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Richard Lawrence Cohen

"I cannot be 'attached' to Zen because it is 'right' and Judaism is 'wrong.'"

A pregnant sentence. And a consummately Zen sentence. But what if it's wrong? What if it really is right to be attached to what's right?


Richard: If it is right to be attached to what's right, then I am, as they say in Zen parlance, screwed.

It's the attachment that's a problem: correctness, like all other states, is more fluid than we'd like to think. What's right in one moment or situation may not be in right in others. Even the Buddhist precepts seem phrased in such a way as to permit exceptions in all types of action -- it's causing or perpetuating suffering that can't be allowed. When we get attached, we suffer and we cause others to do so.

It's not wrong to adhere to that. To be attached to it may mean something else -- may be the leading edge of a kind of fascist correctness, I don't really know...

But to pursue what's right is different than being attached to it. What's right is fluid, and so attachment is actually delusional. I guess.




A very good post. I like your responses to the Zen lady--very mature. What is her background? Orthodox?, Conservative?

Its funny that although I agree with much of what she says, her comments still annoy me. I don’t know why. Maybe she is a mirror to my own inner conflict on the issue. Nonetheless, and please correct me if I am off base, it is noteworthy that:

1.her attitude seems indignant and defensive--not the picture of egoless detachment I would expect from a serious Zen practitioner.

2.although her comment “"Judaism is so full of fanciful stories, so glorifying of violence, so rife with delusion." is to some extent true, especially as it is understood in the fundamentalist sector of Judaism; it is also just as true that Judaism is full of chesed, opportunities to refine one’s character, develop selflessness, build a connection to G,d, etc. And these positive aspects are actualized not just at the individual level but in the broader context of family, community and national life. It is also true, as you point out, that if you go deeper the stories are not fanciful, rife with delusion or glorifying of violence. Instead, they are full of rich, profound and subtle depth that capture the essence of the human condition. The problems arise when one views the stories on their literal level.

>>>>She feels that the Bible virtually requires people to delude themselves, then put peer pressure on others to join in collective delusion.>>>

I think this is true of certain fundamentalist conceptions of the bible, but if one considers the original intent of the Bible as an anti Pagan polemic, i.e. something discussed by scholars like Umberto Cassutto- then she would be completely off base. One can still be Orthodox--albeit from the left spectrum of the Modern Orthodox--and still accept Cassutto’s thesis.


Your conversation with the Zen lady is precious. There is so much there.

Its funny that we can be so involved in the 'stuff' of our lives, even at an event inspired by the Holocaust.


Fascinating post. While I obviously think the Zen woman should follow any path she likes, her rationale for moving away from Judaism annoyed me too. If she really left because "Judaism is so full of fanciful stories, so glorifying of violence, so rife with delusion," then I hope she DOES read your book and spend some time with Rabbi Tatz. I'd love to hear his response to that assessment of Judaism (although yours was excellent too!).


Great blog, I'm definitely going to be reading more. :)


I'm interested in your idea of Jewish koans. What exactly do you mean by that? It seems that Zen koans are designed to be koans, i.e. designed to stimulate thinking rather than directly pointing towards a truth, while the originators of what you call Jewish koans meant them literally.


Welcome! And welcome to my blog roll.

To answer your question: I think part of the brilliance of Torah is that it's prismatic: a focused beam of light enters it and comes out in myriad colors, and never the same way twice.

So that "literal" truths contained in Torah always seem -- sometimes even beyond the intent of its human redactors -- to point to other, more central, more elusive truths.

For example,the Binding of Isaac. Literal, historical fact? Just for the sake of argument, let's say yes. But beyond the literal, "factual" event, a coherent world composed of paradox: faithfulness to God, but beyond all reason; the "evolution" from human sacrifice, which has myriad resonances and allusions of its own, toward Oneness with a purposeful and moral Higher Nature; and the incomrehensible, grasped as one, which is so koan-like, so **essentially human,** in the best sense: an ephemeral moment encapsulating an eternal truth; a moment of brutality as the seminal event in a movement back toward our higher nature; the incomprehensible as a signpost toward enlightenment.

To me, the literal "truths" of Jewish history portrayed in Torah all are there because they are pointing us to larger, more difficult truths about ourselves and our existence.

Make any sense at all . . . ?

Seth Chalmer

The originators of the Jewish koans meant them literally? That's quite an assumption of intent, JA! And I disagree with it.

They certainly meant them no LESS than literally. But I like A.J. Heschel's insistence that they are (and have always been) more than literal. Higher than literal. More true than we can comprehend.

Also, David, I can't help pointing out that of course you're not about converting people to Judaism. If you were, you'd be in explicit violation of Jewish law, which is clear as day that being Jewish isn't the only path to God.

I, too, love your metaphor of Torah as koans. Would stories about the Hebrew priests be called Kohein koans? Or Kohanim koanim?


The originators of the Jewish koans meant them literally? That's quite an assumption of intent, JA! And I disagree with it.

You're absolutely right. I misspoke. (Mistyped?) I just spend so much time debating with right-wing Orthodox people, sometimes I forget my own beliefs. :)

David, it sounds like your idea of the Torah being koans could apply to any work of literature. Do you believe that the Torah is uniquely sublime in that respect, or can all great works of art be used as koans in the same way?


(Oops, that first paragraph was a quote.)

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