EVERYTHING IS G-D: The Radical Path of Jewish Non-Dualism by Jay Michaelson
Trumpeter Books (an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc.)

review by Rabbi Eli Mallon, M.Ed., LMSW
www.rabbielimallon.wordpress.com

Hanukkah commemorates the defeat of the Seleucid Greek army by the Maccabees.

The Hasmonean victory ended the worship of Greek gods by Jews, but Greek philosophy required an adaptation that produced the works of Sa’adiah Gaon and Maimonides, among others. A similar challenge later arose in response to Sufi teachings. Again, certain rabbis (e.g. Bahya ibn Pakuda; Avraham ben Maimonides) adapted Sufi thought to a Jewish context. Today, we might struggle with “Torah vs. Science.” Yet, we sometimes use science to help us learn Torah. We can use the positive things the world offers without negating our faith. The real success of Judaism has been through its adaptability. Judaism allows for a range of answers. It’s the rare Jewish teacher – e.g. Aher; Philo; Spinoza; (Jesus? Mohamed?) – who is simply ignored. Our tradition isn’t defined by Maimonides, or Rebbe Nachman (who opposed studying philosophy), or by any single rabbi. It includes them all – even if to disagree with them.

Jay Michaelson represents a contemporary phase of the ancient Jewish tradition of “adaptation;” grappling not with the influence of Greek or Sufi philosophy, but with that of Buddhist and Indian “non-dualism.”

What is “non-dualism”?

“Monotheism” is a belief in one G-d [“mono” = one; “theism” = belief in a god]. In monotheism, “god” is personal (i.e. has a personality; likes and dislikes; etc.). The world/creation has its own existence, although the divine presence might fill it in some way. This is the classical understanding of the “Shema” – “…the L-rd is One.” (Dvarim/Deut. 6:4)

“Monism” is a belief that only “One (i.e. “mono”) being” exists at all. Everything else that seems to exist is really this single being in different forms, just as water can appear as ocean, wave, mist, clouds and rain, without ever losing its essential quality as water. In monism, G-d is typically “impersonal” (unchanging; eternal; etc.), although based on tradition, Jewish practice usually employs personal pronouns.

“Non-dualism” is more or less synonymous with “monism.” The phrase comes from the “Advaita” school of Vedanta/Indian philosophy: “Advaita” – “a” = “not;” “dva” = “two;” “not two,” therefore “non-dual.”

In Judaism, this is mostly found in Kabbalistic and Hasidic teaching. Explicitly stated:

There [or: “It”] is nothing but Him alone; once again, all is G-d. [1] All is G-d.

Direct, personal experience in meditation or contemplative prayer can confirm this.

In our era, many Jews, having (at least initially) found this meditation not in Hasidut or Kabbalah, but in other traditions (notably Yoga or Buddhism in its varied flowerings), often ask themselves how to balance their new spiritual experiences with their Jewish backgrounds. Some completely abandon any practice of Judaism (although not always their identification with it). Others, finding meditation intensifying Torah’s relevance for them, seek traditional sources to confirm that relevance. Fields of Jewish thought that were arcane before meditation, open up to our understanding, revealing the primacy of their importance.

Gershom Scholem legitimized the “historical” study of Jewish spiritual texts. Other authors – Martin Buber, Rabbi Arthur Green, Rabbi Ben Zion Bokser, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, etc. – sought to derive understanding of Jewish spirituality and practice from traditional texts. Part of their huge contribution has been to make readily available an immensely broader range of Jewish spiritual materials than ever before. Jay Michaelson, starting from his Buddhist meditation practice, examines how his experience illuminates the texts, and the texts reflect his experience. Many of those texts are only available because of the invaluable, ongoing work of the previously-mentioned authors and others. Jay, by pointing to the works of other authors, is at the same time indicating resources for the “meditator” who wants to explore his/her Jewish spiritual tradition more deeply. His book can therefore be “a way in” for one experienced in meditation, but new to Torah.

Jay’s book seems to me not so much a “textbook” of “non-dualism,” as his own “meditation” on the interplay of his personal spiritual experience with Jewish learning. In so doing, he speaks for thousands of people – including me. He’s not the first Jewish thinker to grapple with this. But his might be the broadest exploration to date.

Interestingly, Jay also seems to be in that tradition of American writers – Emerson, Aldous Huxley, the “Beats” (Kerouac; Ginsberg; Watts; etc.) – who explored Buddhist and “Indian” thought with the materials available to them. In most cases, though, those materials were very limited by comparison, and almost always unaccompanied by a reliable meditation practice. They almost universally ignored Jewish sources, too (Kenneth Rexroth is an interesting exception to this).

Jay’s book moves back and forth from “objective” to “subjective” topics and concerns. A strictly literary critic might fault it stylistically for this. I see it as a strength: his book can be of varied use at different times and readings.

It is also to Jay’s great credit that he recognizes the complexity of Jewish tradition. It would have been easy for him to hold out “non-dualism” as the only “real” way to understand Judaism. Instead, he acknowledges the tension between a strictly “non-dual” spirituality (in which we “unify” with the Divine) and a more “dual-sounding,” devotional spirituality (in which we worship and surrender to “a power greater than ourselves”). This shows admirable courage and intellectual honesty. Again, he’s expressing the difficult but heartfelt effort thousands make to harmonize meditative experience with conventional Jewish language and practice. This effort is often without the support of conventional Jewish teachers.

I would like to have seen more of the translated quotations in their original Hebrew or Yiddish, etc., too. Granted, this adds to the difficulties of publishing a book, but something about hearing/reading a teaching in its original language adds power to it; for me, anyway. A future book, with quotations on this “non-dual” theme in both the original language and translation, with careful citations, would be of inestimable value. Certainly, it would help in the work that history has placed on the shoulders of those of us born after the Sho’ah, to rediscover and share Torah’s spiritual power.

At various places in his book, Jay describes some actual meditation practices. For those who don’t meditate now, these might be a starting point. If you can apply what’s in the book effectively, you’ve gained greatly. If not, it might lead you to seek an accessible teacher or practice. Those who meditate already will probably see many of their own experiences reflected in Jay’s descriptions.

Jay relies – perhaps more than I might have – on the works of “Jewish Renewal” writers. While this is a highly influential, syncretistic group in the contemporary Jewish world, especially in America, many other teachers and groups, even within Orthodoxy, not to mention outside of it, are exploring meditation and writing about it. Jay, providing us with a model for dealing with ideas seriously, whichever group we’re examining, opens the door for further “explorations.”

Jay Michaelson’s “Everything is G-d” is a contemporary statement of an age-old, very Hanukkah-dik Jewish endeavor.

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[1] Rabbi Yitzhak Isaac [Yiddish: Eizik] of Homel; Jay Michaelson offers the above quote, but without a specific citation. “Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Epstein (1770-1857)…rabbi of the town of Homel in White Russia for 58 years, was a leading figure in the first three generations of Chabad Chassidism.” (http://www.chabad.org/calendar/view/day.asp?tdate=5/30/2011)