[This was written before dawn on January 8, 2010 in Venice, CA.]
In a few hours I will be initiated into the Ramakrishna Order of Vendanta Hinduism at the Vendanta Center in Hollywood, CA. It is something I have thought about doing since I began to study the nondual teachings of Hinduism during my junior year of high school.
I am excited and not a little nervous. Neither feeling is especially interesting to me. I’m not expecting any great awakening; certainly not enlightenment. I am doing this for two reasons: First, to honor a tradition from which I have gleaned great wisdom and insight for fifty years, and, second, to move more deeply into that tradition by receiving a mantra and learning how to work with it.
One thing that does interest me as I prepare for this morning’s initiation is what it says about my identity as a Jew. It is one thing for a Jew to study another tradition, and quite another for a Jew to become an initiate in it. The mere fact that this thought arises in me suggests that my Jewish identity is still compelling to me, but not so much that it stops me from doing what I am about to do. Why not?
I know a wise and wonderful rabbi here in Venice who also shares my interest in other faiths, but when offered the opportunity to participate in an offering to Krishna politely refused, saying that for him it would be idolatrous. Yet in a few hours I will offer flowers and fruit to Brahman, a clear act of avodah zarah, idolatry, and yet I won’t hesitate to do so at all. What kind of Jew am I? Or am I Jew at all?
Meditating by a lake in Cape Cod forty-two years ago it became clear to me that Lao Tzu was right: the Tao that can be named is not the Eternal Tao. YHVH, Allah, Brahman, etc. are just names, verbal placeholders, that, when properly used, hold open the place of not-knowing. They are like the “—“ in G—D; reminding us that reality is unnamable. True, I love to talk about God, but I do so as a game, piling thought upon thought, and hoping to have them all collapse under their own weight. I’m not looking for the “true” name, but rather for a moment without names.
The Rig Veda’s teaching that “Truth is one, different people call it by different names,” frees me from both abandoning names and having allegiance to them. But being a Jew is all about names, especially The Name, and taking that Name very seriously. Yet I just can’t do so. I love languages, I love names, but I never mistake the menu for meal, the name for that toward which it points, and it is the meal I desire.
Judaism is my primary menu. It is the system of names I go to first and most often. But primary does not mean exclusive, and I find value in many names and many systems. And while I do love to explore the differences and incompatibilities between systems in an academic setting, in my personal life they all point me to the same reality, the nameless “—“ that is both the One and the Many.
So today I become a Hindu, but this label adheres no more tightly than any other. In the end I practice a Teflon spirituality allowing me to mix lots of ingredients without worrying that any will stick.