The Monotheism-Polytheism Discussion: Commentary on Verma, Saxena, Gold, Morioka and Azariah

- Frank (Yeruham) Leavitt, Ph.D.
Chairman, The Centre for International Bioethics
Faculty of Health Sciences
Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva, Israel
Email: yeruham@bgumail.bgu.ac.il
Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 11 (2001), 196-7.


Since Jayapaul quoted a poem on racism in his contribution to the discussion of Monotheism and Polytheism in the last issue of the journal (EJAIB 11:156-159 (2001)), I'll begin with a story that was going around in the 1960's. The first person to die, get to the next world, meet God, and then come back to life to tell about it, was asked: "So what is God like?" The answer was: "She's black".

But I am afraid I disagree with the answer. It would be closer to the truth to say: "It has neither gender nor sex". But I'll explain why at the end of the editorial.

I'd like to begin with some points, which should be fairly understandable to our severely limited human intellects. Then I'll turn to something a little more mystical.

The first is that the Bible says some pretty strong things about the worship of strange gods (avoda zara) and commands us to wipe out this worship. But the authors of the Bible were not familiar with any religions other than the religions of the Middle East of their times: Egyptian, Canaani, Assyrian, Babylonian. So there is no reason to believe that the Biblical and Early Rabbinical condemnations applied to any religions except for those within those specific geographical areas. It is a common mistake to think that these condemnations apply to other so-callled "pagan" religions. Even Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi, physician and philosopher, whom I am fond of calling "Israel's greatest bioethicist", seems to make this mistake. In discussing the Biblical condemnation of practices of the magician (kosem), he identifies them with practices which he saw in Morocco (Magrab), with no evidence that what he saw was the same as what the Bible was talking about. This same mistake is made very frequently today by many of my fellow Israelis, who think that the Bible condemns Hinduism, Buddhism and Shinto. Fundamentalist Christians can make the same mistake. Some good people have unfortunately stopped practicing Japanese martial arts because of this simple mistake.

My second point is that it is a mistake to think that religions are divided into two kinds, monotheist and polytheist, as if all monotheist religions were in agreement in worshiping The One God, and all polytheist religions were somehow pagan, strange and not very nice. But if one religion says that it worships the One God, X, and another religion says that it worships the One God, Y, we really have no reason to believe that X = Y. These people have only one god, and those people have only one god. But who says that they are the same god? Indeed, to take a totally hypothetical example, if One God X preaches love and peace, and One God Y preaches hatred and violence, then even though these religions might be monotheistic, they obviously don't worship the same god. Personally, I don't think it is very important how many gods you have (as if spirituality were a matter of arithmetic). What counts is what your god(s) do and preach. A monotheistic religion which preaches love and peace is closer to polytheistic religions which preach love and peace, than it is to monotheistic religions (if, hypothetically, such were to exist) which preach hatred and violence.

My third point is that what seems to unite the Mediterranean polytheistic religions which the Bible condemned, as well as the Greek and Roman religions condemned by the early Rabbis (hazal), was their total inability (so far as I know) to entertain the idea that all of the many gods are really different expressions (or, alternatively, "versions") of One High God. This idea seems to exist both in Hinduism and in Shinto, making these eastern religions closer to Israeli spirituality than some people think. For the Bible refers to many angels. In fact the Bible seems to have as many angels as Hinduism and Shinto have gods. And the angels of the Bible are a kind of god, because one of the uses of the word elohim, which refers to God, also refers to angels, as is argued by Maimonides in the Guide to the Perplexed, II, 6. (I may have mentioned in an earlier issue of this journal that I discuss this matter at greater length, with copious references to sources, in the context of Maimonides' philosophy, in an article in Korot, the Israel Journal of the History of Medicine and Science 13: 102-121. I wrote that article before I started to study Asian spirituality seriously, and made the mistake of comparing Judaism with Greek religion and Aristotle's philosophy. I really should have compared it with Hinduism and Shinto. But although the article was a little misdirected, the references to sources should still be useful. One of the greatest intellectual errors in the history of Jewish thought was the totally gratuitous attempt to interpret the Bible as if it were Aristotelian philosophy. This error lead to the even greater error of thinking that Israel, which is firmly on Asian soil both geographically and spiritually, is a "western" country and a "western" people. Even one so great as Maimonides deserves the major responsibility for the Aristotelian mistake.)

I have a problem with Masahiro's remark that Shintoism: "does not admit the ultimate being" (p. 157). I have had deep discussions with two Japanese friends who are recognized as learned in Shinto, one of them being a Shinto priest, who seem to believe that all of the kami, the Japanese deities, are really appearances of one God. The matter calls for deeper investigation.

I promised to say something a little more mystical. Avi says: "actual comprehension of who/what God is is beyond human capacity". (p. 157) But Avi has told us quite a bit about God. It follows logically that Avi has told us quite a bit about something, which he does not comprehend. Avi is not the only one to do this.

When I criticize Maimonides, I want it to be understood that I have the greatest of respect for him. Maimonides, himself, like the great physician and philosopher which he was, often admitted that he might be wrong. And Maimonides claimed that God couldn't be described by any adjective, which the human mind can comprehend. But at the same time Maimonides tells us many things about God. (I was lead to see this point by Russell's famous comment on Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein said that nothing can be said about the mystical, and that one should keep quiet about that of which nothing can be said. Russell remarked with his famous humor, that Wittgenstein manages to say quite a bit about that of which nothing can be said.) As for Maimonides, he says that "negative" things can be said about God: we cannot say what God is, but we can say what God isn't. But Maimonides really says many positive things about God: for example, that God gave intellect to humans, that God exercises providence over humans, etc. (Guide, III, end of Ch. 17, beginning of Ch,.18.). And even if we were really to say only what God isn't, this would still be a pretension to comprehend something about God, ie what God isn't.

If we are going to be serious about not comprehending God, then let's be quiet when we don't know what we are talking about. Let us have the humility to admit that we can know nothing whatsoever about God, about other worlds, about what happens to us after death. Indeed, for this reason we cannot know anything about the meaning of life. Nor can we know whether life has a meaning, or whether it doesn't. In a sense, religion is the greatest heresy and the greatest disrespect for God. Religion is the egotistic pretense to know about things, which are beyond the capacity of the human intellect. The philosopher, Kant, once argued that while we cannot have knowledge about God, free will and the afterlife, we can have faith about these things. But that is just changing the words without solving the problem.

If the direction, which I have been exploring, makes sense, then atheism and religion are equal. They both pretend to know about God: in the one case that It doesn't exist, and in the other case that It exists. Only the agnostic, who admits that one cannot know, shows true humility and respect for the Divine.

In these times of terror and other horrid things, some will reject criticism of religion, saying that only religious faith can keep us sane and strong. I don't agree. I think that together with the humility to admit that the really true things are beyond our capacity to comprehend, we can get to a certain inner peacefulness and calm that can serve us, and even allow for joy, in the most terrible times. But that will have to be discussed on another occasion.

As for: "It has neither gender nor sex", the Hebrew personal pronoun used to refer to God in the Bible is hu. Hu is grammatically masculine. But in Hebrew, which has no neuter grammatical gender, the word hu not only refers to male humans and animals, it also refers to genderless and sexless things like tables, computers and the universe.. And in these contexts, hu is translated into English as "it". So God, who also has no sex or gender, should also be referred to in English as "It".

The previous paragraph is based on the assumption that we can comprehend God well enough to know that It has no sex or gender. But if we are humble enough to take it seriously that we cannot comprehend God, even negatively, then rather than talking about God as "It", we'll just stop talking about God altogether.


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