April 01, 2014

Jewish? Buddhist? Atheist? All of the Above!

Peter_kaufmanBy Peter Kaufman

I was asked recently by a colleague what religion I follow, and I was not quite sure how to answer. I was raised in a secular Jewish household, and I never considered myself religious in the traditional sense of the word. Unlike my Jewish peers, my family did not belong to a temple or synagogue, I did not attend Hebrew school, and I did not have a bar mitzvah or learn to read from the Torah. Instead, I attended a small humanistic Sunday school that was run as a cooperative, I learned Yiddish and sang folk songs, and I had a modest graduation ceremony where I had to read an essay I wrote on a notable Jewish figure.  

In my late twenties, I became interested in the teachings of Buddhism. I took classes at Buddhist meditation centers, I read books and magazines about Buddhist texts and philosophies, and I started practicing meditation. Although I never took a formal Bodhisattva vow like some of my Buddhist friends, I still try to live my life around many of the central tenets of Buddhism, particularly Mahayana Buddhism.

In addition to my Jewish Buddhist (or Jewbu) identity, I have also long considered myself an atheist—or at the very least, an agnostic. A belief in god or some other supernatural being was not part of my upbringing; subsequently, I never found this belief-in-a-higher-power narrative compelling. Even with this non-believer perspective, I don’t consider atheism as a central part of my identity and I certainly respect individuals who are committed to their religious ideologies so long as they are tolerant of others’ beliefs.

So where does this leave me? I guess I would say I am culturally Jewish, philosophically Buddhist, and religiously atheist. Unfortunately, that does not roll off the tongue so easily. Despite the influence of religion in contemporary life, as well as the changing landscape of religion, there are no commonly accepted names or concepts that accurately capture this multiple-religious identity.


In this sense, it’s interesting to contrast the way we speak about religion with the way we speak about other forms of social classification such as race, sexuality, and gender. These other identities have a much more robust tradition of sociological analysis as well as an increasing social acceptance. For example, books such as Beyond Black: Biracial Identity in America by sociologist Kerry Ann Rockquemore, and Getting Bi: Voices of Bisexuals Around the Worldby Robyn Ochs, document the existence, and even some level of legitimacy, of a biracial or bisexual identity (see the latest New York Times Magazine cover story on bisexuality).

I am not suggesting that all people are accepting of bi-or multiracial individuals much less bi- or polysexual individuals. However, it is significant to note that there is an established language to speak of these social positions. The same cannot be said for these mixed religious identities. In most cases, it is understood what someone means when they say they are biracial or bisexual; however, to say that one is bi-religious or multi-religious may result in some confusion.

The term that is commonly used to describe what I’m getting here is probably interfaith. Like biracial or bisexual, interfaith is a well-established concept that has spawned some important sociological work on couples and their children, such as Erika Seamon’s recent book, Interfaith Marriage in America: The Transformation of Religion and Christianity and Susan Katz Miller’s Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.

Although, the term interfaith is a good place to start a dialogue on multi-religious identities, it is not fully sufficient. Interfaith generally implies inter-relational processes among people of different religions as opposed to the intra-relational process of one person with multiple religious affiliations. For example, the Interfaith Center of New Yorkseeks to make New York City and the world safe for religious differences by increasing respect and mutual understanding among people of different faith, ethnic, and cultural traditions.” There is nothing in this mission statement that necessarily speaks to individuals navigating and identifying with their own multiple religious traditions.

The points I am raising here were actually articulated recently by Erika Seamon in a forum at the Pew Research Center. Seamon noted that in her own research, respondents shared my befuddlement as to how to explain their jumbled religious identities: “I have been doing a lot of work on interfaith marriage in America . . . and couples articulate this multiple religiosity. They’re articulating beliefs in multiple traditions. They’re trying to piece this together. It’s really muddy and messy. They don’t have words to articulate it . . .  there are no categories for them.”

I imagine that in the future we will have a more socially accepted and less unwieldy term to describe individuals who do not identify as solely Christian or solely Muslim but instead, see themselves as an amalgam of multiple religious traditions. As more children grow up in interfaith families and more individuals explore different belief systems, this “hybridity dynamic”—as Seamon calls it—will become increasingly pronounced. Ultimately, there will be a paradigm shift in how we talk about religion, how we study religion, and how we identify ourselves as religious beings. Amen to that!


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You are a serendipite sir!

What is a serendipite (the ‘i’ is pronounced as in ‘bite’)? It is a name which I have invented from the word serendipity. Serendipity is made of two phases; 1-an unexpected or unplanned for occurrence plus 2- the wise or sagacious exploitation of the occurrence for a beneficial outcome; for example the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming. It is often understood wrongly as a fortunate coincidence because a fortunate coincidence is already beneficial in and of itself without the need for sagacity to bring out its usefulness.

I found myself, just like you, in a situation where I do not have a single word to describe my identity. Culturally brought up to be an Arab Muslim, adopted some of the Buddhist ethics and mindful awareness as a way of life and my mind has developed in such a way that no deity or deities or religious myths will survive in it; they will be devoured in no time by critical, rational and scientific thinking patterns which vigilantly roam in my brain.

I call myself a serendipite because I came across ideas, philosophies, religions, etc. by chance while wandering through books, talks, trainings, discussions, countries, etc. but, like you, I thought through them and eventually settled with some combination. The number of possible combinations is of course infinite and that is why there is no name for identifying a person like you who is culturally Jewish, philosophically Buddhist and is religiously atheist unlike identities that are made up of race, gender and sexuality where names had been invented for the limited number of possible combinations.

If you are happy and you know you are a serendipite clap your hands and say YES!!

Hi Peter - Have you come across any estimates as to how many Jews currently identify as Buddhist?

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