The Intersections of Judaism and Buddhism with Rabbi Lew

At a family gathering in January 2012, hosted at the Stanford Hillel House in Palo Alto, California, I was introduced to a discourse by Rabbi Lew on the comparison of Judaism and Buddhism. Intrigued, I decided to extend my stay to attend his lectures.

Rabbi Lew’s presentation delved beyond conventional religious traditions, exploring the core tenets of Buddhist philosophy and Jewish thought, primarily focusing on the Fourth Noble Truths. His discussion offered an in-depth analysis of spirituality and philosophy, eloquently illuminating the essence of existence and the pursuit of nirvana to transcend life’s challenges. In the Buddha’s Two Noble Truths, the root cause of universal suffering inherent in human existence is the craving or desire for what one lacks. The subsequent pair of Noble Truths delineate pathways to alleviate suffering, primarily by releasing desires.

Rabbi Lew’s captivating presentation engaged the audience, sharing a poignant anecdote about introducing the First Noble Truth, emphasizing the universality of suffering. He recounted moments when the audience felt relief, expressing a sentiment akin to ‘You mean it’s not just us!’ This shared recognition deeply resonated, highlighting the commonality of human experience transcending cultural and religious boundaries.

Suffering and its Role in Jewish Thought

In Jewish thought, suffering is significant and can be traced back to the first Masechet *2 of the Talmud Berakhot 5B *3. Rabbi Lew extensively delves into this profound theme from various perspectives, covering essential questions like the nature of suffering, its purpose, the comparative value of enduring it versus avoiding it, and its possible spiritual benefits. In Talmudic tradition, the Gemara *4 meticulously discusses the subtleties of torment and adversity, covering countless pages without arriving at a conclusive answer. The lesson concludes by providing an enlightening narrative that offers 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.”

Towards the end of the class, Rabbi Lew shared an exciting chapter of his life with us while we had dinner and chatted. 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 fell deeply in love with his future wife, which led him to undergo a significant transformation. This transformation led him to embrace the roles of a husband, father, and devout practitioner of Judaism while stepping away from the peaceful embrace of Buddhist philosophy.

Judaism vs. Buddhism

During a presentation, Rabbi Lew discussed the differences between Judaism and Buddhism, highlighting the foundational teachings of Buddhism’s third and fourth Noble Truths. These truths serve as the basis for the 8-fold path, consisting of eight practices to alleviate human suffering, including right view, right resolve, right speech, proper conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi.
In contrast, Rabbi Lew challenged the idea that Judaism’s primary goal is to fix suffering. Instead, he explained that Judaism aims to make every moment sacred by connecting with the divine daily. To achieve this, Judaism has a set of guidelines called “halacha,” which provides directions on how to live in every moment and is based on the Torah and the oral Torah, consisting of 613 mitzvot or demands for leading a righteous life.

Rabbi Lew emphasized that in Judaism, “right living” means “bringing holiness to every moment.” This profound approach resembles how Judaism and Buddhism address suffering despite diverging narratives. Rabbi Lew’s message resonates through his works, including “One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi,” which narrates his story of becoming a compassionate hospice worker and an ordained rabbi overseeing a growing congregation in San Francisco.

His other notable works 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.” Rabbi Lew’s insights continue inspiring and enlightening readers, even after his unexpected passing in 2009.



  1. 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 despair 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.
  2. A Masechet is a section of the Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism.
  3. 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.
  4. The Gemara is a central text of Rabbinic Judaism, considered one of the two components of the Talmud, along with the Mishnah. It extends the Mishnah, providing additional discussions, debates, legal interpretations, stories, and anecdotes related to Jewish law, ethics, customs, and theology.

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