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Lions Roar : November 2009
SHAMBHALA SUN NoveMBer 2009 75 Illuminating Connections reviews THe qUeSTION OF HOW one understands and relates to the divine in the Judeo-Christian tradition as compared with Buddhism is a fascinating one. On the surface, there seem to be radical differences. Buddhism is a nontheistic religion, one of wisdom and awakening. The Judeo-Christian tradition is firmly based on an omnipotent God, the Creator, whom one worships, obeys, and communicates with. On the Buddhist path, we are freed from samsara, the painful cycle of life and death. On the Judeo-Christian path, the fruit of practice is love, salvation, service to others, and a fulfilled life. Two recent books deal with how to integrate Buddhism and Judeo-Christianity. Although these books have the same goal—to bring mystical experience to religious doctrine— they have very different approaches. In Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, Paul F. Knit- ter, an ex-priest, Catholic theologian, and professor, describes how he came to have an inability to relate to a God whom he had to petition and was separate from him. He questioned the wisdom of projecting personal views upon God, which, he began to believe, leads to fantasy, dualism, and lack of person- al responsibility. In A Heart Afire, Rabbi Zalman Schachter- Shalomi, founder of the Jewish renewal movement, and his disciple Netanel Miles-Yepez present the life, teachings, and practices of the early Hasidic masters. The approach is lyrical and straight from the heart. The Jewish renewal movement, like the early Hasidim that Schachter-Shalomi writes about, seeks to renew the Jew- ish teachings and traditions and bring them to all people. Schachter-Shalomi is the founder of Aleph’s legacy project (part of the Jewish renewal movement) and he offers online courses at the Buddhist university Naropa. He was part of a Jewish del- egation that visited the Dalai Lama, is engaged in interfaith dia- logue, and is open to ways in which Buddhist wisdom can shine light on Jewish traditions. Schachter-Shalomi defines himself, however, as a neo-Hasid, and his presentation of Hasidism is a manifestation of the mystical experience itself. Hasidim is about having an intimate, personal relationship with God. It is a mystical movement, founded by the B’a al Shem Tov (master of the name). A great rabbi, mystic, healer, miracle worker, and ecstatic, he was deeply concerned about the needs of others, including beggars and peasants. Although he spent years meditating and praying in a cave, receiving profound teachings, he always returned home for Sabbath— to his wife, children, and community. In Jewish practice, the spiritual and physical worlds are not separate; each informs and elevates the other. The Hasidic movement arose in the eighteenth century as a reaction to the strong emphasis on intellectual and legal practices of Judaism, as well as the hardship and depression prevalent at that time. There was a great need for the “di- vine flow” of joy and hope into everyone’s life, and Hasidim opened the gates of prayer and divine assistance, leaving no one out. The simple and unlearned were particularly extolled. It was thought that simplicity and lack of education allowed one to more easily have direct contact with God. God was reached through song, dance, celebration, prayer, love, and, most important, a pure and sincere heart. A rich collection of teachings, stories, and anecdotes, A Heart Afire is filled with the actual life, struggles, religious practices, and wisdom of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his successors. We see how the mystical is present in the most mundane everyday experiences, how sustenance, relationships, understanding— everything in life—is due to divine assistance. For those new to Hasidic practice, some of the anecdotes ILLUSTRATIONBYALANGORDON A HeArt Afire Stories and teachings of the early Hasidic Masters By Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Netanel Miles-Yepez The Jewish Publishing Society of America, 2009; 406 pp., $45 (cloth) WitHout BuddHA i Could Not Be A CHriStiAN By Paul F. Knitter Oneworld Publications, 2009; 336 pp., $22.95 (paper) RevIeWed By BReNdA SHOSHANNA