God is for everyone. God is supposed to unite everyone. Worship is supposed to be collective.
But, right now, God is under threat of privatisation.
In recent years, people have begun attempting to carve up God into small pieces and sell God off in individual packages.
Just 100 years ago, people knew that God was something they encountered with their fellow human beings, as they assembled in synagogues. These institutions were often the primary sources of solidarity, comfort, and welfare in any community. They bound people together.
Today, much of that community is collapsing in favour of individualism, where people are left alone to fend for themselves.
To combat this, some religions are starting to run on fee-for-service models, wherein people need not affiliate or contribute anything, but can buy access to religious experiences when it suits them.
This practice won’t save the synagogue. They are its enemy.
In these models, God is reduced to a commodity that individuals can purchase in their own homes. You need not go anywhere, but can browse online for your favourite version of God, packaged however you like it. The privatised God can be paid for whenever required, to perform whatever rites you like. The more money you have, the more of God you can get.
God was never meant to be divisible. The knowledge of the One God did not come from clever men in caves and deserts. Our prophets never claimed to have arrived at their conclusions alone.
Moses was a prince in Egypt, learned multiple languages, and could communicate expertly. But he was also the leader of a mass slave uprising in Egypt. His understanding of God’s unity came from a revelation to thousands at Mount Sinai. Together, they heard through clouds of fire: You are one people. There is one God.
Jeremiah was the eldest son of King Josiah’s High Priest, and aided by a scribe. Yet, when Jeremiah preached God’s unity, he did not do so as a lone prophet, but as a spokesperson for a large-scale anti-imperial movement. Huge groups of people were organising to resist invasion by Babylon, under the name of the one God. This collective had built over centuries, amassing momentum, as they agitated for refusal to accept foreign powers or their false gods.
Monotheism was born out of great social movements, in public, among peers.
It began with stories people told each other to build bridges. To keep peace and make relationships beyond their own homes, people developed common narratives.
“Did you know that we share a common ancestor, Abraham? Let me tell you a story of Abraham…” “Have you heard that we come from the same mother, Leah? In my tribe, this is what we know about Leah…” These stories were passed as oral traditions for many centuries, binding people together so that they could trust each other and work together.
As societies developed, so did their stories. Peoples formed into nations, and nations had their gods. The Hittites had Alalus; the Canaanites, Baal; the Egyptians had Ra; and the Sumerians, Anu. These gods looked after specific people within their borders, and supported them in their national wars, triumphs and tragedies.
Initially, the Israelites only had a national god, too, whom we now know as Hashem, or Adonai. It took time for them to develop the understanding that the god they worshipped in Israel was the God for the entire world. And that learning happened on the commons.
In the ancient world, all public activity happened on the commons. The commons brought in strangers from faraway places, and was the meeting-point for every tribe to engage with each other. It was a hub of activity, bursting with children playing, teachers educating the masses, exchange of goods and vegetables and, above all else, ideas.
There, in the open fields and marketplace, where people brought their stories, they swore oaths by their gods, and wrote promissory notes witnessed by every national god, so that their contracts would be binding in every country.
They said to each other: “I swear by Anlil… by Asherah… by Set…” They told the stories of their gods, who had created the world; flooded it; destroyed it; redeemed it.
“Perhaps,” they said, “the god that oversees Babylon is the same as the one who rules Egypt. Perhaps we simply have many names for one entity. Perhaps there is a force greater than national borders, whose justice is as expansive as the heavens, whose providence extends not just to the borders of one nation but to the entire world.”
“Just as we are one here on the commons, we might also be one at a deeper level, united by a common humanity, birthed by the same Creator. We might share a common destiny, to bring about unity on this earthly plane and to make known that God is one.”
Monotheism was a force of thousands of people seeking to reach across boundaries and divisions. A movement to imagine a future in which all people were diverse and equal. The original professors of the truth of one God sought unity of all humanity and nature , held together by something incomprehensibly greater than any of them.
Today, we still know the one God by many names. Hashem, Adonai, Shechinah. Allah, Buddha, Jesus, Jah. The names come from many languages but speak of a single truth. One God. One world. One people. One justice.
Of course, that unity is threatening to some. There are those who have a vested interest in maintaining tight borders, ethnic supremacy, and division. They have stoked up wars between the different names for the one God, seeking to divide that single truth again along national lines. Buddha was pitted against Allah; Jesus against Hashem. In Europe, they waged wars in the name of different understandings of one God and one book. Catholics and Protestants took doctrinal divisions and used them to carve up an entire continent and suppress all dissent.
For three centuries, European states fought each other over which version of God was the correct one. On either side of the divide, Jews were murdered, tortured and exiled, because if other Christians could be wrong, the Jews were really wrong. Hundreds of thousands of people were slaughtered because powerful people had stripped monotheism of its context and abused it to create new divisions.
At the end of the wars, European leaders ushered in a new age, that they called modernity. They vowed that they would never again fight wars on such grounds. They decoupled citizenship from faith.
Religion was now not national, but completely private. You could have a religion, but only in the privacy of your own home. The Jew would be a Jew at home and an Englishman in the street. If you want to keep a kosher kitchen, that’s your business, but you’d better not bring your values out into our political space.
In some countries, every detail of religious life was taken under the state’s authority. The religious could no longer do anything that would interfere with the supremacy of the nation state.
But monotheism was never meant to serve private individuals. It was developed to bring people together, regardless of nation or creed. The problem of wedding religion to nations was not that it made religion too public, but that it made religion not public enough. The one true God was supposed to transcend all borders and remind people that no matter their language or appearance, they originated from the same Creator.
In recent times, the privatisation of God has gone even further.
The mass collective meetings of religious people have declined in favour of each individual having their own “spirituality.” No more can people develop their sense of unity in public, but they must have their own little snippet of truth that they hold tightly and do not share. The one God has been carved up into tiny little pieces so small that they can only be held in each individual’s heart. The one great God is now reduced to seven billion small ones.
All of this only further divides people. It breaks people apart, entirely contrary to what monotheism was supposed to do.
Monotheism began as a movement of ordinary people coming together on the commons.
The task of this generation is to bring God back to the commons. Religion must again become a force that breaks down all divisions and brings people together.
To stop this tide of individualism, there is really only one thing you need to do: join and build the synagogue.
It doesn’t even have to be this one – although, obviously, we would love to have you. The important thing is to join.
The synagogue still stands as a bulwark against this atomisation of society. It requires of people what we really need to keep the one God alive: commitment to each other in public. When people pay their subscriptions into a synagogue, they are not buying a service for themselves, but sustaining a community for everyone else.
In this synagogue, we are seeking to build community beyond our own walls, currently fundraising for local youth, the nearby refugee group, and our sister community of Jews that have fled Ukraine.
We must build communities in these small places where we live, while looking beyond them, with a knowledge that our God is so much bigger than any one community.
The message of monotheism is that all of truth is for all the people. Not some bits of truth for some. One love, one justice, one truth, uniting one people on one planet.
Our liturgy teaches that, once humanity has shaken off the fetters of prejudice and the worship of material things, equality and justice will reign over every land.
We must work towards the day when all peoples declare in every tongue that they have a common Creator, and that the destiny of one person is bound up in the fate of all humanity.
On that day, God will be one and known as One.