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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776
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Monotheism; Polytheism; Humanism

  1. Is it accurate to say that prior to Mt. Sinai our ancestors were ethical monotheists, but not "Jews" religiously or nationally?
    180 units (more or less)

  2. The answer, of course, depends on who you ask. The rabbis would likely suggest that our ancestors prior to the Revelation at Sinai were Jews. After all, they contend that Jacob attended the Torah Academy of Shem and Ever! Midrash aside, I think you are correct in your analysis, but this raises an even more sticky issue as to when our ancestors actually became monotheists.

    There is a lot of room to suggest that although El Shaddai was considered to be the most powerful God of gods, it is not clear that the Hebrews necessarily believed that this was the only god. Indeed, in this week's Torah portion Jacob commands his household to cast out their alien gods. Rachel took off with Laban's idols something for which, midrashically speaking, she paid for dearly with her untimely death secondary to Jacob's inadvertent curse.

    Throughout the Tanach it is questionable as to when we really became monotheists based on the behavior of our ancestors. As you are aware, the term Jew is derived from the tribe of Judah and the Land of Judea following the defection of the 10 Northern Tribes to create Israel.


  3. Yehezkel Kaufman actually argues that the patriarchs were not monotheists. See The Religion of Israel, tr/abridged by Moshe Greenberg, Schocken Paperback 1972, chapter on "The History of Israelite Religion Prior to Classical Prophecy" -- pp 218ff in my edition, especially 221ff.

    He says, "Biblical tradition represents the patriarchs as monotheists... It is the view of the Bible that primeval men were monotheists.... biblical tradition conceived the origin of idolatry as coeval with the origin of nations at the confusion of tongues. For from Genesis 12 the worship of the one God is maintained by Abraham and his descendants alone, while the rest of the world--aside from such individual exceptions as Melchizedek--are idolators...

    "[But] there is no evidence for the biblical notion that the religion of primitive men was monotheism.... the Bible itself attests indirectly to the fact that Israel's monotheism is postpatriarchial. Historical monotheism is associated always with certain phenomena which serve as its organic framework: Apostolic prophecy, the battle with idolatry, and the name of YHWH. Patriarchal times know none of these...the first apostolic prophet is Moses....Indeed, there is no religious contrast between the patriarchs and their surroundings. The tension between Israel and the pagan world arises first with the appearance of Moses."


  4. ...I don't think anyone has ever argued that there were no other gods. Take the Mi Chamoca, for instance: Mi Chamoca, ba'elim Adoni" translates to something along the lines of: "Who among the gods is like You, Adonai?"

  5. How about secular pagans? Weren't there Greeks and Romans who didn't really believe there were gods on Mt Olympus? But they loved going to aunt Livia's house to celebrate Saturnalia with all the cousins once a year anyway.
    180 units (more or less)

  6. Seems to me...that Judaism teaches through the Kabbalah that all pathways to God are valid. They just aren't "our" way, as Jews.

    As for ethical humanists, there are a lot of Jews out there...who are atheists. My cousin belongs to a Jewish Secular Humanist congregation...One of my classes this semester at [a university] is the Role of Religion in American Culture. I've learned that many Jewish immigrants in the early 20th Century traded their religious observance for activism in trade unions. It taught me a lot about my own family! Anybody else out there brought up on Union songs?


  7. ...Last Saturday morning, after the reading, I asked the rabbi, "When did Rachel and Leah become Jews?" I asked it because I have always considered Abraham to be the first Jew while Rachel and Leah were the children of a man who kept family idols. The rabbi answered my question with the question, "Was Abraham a Jew?" His tone said that none of them were Jews. I was really surprised. After all, it wasn't too long ago that I realized that Adam and Noah weren't Jews. But Abraham...not a Jew? I suppose someone will next tell me that he never ate a bagel either!
    180 units (more or less)

  8. I wonder [if Harvey?s rabbi] was "saying" Abraham wasn't a Jew, or was he asking you to delve into a deeper level of the question?

    Also, perhaps somebody else has "references," but I thought that Rachel and Leah converted. But going a step further, I think...four of Jacob's sons were from maidservants. I never heard of them being referred to as Jews. I believe this is one of Reform's proof texts for patrilineal descent.


  9. A couple of weeks ago inLech Lecha, we read "And Abram took his wife Sarai...and all their possessions that they had amassed and the souls that they made in Haran..." (asher asu b'haran...Genesis 12:5) Rashi explains what it means to 'make' souls: "for they took them in under the wings of the Divine Presence (Shechinah) -- Abraham would convert the men, and Sarah would convert the women. Scripture considers them as if they made them..." So the time Abraham and Sarah were in Haran was the model of teaching and role-modeling to effect conversion; but we don't see that action specifically undertaken with others (e.g., Leah and Rachel).

    We also find that Bereishit Rabbah and Rashi emphasize that Rachel's theft of the teraphim (Gen 31:19) was performed in order "to separate her father from idolatry." This suggests obviously shat she herself had so separated already...presumably in her marriage to Jacob. But it's not stated; and certainly there can be a vigorous argument as to whether the theft was motivated altruistically or by a very different drive, a personal desire to retain a connection with the idols of Rachel's youth.

    Finally, there's a decent argument to be made that during biblical and rabbinic periods a woman's participation in the covenant with the God of Israel was effected exclusively through men--father, husband, occasionally brother, and even son (as in the role of the mother who teaches Torah to the son). There is no circumcision or other ritual which specifically enters a female into the covenant. From that perspective it's not necessary to see a "conversion" of Rachel and Leah; they enter the tribe and the covenant when they marry...But that may be an inflammatory digression.


  10. The question [that Harvey and his rabbi] were discussing can be dealt with on several levels: historically, narratively, homiletically.
    1. Cindy responded with a homiletical answer: The rabbis of late antiquity reimagined biblical characters in their own image--naturally Abraham was a "Jew," a paradigm for his descendents. Rachel, in stealing her father's household gods, could certainly not have been attributing any genuine efficacy to them (!)
    2. Within the actual framework of the biblical narrative, Abraham is not conceived as a "Jew," in the strict sense, but rather as the first religious-genetic ancestor of the people Israel (that's the initial name; "Jew" [="Yehudi"] is a later term, referring originally to an inhabitant of Judah, the southern kingdom; later of the Persian province of Yehud; later still of the Greco-Roman province of Judea; it is only in the Greco-Roman period that the term becomes wisely used in a cultural/religious, in addition to geographical, sense. "Judaism"="Iudaismos" is a Greek term referring to the religious culture of the Judeans and those who trace their ancestry to Judea). In the biblical narrative, Rachel and Leah (and other wives in a patriarchal society) follow the tribal/cultural/religious customs of their husbands (Cindy is right here). No "conversion" (or "sign of the covenant") is necessary. But the household gods that Rachel steals indeed have efficacy (that's why she steals them!). The biblical literature from the period of the first commonwealth is not, strictly speaking, monotheistic--because the authors and their fellow Israelites acknowledged the existence of other national gods. They were what is usually called "monolaters" or "henotheists" because they only acknowledged one god as their god--i.e., for the biblical authors, Israel can legitimately worship only one god. It is only as part of the radical theological rethinking brought on by the trauma of the Babylonian exile (586 BCE) that the Judean exiles and returnees become true monotheists in our sense of the world ("Judah's defeat by Babylon does not mean that their god is more powerful than our god; rather Babylon is just our god's tool for punishing us for having violated the covenant; our repentance will lead to our restoration by our god, who in fact is charge of everything in the universe"; that's genuine monotheism)."Ethical monotheism," by the way, is a nineteenth-century term that originates in the cultural politics of German Jews vis a vis their Lutheran/Reformed neighbors in the Kantian tradition.
    3. From a strictly historical point of view, the question is moot because it is misframed. One can ask about the religious identity of the biblical authors and about the ancient Israelites--but the "patriarchal history" is generally conceded to be legendary (as are the narratives of the exodus and the conquest: the archaeological record suggests rather that the Israelites and Judeans were mostly indigenous Canaanites who, at some point, religiously and culturally differentiated themselves from their neighbors; have a look at Bill Dever's book, What Did the Biblical Authors Know and When Did They Know It? and at Israel Finkelstein's and Neil A. Silverman's, The Bible Unearthed). In other words, these are theological/ideological/foundational narratives that were fashioned and refashioned by generations of Israelites to explain themselves to themselves, to justify their sense of difference, unique identity, and way of life.
    Richard Sarason
    Professor of Rabbinic Literature and Thought
    HUC-JIR, Cincinnati


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