Leonard Cohen: Musical Superstar, Buddhist Monk, Devoted Jew?

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Dear Rabbi,
These thoughts are occasioned by the recent passing of Leonard Cohen. TY as always for your reply, which I value.
Several years ago I flicked through a book on ‘Buddhist wisdom’ and remember being struck by how similar many, if not most, of the things I read to things I’d learned in the weekly shiurim I was then attending with a Chabadnik. Of course, this may be a poor reflection on the guy giving the shiur but, putting that to one side, I was wondering whether it was possible for a Jew to explore Buddhism without compromising himself.
I hasten to add that, don’t worry, I’m not tempted! It was this anecdote which has prompted the question:
“People asked how could [Leonard Cohen] be Jewish if he was a Buddhist monk. He told me Zen Buddhism, at least the kind that he practiced, was not a religion. It was a tuning fork for consciousness. He was a devoted Jew, a learned, deep and troubled one — a genius. He had candles lit every Shabbat. I received photos of candles lit on the tours. Once when he was at the monastery with Zen master Roshi [no relation to me!—ed.] up at Mount Baldy, a group of Chabad guys trekked up there during Chanukah to return him to Judaism. They found him in his robes, I think he told me. He told them to shush, took them to his quarters. His Chanukah candles were sputtering. They had brought some [vodka] with them. He had plastic cups. And then he told them about his Judaism and his meditative path.”
All the best,

Dear Shimon
TY for your interesting and topical question.
I am certainly no expert on Buddhism, but I am not surprised that many of its teachings (especially as presented in an accessible English-language book) are broadly compatible with Judaism. The same, however, can be said for many other religions, certainly including the daughter religions of Judaism itself, Christianity and Islam. It is even possible that a Jew (and for that matter a gentile—and I have encountered such people) may find spiritual nourishment in Buddhism and subsequently use those teachings and inspiration as a springboard to explore Judaism. (Of course it can go the other way as well, I suppose.) Nevertheless, I am not comfortable with the notion that one can be ordained a Buddhist monk and simultaneously claim (or is it others who have claimed on his behalf?) fealty to Judaism. Lighting candles on Friday night (or Chanukah, as per the charming anecdote you cite) and incorporating Jewish motifs into one’s music does not equate to being a faithful or even practicing Jew.
However: Turning to your question itself, IMO one who is Jewishly knowledgeable and committed to leading a Jewishly authentic life can in principle explore Buddhism and even derive insight and wisdom therefrom. The problem is when Jews who are neither knowledgeable about (beyond the primary school level) nor committed to Judaism seek spirituality in Eastern religions. Then they are unlikely to make their way back to their own faith (although it can happen).
Finally, a note of self-criticism: Is contemporary Judaism, including even Orthodox Judaism, lacking in spiritual energy or authenticity so that Leonard Cohen and many others like him can only slake their thirst in Buddhism and other Eastern religions? This question troubles me often.
Rabbi Rashi Simon

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Ask the Rabbi: Quinoa on Pesach
Dear Rabbi Simon,
Where do you stand on quinoa (and the kitniyot ban) for Pesach?
Many thanks,
Dear Tzippy,
In line with other American authorities, I am in favour of quinoa. Although I reject completely the voices (mostly from Israel) seeking to abolish the ban on kitniyot entirely, IMO we do not need to include in the prohibition pseudo-grains that were unknown in the Old World until modern times. Best to buy with a Pesach hechsher though, to be free of any possible wheat contamination.
Rabbi Rashi Simon
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