Saturday, January 13, 2007

What Monotheism Means to Me -

If Abraham received revelation and was so successfully able to reason G-d’s existence and the non-existence of the deities being worshipped, why did a conceptual development of Divinity occur in Abraham’s mind; why didn’t he intrinsically know that G-d existed?This is a question I’ve always bothered myself with. We know from the Torah that there were people prior to Abraham who held polytheistic beliefs and that with Abraham came monotheism. The Torah tradition also alludes to a certain type of development of understanding in Abraham’s mind as to the nature of monotheism, that it was something he reasoned must be true through perceiving the implicit falsehoods of polytheism. For example, a midrash says that Abraham believed that the moon must have been the prime Divinity since it lit up the night. When the morning came and the sun rose, he reasoned that the sun was the prime Divinity since it replaced the moon. Then when the moon returned at night he reasoned that there must be a force beyond the two in control of both of them. Another midrash explains the same scenario about the moon and the sun, except that he saw the sun’s reflection in the water and reasoned that the water was the prime Divinity, and he went so on and so with every element of nature until he reached far back enough to reason that G-d existed and created everything.

Herein lies the question. We know for a fact, historically speaking, that there was polytheism before monotheism, meaning that during and before Abraham’s time (and after, of course) he witnessed such polytheism. Another way to ask the question is, why do I believe that monotheism is true if it was presented to the world through the development of a conceptual process? If monotheism is just another idea, albeit a “better idea” that any of the polytheisms, how am I so convinced that it is indeed true? How am I convinced that the One G-d Whom I know exists and in Whom I believe is not just another idea on the scale of polytheism to monotheism? How do I know that He is not an idea on the gradual spectrum of humanity’s ideas, indicating an “evolution” of thought from polytheism to monotheism? Finally, and perhaps this encompasses all of these questions, how can I be sure that He is real if He was “discovered” through an ideological process, not to mention, the ideological process of one man?
Let us try to get into Abraham’s head using what we know about him through the tradition of the Torah. According to the midrashim I referenced, Abraham went through a conceptual process of sorts until he understood that G-d existed, at which point G-d removed the barrier of doubt and actually spoke to Abraham, revealing Himself to him. The way I understand it, once Abraham successfully removed all of the other options of true forms of divinity, he was left with only one glaring option, and at the moment that he succeeded in that, the Object of his thought, G-d, revealed Himself to him from His Place.

However, this doesn’t really do much to explain the developmental process.

Let us look at G-d’s existence as a mere concept. Let us assume that it was a concept that Abraham reached after measuring and evaluating, as it were, all of the other forms of religious worship and beliefs of his day. What is so powerful and truth-revealing about the concept that the One G-d exists that would logically do away with all of the other forms of belief and worship? Why does this particular recognition inherently reject the existence of other “theologies” contemporary to Abraham, showing them all to be glaring lies? What is so air-tight about the reasoning of monotheism that tore holes in the reasoning of polytheism, rendering it useless? The answer is that the monotheism that Abraham suggested did not allow the various and disparate ranges of spirituality, existing independent of each other, to hold logical value (“logic” having a different meaning some 3,000 years ago than it does today) in light of the unified whole that monotheism implied.

Each form of polytheism covered some element of physical nature or of the nature of humanity, and therefore expressed some inherent elements of truth. However, each form, which we can call “religions,” covered a different element of truth without regards to what another religion had to say and therefore many of them said contradictory things to the other. Yet, none of the believers in each of these religions stopped to wonder why so many different religions existed, giving pause, not necessarily to wonder about the nature of their own belief, but about the nature of the relationship between their belief and that of someone else. Remember, each belief stated its own absolute truth; how could several religions be absolutely true? On the other hand, beyond contradiction, there were several religions that overlapped in areas of “philosophy,” i.e., they had areas of agreement; how could it be that there were areas of truth common to a set of religions when the rest of the belief systems were in disagreement? We also cannot overlook the reality that the nations worshipped vastly different gods and goddesses from each other; did it not dawn on them that it was impossible for several different deities to have all created the world, and in manners entirely different from each other? The holes of polytheism became apparent from the reality that they were different, yet each assumed universality.

Further, what about the areas of “theology” that a group of religions left out, each being scattered and grouped along a spectrum of beliefs? What truths rested in the gaps existing between the scopes of several religions, in the areas that they left untouched? The monotheism of Abraham succeeded in understanding the inherent relationship between all of these disparate views, focusing in on them, seeing them as a whole, unifying them (often against their wishes) and therefore “correcting” some of their misguided beliefs, revealing the true message beyond a particular belief or ritual. This also required some "adjusting" (such as, but not limited to, the ending of human sacrifice and its replacement with animal sacrifice, which continued in Judaism up until the year 70 of the Common Era when the Temple was destroyed. Animal sacrifices were a mainstream part of Judaism quite possibly longer than normal religious developments would have dictated; they ended only because the edifice in which they took place was destroyed and all records in the Torah show that they would have continued). There was nothing that the polytheisms could do in light of the revelations of Abraham other than accede to their own false nature and logic other than a) be at war with monotheism. In that time, this “accession” and merging into the whole of monotheism can be given our contemporary word, “conversion,” and it is recorded in Genesis that Abraham and Sarah converted several people. (Abram took his wife Sarai and Lot, his brother's son, and all their wealth that they had amassed, and the souls they made in Haran; and they left to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan." (Genesis 12:5) Abram and Sarai were childless at this point, and so "the souls they made" were not their (literal) children, but rather converts, as the Talmudic commentator Rashi explains.

The question still remains; does a conceptual social transformation indicate the absolute truth of the concept? This is a great question seeing that it refuses to go away. The answer lies somewhere in our realm and G-d’s Realm. The absolute universalism and transcendence inherent to the concept, clarifying all aspects of life and the nature of humanity, leaves no room for it to be a concept and not a reality. In other words, the fact that it is a concept is an indication of the finite, limited, and human fallibility that grasps it, but the fact that it is infinite, universal, and transcendent in scope, clarifying all of life and leaving no room for an alternative cogent perspective, indicates immediately that it is real and true, in the literal and tangible sense. So to answer the question, given the nature of this concept, like which there is none other in the broad grasp of human cognition, the very existence of the concept is testimony to its being real, literal, physical, tangible, and of course, true.

Also, let us look at the word “recognition,” the very make-up of the word explains its meaning; “re” and “cognition.” “Re” means “again” and “cognition” means “understanding” or “perception” – to recognize something means to once again gain an understanding of something. That humanity, through Abraham, recognized that G-d existed, means that humanity held a knowledge of G-d prior to the time of Abraham. The Torah itself records this in its first book, Genesis, when it records that the people living before Abraham’s time, namely Adam, Eve, their children and other contemporaries, and Noah and his family, testifies that monotheism existed before Abraham’s time. In the period between Noah and Abraham, it seems that humanity had forgotten about and lost the knowledge of the One G-d, it recognized it when Abraham, after this period of “drought,” reasoned that G-d indeed existed. What vestige of the monotheistic tradition pre-existing Abraham was available to him is difficult to glean from the text of the Torah, but we know that he is responsible for re-introducing it to the world.
To conclude, considering the vast nature of the “jump” from the reasoning of polytheism to monotheism, it is absolutely impossible that another jump could be made from the monotheism of Abraham to something more unified and holistic; no such jump of equal magnitude can ever be accomplished again. I am speaking of course about Christianity and Islam, and every other religion claiming a supersessionist spot in the G-d narrative. Neither Jesus nor Muhammad were able to teach something new to the world, not because they had personal deficiencies, but because there was nothing new under the sun to bring forth. The apparent aggression of both Christianity and Islam, in their empire forms, is due to this inability to spread their religions on the basis of a new and unique theology, totally re-doing the previous; only political power and military prowess facilititated their spread. Yet, both of their narratives record that the religions spread because people had become absolutely convinced. At least the Muslim historical record accedes that Muhammad unified political power; Christianity likes to ignore that an ingenuinely converted pagan (Constantine) was the emperor of Rome, and it was he who caused Christianity to spread to where it did. The message of Jesus might have belonged to Jesus, but Constantine, who did not even believe in Jesus or Christianity, was responsible for spreading it; this shows that Christianity was a political force as much as it was a religion.

That no new religion, theology, or philosophy was able to actually supplant Judaism, this is to say that everything that had to be revealed to humanity was revealed through Abraham’s reasoning and the subsequent revelation by G-d, and there is no other revelation that could possibly achieve what Abraham’s revelation achieved. Further, the Promise of Torah and Israel were given to the descendants of Isaac - the Covenant G-d made with Abraham was the same Covenant that G-d made with Moses. We are left with a glaring and unchanging, and perhaps discomforting truth, that Abraham’s revelation is singularly the most important revelation that humanity has received and that all human knowledge and existence is hinged upon it. The discomforting, but ultimately comforting thing, is that nothing else matters and that nothing else (or different) is true. We should not fear this if indeed G-d is our King, for He will never act unjustly.

No comments: