Let’s start out with a quote this time, from a recent article by an academic writing in Ha’aretz entitled “Time for Jews To Admit: Other Gods Exist”:
“After thousands of years of monotheistic patronizing, the Jewish people can allow itself now to acknowledge that other gods exist…The idea of God’s oneness sounds like an essential tenet of Judaism. But there are equally essential tenets that Jews have learned to forgo. Actually, it doesn’t demand so much from the Jews. It’s not necessary to stop worshipping the God of Israel – it’s just a matter of recognizing that he’s not the only one.”
Firstly, we’ve seen that there are polytheistic elements that have made their way into mainstream Judaism. Not all Jews may be aware of this, in part due to differing interpretations of notions like the shekhinah, but these concepts now exist in Judaism.
Yes, many Jews are monotheists in the technical academic sense, but what’s also important to recall is that over time, the faith and its tenets have been eroded and have somehow made space for polytheistic ideas.
The person at the center of this Ha’aretz article is Oskar Goldberg (1885-1953), a German orthodox Jew and mystic who developed controversial ideas regarding religious belief. As part of the German Jewish intelligentsia at the time, he existed in circles with such well-known figures as the [German Jewish] philosopher Walter Benjamin and the [German Christian] author Thomas Mann.
Through his own work in trying to study and create a sort of compendium of Kabbalah, Goldberg’s contemporary Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) helped to block ideas like Goldberg’s from advancing. He was to an extent successful, but here we are now, having already read about some polytheistic interpretations existing in Judaism and now reading about Goldberg in Ha’aretz.
As explained in the article, Goldberg asserted that every people needed a god and that gods needed people, creating this kind of mutual dependence and interplay between them.
This relationship, he asserted, made up world history and politics. He writes his scheme as such:
Peoples = Gods = Worlds
It only gets more confusing from there, with the gods acting as a biological center for each people. 
Scholem makes clear in his memoir that Goldberg’s beliefs were to him bizarre. He recalls the competition and theological differences between him and Goldberg:
“I had many dealings…with the group around Oskar Goldberg…the Kabbala was highly regarded by them—not so much because of the religious and philosophical aspects that had prompted me to study it, but on account of its magical implications, about which Goldberg…had the most extravagant notions.”
Goldberg’s ideas—his efforts to ‘make it’ in Kabbalah, let’s say—fell flat. Their highly esoteric, supernatural components also proved incompatible with an important political movement to which Scholem identified—Zionism. Goldberg, on the other hand, found Zionism to be incompatible with his mystical beliefs and therefore opposed it.
Sholem’s approach to Kabbalah, largely based on trying to understand how man and God connect, and his authority of what Kabbalah comprises, won. But what’s interesting is, Shahak tells us, is that even Scholem’s descriptions of Kabbalah are deceptive:
“The great authorities, such as Gershom Scholem, have lent their authority to a system of deceptions in all the ‘sensitive’ areas, the more important ones being the most dishonest and misleading.”
What are the “sensitive” areas? They are particularly controversial ideas in Kabbalah like non-Jews being considered “literally, the wings of Satan, and that the few non-Satanic…among them [i.e. converts to Judaism]…are in reality ‘Jewish souls’ who got lost when Satan violated the Holy Lady (Shekhinah or Matronit…).” That Scholem is also a Zionist makes this idea in Kabbalah even more disturbing.
Discussions of Welcoming Polytheism in Judaism: What It Says about the Faith
The author of the Ha’aretz article rightly points out that Goldberg’s ideas were largely rejected, but the reasons for that do not appear to be as clear as the author asserts. It’s notable that the ideas that the author states were “obviously” rejected, implying that their highly esoteric and polytheistic nature was too much for Judaism to handle. This assertion is deceptive for two reasons. The first is that there already is polytheism in Kabbalah that has made its way into Classical and then in some branches of Orthodox Judaism. The second is that the some of the ideas that he implies were too absurd are now what he is entertaining as useful to Jews.
The mere entertaining of the idea of polytheism within Jewish dogma is remarkable. Imagine for a moment that a Muslim were to write in any newspaper that Muslims should take a polytheistic approach to religion. That person would lose all legitimacy in the Muslim community.
Islam, alhamdulillah, has a clear aqidah. No one takes seriously, for example, any “Muslim” who says worshipping an idol is consistent with Islam, or that Allah can be incarnate within a person. There’s basically zero room for discussion on such matters. Tawhid, i.e., strict monotheism—part of the first pillar of Islam—is the most basic tenet of the faith. No one has any space to argue otherwise and remain within the fold of Islam. We all know this.
It seems in Judaism, however, that such discussions of polytheism not only take place, but they have changed important elements of the religion. Followers adopt rituals that are significant in that they must be performed, not in that they must be understood and have any semblance of mutual consensus as to their meaning. That is what is so remarkable. Shahak comments on the possibility of this phenomenon to occur:
“…the real nature of Classical Judaism [precursor to Orthodox Judaism today] is illustrated by the ease with which this system was adopted.”
As weird as Goldberg’s ideas may have been, there is someone now writing in Ha’aretz about them, suggesting that maybe they were not so crazy after all:
“After thousands of years of monotheistic patronizing, the Jewish people can allow itself now to acknowledge that other gods exist, too. The idea of God’s oneness sounds like an essential tenet of Judaism. But there are equally essential tenets that Jews have learned to forgo. Actually, it doesn’t demand so much from the Jews. It’s not necessary to stop worshipping the God of Israel – it’s just a matter of recognizing that he’s not the only one.”
This view isn’t so shocking; it’s the way of the world now, at least in terms of religion. Fully embracing a set of religious beliefs is not really acceptable if those beliefs conflict with people being able to follow their desires or the half-baked musings of personal philosophy.
Practical Problems in Polytheism
There’s also no logical end to adopting this stance of Polytheism. When you cannot say something is right or wrong, you accept basically everything as relative. In terms of polytheism—can we really say there are 100 gods and not 150, or 200, and so on and so forth? If this tree is a god, why not the leaves on it or the grass next to it, etc.?
Monotheism is the logical and intuitive answer to this, not more gods, not the three-in-one of the Trinity, not the divine union of a god and his shekhinah.
Taking inspiration from Goldberg, the implication in the article is that there does not need to be a “right” or a “wrong,” and that that will help humanity live more peacefully together, without the self-righteousness that can come from strong beliefs.
This is an easy position to take because it’s the status-quo: Secularized people don’t take religion as objective truth anyway. The author even cites a recent TV show (American Gods) in which gods still rule the land in contemporary times.
But, it’s also a position of deceit. What do you do when one people need to perform human sacrifice and cannibalism to please their god? If they need to parade their children around naked to ask for rain from their god? Is it so terrible to think that this is wrong and that your faith that doesn’t practice this is better? This is not the stuff of fiction.
Corrupted Dogma: The World We Live In
Like many in our modern times, the author is concerned that being religious breeds superiority complexes. He writes:
“From the moment the statement ‘we are all created in God’s image’ is uttered in a specified language that is connected with a specified ritual – it becomes an exclusivist assertion that emphasizes the substantive superiority of adherents of the true faith over all the others. It leads to self-righteousness, which rapidly becomes zealousness.”
How ironic that he claims monotheistic sentiments lead to self-righteousness and zealousness. How about the Jewish belief about Jews being God’s “chosen people”? Any self-righteousness that might arise from that?
Be that as it may, it’s understandable to dislike blind arrogance. Even in Islam, we’re aware that it’s taqwa that sets us apart, not just saying that you’re “Muslim” without necessarily having true iman. And even then, any good from us is ultimately from Allah, so any arrogance or takabbur is fundamentally out of place, at best, or satanic at worst.
But rather than suggest that a people humbly look at themselves, take account of themselves, scrutinize their beliefs to ensure they follow the right path, the Jewish writer goes the other way. Don’t scrutinize, don’t think about what you actually believe, and, most importantly, make space for others to do this too. To each people a god, to each god a people.
Perhaps Goldberg was on to something in identifying that different peoples worship different gods. We can see this, for example in Hinduism, in which even in different areas of India, there can be different, ‘local’ gods, or in Christianity, in which they worship God as one but three at the same time. That doesn’t, however, make it right. It’s precisely that notion—that there is no right—that the author of the Ha’aretz article wants to push.
So not only is it that we don’t all worship the same god, it’s that the other gods are acceptable. That’s how the author’s argument supports polytheism. What he seems unaware of, however, is that he doesn’t really need to call for such a radical change in Judaism—the groundwork for polytheism was already laid by the Kabbalists.
- For those who haven’t read the last article on polytheism in Judaism, the shekhina in Kabbalah is “one of the female components of the Godhead” Shahak, Israel. Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years. London: Pluto Press, 1997, p. 17. ↑
- Take a look here: Scholem, Gershom Gerhard. From Berlin to Jerusalem: Memories of My Youth, New York: Schocken Books, 1980: pp. 131; 146. https://archive.org/details/fromberlintojeru00scho/ ↑
- For the curious (in German): https://archive.org/details/goldberg-wirklichkeit/page/n11/mode/2up , pp. 14-23.; The implication of “people” here is a group of people, or a people (in German, “Volk“), e.g. the Jewish people or the people of a particular place ↑
- Scholem, 1980, p.146. ↑
- A bit more information on why Goldberg was anti-Zionist: “… the followers of Goldberg gained inspiration from the way their teacher ‘demonstrated’ the existence of a magical and ritually powerful relationship between the ancient Hebrews of the days of the Pentateuch and their deity. The Jews lost their privileged connection to YHWH [Yahweh, Jehova] , Goldberg explained, when they organized themselves into a state, appointed Saul as king, and banished their God to the heavens above. Put another way, Goldberg’s ideas confirmed metaphysically the political opposition his disciples expressed to the formation of all nation-states, including the State of Israel.” Friedlander, Judith. 1992. “Religious Metaphysics and the Nation-State: The Case of Oskar Goldberg.” Social Research 59 (1): 151–68, p.154. ↑
- Shahak, 1997, p.17. ↑
- Ibid. ↑
- Shahak, 1997, p.32. ↑