Thirteen years ago, I mused upon parashat Lekh L’kha and the subject of monotheism. For it’s “bar mitzvah” year I thought I’d revisit the subject.
Somewhere in his first 75 years of life, Abram reached the understanding that there was only One G”d, or that there was only one G”d to which he himself would bind himself and his family. We can’t really be sure how this happened, or if Avram was truly a monotheist, or a monolatrist. The rabbis, of course, seek to fill in the blanks through midrash. We’re all familiar with the midrash that states that Avram’s father, Terach, was a maker of idols, that Avram smashed the idols, and when confronted by his father, Avram places the blame on one of the idols. Terach says this is impossible, they are but stone, with no soul, to which Avram asks the inevitable “then why do you worship them?”
Now, there must have been plenty of idol makers around, with curious children. It seems unlikely that Avram was the first or the only one to come to this conclusion. If we view Torah as origin myth, then perhaps Avram is an archetype of all those who questioned the efficacy of worshiping idols and multiple gods.
There’s an intellectual process here. Ultimately, every religious system encounters realities which call into question basic tenets. In a polytheistic system, it’s easy to point to disputes between gods to explain these problems. Polytheism shares with monotheism the ability to use the excuse that the G”d or a god is not pleased with someone. I’ve been trying to think of a specific response unique to monotheism, and so far the only one I can come up with is “there are people who don’t believe in and worship our one True G”d and that’s why things are out of whack.” Sadly, this fact has led to a lot of violence over the millennia, perpetrated in the name of a particular G”d.
Where western religions hold sway, monotheism is considered to be a more modern and intellectually superior understanding of the nature of the Divine. Some, however, make the case that monotheism is not inherently superior or more modern than polytheism. It has been suggested that a polytheist is more likely to be tolerant and accepting of the religions of others. History does not bear this out. Plenty of polytheistic cultures battled each other. So, sad to say, both mono-and polytheism have their flaws, and neither is demonstrably superior.
Polytheism is alive and well in the modern world. Some (but not all) would classify Hindusim as polytheistic. Shintoism is more clearly polytheistic, as is Wicca, Reconstructionist Polytheism, and Serer. Of course, there are those who would argue that those Christian sects that embrace a Trinity are polytheistic. The Christian and Hindu communities are rife with apologists who argue strongly that their religions are, at heart, undoubtedly monotheistic. There are others who are unapologetic about the polytheistic nature of both religions. (Yes, there are Christians who hold that Christianity is polytheistic, that the Trinity is not a unity.)
However, I think framing the issue as polytheism versus monotheism misses the point. At least initially, the issue for the people that would become the Jews was idol worship. It is not at all clear from the text or from the language (i.e. “Elohim”) that Avram and his descendants were being asked to believe in only on G”d. They were being asked to worship and follow only one G”d, but more importantly, to NOT worship idols. Idolatry is the big no-no, not polytheism. (Yes, it’s a fine line, but there’s a distinction between being a practicing polytheist, and being someone who worships only one G”d yet believes in and accepts the existence of others – i.e. a monolatrist. “You shall have no other G”d’s before/besides Me.” Well, that’s the best we can translate the Hebrew, but it really is open to broader interpretation. Now many Jews would reject my understanding and consider it heretical, especially if they consider Torah she-ba’l peh, the oral Torah that was, frankly, an invention of the rabbis, as equal in authority.
Now, idolatry, idol worship – there’s something that is far too easy for modern humans to label as intellectually inferior. As I wrote 13 years ago:
“How easy it is for us to dismiss idolatry as a practice of people less mentally and philosophically developed than ourselves. "Of course it's a silly idea" we think. "A god for this and a god for that? It hardly makes sense to believe that." Even putting aside the prejudices we may have because of our Judaic, Christian or Islamic beliefs, we would most likely still feel the same way about idolatry, animism, etc.?
Yet idolatry is also alive and well. There is a marked schism in Christianity between the sects that accept the use of icons and imagery of the Divine. Many, probably most Protestant sects consider the iconography and imagery used in the Catholic and Orthodox Church as idolatry.
There are those within Judaism who disdain and mock traditions like hakafa as a form of idol worship. Yet others argue that the modern idea and usage of the Ner Tamid in a synagogue, which is a corruption from the mandate given in Torah, is a form of idolatry. Kissing the Torah, kissing a mezuzah, and similar traditions have been criticized by some as a form of idolatry.
I, and others, have written about other modern idolatrous practices. Some worship at the shrine of money, or power, or hate, or technology, or a host of others. When we worship these idols, when we serve them like gods, do we perforce deny the One true G”d? There are plenty, it seems, who consider themselves as believers in the G”d of Abraham (as Jews, Christians, Muslims, or others) who nevertheless do not see it as problematic that they also worship at the idols I’ve mentioned here. Some have even managed a synthesis, or perhaps a syncretic combination of the worship of things like money with the worship of the One G”d. (Think of the various forms of the”prosperity gospel.”)
Thirteen years ago I thought that perhaps we western-religion types had all come to see idolatry and polytheism as intellectually inferior. Now, I’m not so sure. All around us, in our own communities, and in other faith systems, people embrace all sorts of idols and gods. (Where does one fit things like Scientology or, well, take a look at this list on Wikipedia of NRMs, new religious movements. For that matter, take a look at Wikipedia’s list of religions.)
Thirteen years ago, I wrote:
Is it because we mentally & philosophically approve of and embrace the concept of Adnai Echad that the concept becomes plausible? Must faith require reason?
Through Midrash, the rabbis have attempted to fill in the intellectual and philosophical blanks that perhaps led Avram to become receptive to a monotheistic world view. For whose sake did they do this? Surely not for Abraham, nor for G”d, but for themselves and the people of their times. Was their faith (and is ours) so challenged by reason and science that they had to bolster the case by providing our ancestors with philosophical rationale for coming to believe in one G”d?
Have they done us any favor? We now (claim to) reject idolatry not because Torah tells us to, but because we find it intellectually inferior. (Yet we still seem to engage in idolatrous practices!) G”d must make sense to us. A rather arrogant viewpoint. Is it beyond comprehension that the G”d we now know (and known to our ancestors) chose, in previous times, (and still chooses, in our own time) to be made known to humans in many forms, and as many G”ds? That the spirit of G”d is in all things? This does not change the oneness of G”d, only humankind's perception of G”d. That it does not say so in Torah may be meaningful-often omission is as important as inclusion. Perhaps the omission is deliberate, perhaps G”d chose not to make this known to Avram, to the children of Israel. There was never any guarantee that this was complete revelation. (I say this not to bolster the case of Christianity and Islam, but just to remind us that perhaps G”d's way of thinking and ours are not the same.) It does, however, change worship. Even as monotheists, is it wrong to worship the tree as long as we understand that it is but one small manifestation of the one-ness that is G-d, and that it is the whole we worship, and not just the part? Carrying the idea a little further, what if our world view does not extend beyond the tree -- it is the only piece of the divine that we can see. Must we comprehend (or even know of) the whole to make our worship of the tree worthy? For myself, I believe that I must know and accept the one-ness of G”d, but my world view is very different than those who lived in Avram's time and before it. And my world view is different than those who live with me in my own time.
I’m not a big fan of syncretism, yet all our religions are replete with a history of it. Our modern world takes syncretism to whole new levels. The religious ask “how far can we stretch the understandings of our faith before it is no longer the same faith?” Yet over the millennia, Judaism and all other world religions have done just that kind of stretching. Even with all that stretching, these religions are still around. The 21st century is proving to be even more challenging in how it is asking those of particular faith traditions to expand their own understandings of their own faith traditions, and to be accepting of the understandings of others.
Futurists speak of a coming singularity – a technological milestone at which we will have created machines capable of intelligence equal to and beyond that of the human brain. I suspect many religious traditions look forward to a theological singularity. Unfortunately, many view it as triumphalist. At the Rosh Hashanan musaf service we sing the piyyut “Veye’etayu.” (In the Reform world, this became the Israel Zangwill hymn “All the World Will Come to Serve You.”) In the Torah service, we say “From out of Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of Ad”nai from Jerusalem.”
There is a needs for some universalism in a pluralistic world. The renowned scholar Dr. Tikva Frymer-Kensky wrote of triumphalism and chosen-ness as impediments to pluralistic relationships. There is plenty within Jewish tradition that could be viewed as universalistic.
The Torah tells us that we will appear wise to the other nations, and thus they would be inclined to listen to what we have to say. As long as we don’t see that as a call to proselytize, it’s somewhat universalistic. Some of the prophetic works appear to have very universalistic themes, even if they are couched in particularistic settings and situations.
As is typical of Judaism, there is a constant tension between the particularistic and the universalistic. With chosen-ness comes not only an obligation to G”d, but to all people. We are told to live in this world. The world is not just our little village or shtetl.
Our modern Judaism struggles with this tension. Some choose to become and remain insular and apart. Some choose to abandon tradition altogether in pursuit of an idealized universalism. I don’t believe either extreme is the right choice. We need to find room for both the universal and particularistic in our understanding and practice of Judaism. I would argue the same applies to people of all faiths, if we are to have any hope of surviving as a species. (Some would argue that elimination of religion is the answer. I don’t buy that. Atheists are just as likely to argue and go to war as believers. It’s intrinsic to human nature. Religion may not be the only tool available to us to help us overcome the negative aspects of our natures. but it is a tool, and one that can prove useful to some.
Maybe with technological singularity will also come a theistic singularity. As we approach this theistic singularity, I wonder if a unified human species requires acceptance of a single Deity, multiple deities, none at all, or all of the above? I’m hoping it’s the latter, but I’m no better informed than anyone else on this topic.
I am sadly certain of one thing. If G”d were to speak to us today, and suggest to us that we go forth to an unknown land and unknown future, not many of us would say yes. Yet perhaps this precisely what we need to do. Take a leap (of faith, of science, of whatever) and allow ourselves to be led to someplace and something new. It could be harder for us to do this today than for Avram, because our history and experiences have taught us of the potential dangers. They have taught us to be careful about whom we let lead us, about whom we follow. But we should not assume this is the case.
Thirteen years ago I closed with these words:
I don't know the answers to these questions I am raising, (and I am not advocating a return to idolatrous practices,) but the fact that I am searching for the reasons why we view idolatry as intellectually inferior in an intellectual manner already tells me something about myself, religious philosophy and the species to which I belong. It seems necessary for many of us to understand G”d in an existential manner. Why, then, do I and others I know long to want this “yearning to understand” to be from the heart more so than the mind? And for the understanding itself to be more from the heart than the mind? Maybe it was, for Avram.
Here in 5774 I am inclined to add only: may it be so for us.
©2013 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on This Parasha:
Lekh Lekha 5773 - The Journey Continues
Lekh Lekha 5772 - Out of Context
Lekh Lekha 5771 (5765, 5760) Things Are Seldom What They Seem An Excerpt from the "Journal of Lot"
Lekh Lkha 5770 - Revisiting the Ten Percent Solution
Lekh L'kha 5769 - Of Nodding Heads, Whistling Airs, and Snickersnees
Lekh Lekha 5768 - The Covenant That (Almost) Wasn't - Excerpts from the Diary of Terakh
Lekh Lekha 5767-Penile Pilpul
Lekh Lekha 5766-The Other Siders
Lekh Lekha 5765 - Redux 5760
Lekh Lekha 5764-Ma'aseir Mikol-The Ten Percent Solution
Lekh Lekha 5763-No Explanations
Lekh Lekha 5761-The Intellectual Echad
Lekh L'kha 5758-Little White Lies