Religion & Beliefs

Everything Is G-d, and Nothing Makes A Lot of Sense

"You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?" – Western sage Steven Wright Anyone involved in new age spiritual Judaic practice has probably heard of Jay Michaelson; his influence extends to books, articles, publications, spiritual retreats, speaking tours and … Read More

By / January 19, 2010

"You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?" – Western sage Steven Wright

Anyone involved in new age spiritual Judaic practice has probably heard of Jay Michaelson; his influence extends to books, articles, publications, spiritual retreats, speaking tours and the like. He was even recently named as one of the Forward 50, an annual list of important and influential Jewish figures in America. In Everything is God, his magnum opus on the nondualistic Judaism Michaelson promotes, he attempts to bring "Jewish Enlightenment" to more traditional consumers. I assume. His sources are not strictly Jewish; by "mapping" Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Christian, and other religious traditions onto traditional Judaism, Michaelson and his ilk are syncretizing a new Judaism, one more compatible with mystical Eastern traditions. I’m many years out of yeshivah, but I recognize avodah zarah when I see it.

Traditional Judaism posits a anthropomorphic god, with human characteristics, who intervenes in the universe and gave positive commandments. Nondualism on the other hand sacralizes, well, everything, insisting that the whole universe is in the process of "godding." That is to say, that all existence is God’s existence, that there is nothing that isn’t god–and therefore God encompasses all existence–good and bad, pleasure and suffering–but does not necessarily have discrete characteristics or a personality (except when it does). God isn’t just in everyone and everything, it is everyone and everything. The Kabbalistic name for this phenomenon, Michaelson tells us, is "Ein Sof," meaning "without end." In Michaelson’s universe, nondualism is a pervasive and obvious truth, but don’t look to the book to make too much sense out of it. The true nature of God is constantly being described as both knowable and unknowable; ineffable but universally understandable. Nondualism, the focus of this book, is the idea that God is the universe. "Nothing is excluded," Michaelson writes early in the book. (It turns that out this is false, but not in the way you’re probably thinking). Nondualism stands slightly apart from monism (everything is one) and dualism (there is a difference between the mental and the physical) by being unable to commit to either view to the exclusion of anything else: separateness (for example, the mind/body split) is an illusion, a series of masks God wears because he loves to play tricks on us, or something like that. Nondualism, the author tells us, is not exactly pantheism (all gods are the same god, who is within all of us) or panentheism (pantheism plus a bonus extra god outside of all of us), but encompasses both in a characteristically equivocal fashion. Atheists call this kind of argument "conversion by bear hug" — you don’t have to believe in god, god is already inside you, therefore you can’t realy disbelieve in god, QED. "Neither oneness or twoness, neither yesh nor ayin, but both, and thus neither. It’s not quite paradox–it’s enlightenment," explains Michaelson. "The Kabbalistic math of this reality is that 2 = 1 = 0. Fortunately, I don’t have to be good at math anymore." Watching Michaelson twist and weave ancient texts and obscure mystic rants into a cohesive nondualist picture of the Universe that seems to connect Krishna and the Ba’al Shem Tov raises an interesting question: for hermeneuticists like Michaelson, is there such a thing as misunderstanding, or is it merely ‘recontextualizing?’ If there is such a thing as willful misunderstanding, Michaelson is definitely guilty. As he says when explaining the nondual nature of Hassidism, "[o]ne could very easily write a book on ‘Hasidic dualistic Judaism’ –indeed, using some of the same texts I cite here." When all is an illusion of separateness, which mask god happens to be wearing at the time doesn’t seem terribly important. Some other nagging questions: are all self-contradictory statements deep? Nondualists seem to think so. Ultimately, isn’t it true that any sentence beginning with "ultimately, isn’t it true that…" is necessarily bullshit? (This phrase precedes the crux of Michaelson’s argument.) Are pantheism, panentheism or nonduality really "religion and atheism shaking hands?" As an atheist, I’m not finding anything here that’s makes me want to congratulate anyone. Let’s get down to brass tacks. Even if you’re a student of philosophy and religion (and I like to fancy myself one) you’ll be hard pressed to get through the first 20 pages. If I wasn’t already doing a book review I would have quit reading the book by page 11, which is right after two pages worth of three-columned examples of how nondualism encompasses old dichotomies, such as "Dualistic/Unitive/Nondual," "manifestation/essence/both," "ethics/no ethics/nondual ethics" and "mountains/no mountains/mountains." I’m still trying to finger the book’s intended audience; if you aren’t already a nondualist, odds are you won’t emerge as one after reading this book. Nondual mystics seek a real connection not only with "Nature," but with all living (and non-living) beings. By focusing on the ineffable essence of the divine, they maintain, they can reach out and touch all of existence, commune with everything that is, because of the innate and existential connection between everything in the universe. At least it’s a metaphysical kind of touching–because in the physical sense, the minute one of the creepy mystics tries to "become one" with me, I’m calling the cops. Nondualism and Solipsism In kabbalistic terms, nondualism is the union of "yesh" (in Hebrew, to have something) and "ayin" (which Michaelson variously describes as Nothingness or emptiness). Taoists (and surfers) recognize these two things as "yin" and "yang," which symbolize all dualities: good and evil, male and female, black and white. But as I quoted previously, "Nothing is excluded" from the all-encompassing idea of God. So how can this be? (Hint: the difference between "Nothingness" and "Emptiness" is that emptiness implies you were expecting it to full of something.) The answer is that the "yesh" and "ayin" of Michaelson’s nondualism actually represent "real" and "imaginary" (or, if you prefer, "true" and "false," or "physical" and "mental"). The nondual god unites the physical with human consciousness. But are thoughts ‘in existence’ too? Nondualism doesn’t place much value on differentiating between true and false (unless you’re talking about nondualism itself) because it believes that such distinctions are ultimately false. "The heart loves what the mind knows," Michaelson reminds us, but what if the mind is wrong? Can you have a unitive mystical experience with something that isn’t there? How would you know? It turns out that it doesn’t matter. As the union of true and false, the nondual god is merely a concept, and it doesn’t care whether there is any reality behind any other concept. For Michaelson, "every concept is a mask [for God], and all masks are illusory, but many are helpful in translating nonsense into sense. And since all masks are illusory, all masks are permitted." This is part of the mystical union between thought and the universe; if the mental and the physical are all part of god (classical duality separates these two), it doesn’t matter whether your concepts are true or false. Because the Ein Sof includes the mental universe as well as the physical one, your mental images of things become as real as anything else. In Western philosophy, (where nondualism was first formulated), one of the worst insults you can level at another’s argument is that it collapses into solipsism, or the idea that there is no reality, only your thoughts. Nondualism slips into solipsism when it decides to locate Everything into an idea called God, and then locates that thing inside all of us. There are Jewish nondual traditions (such as some in Chassidism), Michaelson explains, believe that the universe is merely God’s dream.

The book is divided into theory and practice; in practice, nondual religion doesn’t seem to have many rules, or for that matter, a point. For example, why keep kosher? "I do it because I love God," says Michaelson, "and when you love someone, you do stupid things for them." The rest of the practice section is equally disconnected from its philosophical underpinnings. He doesn’t just love God; for some reason that is never fully explained, "God" actually becomes "Love" at some point along the way. Does the fact that humans seek love mean that rocks seek love, too? For nondualists, it’s all just divine masturbation. Michaelson’s nondualism, for all its academic and philosophical appeals, rests on experiential knowledge about the Universe. As he asks in the final section of the book ("Not Knowing: Is Life But A Dream? Is Mysticism But A Feeling?"), "suppose the ‘knowing’ in the previous section is just a feeling. Yes, for many of us, there is a resonance inside–but maybe that’s all there is: a neurosis, not a stirring of truth." What we do know is that not everyone is a nondualist, so if there is a universal consciousness, it’s not exactly universal. In a universe where everything is god, if the heart loves what the mind knows, and you love god, do you know everything? How could you claim to love God if you didn’t? Sure, you might harbor some general warm-and-fuzzy feeling about the universe, but how (and why) do you know you really love everything if you can only interact with an infinitesmal fraction of it? (Benedict Anderson, the foremost political theorist on nationalism, said that a common literature is what makes it possible for people to feel kinship with people from the same country they will never meet. One assumes nondualism works on the same principle.) At the base of all this claptrap, the essential experiential moment in any nondual religious journey according to Michaelson is ego death (and later, rebirth). In a book filled with 225 pages of text (and another 50 worth of footnotes, bibliography and so forth), the actual argument for it rests on ten-odd pages in which Michaelson attempts to dispel the notion of "self":

"What actually acts, thinks, feels, dreams are one or more mental factors, usually in combination, none of which is actually ‘you.’ They are the conditions necessary for the action to take place–not ‘you.’ Who moved? The conditions moved."

If there was more to the argument, I’d quote it, but there isn’t, really. There’s no self because identity is dependent on a number of factors and conditions which, although they are necessarily unique to each person, mean that none of us are actually ourselves. In this way, conditions (which remain constant, of course, because they’re in the past) can be said to have moved instead of you. The one thing we all actually experience (regardless of religious convictions) is in fact a sense of self, but no matter. Now that we all see that there is obviously no self, Michaelson proclaims, we must conclude that there is a single unitive, integrated connection to everything, and it’s called God (or Nature, or "Ein Sof," etc.). But there’s little connection between the declaration of "No Self" and "Everything Is One." If the self is an illusion masking "a number of factors" as a single concept, why doesn’t "Everything" work (or not work) the same way? In a world where everything is an illusion and distinctions are all ultimately false, it doesn’t seem to matter. Way back when nondualism was being invented by the neo-Platonists in Greece, philosphers used to be scientists. Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, and apparently vice-versa. Science (as a smattering of neurology, biology, physics, etc.) makes some cameos in the footnotes of Everything Is God, but as Michaelson writes, "[t]he real reason a believer believes has to do with her heart, not argument from design. Would she really stop believing if quantum mechanics didn’t bolster her claims? If not, why pretend that physics is relevant?" Good question. At one point, Michaelson asks if there’s no self, "What is there, really? Well, we’d have to ask the scientists…" and then goes on to quote the fourth Lubavitcher rebbe as saying that everything is made up of "fire, water, air and earth." It’s reminiscent of the ancient sages who developed grand and convoluted explanations for why the sky is blue but had never heard of nitrogen. It turns out a tree falling in the forest makes a sound whether anyone is around to hear it or not. In the end, the enlightenment described by Michaelson is pretty boring: relinquish the old gods, he exhorts, come to peace with a universe that works as you would expect it if there were no God (done!) and then return to an ecstatic love for the universe by recognizing that everything is part of the same interconnected thing, based on faith. Certainly, we are connected in space-time, by atomic bonds, by causality, but Michaelson’s insistence that free will is merely an illusion doesn’t square with the scientists he haphhazardly quotes as evidence that we are all machines being divinely guided. Sure, we’re conditioned (albeit uniquely) to react to things in certain ways. But it turns out that even though we have strong instincts, we still make choices–in a physical sense, there are unpredictable patterns of electrons moving through our billions of neural processors 200 times a second, connecting, disentangling, working without our direct knowledge–but that doesn’t imply that everything is one in any sense. Nondualism embraces multiplicity (the idea that there is more than one thing), but only in a superficial sense. Perhaps there is no self because there is more than one self. Quantum physics hypothesizes a multiverse where everything happens at once despite causality; fractal theory suggests that perhaps we are part of an endless loop of smaller and larger universes that exist within us and beyond the scope of our known universe. But none of these things, including nondualism, really cohere into a rational argument for unity, duality or multiplicity, because the Universe doesn’t owe us an explanation. And I think Michaelson would agree. If traditional Judaism, with its anthropomorphic, interventionist God is unsatisfying to you (and believe me, I understand) and you’ve always been curious about Eastern religion, you still have to be a spiritually needy seeker to get anything out of this book, because no one else could get through it.