A Post-Secular Jewish Dharma Bum

I have a review in this week’s Forward. My original title was the one on this blog post.

Everything Is God: The Path of Nondual Judaism By Jay Michaelson

Jay Michaelson is well known to readers of the Forward for his column, “The Polymath,” a title well chosen to mitigate the frequent changes in his byline, which varied from dot-com software designer, to doctoral student in Jewish mysticism, to lawyer, to environmentalist, to poet, to GBLT activist. As one of the founders of the journal Zeek, Michaelson was one of the instrumental creators of the new Jewish culture — the hip mixture of ironic and post-ironic aesthetic gestures — which moved Jewish culture beyond baby boomer concerns. Michaelson’s theology is as diverse as his former bylines and reflects the same shift to the values of the new Jewish culture.

In this new book, “Everything Is God: The Path of Nondual Judaism,” Michaelson’s regular stream of post-secular book reviews provided the framework to work out his own popular theology, and the book reflects that history, capturing his spiritual insights in edgy 1,000-word bursts.

Skipping to the ending

Nevertheless, Michaelson does not start his reader on the long journey of transformation, nor does the book speak from a point of nonduality, as the Hasidic or Eastern religious works do. Instead, we listen to his breakneck embrace of the nondual world: Talking breathlessly about meditation, creating myriad perspectives on oneness and meeting everyone there is to meet upon the path.

The book reminds me most of the 1960s wandering independent polymath Alan Watts — an earlier articulate proponent of Asian philosophies of nonduality. Watts scandalized his straight-laced Western audience by preaching an eclectic nonduality outside of organized religion; however, Watts is more famous for antagonizing the world’s leading Zen teachers by claiming that Zen has little to do with sitting but is in fact a path of nonduality justifying “sheer caprice in art, literature, and life” — a spirituality offering a radical new worldview articulated in jazz rhythms rather than in the contemplative flavor of Zen. Like Watts, Michaelson sometimes makes grand pronouncements based entirely on his own experience.

Read the entire review here

Here was my original penultimate paragraph that was removed to keep to the word count and to remain focused on the book under review.

As I once waited backstage, before appearing on a Jewish cable TV show to discuss Judaism and Buddhism, a senior Orthodox rabbi from a staid upper crust synagogue, seeking to make conversation on my topic, confided to me how he read Alan Watts as a youth and gained many lessons that stuck with him through out life. The Rabbi never again dabbled in any other Asian thought or non-dualistic thinking, but the brief exposure to Watt’s Beat-Zen offered many lifelong tools for thought.

Most of the book is available online as articles at Zeek, The Forward, Jewcy, Reality Sandwitch.

3 responses to “A Post-Secular Jewish Dharma Bum

  1. I am not clear where the core objection to Michaelson lies. Besides his dissipated style, is it that he counts what there is in the world in a mushy sloppy way, or is it that he offers too low brow- too popular reasons for being Jewish?

    The test for ontology these days is whether someone privileges humans over objects. Can you treat the stuff of the world with only human goals in mind; or no matter how many kinds of things there are, like who cares, we humans are not more part of God than an ant? Both views, humans as the center, or a flat ontology where all kinds count equally, end with unhappy moral positions.

    On the spiritual spin to theology I take it you have no objection to Orthodoxy or Judaism not being a hard prison. You are willing to accept a soft prison model without TMS, punishment and hashgacha pratis. What I sense is that you discriminate between the kind of utilitarian reasons acceptable as a reason for staying safely inside the walls of Orthodoxy. Is it that the benefits must be diffused or structural and deep beneath the surface or internal to the mesorah or what? And is the criteria for selecting the right kind of taamei hamitzvot aesthetic, moral or what?

    • No objection to his work. I like the edgy 1000 word essays. The review was more description of a style. I do not think it is it too low brow, Alan Watts sufficed for many people their entire lives, and had his moments of lasting scholarship and enduring insight.
      I do not relate to the prison model enough to respond to it. I think more in terms of idealizations and richness of resources. I am not sure the issue is right reason, there are a variety of reasons.

  2. The abstract ubermind that suggests links on this blog seems to feel that Best Childrens Books of 2008 at Babycenter.com is related to this post.

    Which raises the question: What book of Jewish theology would you recommend for the curious nine-year-old?

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