In January 2012, I was at the Stanford Hillel House in Palo Alto, California, for my niece’s naming ceremony, Shefa Rachel. At the event, I heard about Rabbi Lew’s upcoming talk scheduled for the following week, where he would be comparing Judaism and Zen Buddhism, and I decided to stay back to attend his lectures.
Rabbi Lew’s discourse was a profound exploration of spirituality and philosophy. He eloquently expounded upon the Fourth Noble Truths*1, a fundamental aspect of Buddhist philosophy, illuminating the nature of existence and the pursuit of nirvana to transcend life’s trials. The Buddha diagnoses the universal predicament of suffering inherent in human existence through the initial Two Noble Truths, pinpointing its root cause as craving or the desire for what one lacks. The subsequent pair of Noble Truths outline pathways to alleviate suffering, primarily emphasizing the release of desires.
During his captivating talk, Rabbi Lew shared an insightful anecdote about introducing the First Noble Truth that suffering is universal. He recounted how there would often be a collective sigh of relief, as if to say, “You mean it’s not just us!” This shared recognition resonated deeply with the audience, underscoring the universal nature of human experience that transcends cultural and religious boundaries.
Suffering and its Role in Jewish Thought
Rabbi Lew delves into the profound concept of suffering and its place in Jewish thought, which traces back to the first Masechet*2 of the Talmud Berakhot 5B*3. In Talmudic fashion, this theme is explored from various perspectives. Important questions about the nature of suffering, its purpose, the comparative value of enduring it versus avoiding it, and its possible spiritual benefits are all carefully examined. Following the Talmudic tradition, the Gemara*4 meticulously discusses the subtleties of torment and adversity, covering countless pages without arriving at a conclusive answer. Finally, the lesson concludes with an enlightening narrative that provides guidance and clarity amidst the vast array of philosophical inquiry.
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, “A prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison but depends on others to release him from his shackles.”
After the class ended, Rabbi Lew shared a profound chapter of his life with us while we enjoyed our meal and conversed. He used to be a carefree and content Zen Buddhist priest in the lively streets of San Francisco. However, his life took an unexpected turn when he met and fell deeply in love with his future wife. This pivotal moment prompted a profound transformation in him, leading him away from the peaceful embrace of Buddhist philosophy and towards embracing the roles of a husband, father, and devout practitioner of Judaism.
Judaism vs. Buddhism
During his presentation, Rabbi Lew discussed the differences between Judaism and Buddhism. He caught our attention by delving into Buddhism’s third and fourth Noble Truths. These truths serve as the foundation for the 8-fold path, consisting of eight practices to alleviate human suffering. The eight practices are right view, right resolve, right speech, proper conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (meditative absorption or union). By following these practices, individuals are guided towards easing their suffering as well as that of others, making it a moral compass reflecting Buddhism’s core aspiration.
Rabbi Lew challenged the idea that Judaism’s main goal is to fix suffering. Rather, he explained that Judaism aims to make every moment sacred. The essence of Judaism is to “realize the sacred in every moment” by connecting with the divine in our day-to-day lives. To achieve this, Judaism has a set of guidelines called “halacha,” which provides directions on how to live in every moment. These principles cover various aspects of life, such as eating, family relationships, and interactions with others. Halacha is based on the Torah and the oral Torah, which includes the Mishna and Talmud. It is the foundation of Jewish ethical and spiritual practice, consisting of 613 mitzvot or demands for leading a righteous life.
In conclusion, Rabbi Lew emphasized that in Judaism, “right living” means “bringing holiness to every moment.” He noted that this profound approach is similar to how Judaism and Buddhism address suffering. Therefore, regardless of their diverging narratives, a common theme emerges—’right living’ is crucial for alleviating suffering in our world.
I had the chance to visit Rabbi Lew’s home only once more before his unexpected passing in 2009. Zichrono livracha – May his memory forever illuminate our lives. I hope I’ve captured Rabbi Lew’s powerful message the way it resonated with me.
I recently stumbled upon and read Rabbi Lew’s “One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi” from my book collection. This candid and unpretentious biography narrates the story of a man who grapples with the complexities of family, relationships, and spiritual exploration in 1960s California. The book follows his journey to becoming a compassionate hospice worker and an ordained rabbi who oversees a growing congregation in San Francisco.
Other notable works by Rabbi Lew include “This Is Real, and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation” and “Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life.”
- The Fourth Noble Truth in Buddhism is about the path to end suffering, called the Noble Eightfold Path. It is a set of principles and practices to achieve liberation from suffering and enlightenment. The Eightfold Path comprises eight essential elements that are interconnected and meant to be practiced simultaneously. These elements are Right Understanding, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
- A Masechet is a section of the Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism.
- Talmud Berakhot 5b is a specific page in the Berakhot section of the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud’s pages are divided into two sides, an “a” and a “b” side. Each side features discussions, commentaries, and debates among rabbis on various topics related to Jewish law, ethics, and theology.
- The Gemara is a central text of Rabbinic Judaism, considered one of the two components of the Talmud, along with the Mishnah. It is an extension of the Mishnah, providing additional discussions, debates, legal interpretations, stories, and anecdotes related to Jewish law, ethics, customs, and theology.