Marc Lieberman, Who Brought Jews and Buddhists Together, Dies at 72
Dr Marc Lieberman, ophthalmologist and self-proclaimed “Buddhist Jew” who, when not treating glaucoma, organized a dialogue between Jewish scholars and the Dalai Lama, and who subsequently restored sight to thousands of Tibetans suffering from cataracts, died on August 2 at his home in San Francisco. He was 72 years old.
Her son, Michael, said the cause was prostate cancer.
Dr Lieberman, who called himself “JuBu,” retained his Jewish faith but incorporated aspects of Buddhist teachings and practices. He kept kosher and observed the Sabbath, but he also meditated several times a day. He studied Torah, but he also led efforts to build a Buddhist monastery in Northern California.
If this seemed to be a contradiction to some, he agreed with it, seeing in the two religions a complementary quest for truth and a path away from the suffering of the world.
“I am a healthy mosaic of Judaism and Buddhism,” Dr. Lieberman said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2006. “Is it fair to either religion? Just schmair! This is who I am.
In the 1980s, he became a leader of the lay Buddhist community in the Bay Area, holding weekly meetings in his living room and welcoming monks from all over the world.
In this capacity, he was an obvious point of contact when the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, announced that he was planning a visit to the United States in 1989, and that he was curious to know more about it. Judaism. A friend in Representative Tom Lantos’ office, a Californian Democrat, asked if Dr. Lieberman would facilitate a dialogue between the holy man and American Jewish leaders.
Dr. Lieberman jumped into action, assembling what he called a “dream team” of Jewish rabbis and scholars for a day-long encounter with the Dalai Lama at a Tibetan Buddhist temple in New Jersey.
It was a success, though too brief, as it was difficult to bring together thousands of years of religious tradition in a single afternoon discussion. But the Dalai Lama came away impressed and Dr. Lieberman decided to take it a step further.
The following year, he accompanied eight members of the original group to Dharmsala, the northern Indian city where the Dalai Lama lives in exile. For four days, Jewish and Buddhist thinkers discussed the two religions’ shared experiences of suffering, their different views of God, and the role mysticism plays in each.
The book sold well and led thousands of Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike, to explore Buddhism – while also pushing others to see the potential for a different, more mystical Judaism.
“Marc really deserves credit for this dialogue, for opening the Jews up to their own meditative and esoteric traditions,” Kamenetz said in an interview.
Dr. Lieberman was not finished. During his conversations with the Dalai Lama and his entourage, he learned that thanks to the harsh ultraviolet light covering the 15,000-foot Tibetan Plateau, 15% of Tibetans over 40 – and 50% of those over 70 years old – have cataracts.
In 1995 he founded the Tibet Vision Project, a big name for what was largely a solo act: twice a year, sometimes with a colleague, he traveled to Tibet, where he supervised cataract surgeries and trained Tibetan doctors to practice them. Over the next 20 years, some 5,000 people regained full sight thanks to Dr. Lieberman.
It was, he might have said, the ultimate mitzvah for a people, and a leader, who had given him so much.
“I remember he said to the Dalai Lama, ‘When you come back to Tibet, I want the Tibetan people to see you,’” Kamenetz recalled.
Marc Frank Lieberman was born July 7, 1949 in Baltimore, son of Alfred and Annette (Filzer) Lieberman. Her father was a surgeon; her mother worked for a local private school and, later, for the regional chapter of Planned Parenthood.
Although his uncle Morris Lieberman was the rabbi of one of Baltimore’s main Reform synagogues, Marc grew up more interested in the intellectual and militant aspects of Judaism than in the faith itself.
He studied religion at Reed College in Oregon and after graduation took medical courses at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. While in Israel, he met Alicia Friedman, who became his first wife. He also became more religious, keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath.
He attended Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and completed his residency in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He then moved to San Francisco, where he opened a private practice specializing in the treatment of glaucoma, which then expanded to three offices in the Bay Area.
Despite his professional success, Dr. Lieberman – who was also a best-selling textbook author and clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco – lost his illusions in medicine.
“It was a high price to pay for the rigors of the training,” he said in “Visioning Tibet,” a 2006 documentary about his work. “There were so few role models who connected with patients like other humans, and the very reasons that motivated me to enter medicine became farther and farther apart as I moved forward in it. domain.”
During a yoga class in 1982, he met Nancy Garfield, who introduced him to the Bay Area Buddhist community. After the two attended a retreat at a monastery near Santa Cruz, Dr Lieberman realized that he had found the answer to his frustrations and despair, or at least a way to meet it.
In 1986, he and Mrs. Garfield were married in a Buddhist ceremony. This marriage, like her first, ended in divorce. In addition to his son, Dr. Lieberman is survived by his brothers, Elias and Victor.
Shortly after his second marriage, Dr Lieberman made his first trip to northern India, at the invitation of a group of Indian doctors. He found the experience transformative.
“The big discovery for me in India was to see how spiritual practicing medicine was,” he said in the documentary. “The medical centers in India, the ones I have been fortunate enough to visit, are temples and temples of love and service.”
He began making regular visits to India, working with local doctors and bringing back Buddhist books, devotional items and esotericism, which filled his house.
“At the table,” Mr. Kamenetz wrote, a visitor would find “Shabbat candles; in the living room, incense; at the door, a mezuzah; in the meditation hall, a five foot tall Buddha. If he had glanced at the shelf he would have seen Dharma and Kabbalah competing for space, and one was as likely to find Pali as Hebrew.
Dr. Lieberman did not invent the term “JuBu”, and he was not the first proponent of integrating aspects of Buddhism into the Jewish faith – the poet Allen Ginsberg was among those who preceded him – but he has become one of the most prominent.
He struggled to focus on interfaith dialogue and put politics aside. But his many trips to Tibet left him embittered with the Chinese government, which annexed the region in 1959 and ousted its religious leaders, then sought to overwhelm Tibetan culture with his own.
“It’s like visiting an Indian reservation run by General Custer’s family,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2006.
Beijing didn’t think much of Dr. Lieberman either; he was often harassed at the border and forced to wait weeks in Kathmandu, Nepal, to get a visa. From 2008, the Chinese government gradually excluded all foreign nongovernmental organizations from Tibet, thus ending Dr. Lieberman’s efforts.
Shortly before Dr. Lieberman’s death, Mr. Kamenetz visited him in San Francisco. One day, he accompanied his friend to a chemotherapy appointment.
“We really enjoyed the flowering trees in San Francisco, admiring every flower, every tree,” Kamenetz recalls. “Of course, we were talking about impermanence. And he said the most beautiful thing: that impermanence does not only mean that everything is going away, but also that there is always something new emerging.
“He said, ‘Whatever happens is the beautiful, indispensable event that takes place. “
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