This post is part of my Amidah Project series–an attempt to examine my personal experience of the core prayers of the normative Reform Jewish liturgy. For more, please browse my Amidah Project archive.
Four months ago, before a move across town and life-in-general intervened, I introduced this project to examine in detail my personal experience of the core prayers of the normative Reform Jewish liturgy. This post is in a way part two of February’s introduction, a further frame of how I conceive of Jewish prayer and Jewish concepts of God and the universe, in general.
A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to have an unplanned hour of uninterrupted time with my rabbi discussing just that. I had recently begun reading Everything Is God, a book on nondual Judaism by Forward columnist and 30-something post-modern Jewish writer Jay Michaelson. We discussed the nondual religious perspective, which is something I took with me from (my previous life studying) Buddhism.
Finishing the book helped me figure out how that perspective jibes–for me–with Judaism. I reviewed the book on my Goodreads page, and my comments here are an expanded version of that review. Everything Is God was such a great and a “meh” book at the same time. The nondual religious perspective will be no surprise to anyone with a background in the practice or study of eastern traditions like Buddhism or Hinduism.
The nondual perspective says that the universe is, essentially, God’s mind, and that everything and every being in the universe is merely a solidifying of a small piece God’s own beingness. Meaning, we’re not the discrete individuals we think we are, and the universe is not the dual place we think it is (i.e., us and everything else on one side, and God standing separately on the other.) Instead, nondualism says we really all are (in Jewish terms) echad–one–and that oneness is God’s oneness, which unlike us, is the only real thing in existence.
For Michaelson, the perspective teaches that what we call “God” is nothing more than eternal beingness which exists as a force of nature–the only force of nature, and that human beings and everything we take for real in our seemingly solid universe are accidental facets of that beingness. We think we exist because this is just what random beingness does, and that’s that.
I disagree that there’s only one takeaway from the nondual perspective. Irony intended, for me it takes a pretty big leap of faith to suggest that just because we may ultimately be nothing more than aspects of God, that God is nothing more than a force of nature. Michaelson categorizes the idea of an aware Deity as fantasy in the same way the nondual perspective categorizes human existence as fantasy. This is the most radical nondualist perspective, though in keeping with the deep esoteric teachings of Buddhism and Hindusim.
Putting a finer point on things, Michaelson takes the nondual perspective to mean that because we are absent of any reality–for Michaelson, we are merely the product of external causes and knee-jerk behavioral programming from interactions with other essentially unreal beings–we have no meaning. Michaelson finds this a comfort–if everything is God and we are meaningless and unreal, then there’s no one really to cause or experience pain, and ultimately no one to blame for human suffering. He notes this can motivate a sense of compassion for our other, fellow unreal beings to arise, as well as a sense of love for those beings and for God, of which we are all a part.
Hmm. I ended up a Jew-by-Choice because at one point my inner sense of a somewhat intercessionary Deity no longer jibed with the God-absent (or at least, intercessionary God-absent) nondual perspective of Buddhism. From my point of view–which I still hold to be a nondual view–it’s entirely possible for everything in the universe, including us, to be part of God, and yet for meaning to accrue to our lives–and for God to be as aware as we at least thing we are.
For me, if God is infinite and we are part of God, not only can’t we be sure about the nature of God–we can’t be sure about the nature of us, either. My sense is that we may be only concretized thoughts of God, but that we exist that way for a reason, not by accident. Perhaps there is a thing (a pleasure? a sense of companionship?) experienced by God from reflecting a bit of God-stuff into creating us and letting us think we’re separate. It’s an easy out to say “we should be good to each other because, how sad, we don’t really exist,” like Michaelson does. But the other side of that coin is the compassion and love that can flow from supposing that we actually exist for a reason–and maybe we don’t know as much as we think we do.
But Michaelson is pretty strident about all this. Much like the rock-solid surety about “the way things are” that atheists often profess (and I make no apologies here), Michaelson lays down the law–this is who we are and the way the universe works, and that is that. I always find attitudes like that suspect, and that kind of surety totally undermined Michaelson’s argument for me.
In fact, in some ways his own words betray him. He labels dual-perspective Judaism a “patronizing allegorization of myth and narrative” (p 143), says that he doesn’t “like rules, morals, and oughts,” and complains that he “can’t will [himself] to be compassionate or patient” (p 157.) There’s a lot of other here’s-how-I-work-inside language like this, and by the end of Everything Is God, I couldn’t help wondering if much of what I read was simply Michaelson giving into his personal limitations by wrapping himself in a perspective that rationalizes those limitations away.
We often to ascribe to God aspects of human nature. Feelings, fears, abilities, even (for some non-Jews) a body in human form. It’s natural–we seek to find a common ground with God, some way to identify–a way in, so to speak, in order to open the lines of communication. Seen this way, I think it’s natural to ascribe to God the unreality that a human-based argument says is an aspect of human nature.
But the nondual perspective says much more about the infinity of God than any potential limitation, and unreality and lacking an awareness–and even an intercessionary nature–certainly seem like limitations to me. They don’t follow from the nondual premise, if you really want to be hard-core about it. Nondualism–Jewish or filtered through any other religious perspective–really can’t say anything about all-that-is, other than all-that-is is all-that-is.
That sounds pretty Jewishly familiar, though. Eyeh Asher Eyeh–as our tradition teaches, in response to Moses’ first question about God’s name (Exodus 3:14), God responds, “I Am that I Am.” A force of nature? An impersonal Deity? A friend at hand? Perhaps a source of evil and good at the same time. But perhaps a Deity whose creation of Creation had a point. And perhaps a Deity whose creation of us gives our existence meaning, too.
You can glean the love of God from God’s absence, as Michaelson does. Or you can glean the love of God from God’s presence, as I do. Neither the nondual perspective nor any other will tell you for sure who is right. That answer has to come from within. The real question is, what kind of universe do you want to be living in? Because your answer will determine how you live your life–and how you live with other people.
When I pray, I pray as a being aware of his existence within God. When I pray, I pray to a God that I believe created me for a reason. When I pray, I pray as if the relationship is a two-way street between two aware beings who both have the capacity to love each other–even as I surmise that, ultimately, this is all about God’s own love of self.
I find it hard to look at human suffering and see no-suffering. I find it hard to look at human faces and see no-faces. It’s not that, deep down, I feel we have any independent existence from God. It’s that I think we’re not supposed to see it that way. We’re supposed to experience the joys and sorrows of human existence as deeply as we can (especially as Jews, for whom this is essentially commanded)–otherwise why would be here?
In that, I think God has a point.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.