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08.08.2017 12:24    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  ekev  

The G d of gods

The doctrine of monotheism in the Jewish faith has had to cope with quite a few difficulties arising from the plain sense of Scripture.  The style of the Bible appears to convey recognition of many gods, with the Lord being the special G‑d of the Israelites who demands that they serve none but Him, whereas He is tolerant of other nations worshipping their own gods.

Various analytic approaches to this phenomenon exist.  One is that of higher biblical criticism, which views monotheism as the product of a gradual development of faith among the Israelites; from many gods to a rise in the status of one G‑d over the others, as a local national god, who became the one G‑d for the entire world only at a later stage.

This position does not stand the test of the most elementary critique.  If we were to hold by it, we would have to turn on its head the entire historical progression of the bible, and to ascribe to a late date all those chapters that speak of the Lord as Creator of heaven and earth.  As Albright has noted,[1]the transition from polytheism to monotheism involves a drastic jump in consciousness and is not the product of evolution.

Archaeology also provides indirect proof of the antiquity of an abstract concept of the deity, precisely because of the paucity of findings from the early Israelite period as opposed to the plethora of findings in the lands of surrounding nations.  There are almost no monumental inscriptions, standing stones or idols, which is indicative of the deeply penetrating influence of the biblical command against any sculpted image or likeness among the ancient Hebrews.  Strong support for this argument is provided by the clearly monotheistic characteristics of the very ancient site of the altar on Mount Ebal.[2]

One could argue that all the expressions referring to the gods of other nations only mean to say they were gods in the eyes of those who worshipped them, whereas in fact they had no substance and all pagan worship was simply founded on a gross error in human reasoning, either by ascribing divine powers to one who had not such powers, or by thinking it was the Lord’s will that His great creations be worshipped.[3] This explanation is suggested especially by the words of the prophets at the end of the First Temple period and during the Babylonian exile.  Jeremiah,[4] as well as Daniel (5:23), repeatedly describe the gods of the other nations as an empty delusion.

Even though there is surely a large degree of truth in the latter position, widely accepted among the Jews for many generations, nevertheless it does not suffice to put to rest the misgivings that arise from the style of the text.  It is simpler to accept the position taken by the kabbalists, who ascribe substance to the spiritual powers worshipped by the gentiles, in accordance with the plain sense of Scripture.  As Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla wrote in Sha`arei Orah:[5]

Do not believe the empty words of those empty persons who say there is no power in the gods of the other nations and that they are not properly called gods.  Rather, you should know that the Lord, blessed be He, gave might and dominion and the scepter of the ruler in the hand of each and every ministering angel of the nations, to judge his own people and own land.  And these ministering angels are called Elohim, since they are ministers who sit in judgment over the people of their land.

This clarifies a problematic verse in this week’s reading (Deut. 10:17):

For the Lord your G‑d is Elohei ha-Elohim—the G‑d of gods [alternatively:  the Judge of judges]—and the Lord of lords.

Rabbi Yehuda Leon Ashkenazi (Manitou) interpreted this according to the Kabbalah:  the Lord, who is your G‑d, that is, the G‑d of Israel whose providence is directly over them—for the nations of the world He is the G-d of gods and the Lord of lords.

This reading markedly contradicts that of Maimonides in Guide for the Perplexed:[6]

Therefore it says, “For Lord your G‑d,” referring to all mankind; but then it says He is elohei ha-elohim, that is, the G‑d of the angels, and adonei ha-adonim, the Lord of the spheres and the stars, which are the masters of the rest of the corporeal creation…and especially when it says “your G‑d” that includes all mankind.

This ambivalence in interpreting the scriptural text finds expression in Rashi’s commentary on Deuteronomy 4:19:

These [the heavenly host] the Lord your G‑d allotted to other peoples—to give light to them.  Another interpretation: to worship as deities.[7]

The kabbalists’ interpretation seems to be in contradiction to the explicit halakhah which also forbids the nations of the world to engage in idolatry.[8] But as we shall see, among the other nations there is also a status resembling “an infant that has been taken captive,”[9] for it has never happened that the prophets reproved other nations for idolatry practiced outside the land of Israel.  As Rabbenu Bahye b. Rabbi Asher writes:[10]

As Scripture says:  “These [the heavenly host] the Lord your G‑d allotted to other peoples everywhere under heaven; but you the Lord took…” (Deut. 4:19-20).  This can be explained as follows:  The Holy One, blessed be He, gave these to be for them, not for Israel; therefore, nowhere in the Torah do we find that Scripture accuses nations of idolatry, save for Israel who are set aside to worship Him.  Likewise, we find no punishment given the nations for practicing idolatry except if they do so in the holy land.

An early source supporting this approach can be found in Against Apion by Josephus:[11]

And indeed our legislator hath expressly forbidden us to laugh at and revile those that are esteemed gods by other people, on account of the very name of G‑d ascribed to them.

Apparently Josephus interpreted the words, “You shall not revile G‑d, nor put a curse upon a chieftain among your people” (Ex. 22:27) as a warning regard the gods of other nations, as follows from the latter part of the verse:  “a chieftain among your people.”  This would imply that the beginning of the verse does not deal with the G‑d of your people.  Further on, however, Josephus deprecates Greek mythology for the ridiculous things it attributes to the gods.  From this we see that Josephus distinguished between the idolatry of the ancients, which related to a Creator in a manner which, while foreign to us, was fine for other peoples, and idolatry which was characteristic of a degenerate level of religious cognition.  The latter he held contemptible, and as the Talmud says:  “All gibing is forbidden save gibing at idolatry, which is permitted” (Megillah 25b).

Rabbi Eliyahu Benamozegh[12] cites extensive evidence from the ancients in support of this interpretation, and even cites the Zohar explicitly:[13]

In this respect it is written, “Anyone who blasphemes his G‑d” (Lev. 24:15), even if it be [the god of] a gentile cult…whoever curses and shows contempt for them, “shall bear his guilt.”

However the trend of history, as it emerges from Scripture, is that in time to come the gods will be eliminated.  Rashi interpreted the verse, “Hear, O Israel” (Deut. 6:4) as follows:  “Hear, O Israel, the Lord—who is presently our G‑d and not the G‑d of other peoples—is destined to be the one and only G‑d, as it is said (Zeph. 3:9):  ‘For then I will make the peoples pure of speech, so that they all invoke the Lord by name,’ and (Zech. 14:9):  ‘In that day there shall be one Lord with one name.’”

Thus monotheism is not a static proclamation of faith, rather a plan of action that encompasses all of history, until the Divine call to the Jews becomes extended to all humanity.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

 
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