Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, November 8, 2019 / 10 Cheshvan 5780
Rabbi Elana Zaiman is here for our 4th Annual Yoni Suher Memorial Scholar in Residence Weekend! Please attend.
Summary: In a somewhat theological Oasis Song, Rabbi Kosak reflects on what is new, what is not, and what the real meaning of monotheism is.
Have you ever found yourself bothered by society’s incessant need for reinvention? For the way we are always looking for the next big thing? Sometimes something new comes on the scene, but just as often, the words of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) ring true. “There is nothing new under the sun.” It’s our memory, our lack of historical knowledge that are at fault. Our desire for novelty and some chronic human dissatisfaction with the present drives us away from the tried and true. How many of us even believe that there is a “tried and true” way of relating to the world, to society or anything else for that matter?
We are fooled by the veneers of things, by how well a nice shiny surface can obscure the tired old medium density fiberboard underneath. In our age of rapidly moving technology, we are surrounded by these sorts of skins, which is to say that the meaning of an invention or a sociological change may not be particularly innovative even if the packaging is.
Take cryptocurrencies as an example. For those who follow these sorts of things, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook recently had to appear before Congress and defend his company’s many excesses. Among the complaints he had to navigate were those dealing with Libra, Facebook’s attempt to create its own monetary unit.
On the one hand, digital currencies like Bitcoin or the incipient Libra are radically new, generated as they are by very complex algorithms that “mine” value from mathematical scarcity (and lots of energy use). On the other hand, as soon as we stepped away from direct exchange of goods and services (the barter system), money has always been symbolic, an agreement that a society makes—“this has value.”
Governments throughout history have tried to maintain a monopoly on money and reserve the right to mint it to themselves. They have desired sole or at least primary authority over the symbolic realm of exchange. Once the world left the gold standard (itself a convention) the symbolic meaning of money was only heightened. Simultaneously, non-government actors have often labored to create different units of exchange beyond the reach of governments. Certain goods, such as salt, transformed from a table condiment into money over 4000 years ago. To this day, there are nomads in Ethiopia’s Danakil Plains who continue to use salt in this manner.
What has this got to do with Judaism? If we were to stick with money, we could look at those Israeli companies working to create digital currencies of their own. We could acknowledge that for better or worse (worse in my mind), Zuckerberg is Jewish. We could also return to the Bible, for which no human endeavor is beyond concern. Money, barter and exchange are constant issues. In two weeks, for example, synagogues the world over will read parshat Chayei Sarah and hear Abraham’s negotiations to purchase a burial plot for his wife and family. In a part of the world where land remains the primary unit of “real” value, this is a telling narrative. The locals don’t want to part with their land because money comes and goes, but the earth is eternal.
Yet cryptocurrency is merely one of our current infatuations with something that appears new on the surface, yet is as ancient as human society. This week’s Torah reading of Lekh Lekha (Genesis 12:1-17:27) presents us with a story about a substantial form of novelty. It is here and in our oral tradition that Abraham forswears idolatry and paganism as he comes to realize that there is only one God, one single entity who stands behind all of creation. In the face of this paradigm-shifting epiphany, Abraham appears to leave everything familiar behind and travels to new lands. His insight, in other words, is inherently disruptive to him and his family. Yet how original is his spiritual discovery? It’s not exactly as though people are godless in his cultural milieu. Paganism absolutely recognizes that there are invisible forces who hold sway over the world. Moreover, the belief in one god hardly was unique to Abraham. While early Egyptian religion was polytheistic, scholars hold that under the reign of Amenhotep IV, (1364-1347 B.C), it became monotheistic, focused on the worship of Ra, the sun god.
From the Bible’s internal chronology, this poses no challenge to the originality of Abraham’s faith, for he was born around 1800 BCE, five hundred years before the Egyptians turned to some form of monotheistic belief. While some early 20th century Biblical scholars had imagined that Abraham was a much later literary creation, archeological evidence at Mari, a royal palace, and elsewhere, provided ancient writings that argue convincingly how the Abraham narratives correspond to that earlier Biblical time, what one scholar phrased, “the rediscovery of the Old Testament.”
Yet Maimonides (Rambam), writing a thousand years ago, believed that Noah and other early humans were monotheistic, and that this pure understanding slowly was lost until Abraham recovered it. In my learning, I have not been able to derive any external, non-Jewish, scholarship that would support this claim by the Rambam. It is thus impossible to corroborate whether or not Abraham’s monotheism was original to him, or if earlier humans shared his religious conviction.
But let’s return to this question about polytheism versus monotheism. Is this just another example of a skin or veneer covering an older insight that has been around in one form or another? Or is there something unique to monotheistic creed?
If we set aside our Jewish upbringing, polytheism makes a lot more sense. The world is a mess of differences. Variety is everywhere. All sorts of forces vie for supremacy. Explaining the divisions of life by referring to multiple gods is not ridiculous. It also leads us, however, to the logical conclusion that the world is chaotic and ultimately lacking in meaning. In Darwinian terms, life is just about power, so grab yours. That’s not a bad description of the present moment.
Monotheism presents a completely different notion of reality, one which runs counter to our experiences. It argues that the world is unified and that there is an underlying order to the world. Purpose, meaning and morality all are grounded in the fact that God and only God, is the ground of being. Life is not a free-for-all, and the role of history is to enable us humans to come to terms with this. That’s the premise of the Aleynu prayer. It is the basis for our science, which is the study of how things make sense, of how there is an understandable order which we can uncover.
Whether Rambam is correct, and Abraham was only restating what Noah knew, or whether Abraham had a startling realization, a fact remains. Monotheism is a remarkable and startling concept. It’s not repackaging of what came before it. In monotheism, there is no veneer; God is at the center and God is at the periphery and there is nowhere God is not.
In fact, when taken seriously, monotheism remains shocking and unexpected. Although America is a deeply religious country in which over 90% express some sort of belief in God, the implications of that belief contain innovations that we struggle to comprehend. If we really believed, if we could truly wrap our heads around it, most of our lives would have to change. Monotheism is the ultimate disruptor. It changes
And 3800 years ago, our tradition teaches us, someone got it. It changed everything, giving birth to the West, to the very concepts of the Enlightenment and the value of all life. That’s a novelty that never ceases to surprise.
Shabbat Table Talk
- Who taught you the Shema? How did they do so?
- Do you believe that there is an underlying order to existence? If so, how do you square that away with what the world looks like? If not, how do you affirm that life is meaningful?
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