East Fetes West

East Fetes West

The patriarch Abraham, according to Jewish tradition, helped shape Eastern religions. After the death of Sarah, his first wife, he married Ketura and had six sons, to whom, the Torah states, he “gave gifts … and sent them … to the east country.” The gifts, commentators say, were spiritual teachings that grew into Eastern religions.

A renowned member of one Eastern faith — Hindu — came west this week, to New York City, to praise the continuing Jewish influence on his religion.

“The similarities are striking,” Dr. Deepak Chopra said at Park East Synagogue on the Upper East Side, his first presentation in such a setting, he noted, in a famed career that has seen him lecture extensively around the world.

Chopra, an Indian-born endocrinologist who has become the leading advocate for the mind-body medicine movement, took part in a dialogue, “East Meets West: A Spiritual Journey for Body and Soul,” with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, American-born author of “Kosher Sex.”

The dialogue was sponsored by The Jewish Week, as part of an ongoing series of public forums, and by the Oxford L’Chaim Society, an interfaith educational organization Rabbi Boteach founded in England.

A standing-room-only crowd of 1,000 people listened to the speakers discuss their respective religious backgrounds and a common spirituality they see with each other’s. Moderated by Gary Rosenblatt, Jewish Week editor and publisher, the program featured Chopra talking about spiritual fulfillment and Rabbi Boteach about inherent differences between the genders.

“Many people are searching for meaning in their lives,” a quest that grows “as we approach the millennium,” Rosenblatt said, noting that the program was intended to “explore the similarities and differences” in the Jewish and Eastern traditions’ approaches to the spiritual journey.

“I think all Americans owe Deepak Chopra a debt of gratitude” for the “spiritual wave” that swept across the country during this decade, increasing public interest in a wide variety of religious and spiritual practices, Rabbi Boteach said. “No one is more responsible for this than Dr. Chopra.”

Defining the difference between religion and spirituality, Chopra called the former mostly “rules and regulations,” and the latter, “experiential knowledge of internal truths.

“Spirituality transcends religion,” he said. “It goes beyond religion.”

“I’ve never spoken in a synagogue before,” Chopra said, standing on the platform where the Torah portion describing Abraham’s final days was read two days earlier.

Chopra, author of 25 books and founder of The Chopra Center for Well Being in La Jolla, Calif., introduced several Hebrew terms from Kabbalah in stressing the mystic and linguistic similarities between Hindu and Judaism.

Citing classical Jewish interpretations of biblical figures, he said the patriarchs, Moses and Aaron, Solomon and David represent “different stages of awareness” in an individual — from self-discovery to engagement with the outside world. Even the word Hindu, he said, may derive from ivri, Hebrew for Hebrew, one who crosses over.

“The insights of Judaism,” Chopra said, “are so universal that they don’t have to be restricted to Jews.”

In marked contrast to Chopra’s gentle, often mesmerizing style, Rabbi Boteach was forceful in his rapid-delivery oratory. Contemporary Americans, he said, have reached an unprecedented level of economic success. “We have so much money today — who needs spirituality?”

His answer: success breeds loneliness. “The more successful you are, the fewer peers you have.”

The rabbi discussed the “dualism” exemplified by the “masculine” and “feminine” aspects of God, and, most visibly, by the contradictory nature of men and women.

Men, symbolized by a straight line, “don’t like to be enclosed by a circle,” the symbol of women, the rabbi said. “Women find it far easier to be enveloping.”

History has shown a progression from the masculine, making war, to the feminine, seeking peace, Rabbi Boteach said. “There is a triumph of the feminine over the masculine,” a decreased emphasis on economic and political competitiveness, and exploitation of natural resources — reflected today in business, politics, concern for the environment.

On a personal level, the “feminization” of men who emphasize their nurturing role is a good sign, the rabbi said, adding he wishes to see more men develop their feminine sides. “Judaism believes in the triumph of the feminine. The messiah will not come until husbands are listening to their wives,” he said, quoting the Kabbalistic master, Rabbi Isaac Luria.

The ethnically mixed crowd, from college students to retirees, milled around the speakers in the lobby after the program seeking autographs and a chance to meet.

The speeches, said Susan from Manhattan, were “very useful in figuring out the way the world works.” She and her husband, Barry, who declined to give their last name, said they have studied Jewish mysticism and Chopra’s books for several years. “I learned that … one needs to give in order to make our beings feel needed, worthwhile,” Susan said.

Dr. Judy Kuriansky, a radio psychologist and columnist for Newsday, said the speakers left her feeling “optimistic about the world.” She said she was impressed by the speakers’ common messages and the heterogeneous nature of the crowd.

“There is obviously a movement from obsession with power to humanism, caring about community, personal spiritual growth,” Kuriansky said. “It gives me hope.”

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