I was scanning news stories this morning when I came across “Alan Lew, brought meditation to Judaism, dies.” Rabbi Alan Lew was a socially engaged rabbi emeritus at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, who was well-known for his meditative practice. I learned of Rabbi Lew through his book, One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi. I never knew him, but he wrote in a way that connected with me.
A rabbi at my college Hillel had lent this book to me after one of our interfaith dialogue planning meetings. She knew that I’d been particularly intrigued by the interest in Buddhism that I’d met in the campus Jewish community. I’d read The Jew in the Lotus a few months before, and I found One God Clapping to be a good complement.
The book was about Rabbi Lew’s journey from Judaism to Zen Buddhism, and then back to Judaism. It’s certainly no ode to Buddhism. When the rabbi recounts his experiences in Zen centers, he does so in a way that I was left with the impression that as a Buddhist he was just going with the flow of the people around him. When he describes his return to Judaism and then rabbinical school, I was moved by the author’s devotion to tradition and spirituality.
After being “outed” for being a former Buddhist, he found that many in his congregation were interested in him sharing his experiences. He incorporated meditation into the congregation’s spiritual life. Makom Shalom continues to exist as a Jewish meditative program in the congregation.
There are different ways that you can frame Rabbi Lew’s story, depending on whether you’re looking for a positive or critical bent. Having read the book, I was inspired Rabbi Lew’s contribution to his community. He left Buddhism, but he was able to use his experience as a Zen practitioner to minister to his congregation in a way that he wouldn’t have been able to do had he not stepped foot in a Zen center. He opened a door to meditative spirituality so that his congregation didn’t have to seek it elsewhere.
He didn’t boast of scholarly genius or a supernatural organizational prowess. He was a guy who cared a lot, and who acted accordingly. May his memory be a blessing.