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Jews and Buddhism: Belief Amended, Faith Revealed

Distributed by Filmakers Library, 124 East 40th St., New York, NY 10016; 212-808-4980
A film by Bill Chayes and Isaac Solotaroff, Produced in cooperation with the Judah L. Magnes Museum
A film by Bill Chayes and Isaac Solotaroff
VHS, color, 40 min.
College - Adult
Religious Studies

Reviewed by Charles J. Greenberg, Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University


Clearly directed at a Jewish audience, Jews and Buddhism is an effort to present possible answers to the question of why the Jewish faith is identified as the largest representation of previous religion among people who represent themselves as practicing Buddhists (30% of non-Asian American Buddhists is the statistic used in the film). An implicit question emerges to challenge the average Jewish film audiences' preconception: Is there something to be gained by harnessing aspects of Buddhist practice, such as meditation, in an attempt to reinvigorate Jewish practice?

The film begins with a variety of still images, artwork, broadcast media samples, and a narration to suggest religious parallels between Judaism and Buddhism, as well as to suggest the potential openness of either Jews or Buddhists to polite and considerate inter-religious dialogue. A filming of the Dalai Lama's encounter with some respectful American Jewish leaders allows the Buddhist leader to himself acknowledge historical similarities of Tibetan and Jewish feelings of exile, persecution and the desire for a permanent homeland. The Dalai Lama's own curiosity about Jewish sacred texts is genuine. A reciprocal visit of Jewish representatives to the Dalai Lama's residence in Dharamsala, India is also featured in the film. There is frank acknowledgement of Jewish sectarian disunity in the context of the Dharamsala visit, but the film never attempts to identify Buddhism's own historical and philosophical schisms of belief and practice.

Viewers will also experience a description of the attractive tug of Buddhist meditative practice beckoning American Jews, exemplified by the historical account of poet Allen Ginsberg's Buddhist practice and contemporary Californian Jewish couples and individuals that integrate Buddhist meditation into their Jewish commitment. A synagogue and rabbi are also portrayed as embracing the format of Buddhist meditation while maintaining the primacy of Jewish texts and beliefs. The question of the adoption of aspects of Buddhism for the health of Jewish belief is thus demonstrated, though only one Buddhist-enriched Jewish facility is presented in the film.

Jews and Buddhism will find an attentive audience among Jewish individuals and communities that ponder how to reach out to younger generations. A wider audience, such as a comparative religion class, should be careful to note the narrow scope of Buddhist beliefs inherent in the display and narration describing Tibetan and Zen Buddhist schools of belief.