Western Sufism

Western Sufism

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

American Jews, Buddhism, and Sufism

A great new book on American Jews and Buddhism touches directly on Western Sufism at points, and also has broader implications. It is Emily Sigalow, American JewBu: Jews, Buddhists, and Religious Change (Princeton University Press, 2019).

American JewBu combines history with anthropology. The book’s first section is historical, tracing the development of the Jewish encounter with Buddhism in the United States. Sigalow starts with the first ever public conversion to Buddhism in America, by Charles T. Strauss (who was of Jewish background) in 1893. She then traces three subsequent phases, one during which Judaism influences American Buddhism, one during which Buddhism influences American Judaism, and one during which meditation becomes medicalized and mainstream. The book’s second section is anthropological, investigating today’s Jewish-Buddhist milieu and its inhabitants, looking especially at questions of spirituality and identity. Both sections are beautifully written.

The first point at which American JewBu directly touches Western Sufism is the discussion of Sam Lewis (1896-1971), who Sigalow identifies as a universalist, perennialist, Jewish Buddhist. I had always thought of him as a universalist, perennialist, Jewish Sufi. If someone is a universalist perennialist, as Lewis certainly was, it is perhaps absurd to claim them exclusively for Sufism or Buddhism. Even so, Lewis did primarily self-identify as a Sufi.

Lewis belongs to Sigalow’s second phase, in which Judaism liberalized American Buddhism. In the third phase, during which Buddhism contributed to the creation of “Contemplative Judaism,” Lewis’s friend Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2019) appears. Sigalow identifies him (not as explicitly as she does Lewis) as a universalist, Buddhist Jew. Schachter-Shalomi was also, of course, a universalist Jewish Sufi, initiated by Vilayat Inayat Khan (1916-2004), although on this occasion his primarily self-identification remained that of a Jewish rabbi.

American JewBu touches indirectly on Western Sufism in two ways. Firstly, just as one might wonder why so many American Buddhists are (in the widest sense of the word) Jewish, one might wonder why so many American Sufis are (in the same wide sense) Jewish. It was not only the first American Buddhist, Strauss, who was Jewish, but also the first American Sufi, Rabia Martin (1871-1947, born Ada Ginsberg). Secondly, the processes of religious change (the final part of Sigalow’s subtitle) that produced the American JewBu presumably have something to do with the processes of religious change that produced the American Sufi.

For the first question, Sigalow reviews prior theories, and adds some of her own. She classes prior explanations of the American JewBu as historical, religious/theological, demographic, and “pull.” Historical explanations point to the shared focus on suffering of Judaism and Buddhism, which has no echo in Sufism. Religious/theological explanations point to the use of religious texts, the conception of God, the emphasis on universal truth, and mystical traditions—all of which would work equally well for Sufism. Demographic explanations point out that there may be a far higher percentage of Jews among American Buddhists than among the general population of the US, but that there are also disproportionately many Jews in the demographic from which American Buddhists come—“the highly educated upper middle class, intellectuals, artists, and bohemians.” Again, as for Buddhism, so for Sufism: American Sufis come from exactly the same demographic. Finally comes “pull,” especially the way that Buddhist practices (seem to) work so well. That must be an important factor for all American Buddhists, not just Jewish ones. I am not sure how much it applies to Sufism.

Sigalow then suggests five explanations of her own. One is the demographic, which she re-names “social location,” drawing attention also to “shared occupational space”—an awful lot of psychotherapists, for example. My own impression is that there are also an awful lot of Sufi psychotherapists. Then comes the fact that “Judaism and Buddhism do not have a fraught history with each other.” She noted a “quiet uneasiness” in many of her informants when it came to Christianity. This makes sense. While historically the relationship between Judaism and Islam has been less fraught that the relationship of either with Christianity, relations between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East today are certainly somewhat fraught, which must give Buddhism an edge. Sigalow’s third explanation is that Buddhism has always been organizationally open, which is also true of some varieties of Western Sufism but not of Islam, and her fourth and fifth explanations derive form the impact of American Jews on American Buddhism: once Buddhism has become liberal and Buddhist leaders are often of Jewish background, Jews feel ever more at home there.

The main explanations that explain disproportionate Jewish participation in both Buddhism and Sufism, then, are probably the demographic, quiet uneasiness when it comes to Christianity, and “pull” (though that applies to everyone). To this one might add the declining attraction of certain forms of institutional religion, as Orthodox Judaism becomes too demanding and Reform Judaism becomes too tame, sending ever more Jews looking somewhere else.

For the second question, Sigalow emphasizes universalism, perennialism, and romanticism. These are among the major factors that I emphasized in Western Sufism, though I tended to pair universalism with perennialism, and leave romanticism a bit on its own.

She also wants to rehabilitate the term “syncretism,” which she thinks is unfairly stigmatized, especially if we are now all happy with “hybridity.” Many understandings of contemporary religious change use similar metaphors—salad bar, shopping basket, bricolage. These metaphors, Sigalow thinks, contribute to the way that much contemporary religiosity is not taken entirely seriously—and she may be right; there is certainly a problem with the way that anything that can be termed “New Age” is not really taken seriously.

What has actually been happening, Sigalow argues, is Jewish-Buddhist syncretism. This is certainly something that American JewBu does demonstrate. Was there ever an equivalent Jewish-Sufi syncretism? One can think of individual cases, including Lewis, but though there was undoubtedly syncretism when it came to Sufism in America, the standard counterpart to the Sufism does not appear specifically Jewish, but rather American or even Western. This might raise the question of to what extent the liberalization of American Buddhism that Sigalow notes was the result of Jewish influence, or of American influence.

American JewBu, then, is recommended for all who are interested in Western Sufism.

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