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.