Monday, October 15, 2012

Who is like you?

Mi chamochah ba'elim Adonai? 
Who is like you among the gods, Oh, Lord?

These words echo in my mind from my earliest years. One of the few pieces of the liturgy still sung in Hebrew in even the most Reform of Jewish temples, Mi Chamochah is from the "Song at the Sea," raised by the ancient Hebrews as they stood on the far shore of the Red Sea after the flight from Egypt. (Exodus 15:1-18). Now no longer slaves, but free people, the Hebrews sang glory to their god, for, "He is my strength and my song and he has become my salvation; this is my god, and I will glorify him!"

My god, not the god. Who is like him among the gods!

Oh, Lord! Among the gods. Plural gods.

In those days, even the Hebrews knew that there existed more than one god, and although they cherished their god and had been chosen by him, and prayed that one day every knee would bow to him, and said they would have no other gods before him and that he would be their only one, and although they claimed that he was the Great One, the One who had created the heavens and the earth, they were well aware that there existed other gods. After all, they were surrounded by other gods and many people living all around them in the ancient world were polytheists, worshiping more than one god. The understanding that there exist many gods but that only one is worthy of worship makes the ancient Hebrews "monolatrists" rather than monotheists.
  • A monolatrist believes in the existence of many gods, but chooses one as the only worthy god.
  • A monotheist is someone who believes that there exists only one god, the Great One-and-Only Everything "G"od. The capital "G" sets their god apart from other gods, which by definition cannot really exist.
  • A henotheist believes in the existence of many gods, and worships one god, which he or she chooses as worthy from among equally valid gods.
  • A polytheist believes in the existence of many gods and worships many gods at one time. *
As Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other book religions evolved over time, they became highly monotheistic, claiming that their particular god was the only real one, that all other gods were fictions or superstitions. Since there could only be one, and theirs was the one, it was inevitable that conflict should arise between the various monotheistic religions. Meanwhile, we have social anthropologists and monotheistic apologists claiming that monotheism is the most highly evolved form of religion, the most authoritative, even the most scientific, and this claim has become generally accepted as true.

When I look around me today, however, I see many gods and goddesses, just as my ancestors did on the shores of the Red Sea. There's Islam's Allah and the Jews' Adonai, the Hindu pantheon, the gods of the Eastern religions and the African religions, the resurrected gods of the neo-Pagans, and enough varieties of Jesus Christ to spin your head around, to say nothing of the Creator "G"od of the Christians and the Virgin Mary, who is "venerated" instead of worshiped, but who sure looks like a goddess to me.

Lots of gods. And why shouldn't there be? The universe is defined by diversity. Seven billion people, 9 sextillion stars, and 7,500,000,000,000,000,000 grains of sand in the world (according to the University of Hawaii) . . . and only one god? I'm not even convinced that there's only one universe, or only one dimensional reality, and neither are the scientists. Only one god? Bunk and hokum! Thousands of gods that we humans seem to know. The question that concerns me is not "which god is the real one," since they all apparently exist, but "which god do you follow and where is he leading you?"

* These definitions are simplified, but they will help us to have a conversation about polytheism and monotheism. 


rbarenblat said...

I like your way of looking at this.

For my part, I'm most comfortable reading all of the many gods as faces of the One -- different incarnations, different revelations; as Reb Zalman says, God broadcasts on all channels, and different peoples hear based on where they're tuned-in -- but I like the last line of this post very much. What matters most to me isn't what one calls divinity, but how one's spiritual path calls one to treat others.

puny human said...

Thanks for your comment, Rachel. I'm honored to have you here. I visited your blog and found that we think in many ways alike. I was particularly struck by this line:

"We live, and if we are lucky, we grow old. We care for each other. We love one another. What else is there, in the end?"

Maybe all of my worrying and wondering is unnecessary. I've got love . . . what else is there, in the end?
Best, Puny