God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?”
My summer reading list includes an Israeli book called “From gods to God! ” Scholarly in nature, yet readily readable, this offering chronicles the theological move from polytheism to monotheism. Or as we recite at each service (the Aleinu) “On that day God will be One and God’s Name will One!”
The authors reveal how disguised within our sacred writings are hints of Jewish worship of many deities. Take for example the proclamation in the Decalogue (The Ten Commandments) “you will have no other gods before me!” which on the surface seems to imply there are other deities. Or following the escape from Egypt at the sea of reeds, Miriam recited “Who is like You among the gods,” again suggesting an earlier belief in polytheism with the added caveat that there is a chief deity over others.
Our prayer book itself disguises this reality when it cleverly offers the English version “Who is like You among the gods that are worshipped,” thus tamping down the ancient theology.
These authors offer examples of editing doing what amounts to an intellectual archaeology, digging about here and there in order to uncover hidden truths. On the positive side, it reflects Judaism’s vitality in as much as we were willing to grow and change. On the less happy side it does conflict with more romanticized view that the Hebraic tradition was always uniform and consistent. I prefer the former as it captures the sense of all of us being on a learning curve.
Polytheism is quite inviting. Anyone who has studied Hinduism can clearly discern how lovely it is to access a deity which comports with your needs and aspirations. A few of my Hindu students are somewhat surprised when I rightly surmise that they must favor the elephant god Ganesh, the god that removes obstacles. Certainly, such a deity is helpful to young people who are trying to figure out how they can make their way in the world. True enough!
Judaism provides very different ways of naming the divine, from the feminine word Shechinah (the divine presence) to the Tetragrammaton YHWH that is best understood to mean “The Eternal One!” Beyond such accommodations, psychologically and spiritually is the social need for all of us to be on the same page. The belief in one deity favors the posture that many Jewish philosophers have called the “Unity Principle!”
Shema Yisraeil “Listen Israel (you who wrestle with the spiritual) the Eternal is our common focus, the Eternal is uniquely indivisible.”
Wishing one and all a summer filled with spirit and joy!
Yossi Liebowitz, Rabbi