NEW YORK, Nov.10 (JTA) — Leaning casually on the lectern in the ornate sanctuary at the Park East Synagogue, Dr. Deepak Chopra seemed comfortable.
But Monday’s appearance on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where Chopra appeared on a double bill with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, was the Hindu healer’s first time speaking in a synagogue.
Introduced to a sold-out crowd of more than 500 people at the event as “the poet-prophet of alternative medicine,” Chopra discussed a mystical tradition that he said is shared by Hindus and Jews.
“What we all want,” he said, “is a connection to the creative power of the universe.”
Boteach, author of the provocatively titled “Kosher Sex,” identified a different common denominator: Essentially, he said, “all we want in life is to be happy.”
The greatest source of unhappiness, he said, was adhering to a philosophy of strict dualities that leads to internal conflict, or “not knowing the way forward.”
The men met each other at Oxford, when Boteach and Israeli psychic and spoon-bender Uri Geller visited a class Chopra was teaching titled “Seduction of the Spirit.” At Oxford, Boteach founded the L’Chaim Society, which co-sponsored Monday’s event.
The self-help guru accepted Boteach’s invitation to meet for an evening of “East Meets West” to discuss what Gary Rosenblatt, the publisher of the Jewish Week, which also co-sponsored the event, described as “concepts important to all of us seeking meaning in our lives.”
“Here we have perhaps one of the greatest representatives of the Hindu faith with one of the most vertically challenged representatives of the Jewish faith,” Boteach said.
Chopra — whose many books, recordings and television appearances are credited with inspiring a wave of spiritual exploration in America — recited from memory a poem attributed to King Solomon.
Describing a state of spiritual ecstasy, the poem says, “I have become like paradise, and being like paradise I am healed.”
“I think that’s true religion,” Chopra concluded. “That’s true spirituality.”
Calling himself a “Hinjew,” the black-clad Chopra drew conceptual and linguistic parallels between Jewish biblical and mystical traditions and the Vedanta, or philosophy based on the Hindu sacred text.
One theme common to Vedanta and Kabbalah, Chopra said, is an awareness of different realms of reality — physical, intellectual/emotional and spiritual — and the concept of an eternal domain of infinite power, known to Jewish mystics as the Ein Sof.
He even noted an etymological parallel between Brahma, the creator of the cosmos in Hinduism, and the Jewish patriarch Abraham
Boteach, dressed in a dark suit and crisp, white shirt, started his energetic oratory by discussing the human quest for happiness, which he described as a state of “having external deeds match internal convictions.”
Philosophy, he said, often divides the world into opposites: dark and light, form and substance, yin and yang. Mysticism sees a unifying source behind all being.
Known for taking a lighthearted approach to serious subjects, Boteach said that he was “going to try to go beyond humor tonight.”
He then launched into an examination of gender differences, taking a new twist on John Gray’s popular guide to relationships, “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.”
He added: “Women are meant to dominate — it’s happening all over the world,” he said, citing examples of cooperative, compassionate behavior prevailing in commerce, environmentalism, interfaith cooperation and even entertainment.
“The messiah will not come until husbands start listening to their wives,” Boteach said, quoting the 16th-century mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria and bringing laughter down from the mixed audience in the packed balcony.
Boteach paused noticeably in his speech only once, to wait for the last rings of what had been a symphony of cellular phones.
Both speakers were received enthusiastically by the multireligious audience of hip, leather-clad young adults and polished Upper East Side matrons, couples and singles. After a brief question-and-answer period, a crowd formed as the two authors signed copies of their best-selling books.
Cantor Joshua Rubinstein, 23, a Chasidic Jew, had come from Brooklyn with a friend to hear Boteach, and they were not disappointed.
“He’s a great speaker,” Rubinstein said. “He talks as fast as he thinks.”
Rubinstein said he thought part of Boteach’s appeal was that “he looks like a Chasid, but he speaks American to Americans. That’s a new cache.”
While the bearded Brooklynites questioned the faddishness of studying Kabbalah, they were impressed by Chopra’s Jewish knowledge.
“Is he Jewish?” they asked — and praised his pronunciation of Hebrew terms, which struck Rubinstein as somewhat “Chasidic.”