I took advantage of the blizzard(when “everything was snow”) to read Jay Michaelson’s new book, Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism, published last year by Shambala Press. Michaelson is completing a PhD in Jewish Thought at Hebrew University and has written extensively for The Forward, Huffington Post, Tikkun and many other publications. His writing style is clear and compelling, filled with evocative stories and quotations, remarkably free of jargon and overwritten prose. He appears to follow Mark Twain’s excellent advice to an author, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.”
For Michaelson, Jewish nondualism is not better or worse than other nondual traditions, and he freely uses examples from other traditions: Zen, TibetanBuddhism, Vedanta. He does not make the mistake, however, of blending them together as if to make them all say precisely the same thing. In fact, he does a nice job of showing how the Jewish tradition of nondualism is both similar and different from other traditions, and indeed, points outs some of the tensions between different Jewish versions of nondualism. He also does a wonderful job of setting the Jewish tradition within the larger picture of Jewish religious thought, including its contemporary manifestations.
Of the many stories Michaelson tells, one of my favorites comes from the Sufi tradition:
There was once a prisoner who yearned for freedom. One day, the prophet Muhammad appeared to thim, gave him a set of keys to his cell, saying, “Allah has set you free.” The prisoner took the keys, mounted them on the wall, and prayed to them five times a day.
The book grapples with the question of what it means to share fundamental beliefs with other traditions and yet love ones own path. Even for nondualists, particular communities and practices can be the triggers(Michaelson’s word) that “bring us closer to what matters most.” He loves the Jewish path and the powerful ways it leads him in his spiritual life. He says, “I don’t want to fetishize the trigger, but I do want to pull it.”
That said, our 21st century reality is that those pulling the trigger most passionately, at least in the Abrahamic traditions often (although by no means always) are the ones most inclined to support pulling triggers of another kind as well. Michaelson grapples with this situation and with the increasingly complex identities, dual and even more, that we find among seekers. Why is it so important that insist on our particularities, especially in light of their shadow side of ethnocentricity? Has the value of maintaining those boundaries run its course, and would not people who see ultimate reality as nondualist be among the first to advocate less divisions and more synergy?
I especially appreciated Michaelson’s pragmatist streak because it corresponds with my own. He believes, as I do, that “by their fruits you shall know them.” And this is where I run into trouble with nondualism. He writes, “When the spiritual work is being done, the good heart emerges on its own,” and “the contemplative practice of seeing clearly…leads effortlessly to more justice and more peace.”
That is, indeed, the final test of any religious system. In this case, I am more drawn to traditions within Judaism that speak to the power of the evil impulse; I read claims like those above with a jaundiced eye. But I would be more than happy to be proved wrong. I do believe Michaelson’s testimony that meditation and other practices of nondualist Judaism have led him to live, as he puts it “gently and justly.” This is a moving and powerful personal testimony, as well as an excellent introduction to an important dimension of contemporary Jewish thought.
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