Breaking Down the Barriers: The Encounter between Judaism and Buddhism in the Late Nineteenth Century.

Author:Sigalow, Emily

On September 26, 1893, the aftermath of the World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Charles Theodore Strauss (1852-1937)--a wealthy haberdasher of Jewish descent--became the first person ever to be initiated into Buddhism on American soil. Strauss traveled from his home in New York to the Windy City to attend the Parliament, a seventeen-day affair organized around the idea of bringing Eastern and Western religious traditions into contact with each other. (1) A serious student of Buddhism and "ardent admirer of the Buddha," he attended the Parliament to learn more about Buddhism and hear teachings directly from the mouths of the Parliament's various Buddhist representatives. (2)

A few days after the Parliament concluded, Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933), a prominent Ceylonese Buddhist invited to the Parliament to represent "Southern Buddhism," lectured about the topic in Chicago's Athenaeum Building under the auspices of the Chicago Theosophical Society. (3) Dharmapala, widely regarded as a charismatic speaker, drew a large audience and spoke at length about the fundamental principles of Buddhism. After his lecture, he introduced Strauss, a man of forty-one, to the audience as an earnest student of Buddhism. Strauss walked purposively up to the platform and, in front of the crowded room, gave a brief address declaring his intention to become a disciple of the Buddha. In a ceremony that newspapers characterized as "simple yet impressive," he took on the Five Precepts of Morality--vows to abstain from harming living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication--as part of a lay-Buddhist initiation rite called Pansil. (4) Dharmapala recited the precepts in Pali, the language of sacred Theravadan Buddhist texts, and Strauss repeated after him. To those who witnessed the event, the recitation of these precepts made Strauss the first convert to Buddhism in America. (5)

Strauss's passport indicates that he was born in St. Gall, Switzerland in 1852. At age eighteen, he emigrated to the United States and worked, along with his brother, in his father's lace goods business. No evidence remains about his parents' Jewish practices or identification. After his father died, Strauss and his brother inherited the business and carried it on under the firm name of Charles T. Strauss and Bro. At age twenty-five, Strauss married Katie Agatz, a Jewish woman who had been living in Hoboken, New Jersey. They had three children together before Katie died young. At the time of Strauss's initiation to Buddhism, he was a widower of four years with young children and a lace business that was one of the oldest and largest wholesale lace-curtain houses in New York City. (6)

Though Strauss's initiation ceremony only lasted a few minutes, it created a stir in both Jewish and non-Jewish circles. In a note to one of the leading American Jewish newspapers, The American Israelite, one reader confessed, "having traveled all over the world including the entire Orient, this incident whereby one of our co-religionists became a Buddhist was certainly novel and perplexing." He added, "I do not believe that such a ceremony has ever before taken place, and in order to have it recorded I will ask you if space admits to insert this letter in your paper." (7) Other newspapers heralded the event as monumental: The Galveston Daily News [Houston] described Strauss as the "first American to break down the barriers that have stood for centuries between Buddhism and the people of the west." (8)

Charles Strauss's turn to Buddhism marked the first time in history when converting to Buddhism became a serious religious possibility for Jews in America. (9) His conversion to Buddhism is the nineteenth century's most noted example of Jewish involvement in Buddhism, yet it is also indicative of a wider turn in that era toward Jewish interest in the tradition. As accounts from popular late-nineteenth-century Jewish newspapers make plain, Buddhism captured the interest of many Jews just as it did many Americans more generally. (10)

In this article, I lay out the spectrum of ways in which American Jews encountered and engaged with Buddhism in the late nineteenth century through to the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century (from about 1875 to 1923). (11) I begin with Strauss as an example of a "Buddhist adherent" or someone who identified himself with the Buddhist tradition. Then, I explain the other end of the Jewish-Buddhist spectrum, which included a seemingly broad swath of American Jews who "sympathized" with Buddhism. Ultimately, I argue that the social position of liberal Jewish Americans like Strauss--financially successful, urban, and well established in the American social order--propelled them into their encounter with Buddhism in the late nineteenth century. (12)

C.T. Strauss: A Buddhist Adherent

Before taking the stage at the World's Parliament of Religions, Strauss was said to have been a private man who read constantly and deeply about religious and philosophical matters. He had been briefly involved in the Ethical Culture Society, a movement designed to replace theology with morality and ethical living. (13) Strauss never embraced Judaism as his religious tradition, explaining his relationship to Judaism and turn away from it in this way:

... the report that I was converted cannot be true, for the reason that I never was known as a [religious] Jew. Although my parents were Jews, I was brought up in a liberal way, and I do not believe that I have been in a synagogue more than half a dozen times in my life. In fact I am only a Jew in spirit when I hear that Jews are oppressed, and I try to defend them. (14) What Strauss meant by not being known as a Jew was that he did not abjure the Jewish faith in taking the Buddhist precepts because he never practiced Judaism as a religious way of life. In the United States, unlike in Europe, religious affiliation was not passed down from generation to generation as an ascribed identity; instead, it was a conscious, voluntary choice. The voluntary character of Judaism in the United States allowed Strauss to claim that he was "only a Jew in spirit," whereas in Europe he would have been seen as unconditionally Jewish.

Strauss's emphasis on being brought up in a "liberal way" evokes the progressive and enlightened spirit of Reform Judaism, a movement to which many others in his social world--the commercial and professional urban elites of Central European Jewish descent--belonged. The movement for religious reform emerged in the nineteenth century in Central and Western Europe, flourishing especially in Germany, after profound social changes transformed the external condition of European Jews and their understanding of themselves. The movement emphasized that Judaism, if properly interpreted, had a rational and universalistic character that was compatible with scientific discoveries and the premises of the European Enlightenment. It celebrated the pursuit of social justice and rebelled against long-established modes of Jewish ritual observance and rabbinical authority. Transplanted to the United States, the Reform movement won large-scale adherence in the United States where the government did not intervene in the religious affairs of its citizens like it did in Europe. (15) Despite his disaffection from Judaism as a religious way of life, Strauss would nevertheless have been influenced by the liberal ethos of Reform Judaism--its emphasis on individualism, rationalism, and universalism--that circulated in the air around him.

Where Strauss first encountered Buddhism remains an open question, but it seems likely that his first exposure came through books. By the late nineteenth century, a number of books about Buddhism circulated through the United States, particularly among the ranks of the educated elite. (16) Additionally, debates about Buddhism and Buddhist ethics reverberated within liberal and freethinking milieus in the United States and in Europe, including among Unitarian and Universalist congregations and various nineteenth-century esoteric religious groups such as Theosophists, Spiritualists, New Thought groups, and various vegetarian and anti-alcohol movements. (17) These liberal circles praised Buddhism as the rational religion of modern times and found within it an imagined otherness that resonated with messages of tolerance, universal brotherhood, and justice. In this sense, Strauss can be understood within the context of what Catherine Albanese calls "Metaphysical Asia," or the processes and results of how Americans reinvent South and East Asia with their own metaphysical categories and understandings. It is important to note that this reinventing of South and East Asia was happening simultaneously in Europe as it was in the United States. In Germany, for example, Theodor Schultze (1824-1898) and Karl Seidenstucker (1876-1936) published critiques of a "decadent Christianity" and celebrated Buddhism as the rational religion of modern times. (18)

Although casual interest in Buddhism was popular in Strauss's liberal religious circles, he was decidedly not a Buddhist dilettante. Anagarika Dharmapala's diaries made evident that Strauss was a serious student of Buddhism. Dharmapala wrote fondly of Strauss, calling him his close friend and "dedicated learner" of Buddhism. (19) Strauss studied Pali and he was a donor and subscriber to the Pali Text Society. (20) After Strauss took on the Five Precepts, he went on to establish the New York branch of the Maha Bodhi Society, an international Buddhist organization dedicated to reviving Buddhism in Asia. Strauss lived in New York until he left in 1906 to travel to India, China, and Japan. (21)

Strauss's story continued well beyond the United States, though. In 1908, he moved his permanent residence to Leipzig, Germany, which at the time was the center of the European trade market. He played a formative role in the establishment of...

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