Monotheism and its Discontents: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5773

From my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon last Sunday:

Isn’t it profoundly presumptuous to say our God is the only God?  I think we can all agree that right and wrong that should apply to everyone, without exceptions, but whose right and whose wrong are we talking about?  Why should our faith system – or any faith system – get to determine the will of this universal moral authority?  It’s all well and good to affirm that we all serve one universal God, but history is replete with examples of heinous acts committed by people of faith who believed the rest of the world should do their God’s bidding.

Click below to read the entire sermon:

I’ll start with a New Year’s confession.  Around this time last year, I finally faced a hard truth. I had to honestly admit that I had become tired of coming up with weekly Divrei Torah – you know, those pithy commentaries on the Torah portion that we rabbis are famous for writing?  It had just gotten to the point where I felt like I was treading over the same didactic territory week after week – and yes, I’ll say it: I just wasn’t feeling the inspiration any more. (Although I’m sure not all of my colleagues be willing admit it, I’m betting that “Dvar Torah Fatigue” is a fairly common phenomenon for rabbis…)

So one day, almost one year ago, I decided that rather than write a traditional Dvar Torah, I’d try something different. I took some verses from that week’s Torah portion and rewrote them as free verse, tweaking the words to provide a kind of poetic commentary on the text.  Then I did it every week since.  And, although I’m not sure any of it qualifies as great poetry, I’m thoroughly enjoying my new approach.  I’ve already generated almost a year’s worth of Torah poems, which I’ve posted and archived on my blog “Yedid Nefesh.”

If you’ve read my poems you know that I’m attracted to verses with especially difficult or disturbing content – which I then subversively reconstruct to spin off in unexpected directions.  This playful rewriting of the Torah text is, in fact, an age-old Jewish enterprise.  What I’m really doing is just a contemporary form of Midrash – a time honored Jewish literary method that digs into Torah to uncover new layers of meaning in our ancient texts.

I’ll read one of my subversive little Torah poems for you a little later – but first I’d like to give you a taste of some original subject matter.  One of my more recent pieces came from the Torah portion, Re’eh.  I based it on these verses from Deuteronomy, chapter 12, verses 29 through 31:

When the Lord your God has cut down before you the nations that you are about to enter and dispossess, and you have dispossessed them and settled in their land, beware of being lured into their ways after they have been wiped out before you! Do not inquire after their gods, saying “How did those nations worship their gods?  I too will follow these practices.”  You shall not act thus toward the Lord your God, for they perform for their gods every abhorrent act that the Lord detests.

As you can see, I wasn’t kidding when I said I’m attracted to the more difficult and disturbing stuff.   Now, I have no trouble admitting that I find myself recoiling from the literal meaning of these words. I will say without hesitation that if we take these verses at face value, they promote ideas most of us would find repugnant: xenophobia, colonialism and even genocide.  Truth be told, this is only one of many texts in the Torah that evoke fear of the other and advocate holy war against peoples with different beliefs and practices.

However – even though these verses from Deuteronomy are deeply problematic, I still would say they have much to teach us.  While they clearly teach us absolutely nothing about the practices of other nations, they do teach us much about our fear of the other and their “alien” ways.  However brutally, this text illuminates what happens when belief in God inspires triumphalism and exclusivity.  Put another way, you might say it shines a light on what I would call the “darker side of monotheism.”

Now I realize it might sound strange to hear a rabbi talk about the “darker side of monotheism.” After all, isn’t monotheism the hallmark of Jewish spiritual tradition?  Isn’t Judaism deeply grounded in the belief that there is only one God in heaven and earth?  The most central statement of our faith, also from Deuteronomy, states this in no uncertain terms: Shema Yisrael/Adonai Eloheinu/Adonai Echad. Listen Israel/Adonai is our God/Adonai is One.

Tonight, I’d like to delve more deeply into the meaning of our monotheistic heritage – and explore what I believe is its deeply complicated legacy for us today. How do we understand the words “Listen, Israel, Adonai is our God” in a world which contains peoples who call God by different names, or who call upon a variety of different of gods – or no God at all?  What does monotheism mean for us as contemporary Jews, as Americans, as global citizens who live together with peoples who espouse a wide variety of spiritual traditions, beliefs and practices?

I don’t believe these are merely academic questions.  I believe the answers we choose will profoundly affect the way we view the world; the way we live our lives; the way we treat those around us.  Given the diverse world in which we live – and that we purport to value – I want to see if it’s possible to promote monotheism in a manner that stresses inclusion rather than exclusion.  I think it’s altogether appropriate to be asking these kinds of questions tonight.  After all, Rosh Hashanah is the monotheistic festival par excellance – the day in which our liturgy proclaims and enthrones God’s sovereign rule over us and our world.

It goes without saying, of course, that monotheism is deeply and indelibly ingrained in Jewish tradition.  In the early books of the Torah, Israelite religion is portrayed as a kind of monotheistic revolution in the pagan Ancient Near East.  Just a few chapters into Genesis, we meet the world’s first Jews, Abraham and Sarah, who hail from the polytheistic civilization of ancient Mesopotamia.  Shortly after we meet them, Abraham and Sarah experience a revelation from God – whom we have already learned is the Creator of the heavens and the earth.

During this revelation, Abraham and Sarah are promised that they will become the parents of a great people who will be the bearers of God’s truth to the nations.  Before this can happen, however, many generations of their descendants will be enslaved in the land of Egypt.  When their travail becomes unbearable, God will come to free them.  In so doing, God will demonstrate his power over the mighty Pharaoh and the powerful gods of Egypt.

The Israelite God’s war against the Egyptian gods is, in fact, one of the central themes of the Exodus story.  While most tend to read it as a story of human liberation, there is clearly a strong polemic of theological warfare in the Exodus narrative as well.  Yes, God frees the Israelites from slavery because God stands up against tyrants and frees the captive.  But God definitely has another, related motive as well: to prove to the Egyptians, the Israelites, in fact the entire world, that there is no God mightier than he.

God actually repeats this intention over and over again throughout the story.  During the final, deadly plague, for instance, God says:

For that night I will go through the land of Egypt and strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt…and I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt.

On its most primitive, elemental level, we might read the Exodus story as a story of Godly oneupsmanship.  Our God is better than your god.  Or if you prefer, our God can beat up your god.

What’s particularly interesting here is that the Torah doesn’t even attempt to deny the existence of these Egyptian gods.  At this point, the Torah only seems concerned with beating the other gods down.  It doesn’t make the claim that there is no God but our God – only that ours’ is the biggest, the strongest and the best.

Think for a moment about the song the Israelites sing at the moment of their liberation.  I know you know the words, of course, because we sing an excerpt of this song together in almost every service:

Mi chamocha ba’elim, Adonai? Mi camocha nedar bakodesh? Norah tehilot, oseh feleh?

Among all the gods, who is like You, Adonai?  Who is like you, majestic in holiness?  Awesome in splendor, working miracles!

Scholars point out that the Song at the Sea is, in fact, among the earliest texts in the Bible, written during an early stage in the emergence of monotheism.  At that point, it was a form of monotheism that still accepted the reality of polytheism in the Ancient Near East.  Academics have even come up with a fancy word for this phenomenon: “monolatry” – meaning the adherence to one God among many.

Another good example of monolatry comes later in the book of Exodus, during the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.  Consider the first two:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods besides Me.

Again, these commandments don’t deny the existence of other gods – it merely forbids us from worshiping them.  And it threatens us with consequences if we pledge our allegiance to them:

You shall not bow down to them or serve them.  For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and fourth generations of those who reject Me.

The earliest form of Israelite monotheism, then, was a kind of polytheistic triumphalism.  Now I’m going to go out on a limb and say that most of us would reject this kind of theology as childish and even downright dangerous.  But interestingly, by the time we get to the end of the Torah, we’re already seeing a different form of monotheism start to emerge.

Listen to these verses from Deuteronomy :

Ki adonai hu ha’elohim ba’shamayim mi’ma’al v’al ha’aretz mi’tachat ein od.

Know therefore this day and keep in mind that the Lord alone is God in heaven above and earth below, there is no other.

If that sounds familiar to you too, that’s because these verses have also become a famous part of our liturgy.  It comes from the prayer that ends most every service – the Aleynu – and it originally came from the Rosh Hashanah liturgy.   In a sense, we might say that by the end of the Torah, we’ve moved now to the second stage of monotheism.  We’ve evolved from view that our God is the greatest and mightiest of all gods, to the view that our God is the only god in the universe.

This second stage is most famously embodied, of course, by the Shema, which also comes from the book of Deuteronomy.  I’ve often been struck that these words, in their simple but powerful way, chart this evolution.


Shema yisrael

Listen Israel, Adonai is our God.

Adonai is YHVH – the personal name of the Israelite deity.  The Shema begins by telling us that YHVH is our god.  In other words, while all the nations have their gods, YHVH is Israel’s god.

But then comes the zinger. The statement concludes:

Adonai ehad.

YHVH is one.

In some ways, it seems to me that those last two words are the most audacious, most chutzpadik words in Jewish tradition.  First we proclaim to the world that YHVH is our god, then we go on to further state that our god is, in fact, the only God – implying, of course, that all the other nations are worshiping gods that aren’t really gods at all!

Many Jewish commentators address this issue by saying the last two words of the Shema are less a judgement on other nations and religions than a polemic against theological relativism.  To say that there is only one god means to take a stand against theological and moral anarchy.  If there is only one God, then we are all in this together.  There is only one right, one wrong, one universal code to which we all must adhere.

A prominent young orthodox rabbi, whom I admire very much, Rabbi Shmuley Yanklowitz, put this very well in a recent Dvar Torah:

The importance of monotheism highlighted in the daily Shema declaration is foundational to Jewish belief. This is primarily a commitment not to believe in or serve any other god or to make any statues. For many, it is also a denial of multiplicity to the G-d of oneness. While theists and atheists both can act morally or immorally, all individuals must beware that no absolute object or value replaces the concept of G-d…

I would suggest that monotheism and the rejection of idolatry can be understood not only as a theological, but also a moral, commitment.  The Greek philosophers taught that polytheism leads to moral relativism, since there are many conflicting bosses. When we embrace one G-d, on the other hand, we are guided by the one absolute moral truth and authority.

While I understand and respect this point, however, I don’t think it addresses the potential pitfalls with a statement that says this is our God, and he’s the only God in the world.  Isn’t it profoundly presumptuous to say our God is the only God?  I think we can all agree that right and wrong that should apply to everyone, without exceptions, but whose right and whose wrong are we talking about?  Why should our faith system – or any faith system – get to determine the will of this universal moral authority?  It’s all well and good to affirm that we all serve one universal God, but history is replete with examples of heinous acts committed by people of faith who believed the rest of the world should do their God’s bidding.

And here we come back to what I called before the “darker side of monotheism.”   Generally speaking, it makes sense to claim we are all “guided by the one absolute moral truth and authority.”  The only problem, it seems to me, is that we live in a world in which there are a myriad of religious systems, practices and philosophies. While we all want to believe that we are bound together by certain universal values, too often, it feels as if it’s religion itself that gets in the way.

On this Rosh Hashanah, I’d like to take my cue from the religious thinkers and philosophers who suggest a third stage for monotheism.  One that affirms that we are all in this together – that no one faith or religious tradition has a monopoly on universal truth.

It might sound strange to hear a rabbi say this from the pulpit, but yes, I do believe that religion too often gets in the way.  Too often we mistake the system for the reality that lies behind it. To often we deify the religion rather than the truths that transcend it.  And when that happens, we engage in a kind of idolatry.  When any of us hold too tightly to what our own traditions tell us about God, religion inevitably becomes a force for division and enmity. And ironically, this phenomenon betrays the very idea of all people united under one absolute moral truth and authority.

Is it possible to affirm a monotheism for the 21st century – in a global world so very different from what the writers of the Torah could possibly have imagined?  I believe it is.  But it will take a radical re-visioning of the way many of us understand religion.  We will need to understand that religion is the vessel we create to understand God, not God.  It is the imperfect humanly created system, the launching pad, that ideally helps us connect with an Ultimate Reality that lies far beyond the system itself.

What would such a Shema sound like?  I’ll take a crack at it:

Listen, Israel, and to all who wrestle with the meaning of God in your lives and in the world:

That which we call God is not God.  God is beyond names.  God is beyond words;

God is everything. God is all.

Jewish tradition does, in fact, provide us with some spiritual cues that point us in this direction.  The Hasidic master Rabbi Yehuda Leib of Ger, known as the Sfat Emet, offered this powerful interpretation of the Shema:

The meaning of “YHVH is one” is not that YHVH is the only true God, negating other gods.  The meaning is deeper than that.  There is no being other than God.  This is true, even though it seems otherwise to most people. Everything that exists in the world, spiritual, and physical, is God.  Because of this, every person can become attached to God, wherever he or she is, through the holiness that exists in every single thing, even corporeal things. (quoted in “Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition” by Arthur Green, p. 77)

Could we possibly come up with a better translation of the words, “Adonai Ehad?”  Not, “the Lord alone” or “the Lord is One,” but “Everything is God.” I am God, you are God, believers and atheists are God, friends and enemies are God, rocks and trees and atoms and molecules are God.  Could we imagine a purer form of monotheism than this?

I won’t belabor the personal or political implications of this interpretation because I think they’re obvious.  If everything is God, then we will find ourselves reaching out – yes, even to those who practice or believe differently than us.  Even to those whom we are taught to fear. We will see sources of wisdom and light everywhere in the world, not just in our home or “native land” but in every corner of the universe.  We will live lives of openness to the One, and we won’t feel the need to hide behind the walls we build out of our suspicion of the Other.

This Rosh Hashanah, as every year, we will pray majestic prayers that re-enthrone the King of Kings, the Sovereign of Sovereigns, to whom we say all must pay homage.  I encourage you – in fact, I implore you – do not let the words get in the way of the real truth behind them.  It is indeed a simple truth, which is why it sometimes gets lost amidst the glorious pomp and circumstance of religion.

Oh yes, at the beginning of my remarks to you tonight, I promised to read to you my reworking of those verses from Deuteronomy. I’ll end with them now:

when you enter the land cut down

the walls between yourselves and

the other nations learn from their

ways gain knowledge from their

experience grow compassion from their

travail when you worship

your god look deep

into their eyes and know

that you are worshiping

theirs as


5 thoughts on “Monotheism and its Discontents: A Sermon for Erev Rosh Hashanah 5773

  1. 21st century (Jewish) monotheism sounds a lot like 12th century Sufism, Brant! If you don’t know Ibn ‘Arabi’s poetry, you should check it out–I recommend Michael Sells’ translations (“Stations of Desire” is the collection), and also chapter 4 of his book “Mystical Languages of Unsaying,” most of which is available via Google Books. Good stuff!

  2. I very much enjoyed reading this and learned a lot from it. As an atheist philosopher, it struck me how similar this interpretation of monotheism is to Spinoza’s form of theism/atheism (according to who wanted to take him to task, the result is one or the other). And I wondered if there would be a possibility of translating the Shema as “Everything is in one God” (or “God is in everything”), because that seems what your interpretations suggests. As Spinoza would have it, everything is an aspect of God because if everything is what it is by way of being created this way (including space and time and change and all the dynamic features of the world, which means ALSO the multifarious ways of existence and credence that develop in history), everything is an aspect of God’s existence. Which then lead him to affirm that God and nature (understood as including human history) are one. (This was the point at which the rabbinical council of Amsterdam proceeded to excommunicate him. Most scholars believe that they were mistaken and that it was a political tribunal, though.) At any rate, it is great to know that our town has such a wonderful universalist rabbi, and thanks again for these thoughtful lines!

  3. Hrm.

    I keep thinking about this sermon, Brant, and I have to confess, the “everything is God” turn leaves me both emotionally and intellectually unsatisfied. I keep thinking that it’s a step back from the radicalism of Kaplan’s thought, in which “God” is a personification, a metaphorical way of thinking about a certain sort of power and potential in the world, and not an entity.

    What would the statement “Everything is God” sound like in Kaplanian terms? “Everything is the power that makes for human salvation / flourishing”? Or maybe “the potential for human salvation and flourishing can be found in absolutely everything. There is nothing that cannot support, sustain, or enable human salvation and flourishing”?

    Spelled out in non-supernatural terms, the statement doesn’t seem to me to be true, or it’s true in a very weak sense. (How exactly does the sun’s going red giant and wiping out all life on earth make for human salvation? Closer to home, how about the ebola virus?) Or am I misunderstanding you, or Kaplan, here?

  4. Or, since I’m still mulling this over…what about this?

    It’s unlikely there’s anything morally superior about monotheism. I don’t think you can demonstrate that monotheists behave better than polytheists, either individually or collectively or inter-culturally; people are people. So why make the sweeping “third wave” move that reduces everything in the universe to One God? What’s really gained by that?

    Wouldn’t it be simpler and truer to circle back to monolatry? We worship God X; you worship Gods Y and Z; those folks over there don’t worship anything or anyone at all. Now let’s figure out how we get along with each other, treat each other well, and deal with our common human situation.

    Or circle back still farther, to an honest polytheism. Lots of gods, which are the manifestations / personifications of various goals and ideals and states of mind, and which need to be many and different because people are many and different. Out of politeness, I respect yours and you respect mine, because that’s a way of respecting our human difference, projecting it out into the cosmos.

    That may sound messier than an encompassing vision that “we all worship The One, in different ways,” but practically speaking, might it not be just as likely to encourage a life of openness? (And wouldn’t it be just as good to be “open to the Many” as to “the One”?)

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