Jewish Studies Judaism and Buddhism
by
Sebastian Musch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0235

Introduction

Until recently, the field of Jewish-Buddhist studies had been neglected. The dearth of proper academic literature on the relationship between Judaism and Buddhism remains a problem, and despite many meritorious and pioneering studies in recent years, many aspects—historic especially—remain insufficiently researched. Scholarship on Judaism and Buddhism can be divided into three waves. The first wave proliferated from the mid-nineteenth century with speculation on links between Judaism and Buddhism in antiquity, especially regarding the influence of Buddhist ideas on the Hebrew Bible. However, this line of research subsequently lost some amount of clout among scholars during the twentieth century, and its publications are of limited value today. Comparative approaches gained popularity in a second wave during the 1960s and 1970s with the growing interest in Buddhism and Buddhist-inspired meditation during the counterculture movement, when North American Jews in particular developed a strong affinity to Buddhism that persists today. This has been widely known as the JuBu (or JewBu) phenomenon since Rodger Kamenetz’s classic The Jew in the Lotus (1994), which gave birth to a generation of scholars of Jewish-Buddhist studies who were part of this trend as much as they shaped it. Since the 1990s, the current and third wave of scholarship has used sociological, ethnographic, and historical approaches around three main foci: the so-called JuBu phenomenon remains of paramount interest, the first and second waves of Jewish-Buddhist Studies have begun to be historicized by scholars as a research subject in itself, and Jewish-Buddhist interactions not only in North America but also in Europe and Israel have garnered increasing attention. All this has recently brought new methodological qualities previously missing in Jewish-Buddhist studies to the forefront. Future tasks for the field include the study of syncretistic practices that blend Buddhism and Judaism; the exploration of Jews in Buddhist contexts in South and East Asia, a focus that has been lacking most often due to linguistic and disciplinary limitations; and developing all these geographical aspects into a global history of Judaism and Buddhism.

General Overviews

A good introduction to or overview of the combination of Judaism and Buddhism from a scholarly point of view is still missing. However, several studies exist that can serve as introductory guides for the perplexed, despite being limited by either their partisan or apologetic outlooks or their narrow geographical or historical foci. Katz 2009 and Brill 2012 are good starting points, as is Sigalow 2019, despite its focus on the specific North American contexts. Obadia 2015 and Obadia 2018 offer ethnographic approaches. Sasson 2012, Niculescu 2017, and Musch 2019 lay out the need for the study of Judaism and Buddhism and discuss potential avenues for future research.

  • Brill, Alan. “Buddhist Encounters.” In Judaism and World Religions. By Alan Brill, 235–254. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137013187

    A comprehensive and clear overview of Jewish-Buddhist encounters since the Middle Ages, with a short but much needed, yet rare, discussion of thinkers from the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah) up to contemporary Jewish thinkers and their views of Eastern religions. While the presented narrative has major lacunae, Brill does a great job in outlining the long durée of the Jewish perception of Buddhism.

  • Katz, Nathan. “Buddhist-Jewish Relations throughout the Ages and in the Future.” Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies 10 (2009): 7–23.

    A good general overview of Judaism and Buddhism that is both comparative and historical, if a bit cursory. Albeit now slightly outdated, the article remains of value to scholars, not the least because of its comprehensive bibliography.

  • Musch, Sebastian. Jewish Encounters with Buddhism in German Culture: Between Moses and Buddha, 1890–1940. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-27469-6

    In this study, the author looks at the various ways in which a wide range of German-Jewish intellectuals—including rabbis, philosophers, and writers—have approached and appropriated Buddhism. Musch’s work includes chapters on Jewish-Buddhist encounters through the lenses of Orientalism and makes a call for Jewish-Buddhist studies.

  • Niculescu, Mira. “JewBus Are Not What They Used to Be: A Call for a Diachronic Study of the Phenomenon of the ‘Jewish Buddhists.’” In Special Issue: JewBus, Jewish Hindus & other Jewish Encounters with East Asian Religions. Edited by Nathanael Riemer and Rachel Albeck-Gidron, and Markus Krah. PaRDeS: Zeitschrift der Vereinigung für Jüdische Studien 23 (2017): 149–161.

    The author argues convincingly that much of the investigation on Jewish-Buddhist interactions since the counterculture era seems stuck in monolithic, atemporal descriptions, proposing a timeline that distinguishes between three phases: the seventies, the age of challenging; the nineties, the age of claiming; the 2000s, the age of reclaiming.

  • Obadia, Lionel. Shalom Bouddha! Judaïsme et bouddhisme: Une rencontre inattendue. Paris: Berg, 2015.

    An ethnographic study of the meeting of Judaism and Buddhism, thus far available only in French. A concise overview of the author’s main thesis can be found in his English language article, Obadia 2018.

  • Obadia, Lionel. “The Relevance and Limits of ‘Hybridization’ Theory: The Case of Jubus, ‘Jewish-Buddhists.’” In Religious Encounters in Transcultural Society. Collision, Alteration, and Transmission. Edited by David William Kim, 181–202. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018.

    A theoretical discussion of the opportunities and pitfalls of the terminology surrounding the JuBu phenomenon and the stakes of applying these terms to complex religious identities and encounters.

  • Sasson, Vanessa. “A Call for Jewish-Buddhist Studies.” Journal of Indo-Judaic Studies 12 (2012): 7–17.

    An eloquent case for research into Judaism and Buddhism as part of the comparative study of religion that clearly lays out the obstacles to such an endeavor.

  • Sigalow, Emily. American JewBu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvh8r33b

    A pioneering examination of the Jewish encounter with Buddhism in the United States through a mix of historiographic, sociological, and ethnographic studies.

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