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Judaism and Buddhism *

The gilded "Emaciated Buddha statue" in an Ubosoth in Bangkok representing the stage of his asceticism Chainwit. - Own work

Judaism and Buddhism. The former is a monotheistic faith built on faith God, the Torah, and the idea of free will. Judaism emerged in the Levant around 3,300 years ago. The latter is a nontheistic and monastic religion that originated in India around 563 BCE. 

Judaism and Buddhism?! Isn’t it sacrilegious to equate the two? Yet, we find many parallels between their mystical teachings. Over a third of American Buddhists are Jews! In the 60’s (as well as today) seeking Jews en masse explored Far Eastern disciplines and it became a part of their spiritual journeys. What is behind this Jewish fascination with Eastern thought? Is there anything we can learn from it? Are there indeed parallels worth exploring? Would you believe that the birth of Eastern philosophy is discussed in this week’s Torah portion? Whether Brahman is related to Abraham or not, clearly many foundations of Far Eastern thought originate from Abraham. No wonder Jewish and Eastern mysticism contain many similar ideas. But they also fundamentally differ in many important ways. As we read in this week’s Torah portion how Abraham sent his children to the East armed with spiritual wisdom, please join Rabbi Jacobson in an eye-opening class on the mysteries of the journey to the east, the sparks embedded there by Abraham, which would be uncovered by his grandchildren thousands of years later! Discover the secrets of mysticism that changed the world then — and how it can change our lives today.

The XIV Dalai Lama and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi during the historic Jewish-Buddhist dialogue in Dharamsala, India, October 25, 1990

Five precepts

Both Judaism and Buddhism forbid murder, adultery, theft, and bearing false witness. In Buddhism, these comprise four of the five precepts, analogous to the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Commandments and also to the Third, Fourth, Fifth and Seventh Laws of Noah. The fifth Buddhist precept forbids intoxication, which is also strongly disapproved of in the Jewish Bible.


Many modern schools of Judaism have had a longstanding acknowledgement of a concept similar to reincarnation, known as gilgul. This belief is referred to not only within scripture, but also in many folk and traditional stories. Hasidic Jews and many others who follow the Kabbalah believe that a Jewish soul can be reborn on earth if, in its previous lives, it failed to fulfil all of the 613 Mitzvah required to enter paradise.


Some Jews are drawn to the appeal of Buddhist meditation as a means to alleviate the violence and conflict witnessed in their everyday lives, and explain the Jews’ longstanding history of persecution. Orthodox Jews have embraced meditation since the 18th century as a means to commune with God.


Jews believe in a concept similar to the Buddhist interpretation of the karmic balance, known as middah k’neged middah (measure for measure).


Jews and Buddhists frequently regard the Prophets of the Old Testament as similar beings to the bodhisattvas because they too delay entry to the afterlife until they have completed their mission of saving the children of Israel during times of persecution.

Rabbi Zalman Abraham looks at what Buddhists and Jews have in common.

Rabbi Zalman Abraham looks at what Buddhists and Jews have in common.

A Fourfold Song

In the 1930s, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) wrote about a Fourfold Song (here split into parts):

1.  The Simple Song—There is one who sings the song of his own life, and in himself he finds everything, his full spiritual satisfaction.
2.  The Twofold Song—There is another who sings the song of his people, Israel. She leaves the circle of his own individual self, because he finds it without sufficient breadth, without an idealistic basis.
3.  The Threefold Song—There is another who reaches toward more distant realms, and he goes beyond the boundary of his people to sing the song of humanity. He aspires toward humanity’s general goal and looks forward toward their higher perfection. From the source of life he draws the subjects of his meditation and study, his aspiration and his visions.
4.  The Fourfold Song—Then there is one who rises toward wider horizons, until he links himself with all existence, with all God’s creatures, with all worlds, and she sings Israel’s song with all of them. It is of such a one as this that tradition has said that whoever sings a portion of song each day is assured of having a share in the world to come.

When these four songs are sung simultaneously, their combined harmony is an enlightenment greater than the individual songs themselves:

The song of the self, the song of the people, the song of man, the song of the world all merge in [God] at all times, in every hour. And this full comprehensiveness rises to become the song of holiness, the song of God, the song of Israel, in its full strength and beauty, in its full authenticity and greatness…”

The Buddhist concept of enlightenment relates to its Jewish counterpart—that the person is only spiritually complete if cultivated as an individual (the Simple Song). Only spiritually complete individuals can contribute fully to their people as an appendage of God (the Twofold Song). Some of those spiritually complete individuals might find those contributions unsatisfactory; they devote themselves to all of humankind (the Threefold Song). Those unsatisfied with that devotion link themselves with the world, with the universe, and sing the Fourfold song. Ultimately, as Rabbi Kook wrote, it is the person who simultaneously sings them all who sings the comprehensively holy Song of God, the voice of the Jewish people.

About Israel and You

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