Rodger Kamenetz, who was born in Baltimore and raised in a suburban Reform synagogue, has become a renaissance man, in and outside the Jewish community. Educated at Yale, Johns Hopkins, and Stanford universities, he has been a teacher, a poet, a nonfiction writer, and, most recently, a spiritual consultant on dream interpretations.
When he appears on Thursday evening, June 2, at the Newark Museum, Kamenetz will speak about his best-known work, The Jew in the Lotus. It is the story of a trip he made along with a group of Jewish scholars and teachers in 1990 to meet the Dalai Lama at his home-in-exile in India. The Buddhist leader, banned by the Chinese from his native Tibet, had invited the prominent Jews because he was seeking advice in maintaining peoplehood, faith, and tradition outside of a homeland.
The program, cosponsored by Congregation Beth El in South Orange, is the final talk of a three-part series presented by the museum as part of its Tibet Collection Centennial commemoration.
Kamenetz spoke with NJ Jewish Jews by phone on May 17.
NJJN: Does the Dalai Lama have a special attraction to Jews and, if so, why?
Kamenetz: I think the Dalai Lama does have a special attraction to Jews because anger mixed with religion is poisonous. After World War II you couldn’t hear teachings about God in synagogues because Jews were angry at God. Therefore, people turned to teachers who weren’t angry, and among them, prominently, were Buddhists and the Dalai Lama.
NJJN: There seems to be so much affinity between Jews and Buddhists, and yet, at the Newark Peace Education Forum last weekend, it was Rabbi Michael Lerner who posed the sharpest challenge to the Dalai Lama’s assertion that inner peace and a calm mind were prerequisites for ending violence and injustice in the world.
Kamenetz: There is a question in my mind as to whether anger is the proper tool for social change. Very often people who are impatient for change are fueled by anger, but is anger the fuel for social change? Those who get paid most attention to are often the loudest and angriest — you know, the Donald Trumps of the world, who are very adept at getting attention. Whereas a figure like the Dalai Lama, who has modeled himself on a principle of non-violent change like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, can be extremely effective. Are we going to get to a peaceful world if people are angry?
NJJN: Can we explore the notion of JuBus? Why are Jews in particular attracted to Buddhism?
Kamenetz: I think Jews are very attracted to Eastern religions, whether it is Buddhism or Hinduism or yoga, and have become leading American teachers of Buddhism. There is a joke that if you really want a good Buddhist meditation teacher, get a Jewish teacher.
NJJN: Can Buddhism be considered a threat to Judaism?
Kamenetz: I think everything is a threat to Judaism when Jews are fearful — Buddhism, materialism, nothingism. I think the biggest threat to all religion is materialism and the idea that feelings don’t matter. Buddhism is particularly attractive because it is experiential. The Buddhist will give you an experience. Everyone else will give you a doctrine. A more subtle way to put it is, “Do we worship God, or do we worship Judaism?” Is it a threat — or is it a threat to what our idea of what Judaism is?
NJJN: Do you consider yourself a religious person?
Kamenetz: I would say I am a soul trying to continue to develop my relationship with God.
NJJN: What is meant by the title Burnt Books?
Kamenetz: Both men asked their best friends to burn their books. In Kafka’s case, his friend Max Brod devoted his life to publishing Kafka’s work after Kafka died. He disobeyed the words of his friend. In Nachman’s case, some books were burned by his faithful followers at his request.
NJJN: Do you have a message for those who attend your lecture?
Kamenetz: The message I would like to say is that Judaism is in dialogue with other religions today, as all religions are. We shouldn’t feel threatened or scared of that. We should respond to the challenges other religions pose by bringing out our best stuff.
NJJN: What is “our best stuff”?
Kamenetz: I will leave that for my speech.