Why Is It So Important That G!D is One?
Shema Yisrael A-donai Elo-heinu
Listen Up, (Community of) Israel, A-donai is our G!D, A-donai is One!
These are arguably the most famous 6 words in all of Judaism and they are found in this week’s parshah, Va’Etchanan.
Have you ever asked yourself— Why is it so important in Judaism that there is only one unseen G!D and not many?
Of course we all know that pagan religions had multiple gods and were taught that monotheism was a huge leap of human understanding and one of Judaism’s unique contributions to the world. YAY Jews!
But now ask yourself— So what did/does the idea of monotheism contribute to the world?
Makes ya go ‘hmmmm,’ doesn’t it?!?
Interesting to think about all those teachings we take for granted but never really take a moment and delve deeply. So here are 3 reasons to consider and I’d love to hear if you have thought of more…
Because G!D (or gods) represents our ultimate values, they influence how we view the world and what our highest aspirations will be.
What values are conveyed by one G!D versus many? Multiple gods means hierarchies of power, struggles, and wars among them. That’s why pagan religions all have an extensive mythology— i.e., stories of the gods--how they were born and how they die, their personalities, their children and spouses.
If gods can be born, they can die; thus, they have limited power. And if they can be born, then there must be a time/place before the gods. Therefore, in paganism, man and gods are subject to the Fates, pre-existing powers that sometimes can be manipulated through incantation, divination, and magic.
Reason One: A singular G!D points to harmony and unity as the highest value. Where we see multiplicity or binary dualities in the world (many races, many cultures, male/female, enemy/friend, etc…), through monotheism we are encouraged to look for the underlying unity of all, since The Reality of Life is an All-Connected Unity.
What further values are conveyed by one G!D versus many? As noted above, in pagan traditions, the mythological gods are routinely depicted as aspects of nature— sun, moon, sky, seas, etc…. If the gods (i.e., our highest values) are associated with nature, then nature expresses society’s highest values and serves as an archetype for understanding the way the world works and should work.
However, Nature has no particular meaning or direction to it. Nature is unpredictable and does not operate according to moral standards. Since the gods express aspects of nature, they too can be unpredictable & immoral. And since the gods represent ultimate values, life itself would share these same characteristics—unpredictable, immoral, and potentially purposeless (other than to serve the gods and their capricious whims).
Nature is also cyclical, not progressive. If life is like nature, than life is an endlessly repeating cycle of events (it’s always been this way; it will always be this way). Reality—what is—is the archetype for how things should be. Thus, a pagan world-view could imply a lack of desire to improve nature-- or the social order that is its extension --since this is ‘the nature of things’ and not subject to human change.
Reason Two: In monotheism, since there is a source of value beyond the world (i.e., G!d), “what can be” is the archetype for how things should be. Therefore, how things are--starving children, innocents suffering, oppression, violence, disease-- is not the only reality. “What is” can become “what ought to be” if we choose to change/work for it. This spurs the drive for social betterment, social protest, prophetic and progressive ideals.
Additionally, in monotheism the world has meaning and direction. God posits moral standards that aren’t natural. Thus, there are values beyond “what is natural” (i.e., it is not natural to take care of the handicapped or the orphan; it is natural to eat get rid of them as expensive burdens on society) and G!D demands of human beings to rise above the animals and become “holy” (or more G!D-like, rather than animal-like).
What further values are conveyed by one G!D versus many? In paganism, the gods are expressed in physical terms since they are associated with physical elements, which is known in strict monotheistic traditions as idolatry. And if your highest value (gods) are physical, therefore all things physical/tangible-- beauty, fertility, sexuality & youth- are the most valued. Further, in bowing to a physical image of god, we are really bowing to our own image (thus, idolatry is essentially narcissism and encourages self-worship and egotism.) Note that in pagan mythologies, the gods are often just more powerful representations of ourselves (families, fights, sexuality, power struggles, etc…)
Reason Three: Monotheism values the meta-physical/ the intangible: wisdom and morality over the physical. God is asexual, served through study, prayer, deeds. Monotheism posits a non-human reality beyond ourselves, engendering humility, a sense of human limitation without a sense of human incapacitation. Because there are no Fates, we all have free will and thus, must take responsibility for our actions.
Rabbi Stephen Baars of Aish.com has written:
“It is a natural consequence that whatever you believe in,
you will become like that thing. Whatever you imagine as the highest expression of life is what you will idealize, imitate, and desire.”
I couldn’t agree more.