Rabbi Lew: Comparing Buddhism and Judaism

In January 2012, I attended the naming ceremony of my niece, Shefa Rachel, at the Stanford Hillel House in Palo Alto, California. I noticed that Rabbi Lew would give a talk during the coming week. I’m familiar with his books, which were profound meditations of Jewish practice from a Zen point of view.

I extended my stay to hear him speak and film his talk, a part of which appears below. He did not disappoint. His lecture compared Judaism and Zen Buddhism and how each tradition deals with suffering.

The Fourth Noble truths expound the Buddhist philosophy of existence and attaining nirvana, which overcomes everyday suffering. In the first two Noble Truths, the Buddha diagnoses the problem – universal suffering is the natural state of affairs – and he also identifies its cause – craving or wanting what you do not have. The other two Noble Truths are the prescriptions for curing suffering, mostly finding ways to let go of desires.

Rabbi Lew mentions that when he shares the First Noble Truth – that everybody suffers – with Jewish audiences, he always hears a sigh of relief. “You mean it’s not just us!”


He then refers to the Jewish discussion about suffering, which occurs very early in the first Massechet of the Talmud Berachot 5B. As typical of the Talmud, the subject is discussed extensively from many angles. Is there value in suffering? Is it reasonable to suffer? Is it better to suffer than not to suffer? Is there a reward for suffering? As is typical of Talmudic discourse, the Gemara continues to discuss the issue of torture and affliction for pages without reaching any conclusion and then ends with the following story:

Rabbi Yoḥanan’s student, Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba, fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered to visit him and said, Is your suffering dear to you? Do you desire to be ill and afflicted? Rabbi Ḥiyya said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward, as one who holds this suffering with love is rewarded. So Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan stood him up and restored him to health.

Similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan fell ill. Rabbi Ḥanina entered to visit him and asked: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ḥanina stood him up and restored him to health.

The Gemara asks: Why did Rabbi Yoḥanan wait for Rabbi Ḥanina to restore him to health? If he could heal his student, let Rabbi Yoḥanan stand himself up.

The Gemara answers, they say: A prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison but depends on others to release him from his shackles.

After the class ended and we were sharing food and conversation, Rabbi Lew revealed that he had been a carefree and happy Zen Buddhist priest in San Francisco until he met his wife and fell in love. This experience prompted him to move from becoming a carefree Buddhist to becoming a husband, father and practicing Jew.

So what is the essential difference between Judaism and Buddhism? Suppose you look at the third and fourth Noble Truths. In that case, you get to the 8-fold path to amend suffering, which consists of eight practices: right view, right resolve, right speech, proper conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (meditative absorption or union). It seems to enlist the person on a moral path that will amend suffering: Buddhism aims to amend suffering.

Rabbi Lew states in the above clip, “it is not the program of Judaism to amend suffering. Judaism is not indifferent to suffering”. But, he adds, “if I were to stand on one foot and say what the program of Judaism is, it is to realize the sacred in every moment.” And how do you realize the sacred in every moment? Judaism would answer by following the prescriptions regarding ‘How to live at every moment – how to eat, how to relate to your wife and children, to your fellow man – this prescription is called the “halacha” – the way – the 613 mitzvot/directives for living the good life – deduced from the Torah – the first five books of the Bible – and enunciated in the oral Torah – the Mishna and Talmud.

So, in the end, “right living” in Judaism is “bringing the holy to every moment,” and it also happens to be the Jewish way to alleviate suffering.

So ultimately, although the narrative is very different, the underlying theme is the same – “right living” is the key to alleviating suffering in this world.

I was to meet Rabbi Lew once more at his home before he suddenly died of a heart attack in 2009.

Zichrono l’ivracha

May his memory be a blessing.

I hope I have done justice to Rabbi Lew’s message.

Rabbi Lew’s books include:

  • One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi
  • This Is Real, and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation
  • Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life

Addendum:  Recently, while going through my books, I discovered and read Rabbi Lew’s One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi. It is a wonderfully straightforward and honest biography of a man and his struggles with his family of origin, his wives and children, his navigation of the spiritual paths available to him in California in the sixties, and how he then found his way to Judaism and to becoming a hospice worker, and later an ordained rabbi with a growing congregation in San Francisco.


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