Rethinking God & tradition
By Arthur Green
Yale University Press, 2010
Everything is God:
The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism
By Jay Michaelson
Shambhala Publications, 2009
What does it mean to be radical? In the context of religion, the term can conjure up images of extremism, violence and fundamentalism (as in ‘Radical Islam’), often through strict adherence to orthodox norms. But to be radical is paradoxically both to depart and return—to depart from conventional or accepted forms, and to return to something essential, the ‘root’ of an ideology or philosophy.
What then would ‘Radical Judaism’ be? Perhaps the gun-toting hilltop nationalism of the Settlement movement? Or the ultra-Orthodoxies of Stamford Hill or Mea Sharim? Or could it be something altogether non-Orthodox, a return to a perceived essence prior to or beyond those outer forms and beliefs?
Two recent books that emphasise their radical credentials are Radical Judaism: Rethinking God & Tradition, by Arthur Green, and Everything is God: The Radical Path of Nondual Judaism, by Jay Michaelson—and they have far more in common than merely their titles. Michaelson, a scholar and activist who writes on spirituality, Judaism, sexuality and law, and Green, rector of the Rabbinical School at Hebrew College Boston and a major scholar of kabbalistic and Chassidic thought, both eschew conventional conceptions of a personal God who is outside of creation and intervenes in the world, in favour of a more mystical—yet immanent and accessible—Oneness.
These works of theology are certainly very far from Richard Dawkins The God Delusion, and much of what dominates public discourse on God. Green states at the very start of his introduction that he is not a ‘believer’ in the conventional Jewish or Western sense. He simply does not encounter God ‘as ‘He’ is usually described in the Western religious context, a Supreme Being or Creator who exists outside or beyond the universe, who created this world as an act of personal will, and who guides and protects it.’ Instead, when Green refers to ‘God,’ he means ‘the inner force of existence itself, that of which one might say: ‘Being is.’ He also refers to it as the ‘One’ ‘because it is the single unifying substratum of all that is.’
Similarly Michaelson’s central concept of ‘nonduality’(‘not-two’) is based on the idea that ‘despite appearances, all things, and all of us, are like ripples on a single pond, motes of a single sunbeam, the letters of a single word.’ The ‘true reality of our existence’ is ‘Ein Sof, infinite,’ and it is this infinite which Michaelson refers to when he uses the word ‘God.’ Like Green, he has let go of the old (and popular) image of ‘the benevolent Parent who cares.’ He encourages his readers to doubt everything, all concepts they might attach to divinity, and see what is left, which Michaelson chooses to name ‘God.’ Nonduality is ‘where monism [belief in the ‘One’] and atheism shake hands. Nothing is added or taken away from the universe as it appears.’
Both writers differ slightly from classic pantheists like Spinoza, who said that God is entirely equal to nature. They refer explicitly to ‘panentheism’—the view that all is in God. But both go on to collapse or at least blur the differences between pantheism and panentheism. According to Michaelson, nothing is added by the word ‘in’. If we can meaningfully refer to anything outside of everything, it too is something.
Though Green describes himself as a ‘mystical panentheist,’ he too is something of a ‘radical immanentist.’ He believes that God is ‘present throughout all of existence’ and ‘underlies and unifies all that is,’ that ‘this whole […] is mysteriously and infinitely greater than the sum of its parts,’ and that it ‘cannot be fully known or reduced to its constituent beings.’ But ‘transcendence’ here ‘does not refer to a God ‘out there’ or ‘over there’ somewhere beyond the universe’ since Green (much like Michaelson) does ‘not know the existence of such a ‘there.’ Rather transcendence means ‘that God—or Being—is so fully present in the here and now of each moment that we could not possibly grasp the depth of that presence. Transcendence thus dwells within immanence.’
If, then, they are ‘adding nothing’ and ‘taking nothing away’ from the universe as is, why should the authors refer to God at all? And how is this radical or significant, except as a semantic exercise? Are Michaelson and Green simply atheists, dressing up their denial of God in the language of religion?
Michaelson recognises his philosophy’s similarity to atheism. In both he knows ‘there are no puppet-masters pulling the strings of our own reality.’ But internalising and living from the understanding that nothing separate exists—not even the self—has drastic effects, and ‘the stage [or our reality] is now a cathedral.’ Referring to Being as ‘God’ is, for both Green and Michaelson,‘an act of naming.’ It is to choose to address the universe as‘You,’‘proclaiming my love and devotion to Being’ (Green) or marking the moment ‘when knowledge becomes love’ (Michaelson). It is also a concession to the human heart, a bridge between an overwhelmingly abstract Unity and the human need for relationship and apprehension. Michaelson, more compre- hensive in his theology here than Green, argues for the relative ‘truth’ of such personification. Gesturing towards mystical traditions both Jewish and otherwise (from the wildly shifting imagery the Zohar uses to portray the divine, to nondual Hinduism’s understanding that all is Brahman but can be worshipped in different guises), he suggests that the individual who has accepted that everything is God can recognise all worldly manifestations as ‘masks’ or, to use a phrase taken from the Sufi poet Hafiz,‘God in drag.’
Vitally, neither author stops at the stage of recognising Oneness.They are concerned with how to live in a world of diversity and variation. For Michaelson, this is the culmination of the mystical journey.The true nondualist first moves from the apparent diversity of the world into unitive consciousness, but this is only an ‘interme- diate phase.’ If everything is really one, that also includes experience of two.The third and final stage is to return to the world, transcending and including both the dual and the nondual, experiencing duality while maintaining the consciousness of unity.This is a particularly Jewish monism, this-worldly rather than world-denying.A central question for Green is how the individual responds to the divine call. What does God require of me, so to speak? This is what the Biblical God asks of the first human:‘Ayekah?’—‘Where are you?’ Am I stretching my mind to the fullest to know the One, stretching my heart to become more aware, and working for the good of ‘every creature and every life form,’ which is ‘a garbing of the divine presence’?
But it is here, in Green’s application of theology to the world and religious, that he has come under fire, seemingly too radical—here meaning ‘extreme,’ beyond the pale of accepted norms—for some Jewish commentators and rabbis. Radical Judaism is the culminating instalment in a trilogy of theological works that Green started with Seek My Face, Speak My Name and continued with EHYEH: A Kabbalah for Tomorrow. It reads very much as an attempt, driven by an awareness that ‘the day is short,’ to articulate as fully and systematically as possible his theology and what Judaism might look like as a result.This means using the traditional structure of ‘God, Torah and Israel,’ upon which three things the Mishnah claims the world stands, and reinterpreting their meaning. So Torah, in the absence of a separate commander, is not the literal word of God but, to quote Daniel Landes in the Jewish Review of Books, ‘a purely human response to ‘the wordless divine call.’ Thus Green’s interpretation of the Ten Commandments, a re-rendering for the radical Jewish seeker and teacher, is too free for Landes, Director and Rosh HaYeshivah of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Landes focuses on Green’s new understanding of the prohibition on adultery, the ‘replacement of a firm prohibition of adultery with nothing more than self-selected boundaries (‘make sure that all your giving is for the sake of those who seek to receive it’)’. Landes and another rabbinic reviewer, David Wolpe,whose review ‘Rethinking Judaism’ appeared in The Jewish Journal in March 2010, take just as much issue with Green’s definition of ‘Israel.’ Putting aside Green’s relationship with the modern state of Israel (he describes himself as a ‘religious Jew’ and a ‘secular Zionist’), Israel is expanded as a concept, potentially to include other ‘God-wrestlers’ and seekers, from other traditions, whom Green hopes will be among his readership.Again, for some this is beyond the pale. Shaul Magid, writing in Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture, points out that the title ofWolpe’s review subtly brings into question whether Green’s Judaism is Judaism at all.
To be fair to Green, he considers a number of interpretations of what ‘Israel’ might mean, both symbolic and historical, imagining different groups and peoples claiming the name in different ways. But I agree that his book is weakest in the latter stages, in its attempts to depict a coherent system of Judaism based on his altogether more convincing theological foundations. Michaelson succeeds in his book because he feels no need to create a complete system or impose what he describes on his readership.The first half of his book also makes use of the classic Jewish triad ‘God, Torah and Israel,’ reinterpreting the latter two as much if not more than Green. Torah, in Michaelson’s book, is simply ‘Judaism and a nondual devotional path,’ and Israel is ‘Community, history and nondual messianism.’ But that is the point. It is simply in Michaelson’s book; he makes no claim that this is what these terms actually mean or even should mean. They are ways of thinking about such categories, while the focus remains on the nondual theories and practices. His style is more discursive and comprehensive than Green’s. He summarises a huge range of practices, texts, philosophies and ideas that support a nondual approach to Judaism, but he leaves the exact angle of that approach up to the individual reader. Michaelson’s nondual Judaism has room for any and all denominations,‘from Hasidism to Reform, from cultural/ nationalistic to spiritual/universal.’ He takes ‘nothing for granted’ and questions everything. He invites his readers to access the nondual experientially, devoting the second half of his book to practice (a sort of ‘spiritual cookbook’) in imitation of the schema of Rabbi Aharon of Staroselye, the leading disciple of the founder of Chabad Hasidism and ‘perhaps the most systematic expositor of nondual Judaim.’ In R. Aharon’s words, ‘Without feeling, the thought of unity is just imagination.’
And this brings us onto one answer to the question, ‘Why now?’ Why have these books been published at this particular point in Jewish and wider cultural history? Michaelson told me there is, in his opinion, a movement towards what he calls ‘I-spirituality’ (or should that be ‘iSpirituality’?), whereby the individual chooses and experiences for him or herself the optimum blend of practices to find God (or Unity or enlightenment, if you prefer). So more people are actually participating in the practices that lead to these insights.Although Green’s book is more conventionally theoretical than Michaelson’s, he too emphasises the importance of experience in his intro- duction.The divine is everywhere, but we can perceive it most in moments of peak experience, when all else falls away or perhaps appears in heightened form.
In a number of ways, there is nothing new about these works.The authors’ projects incorporate the tracing of theological roots, to both Jewish and non-Jewish precedents. Green successfully places today’s conventional conception of God in the context of a much longer history, including periods when nondual theologies in Chassidut and Kabbalah held a more dominant position among mainstream Jews. Michaelson’s book, too, is littered with references and quotations from mystics and practitioners, from Isaac Luria to Ram Dass.
Green and Michaelson each mention the ‘New Atheists,’ those recent writers such as (in the UK) Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins, who have stated the case against the existence of God, and there is no doubt this is something of a cultural context.To Michaelson the New Atheists simply set up a ‘straw man,’ a version of God he too would deny.The ideas in Everything is God and Radical Judaism are not exactly direct responses to the recent trend—both authors were penning articles and books saying something similar before the New Atheism arrived on the scene. But both have attempted to write convincing works of theology that might appeal to rationalists. It could be said the cultural and philosophical currents that have made Dawkins and his fellow atheists popular have also enabled the publication of books like these. Renewal rabbis such as Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Arthur Waskow have publicly advocated and promoted similar nondual theologies since the 1960s, but have been easier to dismiss as‘fringe’ ,wrapped up in the hippy movement. It is not yet entirely clear just how popular or significant Green and Michaelson’s contributions are but Green is certainly a figure of sufficient academic, philosophical and religious stature to have, at least, attracted mainstream attention, even if mainly in the form of critique.
Might we, then, be witnessing an evolution of theology, leaving behind overly-simplistic ‘old man in the sky’ stuff for these more mature integral conceptions of the divine? From time to time, writers such as Waskow and Schachter-Shalomi have claimed God itself is evolving— that the processes of biological, psychological and societal development are ‘God becoming aware of Godself.’ Such claims, echoing Hegel, Aurobindo and Ramana Maharshi, are unverifiable, and neither Michaelson nor Green go so far in their assertions. Green does see evolution as the primary scene of God’s manifestation, and Michaelson devotes a small section to consideration of ‘nondual messianism’ culminating in a more integral, all-embracing, virtually transparent conception of God.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that more mainstream, conventional ideas of God are about to give way. The ‘Supreme Being or Creator who exists outside or beyond the universe, who created this world as an act of personal will, and who guides and protects it’ still dominates popular theology. In a recent Jewish Quarterly conversation with Michaelson, Rebecca Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, argued she must engage with that ‘straw man’ of the New Atheists, because so many millions around the world place Him (and this God is surely a ‘Him’) at the centre of their lives. But it is a vicious circle. Our continued engagement with such ideas at the expense of more mature and sophisticated theologies, such as those of Green and Michaelson, perpetuate ignorance—or at least delay our development. It remains to be seen whether these two books constitute a significant step forwards, whether mainstream cultural discourse can more fully embrace the God they describe. Now that would be radical.