whereas nearly every aspect of the Buddhist religion appeals to me. I guess a guy ought to have the right to choose his religion, and that's why I wrote this short article.

As for Judaism, I relate to it more as a heritage and an ethnicity than as a personal philosophy of life. Both Judaism and Islam, for me, lack the intellectual power of either Buddhism or Christianity (or, for that matter, Confucianism or Taoism, though I know less about both).

Speaking of Judaism and Islam, I'm very disappointed in an organization I once respected, the Anti-Defamation League, for making a statement against the right of a peaceful Muslim group to build a cultural center in downtown New York City (a small and crowded neighborhood where everything is "near Ground Zero").

The New York Times says: "An influential Jewish organization on Friday announced its opposition to a proposed Islamic center and mosque two blocks north of ground zero in Lower Manhattan, intensifying a fierce national debate about the limits of religious freedom and the meaning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks."

I would change that to say "A formerly influential Jewish organization ...".

The Anti-Defamation League's express purpose is to fight bigotry, in all it's forms. The campaign against the "Ground Zero Mosque" has been a trivial publicity stunt from the beginning, and is not worthy of the Anti-Defamation League's endorsement. They sure blew this call.

I'd love to hear what you have to say about any of these topics.

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Trauma Theory. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Living in a Dark Age.
18 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Choosing My Religion"

by Nardo on

Levi, what do you feel is the difference between being a Jewish-Buddhist and a regular old Buddhist? I know a fair number of people will claim Jewish Buddhist as their affiliation, and I am wondering how you feel the two terms relate and why one should be mentioned with the other. Has you Jewish background given you a different approach compared to, say, people fro East Asia raised in the tradition? Maybe a more political form of Buddhism?

The illustration! Is that you in the corner? Is that you in the spotlight? (Oh no, I've said too much!)

by Claudia on

What you say makes perfect sense, Levi. Religion is what gives you some solace in seemingly inconsolable times. And what makes you feel a sense of belonging to a group or tradition but gives you principles that transcend it (otherwise those principles risk becoming a divisive form of identity politics that can lead to strife).

It's interesting that someone refers to Christianity with any shred of intellectualism.....

I personally am a new Christian. Granted, I was raised in the midwest, knowing nothing other than the girl scout badge most people wear as their religion.

However, as an adult, my faith, my certainty, my spirituality and interest has developed and I do consider myself a Christian.... focused on the word of God, and the teachings of Jesus.............. and the fact that he IS God........

If you really look deep into the practices--the LAWS of ancient Judaism and Islam you see many interesting similarities........ i don't think i'm the first one to point that out....... but to me, they ARE fascinating..... and on a different level, I do believe that there are levels of intellectualism that equal Christianity or Buddhism or Confucianism or Taoism......

It's interesting that parts of "ground zero" are up for regular ol' real estate again....... I can't say whether I think it's insensitive or irrelevant that a mosque might be built near there...... it's just perplexing..... or it means nothing..... I kind of don't believe the latter......

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for the responses. Nardo, I guess I am being (uncharacteristically) humble when I decline to call myself a Buddhist in the full sense, and qualify myself as a Jewish Buddhist. I didn't grow up in a Buddhist tradition, and I don't know enough other Buddhists to feel completely immersed in it the way I have always felt completely immersed in Judaism and (through my friends and neighbors) Christianity. I simply don't know enough about it. At various times in my life I attempted to attend Buddhist religious ceremonies (most often at a Chinese temple in Elmhurst Queens where few people spoke English), and sought training in Yoga with a Tibetan guru. These experiences were wonderful for me, but I can't pretend they give me the same understanding that a person who grew up in the tradition would have. I understand Jewish and Christian culture much more than I understand Buddhist culture, and that will always be the case.

Lisa, I'm glad to hear that about your relationship with Christianity. About the "ground zero mosque" controversy ... well, as I mentioned above, the controversy seems more false if you are actually from New York City and know, as New Yorkers do, that in downtown NY everything is next to Ground Zero. Wall Street is next to Ground Zero. So is Tribeca, so is Battery Park, so are South Street Seaport and the Statue of Liberty ferry. It's a very small and compressed neighborhood. I feel very certain that the people attempting to build this mosque were not in any way trying to provoke or insult the memory of 9/11. I also feel very certain that this is a controversy manufactured by the press, the media -- a classic case of the tail wagging the dog. And in this case, sadly, the Anti-Defamation League is all too willing to be the dog.

by Dan on

Why not a Mosque? Knee-jerk Americans (including, as you point out, the ADL), form the simple-minded equation of Islam = terrorist.

How about a Catholic church on the spot? We could celebrate everything from the Spanish Inquisition to the pedophile priests, gay bigotry, anti-Semitism, the whole dreary catalog of horror. Wonder who would object (besides me)?

by sean on

religions are too wrapped up in cultures for my taste. philosophies make more sense to me, which is why even with their overlapping ideas, i prefer buddhism to any even identical religious teachings. plus, as an obsessive skeptic, requiring a purely faith-based center to my beliefs is too wobbly for me to get my head around.

RE the mosque...i cant understand why any opposition is taken seriously, as it's very obviously biased on its face. i cant imagine how it would be going down if guiliani were still mayor.

the ADL thing is rather shocking and sad...but if "christian america" wants to own the holy ground of the former wtc (or whatever they want to call it), then perhaps they should consider why they havent built a christian community center nearby, or why they allowed short-term profit-hungry priorities to prevent a complete and quick reconstruction of the original site in the first place.

by Mayowa on

Levi,

I think a lot of people (myself included) share your aversion to Christianity's bloody history. Even in present times though, religion frequently comes between people and their gods, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory so to speak.

Religion is mostly a human thing, a great and complex creature operated by humans for other humans and thus severely tainted by the flaws that plague us all. The message is pure but the vessels through which it reaches the people are far from pure.

The direct line to the man/woman/whoever upstairs is always best (and ephemeral).

Thanks for starting off such fascinating discussions as always.

by Steve on

I have an older friend who is Muslim. He's a 60 year old doctor, and he, knowing my knowledge of the Bible, asked me if I would teach it to him. We must've had a couple hundred discussions over the past few years and I have to say, I have much more respect for Muslims than I ever did. I believe he has much more respect for what he's learned of the Bible as well. We consider each other brothers, though I can safely say I will never convert to Islam and he probably says the same about Christianity.

I wish I could let everyone else peak in somehow on our discussions, as they are fascinating. Makes me wonder why other people can't peacefully bridge similar religio-cultural gaps.

(Ironically, we've never had a single discussion about politics or terrorism.)

by Shelley on

The key to any religious stance, as you say, is humility.

by Milton on

Interesting article, Levi. To be honest, I'd never really thought about connections between Buddhism and Judaism before (I do see a lot of connections with Christianity, especially the more transcendental spirituality found in the book of John, or some of the less militant writings of Augustine). I guess there are some definite kinships, although the biggest difference I see is in Judaism's overwhelming emphasis on the written word (they are "people of the book," after all), as opposed to Buddhism's more personal and unspoken concepts of spiritual life.

Steve -- Nice to hear that you have an exchange like that going on. It reminds me of my sophomore year of college, which happened to begin a few weeks before the 9/11 attacks. I was working at the campus Jewish center at the time, and when you combined 9/11 with Sharon's concurrent rise to power, Judeo-Muslim relations were pretty strained. (Even more than usual, I mean.) One day, three guys from the campus Islamic center came by the Hillel, asking if anyone wanted to join them for coffee and discussion -- they said didn't want to debate anything, they just wanted to try and understand Judaism better. My colleagues seemed pretty apprehensive, but a few eventually agreed to go, as did I. What followed was an amazing, nearly three-hour talk, in which everyone involved learned a huge amount about the two religions. The closest it ever got to politics was when one of my colleagues asked about jihad, and the Muslim guys gave a learned, eloquent explanation of its roots in the Koran, as well as the multiplicity of interpretations it had since spawned.

I think a few of my coworkers ended up meeting with these guys several times afterward. It sounds trite to say it, and I'm not sure if it really changed any political realities, but it truly is shocking how much common ground you can find when people of different beliefs agree to actually talk to each other with an open mind.

Levi, I'm kind of jealous of you for being born Jewish. That means you have a built-in religious foundation. I called myself a Christian for years, and sometimes I still do, but there are so many opinions of what "Christian" really means. Ironically, Jesus said that by accepting his teachings, even a non-Jew can be "grafted onto the Jewish vine," sort of become an honorary Jew in the sense that the Jews were God's people and Jesus gave the gentiles a chance to come aboard. Probably why Bob Dylan was singing about Jesus and then not so much, but of course you can't judge a man's private life by what he sings about because Johnny Cash never really shot a guy in Reno.

Other times, I think it's all hooey and there is no mysticism at all, just the physical world. But then you hear about those atomic particles a-actin' so straaannnge.

Then there is Muslim and Hindu, which I don't know much about, but they are probably just like me, wonderin', deep down inside, wonderin'

I read Kerouac's 'A Buddhist Bible' many years ago and became very interested in what I've always suspected was the world's most thoughtful religion. That could be interpreted as something of a contradiction since Buddhism aims at a quieting of thought. But no matter how I slice it up, Buddhism is always about thought one way or another. Most religions are about instructions and have to be forced into something resembling thought by mystics or theologians who resemble contortionists trying to fold themselves into suitcases.

As for the ADL and the mosque thing, well... who would have thought. The idea that New York should concern itself with not distressing 9/11 survivors in any way is simply so contrary to what I know of New York that I am wondering if aliens have taken over the city in my long absence. To say that 9/11 survivors would be distressed by the building of a mosque in lower New York is to directly connect all Muslims with terrorism. That's bigotry by definition.

I like the ideas of Buddhism very much and some of my meditative practices are inspired, in part, by it. But I don't see Buddhism in the same category as the spirit-oriented religions in which one must believe literally in deities, angels, gods, and the like. It seems, unless I'm missing something, that an athiest or a Christian could practice Buddhism without contradicting their other beliefs.

As for a mosque at ground zero - why not? If the terrorists try to bomb that area again, it would reveal them as the hypocrits they are and cement our alliance with the good people of the Muslim faith.

by Liz on

I'm so glad you posted that about the mosque. Chris and I were both totally unimpressed by the ADL's knee-jerk anti-mosque response, as we have been similarly shocked by some of our progressive friends' similar stance. It seems so fundamentally absurd to prevent a religious group from building a house of worship-- one that will garner much-needed tax revenue for our broke city.

Good points about making religion a personal choice; that's a stance you raised me with, that I hope to be able to pass on to my future kids!

That's a very good couple of points, Bill. I don't actually see Buddhism as being in the religion category either. Not entirely anyway. It's a way.

That's a great link, Alessandro!

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