Vedanta and Kabbalah: Nonduality East and West

“Enlightenment” is often regarded as a purely “Eastern” concept, foreign to the Western monotheistic religions and to non-Western indigenous and shamanic traditions.   In a narrow sense, this conception is accurate: Hinduism and Buddhism, in particular, are generally more interested in individual awakening to truth, and the attendant transformation brought on by that awakening, than are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Yet if we step back for a moment and recognize that “enlightenment” may take many forms, surely this claim collapses.  Indeed, not only is the grammar of enlightenment often shared across traditions, but its vocabulary is as well.

Here, I will compare Advaita Vedanta’s conception of the awakening to nondual truth with that of nondual Judaism, as expressed in Kabbalistic and Hasidic sources (both contemporary and modern).  In fact, while there are important differences in how the Jewish mystical and Hindu mystical traditions depict nonduality, there are many illuminating similarities as well.


1. Nondual Judaism

First, what is Jewish Enlightenment?  Well before the term entered common usage, and centuries before it became associated with rationalist philosophy, Jewish mystics inquired into the prophet Daniel’s (Daniel 12:3) prediction that “the enlightened (maskilim) will shine like the radiance (zohar) of the sky.”  The Zohar, the masterpiece of Kabbalah which takes its name from that verse, explains that the enlightened are those who ponder the deepest “secret of wisdom.”  (Zohar 2:2a)  What is that secret?  The answer varies from text to text, tradition to tradition, but in the Zohar and elsewhere, the deepest secret is 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 One, Ein Sof, infinite, and thus the sense of separate self that we all have — the notion that “you” and “I” are individuals with souls separate from the rest of the universe – is not ultimately true.  The self is a phenomenon, an illusion, a mirage.

This view is called “nonduality” (“not-two”), and it is found at the summit of nearly every mystical tradition in the world.  Nonduality does not mean we do not exist — but it does mean we don’t exist as we think we do.  The phenomena, boundaries, and formations which constitute our world are fleeting, and empty of separate existence.  For a moment, they appear, patterns of gravity and momentum and force, like letters of the alphabet, momentarily arrayed into words – and then a moment later they are gone.  In relative terms, things are exactly as they seem.  But ultimately, everything is one — or, in theistic language of the Kabbalists, everything is God.

To be sure, this is a God very different from the ordinary one — a “God beyond God,” as it were, neither a paternalistic judge nor a partisan warrior, but Ein Sof, Being and Nothingness, without end or limit, and thus filling every molecule of this page and every synapse in the brain. God is who is reading these words and writing them, who is thinking and what is thought.  This is the world without an observer, with no inside and no outside, in which That (what seems to be without) and You (what seems to be within) are the same.  And with this radically different conception of God come very different expressions of Judaism: elite, often hidden traditions quite unlike the mass religion of rituals, myths, and dogmas.   Moreover, because nonduality so flies in the face of everything we see — which is dualistic, divided into subject and object, self and other, and a thousand other antinomies – mere belief is insufficient, and a different kind of knowing is required, a more intimate intercourse with the truth.  As a philosophical view, nonduality is but an interesting and debatable proposition.  Internalized as a psychological reality, however, it can be transformative; it is the very content of enlightenment.

It can also be quite disorienting; if there are no distinctions in the absolute (e.g., forbidden and permitted, self and other, light and darkness, body and mind), then the religion of the relative, with its rules and prohibitions, suddenly becomes incoherent.  This is true for all mystical traditions: mysticism blurs the boundaries which religion seeks to enforce.  Thus nondual Judaism, like those other traditions, has been, for almost a millennium, carefully guarded and hidden.

One Kabbalistic formulation of nondual Judaism is that God “fills and surrounds all worlds”-memaleh kol almin u’sovev kol almin.  This formulation is found in the Zohar (for example, in Zohar III:225a, Raya Mehemna, Parshat Pinchas) and other medieval texts, such as the twelfth century “Hymn of Glory” which says that God “surrounds all, and fills all, and is the life of all; You are in All.” The aspect of memaleh, filling, we have already explored: it is that every particle of being is filled with God. As the Zohar continues: “He fills all worlds . . . He binds and unites one kind to another, upper with lower, and the four elements do not cohere except through the Holy Blessed One, as he is within them.”

Another Zoharic passage favored by nondualistic Hasidim is the statement that leit atar panui mineha, “there is no place devoid of God.” This phrase is found in the Tikkunei Zohar (57), a later addition to the Zoharic literature, but accorded great respect by subsequent generations of mystics. On a simple level, this sentence conveys the doctrine of omnipresence, and it was taken literally by Chabad Hasidism: “The meaning of He fills all the worlds and there is no place devoid of Him’ is truly literal,” says one text. Yet perhaps the simple is not so simple-if omnipresence truly includes every particle of being, every synapse in the brain, every place of beauty and ugliness.

Indeed, the entire circle of the Zohar is filled with panentheism.  Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla, among the most prominent members of that circle, is recorded as saying “he fills everything and He is everything.” Moshe de Leon wrote that his essence is “above and below, in heaven and on earth, and there is no existence beside him.” And Rabbi Azriel of Gerona (1160-1238), arguably one of the founders of Kabbalah as we know it, presented one of the first clear expositions of nonduality in the Jewish context:

“If someone asks you ‘What is God,’ answer: He who is in no way deficient. If he asks you: ‘Does anything exist outside of Him?’ answer: nothing exists outside of Him. If he asks you, ‘How did he bring being from nothingness, for there is a great difference between being and nothingness?’ answer: He who brings forth being from nothingness is thereby lacking in nothing, for the being is in the nothingness after the manner of the nothingness and the nothingness is in the being after the manner of being . . . the being is the nought and the nought is the being . . . Do not take on too much in your speculation, for our finite intellect cannot grasp the perfection of the impenetrable which is one with Ein Sof.”

The identity of being and nothingness is, as R. Azriel states, a confounding of logic. Yet as we will see in the next chapter, the dialectical interdependence of being and nothingness (the theme of coincidentia oppositorum that runs throughout mystical thought) can be understood as a matter of perspective; the All is, or is Not, depending on how you (or You) look at it. The principle, says R. Azriel, also applies to the sefirot: “The nature of sefirah is the synthesis of every thing and its opposite. For if they did not possess the power of synthesis, there would be no energy in anything. For that which is light is not dark and that which is darkness is not-light.” Elsewhere, R. Azriel states clearly that “if [the Ein Sof] is without limit, then nothing exists outside of Him. And since He is both exalted and Hidden, He is the essence of all that is concealed and revealed.”

In the sixteenth century, Moses Cordovero, the great systematizer of the Kabbalah, wrote similarly:

“The essence of God is in every thing, and nothing exists outside of God. Because God causes everything to be, it is impossible that any created thing exists except through Him. God is the existence, the life, and the reality of every existing thing. The central point is that you should never make a division within God . . . If you say to yourself, “The Ein Sof expands until a certain point, and from there on is outside of It,” God forbid, you are making a division. Rather you must say that God is found in every existing thing. One cannot say, “This is a rock and not God,” God forbid. Rather, all existence is God, and the rock is a thing filled with God . . . God is found in everything, and there is nothing besides God.” (Perek Helek, Modena ms. 206b, translation mine)

“God is all reality, but not all reality is God . . . He is found in all things, and all things are found in Him, and there is nothing devoid of God’s divinity, God forbid. Everything is in God, and God is in everything and beyond everything, and there is nothing else beside God.” (Elimah Rabbati 24d-25a, translation mine)

The most clearly nondualistic statements in traditional Judaism, though, appear in the 18th and 19th centuries with the advent of Hasidism. “Nothing exists in this world except the absolute Unity which is God,” the Baal Shem Tov is reported to have said (Sefer Baal Shem Tov, translated by Aryeh Kaplan in “The Light Beyond”).   His disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, wrote that “God is called the Ein Sof. This means that there is nothing physical that hinders God’s presence. God fills every place in all worlds, both spiritual and physical, and there is no place empty of God.”  (Torat HaMagid, trans Aryeh Kaplan)  A later Hasidic master, R. Aharon of Staroselse, wrote that “Just as God was in Godself before the creation of the worlds, so the Blessed One is alone [l’vado] after the creation of the worlds, and all the worlds do not add to God (may he be blessed) anything that would divide God’s essence (God forbid), and God does not change and does not multiply in them, and the worlds (God forbid) do not add anything additional to God.” (Shaarei haYichud v’HaEmunah, 2b) In the Yiddish of one lesser-known Hasid, R. Yitzhak of Homel, “Es is mehr nito vie Ehr alein un vider kehren altz is Gott .”  That is: There is nothing but God alone and, once again, all is God.


2. Nondual Hinduism

Advaita Vedanta — literally, the “nondual end of the teachings”– is arguably the world’s most elaborately constructed, radical, and influential iteration of nonduality. The most important Advaita sage was Shankara, who lived in southern India from 686 to 718 C.E. Shankara’s philosophical outlook, which rested both on philosophical exposition and contemplative experience, is a straightforward one: “Brahman — the absolute existence, knowledge, and bliss — is real. The universe is not real. Brahman and Atman (the ultimate Self) are one.”  (See Shankara, Crest Jewel of Discrimination, Prabhavananda/Isherwood trans., pp. 72-73.) This is as radical as it sounds: all the universe is like a dream in the Divine consciousness, which is your consciousness. The whole world really is all in your head — only, it isn’t your head, it’s God’s.

Really, this was not Shankara’s innovation. It is contained already in the Mahavakyas (the four “Great Sayings”) of the Upanishads: Prajnanam brahma (Consciousness is Brahma), Ayam atma brahma (Atman is Brahma), Tat tvam asi (You are that) and Aham brahmasmi (I am Brahman). However, Hinduism, like Judaism, has its many branches and agendas, some of which emphasize the acosmic and unitive aspects and others of which emphasize the devotional and theistic ones. Shankara made the recognition of nonduality central. As he restated the famous utterance of tat tvam asi:

“The scriptures establish the absolute identity of Atman and Brahman by declaring repeatedly: “That art Thou” [tat tvam asi]. The terms “Brahman” and “Atman,” in their true meaning, refer to “That” and “Thou” respectively . . . “Brahman” may refer to God, the ruler of Maya and creator of the universe. The “Atman” may refer to the individual soul, associated with the five coverings which are effects of Maya. Thus regarded, they possess opposite attributes. But this apparent opposition . . . is not real . . . “The apparent world is caused by our imagination, in its ignorance. It is not real . . . It is like a passing dream.” (Crest Jewel, p. 73)

For Shankara, and for most Advaita Vedantins, knowledge of the nondual is liberation: “The state of illumination is described as follows: There is a continuous consciousness of the unity of Atman and Brahman. There is no longer any identification of the Atman with its coverings. All sense of duality is obliterated. There is pure, unified consciousness.”

Advaita is more stark than most other traditions, including Judaism, in its presentation of nonduality, acosmism, quietism, and its radical insistence that Mind is all there is. Advaita is insistent; it demands an awakening from the illusion of separation. It is a rigorous philosophy, argumentative, logical, and fierce.


3. Neo-Vedanta

In the last century and a half, there has been a remarkable resurgence in Advaita Vedanta, in both India and the West. Vedanta philosophy had already influenced the American transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau; Emerson’s “Over-soul” is essentially Hinduism’s Atman. But the growth of Vedanta in the West is largely the legacy of, one the one hand, Ramakrishna (1836-1886) and Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), and on the other, teachers such as Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), Nisargadatta (1897-1981), and others, who have inspired a “neo-Advaita” that is popular, and sometimes controversial, today. Other figures, such as Muktananda (1908-1982) who founded the Siddha Yoga global community (and who is the root guru for Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love), Satchitananda, Meher Baba, and, in our times, Deepak Chopra, have further developed and popularized Vedanta, attracting hundreds of thousands of Western followers.

Vivekananda was a remarkable figure, whose life included periods as a monk, political leader, galvanizing orator, transmitter of Hinduism to the West, and prolific writer. Vivekananda’s Western Vedanta also influenced such figures as the writers Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley, who in turn greatly influenced the 1960s spiritual revival and thus contemporary nondual Judaism. Vivekananda produced a huge volume of work, and tended toward the jnani (wisdom) rather than the bhakti (devotional) side of Vedanta. A few representative quotations are included here, taken from an anthology of his teachings called “Living at the Source”:

“The whole universe is one. There is only one Self in the universe, only One Existence, and that One Existence . . . Everything in the universe is that One, appearing in various forms . . . The Self when it appears behind the universe is called God. The same Self when it appears behind this little universe, the body, is the soul.”

You, as body, mind, or soul, are a dream, but what you really are, is Existence, Knowledge, Bliss. You are the God of this universe. You are creating the whole universe and drawing it in.

“There is but One, seen by the ignorant as matter, by the wise as God.”

Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta, two independent Advaita masters who were far more quietistic than the globetrotting Vivekananda, taught similarly.   Said Ramana: “There is no greater mystery than the following: Ourselves being the Reality, we seek to gain reality. We think there is something hiding our Reality, and that it must be destroyed before the Reality is gained. That is ridiculous.”

Nisargadatta’s views are similar:

“In the ocean of pure awareness, on the surface of the universal consciousness, the numberless waves of the phenomenal worlds arise and subside beginninglessly and endlessly. As consciousness, they are all me. As events they are all mine. There is a mysterious power that looks after them. That power is awareness, Self, Life, God, whatever name you give it.”


4. Neo-Hasidism encounters neo-Vedanta, or, West meets East

As told by critics of New Age Judaism, the usual story is of a Jewish spiritual seeker being entranced by “Eastern” ashrams and meditation, and then creating “Jewish” versions of these other traditions.   In fact, however, the historical narratives of contemporary neo-Hasidic nondual Jewish leaders are quite different. Some, indeed, are seekers, finders, and returners. Others, such as Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, were traditionalists concerned about Jews leaving traditional Jewish practice and who promoted Jewish alternatives to Zen, Vedanta, and 1960s spirituality. And some, like Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Rabbi Arthur Green, were knowledgeable “insiders” taking inspiration from how other traditions presented spiritual, experiential aspects of their religions. “I was very excited,” Reb Zalman told me, “to find out how they were dealing with spirituality and the questions that Ramakrishna raised about how to deal with monism and dualism, and everything that he had to say really made a lot of sense to me.” Green reported that

“I marveled at the way the Indian teachers coming to the West seemed to be ready to shed so much of their particularity. I remember meeting Satchitananda and realizing that he was not interested in making people Hindus or teaching them Sanskrit. He said, ‘Close your eyes and chant om shantih om with me, that’s all you have to do-be present in the moment.’ But [in the Jewish community,] it was, ‘Keep shabbos and kashrus and fifteen years later we’ll talk to you about mysticism.’ The Jewish way in was an arduous way in.”

Satchitananda’s method was no accident. Contemporary Vedanta, one of the primary sources of 1960s and New Age spirituality, was itself a “renewed” tradition. Vivekananda presented Vedanta for Western audiences, stripped of Hindu particularism, ritual requirements, and technical language, and deliberately positioned as a kind of post-religion religion. Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, and others translated Vedanta texts and teachings, adapting them for Western ears and concerns. In fact, by the time Vedanta encountered the 1960s, we may speak of a “neo-Vedanta” as much as a neo-Hasidism. Neo-Vedanta presented a popular, accessible form of mysticism, which emphasized the nondual core of Vedanta teaching, which resonated with both contemplative and entheogenic experiences of the time. Reb Zalman called it “Vedanta for export.”

Nondual neo-Hasidism adapted this model. Where Kabbalah was obscure and text-centered, neo-Hasidism became experience-centered-like neo-Vedanta. Where Kabbalah insisted both on outward performance and inward intention (shell and kernel), neo-Hasidism emphasized the latter over the former-like neo-Vedanta. Where Kabbalah (and even Hasidism, for most of its history) was elitist, neo-Hasidism was populist-like neo-Vedanta. And where Kabbalah was particularist and even ethnocentric, neo-Hasidism was universalistic and ecumenical-like neo-Vedanta (“they filtered out all the ethnic stuff,” Reb Zalman told me).

The embrace was not total, however. Neo-Hasidism regarded engagement with the this-worldly as a kind of litmus test of right spirituality, often projecting a quietistic, monastic “Hinduism” to serve as a kind of foil — notwithstanding Vivekananda’s intense social and political activism. Neo-Hasidic sources sometimes described nondual Judaism is “hot,” theistic, and devotional, in contrast with a “cool,” nontheistic, and contemplative Vedanta — notwithstanding Ramakrishna’s insistence on devotion.  (“Cry to the Lord with an intensely yearning heart and you will certainly see Him,” he says at one point.)  And neo-Hasidism never fully embraced acosmism — even though it is found in some Hasidic sources — again ascribing it to an imagined Hinduism, notwithstanding Ramakrishna’s similarly “both-and” theological stance:

“Brahman is neither ‘this’ nor ‘that’; It is neither the universe nor its living beings . . . What Brahman is cannot be described . . . This is the opinion of the jnanis, the followers of Vedanta philosophy. But the bhaktas [devotees] . . . don’t think the world to be illusory, like a dream. They say that the universe is a manifestation of God’s power and glory. God has created all these-sky, stars, moon, sun, mountains, ocean, men animals. They constitute His glory. He is within us, in our hearts . . . The devotee of God wants to eat sugar, not to become sugar.”

Ironically, even the supposed “East/West” dichotomy that many suppose divides Buddhism and Hinduism on the one hand from Christianity, Judaism, and Islam on the other is itself already internalized here by Ramakrishna — just as Kabbalists and Hasidim understood the oscillation between a personal and depersonalized God.  The mystics already know the dividing lines, and already transgress them.

My claim here is not the naïve perennialist one, that all traditions are saying the same thing.  Rather, the claim is that both differences and similarities are deeply informative to contemporary postmodern spiritual seekers.  After all, if all we are doing is pointing fingers at the moon, then the more fingers are pointing, the better our odds are of seeing the target.

Image by smontagu, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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