sermon · torah · judaism

Why only one God?

Why only one God?

A Jewish scientist finds herself at a conference, presenting a paper. A colleague asks her: “what’s your religion?” Nervous of prejudice, she says: “I’m an atheist.” Her colleague answers: “Yes, but is it the God of the Jews or of the Christians in whom you do not believe?”

As everyone knows, the best jokes are the ones you have to explain. And the very best jokes are the ones you spend a whole sermon unpacking, so strap yourselves in, because we’re going to look at the archaeological and scriptural evidence for why that introduction was, in fact, really funny.

It is a basic assumption of religion in the West that there is one God. Even for those who do not believe, they assume that it is one God in whom they have disbelief. Yet our society is filled with different religions and practices. When we encounter Muslims, Sikhs, Christians or Hindus, we assume that underlying the diversity of our doctrines and rituals, there is an underlying unity of belief in a single and universal Being.

But it was not always that way. In fact, the idea of monotheism was novel and contentious throughout the entire development of the Hebrew Bible. The insistence on one God is Judaism’s great innovation, and we have built our monotheism up into an obsession. Knowing God’s oneness is the first commandment.[1] Not worshipping other gods is the second.[2] Worshipping other gods can incur capital punishment.[3] It is treated as an unforgivable crime, on par with murder, and a Jew should choose death rather than worshipping another god.[4] The Deuteronomic insistence on one God has become the centrepoint of Hebrew prayer: “hear, O Israel, the Eternal One is our God; the Eternal God is One.”[5]

In this week’s portion, Moses exhorts the Israelites: “Destroy completely all the places on the high mountains, on the hills and under every spreading tree, where the nations you are dispossessing worship their gods. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and burn their Asherah poles in the fire; cut down the idols of their gods and wipe out their names from those places.”[6]

But why? Why is it so important that there be one God? And why is it so important that the ancient Israelites worship no other? What was so bad about the other nations’ religious practices?

Archaeological excavations help us answer that question.[7] Scientists have dug up altars, shrines, coins and amulets to help us make sense of pre-monotheistic religion. The Canaanites, who preceded the Israelites, had a family of gods: Baal the storm god; Asherah, the fertility goddess; Mot the lord of death; Yam, the judge of the sea; and Moloch, the child-eating fire deity.

This is referenced in Scripture: “Be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Eternal One hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”[8]

In that case, the issue with polytheism is the unethical behaviour it engenders! The old gods of Canaan required evil practices as part of their worship, like ritual human slaughter. But then why not simply abolish those gods, and leave the others? Or just legislate against those practices but keep the rest of the religion intact? In the mind of the ancient Israelites, there must have been something that directly connected any worship of multiple gods with murder.

Here, archaeology can help us further. Digs from different times show us that polytheism wasn’t suddenly abolished, but fell out of favour when the Israelite religion took off. The Canaanite pantheon reduced down to just a few gods. We can find statuettes representing them at most ancient Israelite Temple sites.

This is backed up by text: Jeremiah condemns the Israelites for baking cakes for the Queen of Heaven and making offerings to Baal.[9] Jeremiah explicitly condemns this because these are the ways of the Egyptians, who held them in slavery. Idol worship, says Jeremiah, means keeping up the practices of theft, murder and lying.[10] It is not just that the old gods require ritual murder, but that their whole religion is based on an Empire that was built on it. Idols are the symbols of captivity.

This point was finally hammered home when Jerusalem was destroyed and Nebuchadnezzar took the Israelites hostage in Babylon. After Ezra led the return to the Land of Israel, we can find no more evidence of idols or their shrines. The people abandoned them altogether.

What could have been more convincing that idols were the work of murderous empires than exile in Babylon? The Israelites saw first-hand how looting, murder, war, conscription and sieges were built into imperial expansion. We know that the Babylonians used their pantheon as a way to legitimise their colonisation, as they brought the local gods of conquered people into their own cult and placed them in inferior positions. We know that the emperors turned themselves into gods and made people throughout their lands worship them.[11]

All those gods in Israelite minds became death-gods. The only way to truly abandon the ways of the oppressors in Babylon and Egypt would be to uproot the idolatrous shrines and eliminate the pagan pantheon altogether.

Monotheism was an act of resistance to these corrupt ways.

God’s unity was not a mathematical question but a moral one.

The One true God could not be co-opted into imperialism because it was universal: no one nation could control it. No ruler could declare himself to be that God because God had no flesh or form. And whereas the many gods constructed hierarchies and different customs for different places, with monotheism came ethical universality.

That is why one God was so important then, and why it remains so important now. God’s unity continues to represent the unity of human beings and the refusal of the faithful to be dominated. So, in answer to the question: “is it the God of the Jews or of the Christians in whom you do not believe?” the atheist could happily answer “neither.” And I will gladly answer “both.” They are One.

Shabbat shalom.

Asherah-figurines
This is a photo of Asherah statuettes, which have been excavated at almost every ancient Israelite cultic site prior to Ezra’s Great Return

I wrote this sermon for Leo Baeck College’s weekly newsletter, and will deliver it for Newcastle Reform Synagogue on Saturday 15th August 2020, Parashat Reeh.

[1] Deut 5:6

[2] Deut 5:7

[3] Ex 22:20

[4] Yoma 82a

[5] Deut 6:4

[6] Deut 12:2-3 NIV

[7] All references to archaeology in this sermon are derived from ‘The Bible Unearthed’ by Israel Finklestein and Neil Asher Silberman

[8] Deut 12:29-31 NIV

[9] Jer 7:5-19

[10] Jer 7:8-11

[11] cf Dan 2

fast · liturgy · poem

Coronavirus Lamentations

This is a creative re-translation of Eichah 1 to reflect the current era, where our sacred sites again sit empty and a new enemy feels as if it has besieged us. I have written this partly to distract my mind from fasting on Tisha b’Av, and partly to help process the grief I am feeling around the closures of communal spaces.

1

How is this possible?

As lonely she sits, this synagogue, where once she thronged with congregants

She has become like a widow;

Great she was among people, a power for the prayers

She has become precluded.

2

She cries,

Bawls, in the night and her tears fall on her cheeks

She has no comforter from all her lovers

Her friends have abandoned her

She imagines them as loveless.

3

The Jews are exiled from her

Caused by inequality and sickness; she sits with the nations

She cannot find rest

The virus trounced her

In the narrow spaces where it traps its victims.

4

City streets are mourners,

Don’t welcome congregations any more;

All her doors are bolted

Her leaders are grieving, her lay people lament

She sits in bitterness.

5

Strange are these adversaries

Enemies who carelessly became overlords

A plague pronounced upon a people

That locks toddlers in captivity

Fearing a sickness outside.

6

The sanctuary’s splendour

Fled away from her

Her wardens scarper like deer to nowhere

Running breathless

From the airborne pursuer.

7

She remembers

Grandeur in her grief

All the precious people that made her home at first

Now her people are falling to the power of frailty

And a sickness that ridicules science.

8

Our surfaces

Have become contaminated

Uncleanliness in the air

And all the dangers we cannot see are suddenly laid bare

So she tries to sigh without breathing.

9

Hands spread

Infection over our most treasured relatives,

So once the problem has entered your body

You are commanded

Not to go out in public.

10

Everyone is panting

Just trying to once again enjoy taste

To have their good spirits revived.

Does God not look upon us

And see how much we suffer?

11

Don’t let it happen to you

Know that this is pain unlike all others

It has befallen me

As if God’s nose has flared up

And exhaled sickness in anger.

12

My bones bind

Like spines sticking together

Feet swell, immovable

I cannot turn around

And spend my days lying in pain.

13

My body is

Marked by the signs of disease

Neck scrunched up in knots

Whatever strength I had has failed me

As I find I can no longer stand.

14

The strongest are trampled

Now, God calls out to me, the time has come

To destroy the youth,

Stamping on brides and crushing down grooms

Like grapes in wine presses.

15

My eyes, my eyes

Over these I cry

Droplets fall without a refuge

Even our physicians are dying,

So powerful is our adversary.

16

Love extends her arms

Parting only to find no one there

Such unclear instructions

God of Jacob, this fear is surrounding me

Every centre is infected.

17

God, you take

Revenge against rebellious and uncovered mouths.

Please listen, all peoples,

Won’t you see the pain

Caused by endless captivity?

18

I keep calling my loved ones

So they know I still care

I seek out my elders

And bring food to the vulnerable

That they will not be forgotten.

19

I call out to God

To tell You: ‘I am in distress!’

My heart is turning round

Abroad the people are devastated by statistics

And we see death at home.

20

They can hear

Ululating outcries from loneliness

This indifferent virus listens

Knowing that no matter what you do

That appointed day will come.

21

Let all evil stand before God

Vanquisher and vanisher

Who knows all

Examines every dead

Your saving grace may one day come to those

Zealous attendants awaiting You.

22

Return us to You, O God, and we will return to you. Let us have back the times we had before.

 

empty london

judaism · sermon · torah

Whose hearts will turn?

A scorpion asked a frog to carry it across the river on its back. The frog said: “Absolutely not. If I carry you, you will sting me.” The scorpion replied: “If I do that, we will both drown. It goes against my interests.” Reluctantly, the frog agreed and let the scorpion onto its back. They began swimming without a problem. Then, midway across the river, the scorpion stung the frog anyway. The dying frog asked the scorpion: “Why would you do that? Now we’re both going to die.” The scorpion replied: “I couldn’t help it. It’s in my nature.”

This famous animal fable, originally from 20th Century Russia, speaks to something both familiar and uncomfortable about the world. We know that people, no matter how much they want to change, often end up hurting others and themselves as if motivated by a fundamental nature.1 But the story is also problematic. It suggests that people have fundamental characters that cannot be overturned. Such a perspective is incompatible with religious Judaism, which teaches that everyone can change.

It is with this in mind that I read the opening of our parashah: “God hardened Pharoah’s heart. God hardened the hearts of everyone around him.”2 Literally, God made their hearts heavy, weighted, immovable.

In most places where we read this, Pharaoh hardened his own heart, but here, God hardens it.3 This poses a fundamental question for us about free will. Could Pharoah not have repented? Could he not have turned around and told the Israelites they could leave?

The Torah tells us God did this “in order to show these signs among them”.4 Those signs included locusts that swallowed up all the crops, darkness that blinded everyone in Egypt and, ultimately, death to the firstborn. Were these signs, then, unavoidable? Did the ordinary people of Egypt have no choice but to endure these “miracles”?

Ibn Ezra, the great Spanish exegete, reverses the concern. He points out if somebody wants to do wrong, the opportunities will be available to them.5 In other words, God does not prevent people from doing good, but neither does God prevent them doing evil. On this reading, God did not actively harden Pharaoh’s heart, but simply allowed it to happen. That answer sits well with us theologically: free will must mean the freedom to do wrong. And, partly, this fits with our historical memory. In this week of Holocaust Memorial, we are painfully reminded that God’s gift of free will can be outrageously abused.

But that conclusion seems too ready to resolve discomfort. It glosses over something else we know about history: that when hearts are hard, they stay so. No dictator has ever willingly given up power; no slavemaster has ever freed their slaves without significant pressure.6 Indeed, the price of ending slavery in America was a civil war. In Britain, the slave-owners were paid heavy compensation for their loss of income after more than a century of struggle.

That is not simply because slave owners are evil or dictators are wicked. In truth, every one of them could turn away from their wrongdoing and choose the path of righteousness spelled out by God. But they do not. In Germany, not every Nazi believed in the racist ideology, but all became complicit in its atrocities.7 Like the scorpion who stung the frog even knowing they would both die, the wicked continue in their wickedness, even if they know it is ultimately destructive. And that is because, while they are free, they are fundamentally constrained.

If Pharaoh were to turn around and say that the Israelites were free, he would have every Egyptian landowner at his door demanding what had happened to their possessions. He would have to answer to the Egyptian poor who, despite having nothing, at least had their superiority over the Israelites. There would be immediate chaos and revolution. It is not only people that create immorality, but systems that engender them. Once a system is in place that enables slavery, it is very difficult for any individual to decide they no longer want to own slaves. Pharaoh’s heart is hard, then, not only by choice, but by necessity. It is in Pharaoh’s nature that he must uphold the oppression he has created.

Interestingly, we learn from the Torah portion that the contrary can also be true. As the slaves prepared to leave Egypt “God placed favour in the eyes of the Egyptians” towards the Israelites.8 The Egyptians, the Torah tells us, encouraged the people to leave, handing over to them food, money and clothes.9 While Pharaoh and his courtiers can do nothing but harden their hearts, the ordinary Egyptians are compelled to be supportive. If we remove the possibility that God literally interfered with their freedom, the lesson may well be that there are people who, by their very position in society, find themselves becoming allies in struggles against oppression.

This side of the Shoah is also true. Most places under Nazi occupation handed over their Jews willingly, sometimes enthusiastically, as in Poland. Where Bulgaria’s Jews survived it was not because of the goodwill of the government or their leaders’ unwillingness to participate in the slaughter. Much historical evidence suggests that the contrary was the case. It was because the ordinary people of Bulgaria, their non-Jewish neighbours, decided to show them compassion. These citizens worked against their government and occupying powers to stop the persecution and deportation of Jews.10

If we learn anything from this parashah, it is not that we do not have free will but that some hearts are easier to turn than others. Some people are more naturally our allies than others. Over the last few years, much of the Jewish community has engaged in its campaigning against antisemitism by focusing on the people at the top of the political pyramid, making enemies and allies. It is now becoming clear to most that some of those enemies were not as hostile as imagined, and some allies were not really so friendly.

It is a healthy reminder of the saying from the Mishnah: “Be careful with the powerful for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they will not stand by you in the hour of your distress.”11 This dictum may, unfortunately, reveal itself to be true.

But that should not cause us to despair. While the top of the pyramid may be unstable, we can count on the strength of its base. Our allies are the same people they have always been. They are our neighbours, our colleagues, the people who we see every day. They are the people who stand up to racism when they see it on public transport and on the street. They are the ordinary citizens of Britain, with whom we have built strong relationships over many years. Through our solidarity and interactions with them, we can build up the strength not only to overcome the prejudice against us, but against everyone. Together with Muslims, immigrants, foreigners, disabled people, LGBT people, Black people and all those who face discrimination, we can work together to defeat intolerance. And we will succeed. It’s in our nature.

pharoah prince of egypt

I gave this sermon for Parashat Bo on Saturday 1st February at Birmingham Progressive Synagogue

1 cf Lasine, Weighing Hearts

2 Ex 10:1

3 Rashbam to Ex 10:1

4 Ex 10:1

5 Ibn Ezra to Ex 10:20

6 cf Frederick Douglas: “power concedes nothing without a demand”

7 cf Hannah Arendt, ‘Eichman in Jerusalem’

8 Ex 11:3

9 Ex 12:33-36

10 cf Todorov, the Fragility of Goodness

11 Pirkei Avot 2:3