What Moses and Buddha share eighth-graders, others will learn

What do Moses and Buddha have in common?

Quite a bit, Nadav Caine will tell you.

"Both grew up as members of the royal court," said Caine. "Both had a life-changing experience that caused them to flee the royal court. Both wandered — Buddha as a yoga practitioner, Moses as a shepherd — not acquiring the skills to lead."

Both men achieved enlightenment — Moses through his encounter with the burning bush and Buddha under a bodhi tree — and both became spiritual leaders.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

On Monday, Feb. 12, Caine, 34, will fill in an audience of eighth-graders and adults on what some of that history is when he lectures on "The Heroes of Spiritual Enlightenment: The Parallel Biographies of Moses and the Buddha" at Or Shalom in San Francisco. The talk, which he also gave at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, is part of the annual Feast of Jewish Learning, sponsored by the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education and other Jewish organizations.

Although the life stories of Moses and Buddha may be similar, the messages they emerged with are quite different.

"While there are many parallels, the crucial differences is what caused them to flee and the content of their messages," Caine said. For Moses it was witnessing an act of social injustice — a slave master beating a slave– which in turn, caused him to kill the slave master. For Buddha it was seeing a diseased and dying man, a reality from which he had been sheltered until that time.

According to Caine, who is on his way to getting a doctorate in advanced Jewish studies from Stanford, the catalyst to flee led one man to focus inward, the other toward community.

"Moses' message is one of a radically new society, where everyone must obey the law, embrace social justice — even for the stranger — and there are no kings," said Caine, adding that the "no kings" concept was a first. "The Buddha's [message] has to do with escaping mortality by living in the present moment unencumbered by mental attachment to either the past or the future."

Although these philosophies are different, Caine says Judaism and Buddhism are not as far off from one another as it may appear. Traditional Jewish texts can be quite existential.

"Martin Buber's 'I and Thou' book is the best explanation of Buddhism," says Caine who has taught comparative courses on Judaism and Buddhism using exclusively Jewish texts. "I lecture on the Buddhist concepts, but we only read Jewish texts. It works really well."

So is that why so many Jews are attracted to Buddhism?

Maybe. But Caine thinks the answer could, at least partially, lie in the fact that Buddhism addresses internal spirituality. In some ways it's similar to Kabbalah, but that isn't a big part of mainstream Judaism today.

"Judaism as we practice it is so rationalistic. But that's just a partial view. There used to be a very large mystical component," said Caine. The popularity of Buddhism among Jews could also be a reflection of the times. "People are so cynical about the possibilities for group progress. People are more interested in their own salvation rather than producing a just society. I'm not so sure Buddhism would have taken off during the civil rights movement."

Not surprisingly it is Zen and the more intellectual branches of Buddhism to which Jews are drawn.

Then there's the psychological thing.

"One thing Buddhism is better at than at anything else is psychology," said Caine, adding that Jews have a strong affinity for psychology. "It helps you unlock mental traps you're in. I think that's a big part of the attraction and why Jews get involved with Buddhism."

Caine, who is both a teacher at and director of Peninsula Havurah High, will be teaching a class there on Judaism and Buddhism this spring. Peninsula Havurah High is a Jewish educational program for high school students sponsored by the BJE. He also will be teaching a six-week course for the Jewish Community Federation's Women's Alliance in the south Peninsula.

As far as the teens go, Caine finds that they "get this stuff." Interestingly, he has also learned that exposing high school students to the texts of other religions strengthens their own Jewish identity.

"Teens get more Jewish by reading the New Testament or the Koran. Seeing what other people are doing makes them appreciate our culture more."