Monday, December 17, 2007

Time for a Respite

To all my readers:
Thanks for spending the time to read my thoughts and opinions regarding Kiruv. I know it is a complicated and emotional subject, but I must take a brief respite from this blog. Yesterday, I left Four posts with a large number of interesting and informative reference links that discuss the Flood, Kuzari Principle, the issue of Chanukah’s historicity and the Gadol Hador Archives by subject area. During this hiatus, I will be closing the comment section. Feel free to email me at kiruvnetwork@hushmail. I’ll do my best to respond

The difficulty of engaging in honest dialogue with Orthodox Fundamentalists

[I will open this post up for comments when I return from my hiatus some time early next year (probably late Feb, maybe earlier). Commenting is currently turned off. I invite the reader review the entire dialogue here and make his or her own determinations]

This post presents a candid discussion about the nature and difficulties of engaging in honest dialogue with the Ultra Orthodox in general and those involved in Jewish Outreach in particular (known as "kiruv professionals"). It is a record of a recent email dialogue with an active commemorator of the Ba’ali Tshuvah blog - - BeyondBT.

The dialogue itself, as well as the summary below, provides valuable information and insight into some of the major issues that an intellectually honest BT must deal with when questioning the person or persons claiming to be teaching him/her about Judaism. It also exposes the reader to the kinds of techniques employed by Jewish outreach people to sidestep the most difficult questions about Orthodox Judaism. It is my sincere hope that this material, which by the way is not meant to be a scholarly work, be used as a starting point for the deeper research and soul searching that is necessary when considering a life altering decision to become Orthodox.

Why I am publishing this dialogue

BeyondBT is entitled to believe anything it wants; it’s a free country. But when it becomes a conduit for evangelizing an ideology that typically requires momentous life changes and sacrifices, it looses the right to forbid challenges to its beliefs, to remain unquestioned and unchallenged. If BeyondBt and similar outlets do not want their beliefs questioned then they should stop advocating them and they should certainly not, as is their policy, censor comments that respectfully challenge Orthodox dogma. In another words, once they disseminate their views in an attempt to influence others, I (and others) have the right to ask, “Why?” And I (and others) have the right to expect an intellectually honest response without obfuscations, evasions or pseudo-philosophical word play intended, consciously or not, to avoid substance.

Furthermore, I (and others) have the right to expect BeyondBT, as well as other active professional and amateur Jewish Outreach workers, to make full disclosure of their biases - - to inform others that the answers provided to common questions about disconfirming realities are always filtered through and the product of an ideology that prohibits any open-minded, open-hearted quest to corroborate the veracity of its doctrines. Most importantly, people have the right to know that kiruv people expect prospective BT’s to be open, vulnerable and willing to change but that they, themselves, have no intention of reciprocating.

I am well aware that the vast majority of this dialogue would have been censored by the BeyondBT administration, as well as any other Jewish Outreach blog sites, and I also admit that such suppression may appear justified from the point of view of a certain self-serving, contrived "spiritual" ethic. But, I also must say that, in practice, this attitude encourages a fundamental disrespect and superior attitude toward those for whom it claims to be helping, and a manipulative, controlling attitude towards those who have extended their trust. It is for this reason that I am sharing this correspondence (personal statements have been removed); It is an imperative to make others aware that the Kiruv industry in general and BeyondBT type outlets in particular, can not, as a general rule, be trusted to make the kind of full and honest disclosure of the facts that are necessary for anyone to make a life altering decision. In addition, publishing this dialogue provides a window into the difficulty of fruitful and honest dialogue with any individual who has strong preconceived notions that do not allow well established facts to interfere with their beliefs.

The dialogue: The four Questions

In order to keep the dialogue productive and honest, 4 straight forward questions were posed at the outset of the discussion. They were taken from the comment section of Naftali Zeligman’s essay

  • Does Torah contain statements of fact (use any definition you choose) that can be proved or disproved by an objective outside observer?
  • If it does, what are they - formulate them. If it does not, any claim that the torah is true is mere opinion, but tautological, devoid of content- -an empty assertion, sort of like "Jesus is God, read the bible," as I've seen on some bumper stickers.
  • If you are willing to assert that Torah has at least some truth to it, i.e., contains factual and provable statements, would you also be willing to take the next step?
  • If so, would you to draw up a list of verifiable Torah statements, preferably such that, if disproved, would change your attitude to Judaism.
  • These questions, which were asked over a half dozen times and which were never answered, go to the crux of the issue, which is whether Torah is a document which relates provable facts. If it does not state a fact that is susceptible to confirmation it becomes a document of mere opinion. Is that what BeyondBT is saying or has he completely defaulted in expressing his own true belief?

    The importance that all parties accept the possibility that they can be wrong

    A 5th question related to BeyondBT’s willingness to accept the possibility that he could be wrong in his belief was also repeatedly posed and not answered. The absence of an answer was not just discourteous, it was something much more; it reflected a lack of integrity and goodwill that is a prerequisite for any good faith discussion. Both parties must be willing to make this admission.

    If the potential BT, who does not have the time or background to thoroughly research the issues, or other interested persons, for that matter, is to trust their mentor, they should be certain to require this requisite before entering into any dialogue. Obviously, one can NOT be confident that the information they receive is credible if those communicating are unwilling to subject their assumptions to objective scrutiny. At a minimum, the outreach worker, if he is to act in good faith, must disclose that his own dogma precludes him from ever entertaining the possibility that his tradition could be in error. We would demand such disclosure in any other area of ones life. I see no reason to act differently in an area that is so elemental.

    I addressed this point in my opening email that set forth the ground rules for the dialogue. BeyondBT never even once acknowledged what I had written there even though I thought I could not have been more clear. I wrote:

    "The bottom line is this; if you have integrity, you must be willing to shift your initial position in conformity with the evidence. After all, how can you have integrity when you expect people to be open to your persuasion, an influence which may result in an individual making momentous and sometimes irreversible life changes, when you your self will not reciprocate the openness. With this in mind, I ask you - - BeyondBT, are you willing to consider the fact that you could have made a major life decision based on error or is it already a forgone conclusion that this could not be the case? If it is already a forgone conclusion that you are correct, why are we even having a discussion? Wouldn't it be the height of hypocrisy and dishonesty for you to engage myself and others when you fail to extend courtesy and decency with regard to disclosing your intransigency?"

    Again, this question was NEVER answered, let alone acknowledged.

    Obfuscations, Evasions and Pseudo-Philosophical Word Play

    Moreover, it is ironic that BeyondBT and his Rabbi, who immodestly assume the strength of their presumptions, have the temerity to ascribe close mindedness to others, such as Naftali Zeligman, author of Letter to My Rabbi when they themselves are unwilling to ever consider that they themselves could ever be wrong. I was deeply disappointed and to some extent taken aback when the Rabbi of BeyondBT failed to address the critical issues that Naphtali Zeligman's essay methodically laid out. Instead, he excused himself from this request by dismissing Zeligman’s competence in Torah and by implying that Zeligman did not have the requisite openness that would justify his time. The Rabbi provided no support for his opinions and presumptions and he *seemed* to be imputing to Zeligman, maybe in a way that betrays his own projected intransigence, a close mindedness that I do not perceive as consistent with the tone of Zeligman’s letter. But Zeligman would be in a better position to speak on his own behalf concerning the matter. I would have expected that our Rav would have extended the gentleman the *benefit of the doubt,* but this was unfortunately not forthcoming.

    Overall, BeyondBt did not make comments in a manner that contributed to the debate. He did not respond to the majority of my points. He either evaded them outright or he summarily dismissed them without any close scrutiny; no critique or honest evaluation was offered, other then to characterize evidence, that contradicted his assumptions, as conjecture or the empty and unsubstantiated musings of archeologist and academics. I would have expected a serious email setting out his own qualifications and endless notes backing up his conclusions, with sources and counter sources. I saw none of that. I find such behavior to be exasperating and immature. I would find such an approach unacceptable in my professional life and I see no reason why I should be any more tolerant of it when I am talking about a much more important issue.

    The dangers of the fundamentalist outlook

    Former fundamentalist Christian, Raymond E. Griffith, provides a very interesting account of the intellectual dishonesty, moral shortcomings and existential fear that pervade the fundamentalist Christian mind, which is eerily similar to what I experienced in the behavior of BeyondBT. I could not have described my respondent any better. Mr. Griffith, partly in an autobiographically manner, writes of the fundamentalist

    "He honestly believes he is right, but his belief in his belief is more important than the belief itself. Since this is under attack, he is in trouble. His attempts to escape the dilemma without confronting the fact that he is wrong are, of course, dishonest. But he doesn't see this. He has put up this desperate mental barrier that he cannot cross without devastating his self-concept and his faith. You are essentially correct that it is "denial, aversion, obfuscation and a moral inability to admit any error", but it is more than that.

    That's why they're always so hesitant to answer any questions. In all my debates with them, I've noticed that inarguable losses are snipped and ignored (to be revived later on) but no point is ever actually conceded. …………………………………..Again, the objections to their arguments do not matter to them. They have been mentally conditioned to ignore it. ................. They are not here to learn. They are here to teach others the truth. Remember, they have absolute truth, so they don't have anything to learn at all!

    Also very telling was Griffith’s admission that "at times I did feel forbidden to concede. After all, my opponents just had to be wrong, no matter how reasonable they were."

    The challenge then is not just for the inexperienced and trusting BT, it is also for the fundamentalist adherent. The arrogance, the supreme confidence that their ideology is inerrant, as well as the repression, dissociation, and denial that act outside the fundamentalist’s awareness, ultimately hinders the very thing that they value most --a connection with the Creator.

    In closing I want to share with you Rabbi Emanuel Rackman's apropos words concerning the tragedy of the fundamentalist mind set. He writes, in One man's Judaism, that "A Jew dare not live with absolute certainty, not only because certainty is the hallmark of the fanatic...., but also because doubt is good for the human soul, its humility, and consequently its greater potential intimately to discover its creator.” According to Rackman the tragedy here is not just that fundamentalist certainty inhibits the good: thereby hindering the development of the noble trait of humility, as well as ones sensitivity of the divine; it also imbues the bad because “man's certainty with regard to anything is poison to his soul.."

    Kiruv, Orthodoxy, and denigration of the wider world

    The Blog is not a polemic about which is better or worse, i.e. the ultra-orthodox, fundamentalist way of life vs. the life (kinds of lives) you find in the "outside" world. This blog, however, does point out the critical issues ignored, obscured and / or distorted by Orthodox Society in general and Kiruv workers in particular, one of which is the pervasiveness with which Orthodoxy denigrates, in an attempt to sell its wares, the world beyond Orthodoxy. Kiruv workers often emphasize secular society’s negatives and ignore, downplay or even falsely take credit for its positive aspects just as they overly accentuate Frum society’s positive elements (which exist in abundance to be sure) while ignoring, downplaying and denying its negatives. Some will even project the blame on the secular influences for its own failings (acting like goyim, the goyish influence, etc)

    The basis for these gross distortions and oversimplifications are many. For some, it emanates from a rigid fundamentalist mindset that exists outside conscious awareness and that engenders black and white views on life that is best understood with subtly and nuance. Others are more deliberate when they present this false dichotomy between the two worlds, intentionally contrasting an idealized and sanguine picture of the frum world with a pejorative depiction of the “outside world.” Such deceptive salesmanship can be expected from used car salesmen, but not from those whom we are most inclined to trust, especially when the product sold requires momentous life changes and sacrifices.

    One common example is the familiar refrain concerning the sorry state of the American family - - with its 50% divorce rate. This statistic, which is so often trumpeted as evidence of societies decay and in contrast to Orthodoxies triumphant values, is extremely misleading in its hiding of all the details about distribution. It obscures the revealing fact that those who marry later in life, in their thirties, often-graduate educated middle and upper middle class professionals, have a very low incidence of divorce, possibly no greater then the Orthodox world. The divorce rate also tells us nothing about the quality of Frum marriages where economic, personal and social forces inhibit divorce.

    Also ubiquitous is the oft-touted false analogy comparing the Orthodox community to the outside world’s social ills like violent crime and drugs. Again, it should be obvious that one cannot compare the frum community to the general American population. This common selection error or biased sample can only be avoided by comparing Orthodox Jews to similar socio economic classes, i.e. educated middle class Americans. In any event, many of the wider world’s ills are indeed shared by Frum society. In fact, a recent study from the American Psychiatric Association suggests that cheredi women suffer considerable levels of sexual abuse. Unfortunately, Cheredi apologists, who are theologically threatened by the very notion that such ills exist in their societies, have attacked the study (methodology, etc) rather then engage in honest soul searching that could lead to the kind of corrective measures that protect its precious children.

    At the yeshiva I attended, Machon Shlomo - - similar to Machon Yaakov - - I often heard such disparaging references about the "outside world," sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. These exaggerated and oversimplified depictions became less restrained as the 2-year program of indoctrination progressed. This crude emotional manipulation, often based on exaggeration and fear, is constructed to create powerful incentives to join Orthodoxy as much as it is constructed to create powerful disincentives to leaving. I believe that many BT’s (and Frum people) prolong their stay in Orthodoxy simply out of fear of re-entering this world, a world that many desperately wanted to escape before becoming frum, and a world that is often at best devalued in Orthodoxy and at worst demonized.

    Contrary to what the worst propagandists insinuate, the world is NOT predominantly filled with immoral, unrestrained, and self-indulgent people. It's a mixed bag, just like Orthodox Judaism; one encounters good people and bad just as in the frum world,generous and selfish people(just like in the frum world),sensitive and insensitive people (ditto), geniuses and fools (ditto), violent and gentle (ditto)spiritual and unspiritual people (likewise) -- and, of course, all combinations of the above.

    Yes, there are all manner of terrible things in this world: war, poverty, disease, madness, sexual abuse, racism, and all the rest. A thoughtful and sensitive person has to acknowledge that modern society, especially American culture, is pervaded by suffering, shallowness, nihilism, and a vacuous popular culture. However, in the midst of all this there is good as well. There are people whose hearts contain benevolence and compassion and who try to relieve others of their pain, who sincerely come to the aid of those who are misunderstood, disadvantaged, persecuted and mistreated.

    There are also many who seek truth, meaning and beauty who devote themselves to spiritual practices of various sorts, who seek to become more aware, more sensitive and who try to apply the truths they discovered in their daily lives. And there are people, who, although not focused on spiritual goals, have a basic decency about them and who try, in the course of their lives, to be kind to their fellow humans.

    So, if one decides to leave frum society, it does not, by any means, necessarily entail leading an immoral, unrestrained, and self-indulgent life (unless you really wish to be so, in which case you'll tire of that soon enough). Nor is the outside world always a cold cruel and meaningless place. Nor need one assume an attitude of uncritical acceptance of the world. It's quite possible to remain acutely aware of the limitations and imperfections of the world and maintain a healthy, albeit ambivalent relationship with it, while constructing a secure and meaningful space for yourself within it.

    In summary:

    1. One is not guaranteed a happier or more secure life by becoming a BT, or remaining as BT, than the life one would have had by living in the non-frum world. What determines the spiritual and emotional quality of one’s life is what you "bring to the table" in terms of your personality, character, values, economic status, beliefs, education, interpersonal and family relations, and hundreds of other variables too subtle and too numerous to list.

    2. Being Frum is not a panacea for people, who for whatever reason are fearful or repelled by the adversities and pain and ugliness of the "outside" world. Frumkeit does not confer immunity from harm or fear and may have its own burdens and difficulties that are unique to it. The point is that there is no absolutely safe harbor from the adversities of life and there are "storms" in the frum world and the non-frum world. Life can be beautiful and fulfilling in both worlds and life can be hell in both worlds, and life can be everything in-between in both worlds.

    3. The Kiruv movement has a tendency to malign, vilify, and ( in milder form) mis-characterize the "outside" non-frum, and the BT or potental BT should be very sensitive and wary of any person who must deprecate one system in order to elevate their own system. Such a person should be questioned very closely as to what they mean and how they justify their mis-characterization of the non-frum world. If one does that I think that one will find that the strategy is simply setting up a "straw-man" to knock down in order to prop up their own belief system. Such a person is very selective in the examples and issues he or she chooses from the "outside" world and neglects the many adverse issues in the frum world. It is an argument with blinders on. Western culture is too broad and too diverse to pigeonhole it as either good or bad. Every culture has its good and bad aspects; to focus on one or the other aspect to the exclusion of others is disingenuous. One has to see the whole picture.

    Historical and Scientific Scholarship & The imposibility of the Flood

    Problems with a Global Flood

    Marc Shapiro on the Flood, Here & Here

    "Believing in the truth of the flood (and a 5000 year old world) is more extreme than denying the existence of George Washington. Someone asked me if it isn't the case that we have more evidence for George Washington than for denying the flood. The answer is obviously no. We know about Washington because of one type of evidence, historical, and we have a great deal of this. However, the entire received body of knowledge in just about every field of human study is dependant on the fact that the world is not 5000 years old and that there was not a flood. These facts are the fundamentals of biology, physics, astronomy, history, anthropology, geology, paleontology, zoology, linguistics etc. etc. etc. Belief in a 5000 year old world and a flood which destroyed the world 4000 years ago is a denial of all human knowledge as we know it. It is a retreat into a world of belief, rather than one based on any sort of fact, and one who believes can believe anything he want to. The fundamentalist is not able to prove that Washington lived, only to say that he believes that Washington lives....Pay attention to what I am saying, it is impossible to make sense of anything in this world, in any field of science and many of the social sciences by adopting fundamentalist position. If people wish to live this sort of existence, fine, but one can't pretend that there is any sort of compelling reason for anyone else to. They certainly shouldn't try to put forth all sorts of pseudo-science to convince people of the correctness of their view.............

    People often say that they can hold the positions they do because they are ignorant of science and history. This is incorrect. It is not that they are ignorant of all these fields; it is rather that they reject them. There is a difference. The proper word to describe this is obscurantism. And I for one don't think it will last forever. One can only go against the obvious facts of our day for so long. Rabbis could declare that Copernicus's views were heretical for only so long before
    the weight of evidence ran over them. That will happen with fundamentalism, because if they don’t change, no one with any education will still be listening to them."

    Historical Summary:
    Egyptian and Assyrian history has an unbroken chain of monarchies and civilizations from 3000 BCE to the present, with no room for a flood that supposedly destroyed all life in the Near East (or, at a minimum, in Mesopotamia) c. 2105 BCE, the date derived from the Torah chronology. There is no mention of the Flood in these records of Egyptian or Mesopotamian civilizations which existed at the time and the physical evidence (e.g., inscriptions, among many other items) is staggering. the entire period is accounted for in tremendous detail, supported by over one million artifacts and the evidence for continuous, large-scale civilization in Mesopotamia and Egypt is "harder" evidence than our chain of tradition. There is no way that the descendents of Noach could have repopulated Egypt 200 years after a universally-fatal flood and restarted the culture, language, writing system, religion, etc. The very idea is absurd.There is no longer any room for doubt by any serious scholar. Rest assured that scholars in this area are "at each other's throats," and are quick to find flaws in, and attack, each other's theories. Nevertheless, there is universal consensus as to what was NOT happening c. 2105 BCE, -- "the Flood." In summary, the idea that there was a massive flood that destroyed civilization in Mesopotamia and/or Egypt c. 2105 BCE is universally considered absurd.

    Links to Kuzari Posts

    Historical Errors: Seder Olam & Chanukah

    Seder Olam-discrepancy between a chronological view of the Talmud and chronological view by historians

    Professor D.S. Levine
    Letter to My Rabbi-Judaic tradition unaware of its own history

    Blog Posts on the Historicity of Chanuka
    The True Meaning of Chanukah by Mis-nagid - the Bais Yosef's Kasha
    The Little Menorah That Didn't
    The Little Menorah That Didn't, #2
    The Little Menorah That Didn't, #3
    The Little Menorah That Didn't, #4
    The Little Menorah That Didn't, Part 3
    The Little Menorah That Didn't, part 4
    The Little Menorah That Didn't, Part 5
    Hanukka: The Faith of a Suicide Bomber Maccabee?
    Hanukka: Did The Maccabees Make It All Up?
    Hanukka 2006: What's The Truth About Sources For The "Miracle Of Oil"?
    Hanukka 2006: How Ignorant Are Haredim? This Ignorant
    The Rebbe And The Menorah
    The Rebbe And The Menorah, #2
    An Early Hanukka Present: The Rebbe and the Menora, Part 2

    Gadol Hador Archives By Category

    Although at times irreverent, this closed blog is an excellent resource for inquiring BT's and FFB's. It covers just about every conceivable issue that a soul searching Orthodox Jew confronts when critically examining their tradition.

    Nes-Nisayon / Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb
    Nes Nisayon I
    Nes Nisayon II
    Nes Nisayon V2
    Gottleib Endorses Gosse
    Why Gosseleib Doesn't Work
    Gosse Student
    Pottery & Paintings by G-d
    Gosse Goons

    Myth Moshol Theory
    When They Severed the Earth
    Adam: Man or Myth?
    Cassuto & Mythology
    Breishis & Science
    Can Torah contain Mythology?
    Not in Chazal
    Mythology is Aggadata
    Myth/Moshol is Non Literal?
    Mythology in the Torah II
    Adam & Eve & Their Snake
    Brisker Myth Moshol
    Myth Moshol V2.0

    Emunah Peshutah
    Emunah Peshutah vs Chakirah Amukah
    Don't Think It, Just Believe It !
    New: FDA approved Emunahpeshuttia !
    Avraham Avinu and Emunah Peshutta
    Bored with Breishis ?
    Har Sinai: A Case for Emunah Peshutah ?
    Emunah Peshutah, Modern Orthodox Style
    Emunahpeshuttia - Its for real !
    When is emunah peshuta ok ?

    The Point of Judaism
    The Point of Life
    The point of it All
    Kindergarten Hashkafah
    Sacred Cows I
    Sacred Cows II
    Machshavah Cholent
    Dinosaurs & Dibukim
    Machshavah Candy Mix
    Systematic Hashkafah

    The Kannoim & The Slifkin Bood Banning
    Gedolim manipulated by Kannoim
    The Lies of the Kanoim Exposed
    The Kanoi Hador
    The Kanoim Strike Again

    Rabbi Aron Feldman & The Slifkin Book Banning
    Rav Aharon Feldman's Letter
    More of the Letter
    Gedolim of Oz
    Science is from Sinai
    R Feldman insults Chazal
    More on Rav Feldman
    Move to the Right
    Responses Rip R Feldman
    Another Response

    Rav Moshe Shapiro & Co and The Slifkin Book Banning
    Kiruv Clowns
    MO vs UO
    Rav Mattisyahu Solomon

    Sunday, December 16, 2007


    Although I do not have any personal experience with or deep knowledge of Zen Buddhism, I think the well written and insightful Book Review, written by J.H. Mind, on Akiva Tatz’s LETTERS TO A BUDDHIST JEW would be of interest and possibly benefit to those who are inclined toward and interested in the contrast between the spiritual systems and practice of Orthodox Judaism and that of Zen Buddhism.

    September 24, 2006 By J. H. Minde

    LETTERS TO A BUDDHIST JEW purports itself to be a dialogue between Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz, a noted Judaic scholar, and David Gottlieb, an American Jew practicing Zen Buddhism

    Tatz's and Gottlieb's opinions, however informed, are, of course, their own, and other Jewish scholars might agree or disagree with them. This reviewer finds more commonalities between spiritual Judaism and Zen than Tatz allows for. Zen practice can be an enlightening adjunct to any religious system. In its accessibility it can take the place of more ritualistic religious observances. In large part, that is the appeal of Zen. Tatz can never admit to this, and Gottlieb seems to lack any such awareness. Tatz does not trouble himself to explore Zen in depth at all, while Gottlieb is little more than his audience of one.

    Unfortunately for the reader, LETTERS TO A BUDDHIST JEW is barely a dialogue. It is a virtual monologue during which the erudite Dr. Tatz so completely overwhelms David Gottlieb that this reviewer began to wonder if their dialogue was even a real one to begin with and not just an authorial device. The David Gottlieb on these pages is so colorless that it seems like he may not even be real.

    The religious chauvinism of the authors of LETTERS TO A BUDDHIST JEW is evident from the beginning. David Gottlieb's introduction spans half a page; Dr. Tatz's consumes several. There is a lengthy glossary of Jewish religious and mystical terminology; Zen gets not a word. Gottlieb is described as having undergone a "lay ordination" as a Zen Buddhist in 2002, but this "ordination" is never explained. And if in fact Gottlieb acheived a leadership role in his Zendo, his grasp of Zen philosophy and literature seems shockingly weak.

    Perhaps this should not be surprising as his grasp of Judaism is just as weak. One of Gottlieb's earliest letters to Tatz spells out a dozen or so basic questions that even a particularly literate Bar Mitzvah boy could answer. Gottlieb seems to know nothing at all about Jewish history, Jewish religious practices, Jewish philosophy or Jewish mysticism, even though he describes himself as a "seeker" and claims to attend a Conservative synagogue regularly. If Gottlieb's ignorance is real, then it is a bitter indictment of the pallid state of mainstream American Judaism. But there is something so contrived about the intellectual befuddlement evident in Gottlieb's letters that this reviewer strongly believes that they were intentionally crafted so as to give Dr. Tatz a ready-made foundation for his numerous theses in this book.

    Dr. Tatz's discourses in LETTERS TO A BUDDHIST JEW are articulate, reasoned, and brilliantly presented. The depth of his understanding and scholarship of Judaism is truly impressive. For those disaffected with "corporate" Judaism but wishing to return or to remain within the fold, LETTERS TO A BUDDHIST JEW opens surprising new vistas of spirituality and mysticism in the ancestral faith. For those "seeking," Dr. Tatz has written an accessible, detailed, and reassuring introductory guidebook to Torah and Kabbalah. As Rabbi Dr. Tatz observes, many young Jews seek out Eastern religions for their esoterica and exotica, never realizing that Judaism is in its essentials an Asian religion just as is Buddhism. It is difficult not to praise Rabbi Dr. Tatz's achievement here.

    Over 95% of LETTERS TO A BUDDHIST JEW is comprised of Rabbi Dr. Tatz's responses to David Gottlieb's brief (sometimes one-line) letters. When speaking of anything Judaic in this thick volume, Rabbi Dr. Tatz enters the realm of genius. As a discussion of spiritual Jewish practice, this book is without peer for a general readership.

    Having said that, it is difficult to praise Rabbi Dr. Tatz's insouciant intellectual particularism. Where Judaism and Buddhism agree, Dr. Tatz takes extraordinary pains to explore the depth of Jewish knowledge while damning Buddhism (and other faiths) with faint praise. Where they disagree, Dr. Tatz is almost venial in his criticisms of Zen Buddhism. He repeatedly falls into the unfortunate but very common habit of comparisons: Abraham, "our enlightened one," lived long before Buddha; by the time Buddha was born, Jews had already had their prophetic age; Jews have contributed immeasurably to Western civilization; and so on, as if such seniority in time indicates superiority in substance.

    Rabbi Dr. Tatz's self-righteous certitude that anything Buddhism can offer Judaism can offer more and better is the bigotry of that worst exemplar of our species, the True Believer. Certainly, a faith that has given rise to the elegance and complex simplicity of Ichiban, Bonsai, Haiku, and Chanoyu (Japanese flower arranging, horticulture, poetry, and the tea ceremony) not to mention a spare, direct, and immediate view of human existence, is worth more than just a specious examination. Rabbi Dr. Tatz needed to treat the subject of Zen with all due consideration, not just limit his inquiry to superficial divergences of ritual practice. For those interested, THE JEW IN THE LOTUS by Rodger Kamenetz addresses the specific "Jewish Buddhist" experience in a more openminded way.

    Gottlieb is of no use here. He hardly mentions any great Zen masters or their writings by name, he seems to have no intellectual ability to draw parallels between the two streams of thought (there are a great many), and since he knows nothing of Jewish mysticism he can find nothing complementary in Buddhist mysticism. He does ask at one point if Dr. Tatz had read any of the Zen books he'd provided, but suspiciously, the names of the books and their authors are never mentioned, as if to put off any specifically non-Jewish intellectual curiosity in the reader. Likewise, a rather embarrassing (probably invented) dialogue between the leader of Gottlieb's Zendo and Gottlieb's wife makes it into the book, apparently in whole. Gottlieb's wife goes on a rant about "idolatry" while Gottlieb quietly stands there, utterly emasculated. Although the scene calls for ethical outrage, Tatz says nothing about this truly offensive display of ignorance toward another faith. This reviewer had to wonder how, if Gottlieb was an "ordained" Zen practitioner, he had failed to explain any of the practice to his spouse or found his own answer to the question of Zen "idolatry." Gottlieb seems less like a Zen practitioner than a man interested in attending meditation classes at the YMHA. This is not an impressive moment in LETTERS TO A BUDDHIST JEW.

    In the same vein, Rabbi Dr. Tatz spends a good bit of time knocking over idols, at least Buddhist ones, but rationalizes similar Jewish practices. Bowing toward a Buddhist altar smacks of blasphemy while bowing toward the Torah ark does not. Displaying photographs of Hasidic leaders is "inspirational" while the showing of Bodhisattva icons is "idol worship." And Tatz never addresses the exact congruence between the numerous Hasidic practice lineages that are descended from various Tzaddiks (wise men), and the Zen Sanghas (communities) descended in lineages from various Roshis (wise men).

    Tatz's Judaism is based on the "Word," and he talks volubly. Zen relies on zazen and shikantaza, forms of silent meditation. Gottlieb barely speaks, but only because he seems to have nothing to say. There is certainly nothing wrong in presenting and making attractive the huge, largely unknown corpus of Jewish mystical thought, but it is a shame that Tatz and Gottlieb made such an obviously conscious decision to turn this book into a minor tractate of religious propaganda. The apparent insecurity behind their decision will in itself be offputting to the intellectually curious reader. Their dishonesty is all the more hideous because LETTERS TO A BUDDHIST JEW is otherwise a book of immense value and quality with much to recommend it. It stands on its own merits.

    Tatz and Gottlieb certainly didn't need to stoop to a disappointing parochialism to present their ideas. Notwithstanding the "give-and-take" format of the book, Tatz and Gottlieb are actually speaking from the same position and they should have just said so from the outset. Their decision to present Gottlieb as a confirmed Zen practitioner wending his way back to Judaism is simpleminded and becomes more and more transparent as the book progresses. Clearly, one of the major purposes of LETTERS TO A BUDDHIST JEW is to present a presumptively indifferently disposed Jewish reader with an attractive alternative to any non-Jewish spiritual practice. Despite Gottlieb's presence, the "Buddhist Jew" of this book is a constructed human being who could have been of any other faith or none.

    Titled to attract a certain body of readers, LETTERS TO A BUDDHIST JEW has essentially nothing to do with Buddhism. It would have been far better to have made this book a true attempt at dialogue or at least a frank examination of the two streams of practice. Perhaps Tatz needs to sit over tea sometime with Bernie Tetsugen Glassman-Roshi.

    Interesting Comments to Book Review

    J. H. Minde says:

    As my review shows, I was disappointed in this book, primarily because of its intellectual dishonesty. While Rabbi Dr. Tatz and David Gottlieb do a WONDERFUL job of bringing to the fore the mystical and spiritual foundations of Judaism, they are very unkind to Zen, which neither of them takes the time to examine, explain or investigate. "Zen" qua Zen is as unimportant to this book as having an accordian in outer space. Buddhism merely serves as a jumping-off point for their polemics.

    Shortly after writing the review, I was contacted by David Gottlieb and Rabbi Dr. Tatz, who engaged me in a brief but spirited dialogue. They both asserted that LETTERS TO A BUDDHIST JEW was NOT meant to be a dialogue between Judaism and Zen, and seemed surprised that I thought it was. However, they did say that other readers had made the same 'mistake,' which makes me believe that the book was intentionally presented in a way so as to draw in "Buddhist Jews" and sell them on mystical Judaism and away from esoteric Eastern religious groups.

    I will say that Zen, at least, is NOT particularly esoteric, it is essentially a practice that seeks out the marvelous in the mundane, and so it has much more in common with Judaism than Tatz and Gottlieb want to acknowledge.

    In a fit of pique, Gottlieb posted carefully edited 'selections' from my review on his website, making it seem that I was making a vindictive personal attack against them both. Although Gottlieb described this as "a bit of fun" on his site, it was not at all amusing. I received hate mails from several self-righteous religious bigots, and was called an anti-Semite, among other things, a comment I take great umbrage at as a Jew born and raised and the child of Holocaust survivors. Gottlieb's maliciousness was manifest in his cherry-picking of half-phrases out of the review, and I regret that he and I are brethren in any degree both as Jews and as Zen practitioners. I'd prefer less benighted companionship on the Way.

    cipher says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Minde's review. These were the wrong two people for this dialogue - unless, as Minde suggests, there was an agenda on the part of the author or publisher to steer Jews away from alternate traditions (which may be the case, given that it was published by an Orthodox company, rather than by a mainstream publisher).

    I was troubled as well by the sections involving Gottlieb's wife, although I'm not willing to dismiss them as fabrications. Her dismissal of Buddhism as idolatry, her assertion that his practice of Zen is "a knife in my heart" (as I recall) - this is her attitude toward Zen, the least iconic form of Buddhism! I thought at the time, "She's lucky it wasn't Tibetan Buddhism; she'd have a meltdown!"

    And, I agree - as a theologically conservative Orthodox rabbi, probably qualifying as "ultra-Orthodox", Tatz is simply in no position to be able to understand or appreciate other faith traditions. And Gottlieb is in no position to represent Buddhism, in all of its many and varied facets. As an introduction to Jewish theology from a strictly Orthodox perspective, it's valuable. As meaningful dialogue or debate between the traditions - not so much.