This morning’s Torah reading begins with the words: “Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnai Adonai Eloheichem, y’all are standing attentively today before the Eternal your God.” A familiar, prepositional (“before”), dualistic image of our relationship to the Holy One. We stand here; God faces us, apart and outside. It’s certainly fair to ask: before whom do we think we stand? This reasonable question underscores the experience of Judaism as a dualistic – not to mention hierarchical – faith path. As ever, though, our tradition offers us alternatives and paradox, enough of both to sustain faith in a non-dual divinity, a God from whom we are never separated, a no-thing-ness that is the ultimate source of all Being.
Many of us associate “nothingness” with a shorthand understanding of Buddhist teaching, as well as finding it difficult to associate Judaism with such practices as silence, abstraction, stillness, non-attachment. It’s not that various Buddhisms (they being no more monolithic than we) don’t account for the advantageous aspects of duality, of awareness of a separate self: To the question “how much ego do we need?,” teacher Shunryu Suzuki replied: “just enough so that you don’t step in front of a bus.” I vividly recall a radio interview with a Thai Buddhist priest in Los Angeles, whose community was preparing relief supplies after the 2004 tsunami. The reporter suggested that the Buddhist concept of non-attachment must make dealing with such disaster less burdensome. The priest responded that such a teaching cannot be helpful to people who are drowning, to people already under the bus.
The internet, bless its heart, holds a treasure trove of supposed Jewish-Buddhist citations:
The hungry man in the street asking the hot-dog vendor to “make me one with everything.”
The deep question: “If there is no self, whose arthritis is this?”
The reminder: “Breathe in, breathe out: forget this, and attaining Enlightenment will be the least of your problems.”
The unassailable truth: “Wherever you go, there you are. Your luggage is another story.”
The temptation: “Torah says, ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ The Buddha says, ‘there is no self.’ Maybe we’re off the hook.”
In fact, mystical Judaism includes an ancient, well-established concept of a sacred Nothingness – hear No-thing-ness – which challenges liturgical, poetic, and everyday language that relies on familiar dualistic forms, such as ruler, parent, creator. Prof. Daniel Matt, translator of the The Zohar , a 13th-century mystical Torah commentary, teaches extensively about Jewish nothingness. He starts with the axiom that we cannot define God, because divine infinity exceeds the realm of language. Our mystics, he notes, delight in the impossibility of trapping God with words. Yet, even the mystics must resort to language if they wish to refer to divinity or to share even a bit of what they have experienced.
One strategy is simply to call God “Nothing,” not to suggest negativity or non-being, but to point to God being greater than anything one can imagine: God is like no thing. The medieval kabbalists largely derived this negative theology from Moses Maimonides, who taught that God has nothing in common with other forms of being, that God “exists but not through existence.” (Put that in your dualistic pipe and smoke carefully.) Maimonides encouraged the theologically curious to approach divinity by accumulating insights into all that God is not.
Later mystics considered Nothingness as the only name appropriate to the divine essence. One proof text for this transformation appears in Job (28:12): “V’ha-chochma mei’ayin timatzeh, Where – mei’ayin – is wisdom to be found?,” or, “wisdom emerges out of nothingness,” ayin. This reading identifies no-thing-ness as Keter Elyon, the crown sephirah at the top of the Tree of Life – nicely illustrated by our congregational logo on the Torah-reading table.
And we, along with all forms of being, emanate from Keter Elyon. Moses de Leon, to whom The Zohar is attributed, defines Keter Elyon as “the totality of all existance, and all have wearied in their search for it . . . , for it brings all into being. . . . Anything sealed and concealed, totally unknown to anyone, is called ayin, meaning that no one knows anything about it. Similarly, no one knows anything at all about the human soul; she [too] stands in the status of nothingness.” Thus, God and our souls share an infinite, inherent no-thing-ness, accounting for our capacity to express the divine image and likeness. By our essential nature, we participate in the no-thing that is God, in the formless source of all form.
By the late middle ages, Jewish mystics counseled their students to understand the vulnerability of searching too eagerly for the essence of ayin, no-thing. One teacher describes devekut, cleaving to God, as “pouring a jug of water into a flowing spring, so that all becomes one,” and warns his disciples not to sink too far into the boundless ocean: “The endeavor should be to contemplate, but to escape drowning.” On the other hand, the depths of nothingness also serve as a reservoir of power. Mystically understood, “Out of the depths I call you, YHVH” (Ps. 130:1) may describe not only a cry from one’s own state of despair, but also to the divine depths from which God can be called forth. Adversity can lead us to appreciate the resource of ayin, for “I lift up my eyes to the mountains”; my help comes from ayin, no-thing: “esah einai el he-harim, mei-ayin yavoh ezri.” (Ps. 121:1)
Our hasidic masters direct our attention to the experiential, psychological aspect of engaging with no-thing. They evolve contemplative practices by which skilled practitioners subsume the ego – the “Ani” – into the ayin, in order to see through the illusion that we are separate from God. In humility, we are to understand ourselves and all being as channels for the divine attributes. This awe-induced understanding transforms our thought processes, so that we become aware that divine energy underlies material existence, and this awareness permits us to participate in the reciprocal flow back and forth from the source, ayin, to its manifestations in all forms of being. (See Daniel C. Matt, “Ayin: The Concept of Nothingness in Jewish Mysticism,” Tikkun 3, no. 3, 1987, pp. 43 -7.)
Mystics of all traditions understand the risk associated with seeking devekut, of cleaving to the ineffable without adequate spiritual preparation. The very language of no-thing-ness tempts us with beautiful metaphor. Imagery intended only to hint sometimes ends in certitude and arrogance; we sometimes insist on making literal what is only meant to suggest.
The Indian sage Jiddu Krishnamurti used to tell this story: Once Satan and his demon sidekick were walking down the street, closely watching a man 20 yards ahead who was on the verge of realizing Supreme Truth. The demon grew worried, and began to nudge Satan, but Satan remained quite calm. Sure enough, the man did, in fact, soon realize the deepest spiritual big-T Truth. Yet, Satan still did nothing about it. Losing control, the demon blurted out: “Don’t you see? That man has realized the Truth! And you are doing nothing to stop him!” Satan smiled slyly and replied, “Yes, he has realized the Truth. And now, I am going to help him organize the Truth.”
In this spirit, trying to hold lightly the mystical insights concerning a non-dual Jewish theology, let us consider a couple of the consequences of such a God-idea. First, it draws us to an appreciation of the overwhelming diversity of being emerging from unity. In the words of our teacher Moses Cordovero: “The essence of divinity is found in every single thing – nothing but it exists. Since it causes every thing to be, no thing can live by anything else. . . . Do not attribute duality to God. . . . Do not say, ‘This is a stone and not God.’ God forbide! Rather, all existence is God, and the stone is a thing pervaded by divinity.” (Daniel Matt, The Essential Kabbalah, p. 24.)
This insight can only heighten our personal and collective response to climate change, for we cannot give spiritual credit to Cordovero’s pervasive, non-dual divinity without examining our culture’s dualistic relationship to creation itself. Jewish Renewal came early to the environmental movement, largely because of the influence of Jewish mystical teachings about absolute interdependence. Some of the earliest religious inquiries concerning environmental challenges come from Renewal publications, including the very concept of eco-kashrut – the obligation to consider the exposure of farm workers to toxins, the mistreatment of animals raised to provide food, the power sources on which we depend.
Second, reflecting on non-dual divinity undoes binaries. If all existence derives from the same source, how we understand apparent distinctions comes into question. Light/dark no longer aligns automatically with good/bad, or large/small with powerful/weak, or male/female as an accurate shorthand for gender variability. If all existence derives from the same source, then every aspect of existence – even, or perhaps, especially – those aspects we would prefer to reject as “outside” the good or the godly, every aspect of existence must be recognized as serving the entirety. This recognition may not shield us from suffering, though it does reconfirm for us the absolute value of each form of being and experience in the evolution of the Sacred Whole.
In spite of seemingly dualistic scriptural and liturgical language, our texts and tradition are awash in hints pointing to underlying unity. We sing at the end of Aleinu, “Bayom ha’hu yiyeh Adonai echad u’shmo echad.” On that day, we will see it manifest that the Eternal is One and the divine name we use is “One.” We read in Torah, “Ayn ohd milvado.” “There is no-thing besides God.” (“Aleinu,” Zech. 14:9; Deut. 4:35) One might even say, the theme at Yavneh for these High Holy days has been the power of diversity within unity.
On erev Rosh haShanah, we heard Reb Zalman’s (zt”l) admonition to pay attention to the inter-relational nature of being – “But even in the atom, the nucleus
and the electrons that dance around it are in relationship with each other. We believed we couldn’t know anything until we got to the smallest component, and so we forgot to seek what binds things together.” – along with his transmission of the Baal Shem Tov’s teaching “that God so loved the world that She gave Herself to be the Earth.” To which I would add Isaiah’s confirmation: meloh kol ha’aretz k’vodo, God’s glory pervades the Earth. (6:4)
Rosh haShanah morning challenged us to renounce polarization – a dualistic impulse – in favor of a radical understanding of all humanity as deriving from the same divine source, so that we are less likely to miss the mark in seeking to love one another as ourselves, because we are all a part of the same ultimate Self. This effort requires us to become disruptors of categories, searchers for common ground.
Yesterday evening, I invited us to cultivate a more gentle and consistent process of self-evaluation and transformation, of ongoing t’shuvah. If there is but one Source of Being, then everything we manifest, even those traits or behaviors we wish or need to change, expresses some necessary aspect of the cosmic totality. It’s not that we are looking for a path away from our errors or transgressions, a dualistic highway between good and evil. Instead, our every awareness of an opportunity for transformation helps us deepen into our essential divine nature. We can take joy in stringing pearls for heaven where we are, instead of excessively berating ourselves for unfinished evolution.
This morning, we are called to commit ourselves to a process of spiritual creativity. On the one hand, we remember that when the Holy One commands the Israelites to build a tabernacle, the reward for doing so is that Divine Being, God’s immanence, the Shekhinah, dwells b’tocheinu, amongst and within the people. We learn from the Piezetner Rebbe, “not only does God hear our prayers, God prays them through us,” for in our praying we enter the flow of abundance and being that is our source, and become channels for “the ever-proclaiming praise of God.” (See Lawrence Kushner, God was in this Place, p. 135.)
On the other hand, we build the Mishkan, on which the divine presence visibly rests, so that we might have a physical focus point for our religious life. The Mishkan – shorthand for sanctuary, ritual, and liturgy – stands before us in what we experience as a physical world, a world of objects and actions. We gaze upon it, walk toward it, enter it. Prepositionally, it rests before and apart from us.
Most of the time, in our embodied selves, we have to rely on dualistic language and on our apparent differentness from other people, other forms of being, to function safely in a place of material reality. Even if I know that the car swerving into my lane represents more space than matter, better to get out of the way. Here, at the level of what we call Assiyah, this apparently hard and fast world, we must speak to one another and to our divine source as if, as if, we were face-to-face, as if we were not of the identical essence. In this world, we use the language of yearning, of love, of seeking, of praying, to reach out – as if what we are reaching for did not reside within all being. We use dualistic word and action in the service of a divine unity unbounded by any limits to its joyous diversity.
And, at the same time, when we open our spirits to the other worlds of interconnected being, worlds of emotion, intelligence, and spirit, we find guidance within our tradition in how to approach non-duality, how to experience our fullness of being within the One source of all. We find what we need to create the spiritual vision to see past surface separation to ultimate union. And so, my prayer for us all in the unfolding new year is that we may each be blessed to discern the One at the root of the many; to accept our individual deployments in the service of our Source and of all being; and to devote our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual energies to the protection of all life on our threatened planet. Amen.