Friday, July 27, 2018

Random Musing Before Shabbat–Va’etkhanan 5778—Theological Polymorphism

In discussions and disputations (mostly with other Jews) I have often made the assertion that any G”d truly being the G”d,” the ONE G”d. would have the wisdom to understand that, as complicated a creation as humankind is, those creations would need multiple alternate paths to the understanding of, communication with, and worship of G”d.

I, like many other Jews I know, am somewhat uncomfortable with the notion of “chosen people,”  especially when it is connected with any sense of superiority over other peoples and belief systems. I have worked for liberal congregations that did not recite the words in the Aleinu prayer:

שֶׁלֹּא עָשָֽׂנוּ כְּגוֹיֵי הָאֲרָצוֹת, וְלֹא שָׂמָֽנוּ כְּמִשְׁפְּחוֹת הָאֲדָמָה, שֶׁלֹא שָׂם חֶלְקֵֽנוּ כָּהֶם, וְגֹרָלֵֽנוּ כְּכָל הֲמוֹנָם

“for He (sic) has not made us like the nations of the lands, and has not emplaced us like the families of the earth. He has not assigned our portion like theirs nor our lot like all their multitudes.” (Artscroll)

(I have purposefully chosen the Artscroll translation to eliminate the softening and massaging that appear in the Reform and Conservative siddurs reflecting a certain discomfort with the plain meaning of these words.)

In some Reconstructing Judaism (as their new choice of name is) congregations the Friday night Kiddush has the words

מִכָּל הָעַמִּים

“mi-kol ha-amim” [from all (other) peoples]

replaced by

עִם כָּל הָעַמִּים

“im-kol ha’amim” [with all (other) peoples.]

The theological difference between the two is significant. For the Friday night Kiddush (blessing of sanctification over wine) in one case-the traditional text-mi-kol–we might be saying:

For us You did choose and us You did sanctify from all the nations

In the other case (im-kol)

For us You did choose and us You did sanctify with all nations.

Again I have purposefully chosen the Artscroll translation to eliminate the softening and massaging that appears in the Reform and Conservative siddurs reflecting a certain discomfort with the plain meaning of these words.)

One version is exclusive, and one is inclusive. One treats Judaism as “more equal” and the other treats Judaism as one of many paths to G”d.

I've encountered this now in other settings, and it is starting to make inroads into Reform settings. Just this week I had a student that I am tutoring in preparation for her service of becoming a bat mitzvah practice the Kiddush and say “im-kol ha-amim.” My first instinct was to correct her, thinking it was a simple sound reversal from misreading the Hebrew “mi” as “im.” So I asked her about it, and she told me that she heard another person at the synagogue with whom she has been studying her brachot say “im-kol” and, when she asked about it had that purposeful choice explained to her. She then chose to do so herself (at least for the Kiddush L’eil Shabbat. I don’t think that same option has been presented regarding the blessing before the reading of the Torah – and I’m not sure that congregation is ready to go there yet. Read on.)

When this change is made in the blessing before the reading of the Torah, the phrase (again, from the Artscroll siddur)

אֲשֶׁר בָּֽחַר בָּֽנוּ מִכָּל הָעַמִּים וְנָֽתַן לָֽנוּ אֶת תּוֹרָתוֹ

…who selected us from all the peoples and gave us His (sic) Torah.


אֲשֶׁר בָּֽחַר בָּֽנוּ עִם כָּל הָעַמִּים וְנָֽתַן לָֽנוּ אֶת תּוֹרָתוֹ

…who selected us with all the peoples and gave us His Torah.

This goes a bit further, theologically, than the change in the Friday Night Kiddush does. Even Reconstructing Judaism wasn’t comfortable with that, so they changed the text to

אֲשֶׁר קֵרְבָנוּ לַעֲבוֹדָתוֹ וְנָֽתַן לָֽנוּ אֶת תּוֹרָתוֹ

…who has drawn us to Your service by giving us the Torah. (translation from Kol Haneshama, the Reconstructing Judaism siddur)

There are those in the Jewish community who do embrace the concept of chosen-ness, and do embrace the viewpoint that the Jewish people are indeed, to borrow from Orwell,  “more equal than others.” (And yes, I did choose that particular phrase due to its association with the porcine Napoleon.) There is a strain of superiority present in Judaism just as there are strains of supersessionism in Christianity and Islam. I hate to generalize, but I will say that I rarely encounter in liberal Jewish circles the notion that Christians, Muslims and Jews don’t worship the same G”d; whereas I often encounter that notion in orthodox circles. I’ve watched orthodox colleagues do total contortions arguing that Christians and Muslims do not worship the same G”d as the Jews. A logical inconsistency if there is truly One G”d, n’est ce pas? They all go so far as to assert that Christians and Muslims worship a “no god” or an imaginary god that is simply not the Jewish G”d – who is the One and Only G”d.

I do not entirely discount the notion that our Torah says that our people have a particular covenant with G”d, but only outside of the written Torah will we find text to support a claim that G”d had and would only ever make a covenant with the Jewish people. Every time I get into this discussion with Jews who believe otherwise, they are quick to trot out all the verses that speak of that covenant, and of us as a special or treasured people, that G”d alone has singled out. Yet when pressed to back up the assertion that G”d never did and would never ever covenant or establish a relationship with other peoples, or, at the very least, consider other religions and faith systems as valid ways to connect with and worship G”d with actual words from Torah, they begin to do their contortions, and invariably turn to the “oral Torah” and subsequent rabbinical writings. They discount the other Abrahamic faiths, and argue that they do not worship the same G”d as the Jews. The funny thing about it all is that Christianity made it a heresy to suggest that the Christian G”d was not the same G”d worship by the Jews. Judaism, sadly, has never reciprocated.

Think about how Jews feel every time they learn that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (i.e. Mormons) has gone back yet again on their promise to not posthumously baptize Jews who died in the Shoah. However uncomfortable the practice may make you feel, I’ve little doubt that the Mormons who do so  are acting within and because of their sincerely held beliefs. The same is true for those Jehovah’s Witnesses who come to your door, and for other forms of proselytizing by Christians. For many, a main line understanding and interpretation of Christian faith compels them to do so. If this bothers us as Jews, why should our Jewish professions of our chosen-ness and unique and one-of-a-kind covenant with G”d not seem equally troubling and bothersome to Christians?

Yes, Christianity has not, historically, had a particularly positive relationship with Judaism. They have taken our texts and used them against us, most of it libelous and unfair. They had Crusades, the Inquisition, and more. Subtle (and not-so-subtle) anti-Semitism pervades Christian thought and liturgy.

But this is neither the world of our ancestors, nor even the world of our great-grandfathers and grandfathers. Interfaith dialogue has grown in amount and significance. Young people today, if they even think about G”d certainly envision a universal G”d.  They don’t want to know what divides us, but what unites us. Religious particularism just doesn’t fit in with their world view, and for religions to survive, they are going to have to become more universalistic and accepting of other religions, or, alternatively, become completely insular and detach from contemporary society and culture. (Yet just  how possible is that? There are those in the orthodox worlds of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and other religious traditions who work to isolate themselves – but it is a constant struggle. The universe, and our knowledge of it changes. The string that ties people to an earlier or ancient understanding of things will only stretch so far before it breaks. The wiser religious faiths learn to find ways to move the older anchor point forward to prevent this. But, alas, I digress.)

While there are some in the orthodox Jewish world who accept that Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same G”d, Hinduism is a bridge too far for them. (Some lump Christianity in with Hinduism, claiming that the Triune god makes Christianity idolatrous.)  I remember a flap in the orthodox world some time back when it was discovered that some sheitls (wigs) worn by orthodox women had been made from the hair of Hindus who might have partaken in Hindu rituals and thus one posek (learned decider) declared them not kosher and unsuitable for use. Of course,this being Judaism, different pos’kim (deciders) held differently. Sadly, this displays an ignorance of the subtleties of Hindu beliefs. Vedic thought and the Hindusim that developed from it are much more nuanced than that. Hinduism certainly has polytheistic aspects. It is a gross mischaracterization and over-simplification of Hinduism to say, as I have actually seen on some comparison charts, that Hinduism has “one supreme reality, Brahman, manifested in multiple gods and goddesses.” It is a similarly gross mischaracterization of Hinduism to call it polytheistic. The best term I’ve seen is polymorphic bi-monotheism. Bi-monotheistic because many schools of Hinduism see the ultimate reality as both male and female as part of a single dual-entity. There is likely a period in which many of our Israelite ancestors had a similar view of Ad”nai. In later times, this concept re-emerged, especially among the qabbalists. If shekhinah is the feminine aspect of G”d, is that not somewhat similar to the Hindu bi-monotheism? Yes, again, it’s an oversimplification, nevertheless it merits consideration.

Stick a pin in this concept of polymorphism. We’ll come back to it.

So, to our parasha, Va’etkhanan. (For a thorough exploration of just the first word of the parasha, see my musing  “Sometimes a Cigar…”.)

Try this on for size: (Deut. chapter 4)

וְנִשְׁמַרְתֶּ֥ם מְאֹ֖ד לְנַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶ֑ם כִּ֣י לֹ֤א רְאִיתֶם֙ כָּל־תְּמוּנָ֔ה בְּי֗וֹם דִּבֶּ֨ר יְהוָ֧ה אֲלֵיכֶ֛ם בְּחֹרֵ֖ב מִתּ֥וֹךְ הָאֵֽשׁ׃

15 For your own sake, therefore, be most careful—since you saw no shape when the LORD your God spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire—

פֶּ֨ן־תַּשְׁחִת֔וּן וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֥ם לָכֶ֛ם פֶּ֖סֶל תְּמוּנַ֣ת כָּל־סָ֑מֶל תַּבְנִ֥ית זָכָ֖ר א֥וֹ נְקֵבָֽה׃

16 not to act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness whatever: the form of a man or a woman,

תַּבְנִ֕ית כָּל־בְּהֵמָ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר בָּאָ֑רֶץ תַּבְנִית֙ כָּל־צִפּ֣וֹר כָּנָ֔ף אֲשֶׁ֥ר תָּע֖וּף בַּשָּׁמָֽיִם׃

17 the form of any beast on earth, the form of any winged bird that flies in the sky,

תַּבְנִ֕ית כָּל־רֹמֵ֖שׂ בָּאֲדָמָ֑ה תַּבְנִ֛ית כָּל־דָּגָ֥ה אֲשֶׁר־בַּמַּ֖יִם מִתַּ֥חַת לָאָֽרֶץ׃

18 the form of anything that creeps on the ground, the form of any fish that is in the waters below the earth.

וּפֶן־תִּשָּׂ֨א עֵינֶ֜יךָ הַשָּׁמַ֗יְמָה וְֽ֠רָאִיתָ אֶת־הַשֶּׁ֨מֶשׁ וְאֶת־הַיָּרֵ֜חַ וְאֶת־הַכּֽוֹכָבִ֗ים כֹּ֚ל צְבָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וְנִדַּחְתָּ֛ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִ֥יתָ לָהֶ֖ם וַעֲבַדְתָּ֑ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר חָלַ֜ק יְהוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ אֹתָ֔ם לְכֹל֙ הָֽעַמִּ֔ים תַּ֖חַת כָּל־הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃

19 And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. These the LORD your God allotted to other peoples everywhere under heaven;

וְאֶתְכֶם֙ לָקַ֣ח יְהוָ֔ה וַיּוֹצִ֥א אֶתְכֶ֛ם מִכּ֥וּר הַבַּרְזֶ֖ל מִמִּצְרָ֑יִם לִהְי֥וֹת ל֛וֹ לְעַ֥ם נַחֲלָ֖ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃

20 but you the LORD took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace, to be His very own people, as is now the case.

The first four verses are pretty straightforward, explaining that we are not to make an image of G”d in the form of any earthly creature as we ourselves saw at Sinai that G”d had no shape. Then we come to verse 19. This verse has baffled scholars for millennia. If we rely on the p’shat, the plain, surface meaning, it says that the sun, moon, and stars and the whole heavenly host (of angels) are there to be worshipped by other peoples. Verse 20 explains that, because G”d brought Israel out of Egypt, Israel may only worship G”d.

Rashi tried to apologize his way around this by saying that G”d made the sun, moon, and stars so that other peoples might have illumination. However, this leads Rashi to a problem. The Israelites needed and used this illumination as well., so G”d must have created it for them as well. So Rashi goes on to speculate that G”d gave the sun, moon, stars and heavenly host to the other nations as purposeful false deities, forcing them to err in belief by worshipping them as gods, thus sewing the seeds of their own expulsion from the world. Oh, what a tangled web you weave, Rashi to avoid simply admitting that the Torah speaks of the existence of other gods. Doesn’t paint a particularly flattering portrait of G”d, does it?

We can’t even make up our minds on whether it was named  Mt. Sinai or Mt. Horeb, but we’re absolutely sure that there’s no way the Torah says that G”d allowed for other gods for other peoples to worship? Hmmm.

Rashi is no help here, but the Ramban, Nachmanides, can be. He comments on a much later passage nearer the end of Deuteronomy in parashat Nitzavim.

וְאָֽמְרוּ֙ כָּל־הַגּוֹיִ֔ם עַל־מֶ֨ה עָשָׂ֧ה יְהוָ֛ה כָּ֖כָה לָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֑את מֶ֥ה חֳרִ֛י הָאַ֥ף הַגָּד֖וֹל הַזֶּֽה׃

23 all nations will ask, “Why did the LORD do thus to this land? Wherefore that awful wrath?”

וְאָ֣מְר֔וּ עַ֚ל אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָֽזְב֔וּ אֶת־בְּרִ֥ית יְהוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתָ֑ם אֲשֶׁר֙ כָּרַ֣ת עִמָּ֔ם בְּהוֹצִיא֥וֹ אֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

24 They will be told, “Because they forsook the covenant that the LORD, God of their fathers, made with them when He freed them from the land of Egypt;

וַיֵּלְכ֗וּ וַיַּֽעַבְדוּ֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים וַיִּֽשְׁתַּחֲוּ֖וּ לָהֶ֑ם אֱלֹהִים֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר לֹֽא־יְדָע֔וּם וְלֹ֥א חָלַ֖ק לָהֶֽם׃

25 they turned to the service of other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not experienced and whom He had not allotted to them.

Ramban says that these other gods exist, and were created by G”d, but they are not the source of their own power – G”d is. These other gods have no power over Israel. In other words, G”d created these other gods for the other nations.

If it’s good enough for Nachmanides, it’s good enough for me. Well, not really. It doesn’t go quite far enough. But it’s a start.

OK, let’s go back to that pin. Polymorphism. In biology and zoology it is the existence of two or more clearly different morphs or forms, also referred to as alternative phenotypes, in the population of a species. In its simplest form, in humans, examples are gender and  blood type. In a simplistic understanding of Hinduism, we can say that the different gods and goddesses are all different forms of the same species.

So why not theological polymorphism?  Not multiple gods, but One G”d, with multiple paths for understanding, communication, and worship. That sure feels better to me than “my G”d” and “not my god.” Yes, even though I studied Christianity as part of my studies in Divinity School, the concept of the Trinity still baffled me and I couldn’t entirely reconcile it to monotheism without resorting, ultimately, to a some sort of Marcion-esque heresy, even though the first statement of trinitarian belief is that there is One G”d. Polymorphism to the rescue. The triune G”d is simply a polymorphic G”d. I’ve seen this explained  with the example of water and it's three states: ice, liquid, and steam. It is said that St. Patrick used to use a three-leaf clover to explain the trinity – one shamrock, three leaves. This is a a rabbit hole I’m not going to go down right now. If you thinks Jews argue about things, we have nothing on how Christians argue about the minutiae of the theology of the trinity.

Theological Polymorphism – here to save the day – to enable us to all be worshipping the same G”d even though our understandings, beliefs, and practices may be very different. (Side note: theological polymorphism can be a useful framework when exploring Qabbalah.) Here’s a little song to help us remember the idea:

This G”d is my G”d, this G”d is your G”d
It doesn’t matter if our worship’s diff’rent
For we all are praying to the One and Only
This G”d was made for you and me.

Say it again. Theological Polymorphism. I just love the way that sounds, don’t you? (I’m trying to work it into a song, but two five-syllable words with the accent on the third syllable in both words presents a metric and rhythmic challenge, except for the song “Sensitivity” from “Once Upon a Mattress.” I’ll work on it this Shabbat.)

Shabbat Shalom,

©2018 by Adrian A. Durlester

Other Musings on This Parasha:

Va'etkhanan 5777 - This Man's Art and That Man's Scope (revisited, revised, and expanded)
Va'etkhanan 5774 - Sometimes A Cigar... (Revised from 5764)
Va'etkhanan 5773-The Promise (Redux & Revised 5759ff)
Va'etkhanan 5772 - Redux & Revised 5758 - The Promise
Va'etkhanan/Shabbat Nakhamu 5771 - Comfort
Va'etkhanan 5769-This Man's Art, That Man's Scope
Va'etchanan 5764--Sometimes A Cigar...
Va'etchanan 5758-63-66-67-The promise

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