Rabbi and Zen priest spring from same spiritual source

They met in graduate school, at a writers' workshop in 1968, and became fast friends. Two young men, both Jewish, seeking to explore the spiritual world.

Ironically, it was Zen Buddhism that transformed their lives and sent them on different paths.

One became abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, the oldest and largest of its kind in America. The other became a rabbi at one of San Francisco's oldest Conservative synagogues, Congregation Beth Sholom.

The two, Norman Fisher — a poet, author, teacher and Zen Buddhist priest, and his good friend, Rabbi Alan Lew, recently told their stories to some 40 people during a "Zen Buddhist/Jewish Dialogue" at Borders Books and Music in San Rafael.

The event was held to promote Fisher's autobiography, "Jerusalem Moonlight: An American Zen Teacher Walks the Path of His Ancestors" (Clear Glass Press, S.F., 1995).

The work came out of this "big, undigested mass of notes," Fisher said, written mostly on airplanes and in airports, on a trip to Israel with his brother and father. Author of six volumes of poetry, Fisher called his latest effort "a kind of mosaic. It goes all over the place."

Fisher read excerpts from "Jerusalem Moonlight" and his most recent poetry collection, "Precisely the Point Being Made," (O Books and Chax Press, 1993). Then Lew joined him for a discussion.

"I practiced Buddhism side by side with Norman for eight to 10 years," Lew said, "until we both became one another's path not chosen."

Lew, who found little meaning in Judaism as a young man, pinpointed his decision to become a rabbi to a crucial moment during a retreat at Tassajara in the 1970s, when he was seriously considering becoming ordained as a lay priest.

At one point he had to sew an ornamental item for a priestly garment.

"I absolutely couldn't do it," Lew recalled. "And after awhile I realized there was some resistance. I began to explore that in my meditation and I realized it had something to do with my being Jewish.

"It is true for me that there was some sense of conflict between my being ordained as a Buddhist with my being Jewish."

As he explored the tension in meditation, he found "a level of Jewish background noise," Lew said. But probing deeper, he realized "this kind of buzz was going on at all times."

Realizing this Jewish identity "was the beginning of my turning in that direction."

Lew attended rabbinical school in New York in the 1980s and returned to the Bay Area in the '90s to become Congregation Beth Sholom's spiritual leader.

Fisher grew up an observant Jew and even during his journey into Buddhism vowed always to honor his religion. He'd organize seders, attend religious services on the High Holy Days, and occasionally attend Shabbat services.

One of the most meaningful Jewish rituals he performs, Fisher said, is lighting yahrzeit candles and reciting Kaddish in memory of his parents.

"I'm embarrassed to say my Jewish practice is so small, but it looms so large for me," he said.

Fisher, a resident of Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin, is married to a non-Jew and has 18-year-old twin sons who grew up living in Buddhist temples.

Yet "I always told them that I thought they were Jews and that when they grew up, they would find out if they believe that or not," he said.

So Fisher was pleasantly surprised and proud when his sons decided to study for their bar mitzvah with Rabbi Lew. Before going off to college this fall, they converted to Judaism.

"They're probably a lot like me," Fisher said. "I think they would define themselves as Jewish Buddhists."

Both Fisher and Lew usually meditate early each morning. Zen allows you to "find access" to Judaism, Fisher said. It is "one of the key ways that I engage in Judaism."

Added Lew, "Zen practice helps you see yourself with some clarity," he said.

Last summer the two led a series of Jewish-Buddhist retreats at Tassajara and Green Gulch Farms.

Lew even holds meditation groups before the daily minyan for Beth Sholom congregants.

"I've become fascinated with the possibility of Zen practice as a way of opening people to the possibility of what is there," he said.

Forty-five minutes of meditation prior to prayer, he said, "makes 10 minutes of davening very meaningful."

Beth Sholom is not the only synagogue to offer meditation. Of the six largest Conservative congregations in Northern California, five have meditation groups, Lew noted.

"I think that there is a general recognition among Jews that this religion has become far too external," said. "There is a welcoming of anything that will help turn Judaism to its authentic roots."

While Fisher and Lew see historical and practical parallels between Buddhism and Judaism, Lew said they have avoided making comparisons.

"What we have found more fruitful is to stand the two side-by-side and see how they touch each other," Lew said.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is J.'s culture editor. She can be reached at liz@jweekly.com.