WEB EXCLUSIVE: Is Jay Michaelson's God Too Mushy?
10/20/2009
Staff Writer
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In the 1990s, when baby boomers were taking heat for being soulless hedonists, concerned with nothing but their own wealth and well being, the poet Rodger Kamenetz published "The Jew in the Lotus." A travelogue by a lapsed Jew and boomer himself, Kamenetz told the story of his spiritual reawakening on a trip to meet the Dalai Lama.

Baby boomers, not surprisingly, loved it. Kamenetz managed to attract the audience he implicitly railed against because he spoke their own language and, just as critically, because there was no agitation in his tone, which would have been anathema to his newfound spiritual voice. He didn't attack his readers, he hugged them. And his method worked. The BuJu is now as much of a cultural icon as the JAP, the punk, the WASP, the hippie, or,, for that matter, the baby boomer.

I suspect that Jay Michaelson's new book, "Everything Is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism," will have the same kind of reception among a younger generation. The book will please liberal, well-educated, multiculturalist Jews who are tired of the vitriol of the neo-atheists, but feel too smart to succumb to some mindless form of hippie-ism. The targeted reader of this book has outgrown Phish and has instead bought tickets for Leonard Cohen's comeback tour.

Michaelson's book, of course, comes in the wake of the atheist manifestos that took the best-seller lists by storm a couple years ago. They are now being answered by a new wave of galvanized God-believing writers, of which Michaelson - a respected journalist who founded Zeek magazine, and holds both a Ph.D. and J.D. - is one.

But his theory of God is far different from the others. Much like Kamenetz before him, Michaelson takes the mystic's view of a supreme being. God is not the Sodom-smoting entity of the Bible nor the updated incorporeal creator behind "intelligent design." He is, instead, existence itself: "God is who is reading these words and writing them, who is thinking and what is thought," Michaelson writes. Or more succinctly: "Everything is God."

It would be unfair to mock Michaelson's project and not address the formidable ideas he raises. He has clearly done his research and articulates his mystical "nondual" philosophy with an exceptional blend of intellectual rigor and comprehensible prose. If some of the book reads at times - and I'll use his words here - like "a cookbook," it's because about a third of it was written as a user's guide to spiritual practice.

Michaelson does not present nondual Judaism as mainstream Jewish theology. But since many theories about God exist within the Jewish tradition, often in conflict, there is no real heresy in Michaelson's emphasis on a lesser-known Jewish tradition. (The "radical" of the subtitle seems more about marketing.) Nondual Judaism, then, is the mystical tradition that had its first articulation in the Zohar, the Kabbalist ur-text written in the 13th century. In more recent times, this theology has had its greatest expansion under the chasidic rabbis of the 18th century, and it is to these sages that Michaelson ultimately turns.

The Zohar takes the view that all existence is "Ein Sof," or infinite, that which is without beginning or end. In this sense, all material and spiritual manifestations are comprised of one and the same thing. From a Jewish perspective, or to open the tent even wider, we can take a deist point of view and call all of this God. The term "nondual," of course, is not a Jewish word but a philosophical one, and reflects Michaelson's multicultural outlook: he does not flinch, and rightly so, in arguing that there is nothing original about the kabbalist perspective. "There are, of course, nondual traditions around the world, and one cannot understand nondual Judaism without understanding them," he writes.

Michaelson brings in a host of non-Jewish religious figures, like the Hindu sage Shankara (686 to 718 C.E.), who has had a traceable influence on Western spirituality over the past hundred-odd years.  Ever since his work and similar ones were translated and introduced to the West, writers from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Christopher Isherwood, Ginsberg, Kerouac and the Beats, and even today's best-sellers Deepak Chopra and Elizabeth Gilbert, have appropriated their nondual views.

Fault could be found, though, with relativizing the Jewish concept of God, whether in a kabbalist-approved way or not. Michaelson argues that God is just another word for what other religious traditions - and even certain atheistic but spiritually inclined people - have long understood. He does, however, answer this potential criticism swiftly, and somewhat convincingly, arguing that Judaism simply offers another way into the universal understanding of God.

If he ends up offending observant Jews - including today's Chasidim, who find his rationale for religious observance insufficient ("I abstain from bacon not because I am afraid of punishment, not because I think it unhealthy, and not because it is part of the folkways of my people") - remember that this book is not exactly for them. Michaelson personally observes Jewish law, he writes, "because I love God, and when you love someone, you do stupid things for them."

The real problem here is not that Michaelson's view doesn't accord with a traditional reasoning for keeping kosher, the Shabbos or other Jewish commandments. (And let's not kid ourselves here, they are commandments; i.e. required acts of devotion, not spontaneous deeds.) The problem is that his argument cannot sustain observance since, as even he acknowledges, you don't always feel inspired. What happens when you get mad with God, even the nondual, all-existence version? Can you give up the laws then, even for that one crappy day?

But there are bigger problems with Michaelson's nondual God. Take the great stumbling block for all theistic religions: theodicy, or the problem of evil. If God is the totality of all existence, he must also be reflected in the hate, anger, violence, greed, pettiness, and vice that manifests itself in the world. Michaelson does an admirable job addressing this critique, even devoting a whole chapter to it, but his answer still doesn't add up.

Early in the book, Michaelson defers to the writings of Kabbalist scholar R. Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl, who suggests that even evil acts meted out by humans cloak the divinity of all being. "His divine Self wears all things as one wears a cloak," as Michaelson quotes R. Menachem Nahum. "This even applies to the forces of evil, in accord with the secret of 'His kingdom rules over all,' (Ps. 103:19)."

Michaelson doesn't want to advocate a passive acceptance of evil - a "that's just the way it is" kind of laxity. But the alternative he offers is no less beguiling: "When something unfortunate happens, the monotheist explains what has taken place with recourse to some higher purpose." Not him: "The nondualist does not offer any such explanation, but instead invites a deeper kind of acceptance … everything is God unfolding."

To be fair, Michaelson emphasizes the ethical imperative of Judaism as a counter to the retreat-fleeting yogi or spiritual tourism his view seems to invite. What makes his nondual faith "Jewish" is that it begins with this worldview, and then encourages you to live in a reality inspired by it. "Judaism, as a householder religion, is concerned with the relative, with society, and with justice," he writes. "And all of this remains untouched by encounters with the absolute."

But does the totalizing nature of a nondual path really make it more likely that you'll do the hard work of justice? I don't mean overcoming a fit of anger, transcending a petty annoyance, or even inspiring you to do peaceful activist work. Surely the habits of emotional transcendence and compassionate good deeds are the likely fruits of nondual Judaism. But what about the tough deeds: disciplining people, putting into effect the lesser of two evils, fighting the necessary war. These are not easy decisions, but they are not immoral either. And frankly, as inspiring as the contemplative path of a nondual Jew may be, I find it less inspiring, less motivational, than the hard-bitten realism of an ethical mensch.

The odd thing is, Michaelson would probably agree with me here. He argues that a nondualist sees reality both exactly as it is and as an illusion - it is all the same thing, Being, God, "ripples on a single pond." He says you can maintain both views if you accept that they are two different forms of consciousness. But there's a critical misstep in logic here; think about it. If the nondual consciousness sees everything as one - including all realities, illusions, and forms of consciousness - but allows for another way to see reality, then it simply cannot be a totalizing view. It must be a temporary delusion, an altered mind-state.

Again, I give Michaelson credit for addressing this problem, but still find his answer wanting. Worse, I think he does too, and simply gives up on it altogether. He ends "Everything Is God" with this: "I don't want to end the book with a pretension of certainty or closure. I want to admit in all the doubt and the uncertainty as well - but all of it, not just some of it. Because only when the defeat is utter can the surrender be complete."

Now I haven't visited any jihadist Web sites recently, but this sounds awfully nihilistic. Let's call it intellectual martyrdom.  Michaelson apparently wants to induce in himself and his readers the kind of psychic sooth-saying that dissolves all boundaries, any argument, any dissent, all disagreement and alternative views.  That's just fine for a Pilates studio or even a Sunday afternoon walk. But let's not confuse the temporary condition of mental transcendence as an all-encompassing theology. In the meantime, we have not only lost sight of what God may actually be, we have lost all sense of ourselves and what's right in front of us - you, me, the world, happiness, joy, pain, hate, solutions, problems.  There's a word for all that, but it isn't God. It's "reality."

Jay Michaelson will discuss his new book with a panel of rabbis, scholars and artists at the Center for Jewish History on Thurs., Oct. 29, 6 p.m. $5; $7 at door. The center is located at 15 W. 16th St. Call (212) 868-4444 for tickets.

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