This exploration of the radical, yet ancient, idea that everything and everyone is God will transform how you understand your life and the nature of religion itself. While God is conventionally viewed as an entity separate from us, there are some Jews—Kabbalists, Hasidim, and their modern-day heirs—who assert that God is not separate from us at all. In this nondual view, everyone and everything manifests God. For centuries a closely guarded secret of Kabbalah, nondual Judaism is a radical reorientation of religious life that is increasingly influencing mainstream Judaism today.
Writer and scholar Jay Michaelson presents a wide-ranging and compelling explanation of nondual Judaism: what it is, its traditional and contemporary sources, its historical roots and philosophical significance, how it compares to nondual Buddhism and Hinduism, and how it is lived in practice. He explains what this mystical nondual view means in our daily ego-centered lives, for our communities, and for the future of Judaism.
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From the Introduction
To speak of nondual Judaism is to explore two complementary subjects: nondual Judaism, and nondual Judaism.
On the one hand, we may approach nonduality from within a Jewish perspective, and ask questions about how it is expressed. Where did it appear in Jewish history, and why? How does it relate to the fundamental topics of God, Torah, and Israel? How does it function in the religious life, whether conceived traditionally or nontraditionally? There is no claim here that all Judaisms are nondualistic at heart. There are nondual Jews, dualist Jews, and many more Jews who have never thought of the issue at all. So what might be the beneﬁts, or costs, of being a nondual sort of Jew?
On the other hand, we may pose questions from the nondual perspective, and ask what relevance Judaism has, if all is really one. That is, we might ask not “why be a nondual Jew” but “why be a nondual Jew”? For some, the question is beyond the bounds of normative conversation. For many of us, however, it begs to be asked. If nonduality, in whatever expression, enables one to be fully awakened from the dream of separation and to live a loving, compassionate, wise life, then why involve oneself with Jewish language, text, and tradition—so much of which is dualistic, distracting, and occasionally disrespectful of other paths? If everything is God, why be Jewish?
In my own life, both nonduality and Judaism have been deeply transformative, and correspond roughly to absolute and relative, universal and particular, head and heart. As we will see, there is little separating the nondualistic philosophies of Judaism from those of Hinduism, Buddhism, and other traditions—not nothing, but little. Nonduality, if true, is necessarily a universal truth, and all schools and teachers are but skillful means of apprehending it. However, as we will also see, nonduality does not erase the world in a hazy cloud of oneness. All is zero (ayin), and all is one—but one manifests as two. The general takes the form of the particular; the One wears the drag of the many. And so, as the world is reborn, our particularities matter anew, and with my background and accidents of birth, the Jewish way continues to resonate in my heart.
At times along the nondual path, I have surrendered all that is particular: not just all that is Jewish, but also many important particularities of gender, sexuality, class, and ethnicity. Yet when I “return to the marketplace,” to paraphrase the Zen ox-herding parable, all these forms return. Jewish forms are neither superior nor necessary. But they are superior and necessary for me because they are the vocabulary of my heart, and the technology of my body.
The “beneﬁt” of nonduality is ending the tyranny of the egoic illusion and awakening to the truth. The “beneﬁt” of Judaism is responding to that truth with acts of love and devotion; integrating it into a culture, community, and ethical tradition; and naming it as God. The world of yetzirah, the domain of the heart, needs its forms, its faces, its God. As Rabbi Arthur Green, one of today’s leading progressive nondual teachers, has written, “the step from ‘wonder’ to ‘God’ is not an act of inference, but an act of naming.” Judaism provides, for some of us, the grammar and vocabulary of that utterance.
Nondual Judaism is at once quite old and quite new. As an esoteric doctrine, it has been around since at least the twelfth century. It animates much of the Kabbalah and was a central tenet of Hasidism. But more Jews are nondualists today than at all other times in history put together. In Israel, nonduality is in the mainstream of contemporary spirituality; pickup trucks drive by with bumper stickers that say “Ein Od Milvado” (There is nothing but God), and the phrase is shouted at shrines and in forests. In America, nonduality is a central feature of neo-Hasidism, Jewish Renewal, and other new forms of Kabbalah and Jewish mystical revival. And the concept of nonduality clearly echoes the notion, popular in the 1960s, that “all is one.”
Of course, exploring nondual Judaism necessarily involves the concept known in English as “God.” As we will explore in detail, particularly in chapter 3, this concept can be extraordinarily misleading. To begin with, there have been many God-concepts in the last twenty-six hundred years of Jewish tradition. Sometimes, God is an anthropomorphic warrior, or gardener, or mother, or father, with preferences and emotions. Other times, God is a cosmological creator, perfect and unchanging; and at others, God is a provider, an abandoner, a schoolmarm, or a scold. Sometimes Jews say we experience God in judgment; other times we experience God in love. But really, what we have been doing, all these centuries, is embellishing different experiences with the name of God.
The nondual understanding of God as Ein Sof, Inﬁnite, at once negates and rea∞rms all of these images. On the one hand, Ein Sof refuses all category, including that of “God.” If you have an idea of God, that’s not It. And yet, because God is Nothing, God is the true reality of Everything, and refractable in an endless number of prisms. The nondual God is at once entirely transcendent (“surrounding all the worlds,” in the language of the Zohar; the “upper unity” in the Tanya, the nineteenthcentury Hasidic text which we will explore in some detail.) and entirely immanent (“ﬁlling all the worlds”; the Tanya’s “lower unity”). It is the only mask there is.
I like to think of it this way. First, if you have some belief in God, drop it. Let the atheists, or your own doubt, totally, utterly win: there is no one minding the store, just matter and energy combining and separating. There is nothing in this moment that cannot be explained by science and reason.
But then, take science seriously, and remember that there is no self either: consciousness is an illusion of the brain, after all. Believe the postmodernists, the Buddhists, the Darwinists, the cognitive materialists, and the Hasidim when they say that this sense of ego, while essential for our survival, causes us to mistake a pattern of phenomena for something that’s actually there. Really, there is no soul, just a buzz of neurons. So: no God, no self. And then . . . what?
What’s left, after the self is subtracted, is what nondualists mean by “God.” Other names are ﬁne as well. Empty phenomena, rolling on; the Divine Play; Indra’s Net; the Dharma; causes and conditions; the substance of Nature, and its laws; the Shechinah and the Holy One; as you like it. YHVH, the primary Jewish name for God, basically means “Is.”
And now everything reappears. The self manifests as it does, with all its talents and neuroses. The breeze still blows, of course. And God, too, half-projected, half-imagined, but still nonetheless with an aroma of Presence, appears as well. But the “God” that reappears here is a God of more masks than before. In the Kabbalistic schema, the term “God” is only one of the ten seﬁrot, or emanations of the One to the many. Like our personalities, “God” is a mask, a way of speaking about the world: of naming it. As Daniel Matt says, “‘God’ is a name we give to the oneness of it all.” All of it—not just chocolate and summer days, but cancer and prisons too; “all is One” may sound like a bromide, but in fact it is a challenge.
In reluctantly choosing to use the word “God”—and given how much the word is misused, and for what reasons, my reluctance is considerable— I take a slightly different view from Professor Matt. For me, Ein Sof is the oneness of it all, but “God” is the name I use when “It” becomes “You,” when knowledge becomes love. God is the companion, the Presence ever-present, the half-projected face of the universe, the ghost within the machine. I recognize that this act of naming has attendant beneﬁts and costs. It reflects my truthful experience, but it also raises the stakes; it shelves me together with fundamentalists, ﬁdeists, and fools; and it leads to any number of dangerous mistakes: mistaking the ﬁnger pointing at the moon for the moon itself, mistaking the means for the ends, and mistaking one’s own path for the only path.
If secularists object to the use of the word “God,” many religionists may object to my deﬁnition of it. For centuries, nondual Jewish theologians have been accused of pantheism (“where atheism and religion shake hands,” according to one popular notion), because this “God” is stripped of personality. This objection, though, misses two points. First, as we have just seen, nonduality does not erase Divine personalities but sees them as what they are: masks. Indeed, as we will see in chapter 3, the more masks, the better. Second, nonduality insists on transcendence, the view that “God is the world’s place, but the world is not God’s place.” (Of course, if God is “more than” the world, we might ask what this “more than” actually is. If it is anything we can deﬁne, then it is part of the universe. If not, it is, from our perspective, nothing.) That God is Is, but also the Naught surrounding it, is what is meant by the Ein Sof, the God beyond God: both the transcendent other, and the transparent immanence of the real.
Still, the traditionalists are right that the nondual return of “God” is different from the naive version. Now “God” is almost a way of speaking, and one mask among many. Indeed, we may experience this “God” in any number of ways: as bridegroom, or bride, or nature, or love. Because all these images are masks, all are available to us, though ultimately, as the psalmist says, only silence is praise.
As before, there is no pretension here that this is what all Jews (or others) mean when they talk of God. But it is what is meant when I address this moment as You, rather than as It. This and nothing more. Only You; only This; only I; only Love.
Table of Contents
1. Perspectives: Ten Paths to Everywhere 17
2. Sources: The Roots of the Orchard 43
3. God: The God beyond God 91
4. Torah: Judaism as a Nondual Devotional Path 113
5. Israel: Community, History, and Nondual Messianism 129
6. Mind: Seeking and Stopping Seeking 149
7. Heart: Prayer and Acts of Love 173
8. Body: The Dwelling Place of the Infinite 189
9. Ethics: The Problem of Evil and Improving on God 205
10. Enlightenment: Knowing and Not Knowing 217
Table of Biblical and Traditional Religious Sources 265
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