Why Does Monotheism Matter?


In the previous video (#2, “What is Monotheism?”) we explored what monotheism is.  In this one, we will understand how and why this single point is so significant that it can bring blessing to the entire world.

Let’s begin by reviewing everything we have said so far – starting by thinking again about the pagan gods that most people back in Avraham’s time worshipped.  The gods they conceived of were very similar to people: not only did they often look human, but they also engaged in human-like behaviors, reactions, and dynamics. In contrast, Avraham’s God (as understood by Jewish tradition – see below) is infinite, all-knowing, all-powerful, and benevolent. That’s an entirely different concept.

In our introductory video, we suggested that the purpose of the Am Levadad observing the Torah as a kingdom of priests is for us to construct a model society based on these convictions that Avraham taught, to serve as an example for the rest of the world. We also discussed Isaiah’s vision of the Days to Come, in which he foresaw all the nations – having learned about ethical monotheism from this example – ascending to God’s Temple to learn and follow His Torah. With those two points in mind, it’s not an exaggeration to state that the entire Torah and its plan for history are based on this one fundamental concept: monotheism.

But that still doesn’t answer the question.  Why is this the case?  What’s so important about exactly what kind of God, or gods, people do or don’t believe in?  Why does it matter so much?

It’s not an exaggeration to state that the entire Torah and its plan for history are based on this one fundamental concept: monotheism.

To understand this, it may be useful to look at the stories the Torah tells us about Avraham. In our previous videos, we talked about how Avraham taught people the concept of monotheism. But surprisingly, although the rabbis spoke a lot about this, the Torah’s text itself tells a slightly different story.

Much of our identification of Avraham as “the father of monotheism” comes from the rabbinic tales in the Midrash and Talmud – a few of which were quoted in the annotated transcript of video #2. 

Certainly, these stories expound upon an idea that is expressed in the biblical text itself.  For example, on three separate occasions, it says that Avraham “called out in the name of God” (Bereishit 12:8, 13:4, 21:33). Additionally, we are told that Avraham had a relationship of mutual respect (including tithes paid by Avraham) with Malki Tzedek, king of Shalem, who is described as a priest to “God the Most High” (14:18-20) – presumably meaning that he was one of the only other monotheists in the world at that time. 

These verses do not provide anything approaching a detailed theology. Nevertheless, the Talmud and later thinkers, such as Rambam (Maimonides), debated these concepts and shaped our thinking about the theological aspects of Avraham’s message.  

Rambam eventually formulated his famous “13 principles of faith” which have become the most accepted definition of Jewish belief.  While there is much debate (both among Rambam’s contemporaries and later Jewish scholars throughout the ages) about many of the details, and while it is far from certain how much these medieval and modern conceptions match Avraham’s understanding, for our purposes those issues are not particularly important. What matters for this discussion is that the belief that Avraham popularized became the basis of the Jewish theology that ultimately emerged, and which has already spread beyond the Jews to others who also accept what is sometimes called “Abrahamic monotheism”.

The first five of Rambam’s principles, as well as the tenth, deal with the definition of God.  They are:

1.	God is the uncreated Creator and Ruler of the universe
2.	God is one
3.	God is non-corporeal, meaning that He has no physical essence
4.	God is eternal
5.	It is appropriate to pray to God, and not appropriate to pray to or worship anyone or anything else
10.	God knows everything, including all of our actions and thoughts

At the same time, though, as mentioned above, theology occupies a fairly minor place in the biblical narratives about Avraham.  The Torah devotes much more attention to the themes of kindness and justice that Avraham exemplified: the practical application of his monotheism, as opposed to the theory.

But surprisingly, although the rabbis spoke a lot about this, the Torah’s text itself tells a slightly different story. While there are certainly references that support the rabbinic accounts, talking about God doesn’t seem to be the main point. The Torah actually devotes most of its narrative about Avraham to other aspects of his life and activities.

When we look at Avraham’s life, we find him fighting to rescue captive prisoners (chapter 14), welcoming guests into his tent (18:1-8), pleading with God to spare the residents of Sodom and its neighbors (18:20-32), and exhorting others to act with honesty and justice (20:11, 21:24). And when God commented on Avraham’s merits, He described it this way:

" כִּ֣י יְדַעְתִּ֗יו לְמַ֩עַן֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר יְצַוֶּ֜ה אֶת בָּנָ֤יו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ֙ אַחֲרָ֔יו וְשָֽׁמְרוּ֙ דֶּ֣רֶךְ ה' לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת צְדָקָ֖ה וּמִשְׁפָּ֑ט לְמַ֗עַן הָבִ֤יא ה' עַל אַבְרָהָ֔ם אֵ֥ת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּ֖ר עָלָֽיו׃"

 “For I have chosen him, so that he will charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring about for Avraham what He has promised him.” (Genesis 18:19).

So it seems that the themes of kindness and justice were central to Avraham’s life and mission, at least as much as matters of faith were. And if we look more deeply into Avraham’s conception, we will see that these things are related; the themes of kindness and justice flow directly from Avraham’s recognition of one infinite and all-powerful God.

As we explained in video #2, polytheists – like modern atheists – believe in a world without a single ruler; a world with no one ultimately in charge.  But in Avraham’s world, and in the philosophy laid out in the Torah, the opposite is true – everything and everyone in the universe is ruled by the same God, all humans were created in His image, and He commands us all to respect each other and treat each other properly. That’s why Avraham’s monotheism is called ethical monotheism.

So it seems that the themes of kindness and justice were central to Avraham’s life and mission, at least as much as matters of faith were.

It’s important to point out that accepting monotheism does not intrinsically require the rejection of any worship of other powers. People can – and historically, many, both Jews and non-Jews, did – affirm the existence of one all-powerful God while still believing in and worshipping other entities such as angels, minor deities, or forces of nature.

Indeed, Rambam maintains that idol worship began among monotheists, not polytheists:

“During the times of Enosh, mankind made a great mistake, and the wise men of that generation gave thoughtless counsel….

Their mistake was as follows: They said, God created stars and spheres with which to control the world. He placed them on high and treated them with honor, making them servants who minister before Him. Accordingly, it is fitting to praise and glorify them and to treat them with honor. [They perceived] this to be the will of God, blessed be He, that they magnify and honor those whom He magnified and honored, just as a king desires that the servants who stand before him be honored. Indeed, doing so is an expression of honor to the king.

After conceiving of this notion, they began to construct temples to the stars and offer sacrifices to them. They would praise and glorify them with words, and prostrate themselves before them, because by doing so, they would - according to their false conception - be fulfilling the will of God.

This was the essence of the worship of false gods, and this was the rationale of those who worshiped them. They would not say that there is no other god except for this star.”  (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 1:1, translation by Eliyahu Touger via Sefaria).

Ramban (Nachmanides) explains the sin of the Golden Calf in a similar way, arguing that the people who built the calf and offered sacrifices in front of it nonetheless continued to believe in God (Shemot 32:1).

The Tanakh indicates that idolatry was also not uncommon among our ancestors in later periods, even though they believed in and worshiped the God of Avraham.  For example, the book of Melachim (I Kings 18:21) describes the prophet Eliyahu’s confrontation with the false prophets of the Canaanite god Baal during the days of King Ahav. Due to the influence of Ahav and his wife Izevel, worship of Baal had become very common in the Kingdom of Israel.  Eliyahu rebuked the people for “wavering between two opinions”, challenging them to choose a side and follow either God or Baal. 

However, it says that the people had nothing to say in response; they worshiped both God and Baal, and saw no contradiction in this.  It seems that they didn’t even understand why Eliyahu was demanding that they choose.

Archeological evidence also indicates that the ancient Israelites worshipped idols alongside their worship of God.  Hundreds of ritual figurines and other cultic objects associated with idolatry have been discovered in the land of Israel dating to the First Temple period – including many such items found in Jerusalem itself.

While conceding that there is one God who rules everything, such idolatrous worship can be based on the assumption that God has assistants and subordinates who have been granted a degree of autonomy. Just as someone who needs help from the government will not necessarily approach the king or president (or the mayor of the city) but may instead appeal to a mid- or low-level officer or clerk with the authority to help him, the “monotheistic idolator” may similarly appeal directly to the authority he believes is responsible for health, livelihood, fertility, or whatever else he needs.

But Avraham’s message demanded complete allegiance to God, insisting that we worship Him alone, thereby acknowledging that any intermediaries or “assistants” He may employ have no autonomy or independent will. Rejecting idolatry, therefore, means rejecting the idea that anyone or anything else has any control or power at all.

But by itself, merely refraining from idolatry is also not enough. To accomplish the transformation leading to the promised blessing, humans must do more than simply accept or affirm the truth of pure monotheism.  This declaration must come with the appropriate action. And therefore, Avraham taught that besides rejecting idolatrous worship, people must also actively worship the one true God, to ensure that their belief is more than theoretical; in order for monotheism to be transformative, it has to become an integral part of the believer’s psyche. That’s why, at several points in his life, we are told that Avraham not only “called out in the name of God”, but also built an altar to God (Bereishit 12:7,8; 13:18). These altars demonstrated that he wasn’t speaking about abstract philosophy, but about a God who demands that we worship Him and follow His commandments.

To accomplish the transformation leading to the promised blessing, humans must do more than simply accept or affirm the truth of pure monotheism.  This declaration must come with the appropriate action.

This can perhaps be understood as an implicit rejection of yet another modern philosophy, which is sometimes called by the name Deism: the belief that there is a God who designed and created the world, but remains entirely apart from it, and isn’t involved with it at all. According to this view, God is not concerned with what happens on earth, and He never interferes with human affairs. It follows, therefore, that according to this belief, there can be no true prophecy, no revealed religious texts, and no divine judgment.

Deism can be quite comfortable both from a philosophical perspective (it seems reasonable that an infinite, eternal, perfect God would not interact with transient imperfect beings such as us) and from a practical one (there are no commandments other than, according to some, a vague imperative to live an ethical and good life).

But Avraham’s belief rejected this as well. Avraham’s God is intimately involved with His creations. He rules, commands, and judges the world, which creates a moral obligation to worship Him, acknowledge our dependence upon Him, and express gratitude to Him for everything we have. This worship is intended to keep us focused on our purpose as humans, to elevate ourselves by following God’s commandments to “perform [acts of] kindness and justice,” as He said about Avrhaam.

That’s why monotheism matters so much, and that’s how it can bring blessings to the world.  In our next video – #4 “The Torah is not Only for Jews” – we will try to understand God’s plan for how the nation of Avraham’s descendants – the Am Levadad – was meant to facilitate this worldwide transformation.

Dive deeper

I actually think the polytheist and the atheist are quite similar to each other – in fact, they’re almost identical! One might even describe atheism as a special form of polytheism.
What do I mean by this?
Well, let’s realize that in classic polytheistic conceptions of the world – even if there was often a “head” or “chief” god, there was no single ruler in charge of everything. Instead, the polytheist viewed the universe as a chaotic place controlled by various powers, which he personified and called “gods”. While the specific names and mythologies varied from one region or culture to another, there were striking similarities between them. They all believed in a pantheon of gods, each of which was thought to be responsible for a different natural or human phenomenon: there was usually a sun god and a moon god, a god of wind, a god of rain, a god (or often, goddess) of fertility, a god of war, a god of love, and so on. And at least in ancient times, these gods often looked and behaved very much like humans: They were jealous of each other, fought with one another, formed alliances, and deceived one another.
To survive in such a world, the polytheist would worship the various gods and try to figure out what they needed so he could win their favor and entice them to act in his interest. He might also engage in magical rituals that he believed could harness various forces to help him.
Now let’s compare this to the way a modern atheist sees the world. Unlike the polytheist, she doesn’t believe in gods with personalities and emotions. But beyond that distinction, her vision of the world is very similar. She also sees a chaotic universe in which various forces interact and clash with one another. Her universe, like that of the polytheist, has no ruler, and nobody in charge.

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