5767 - #17


Parshat Yitro is a high point in the Torah as it includes the narrative regarding Revelation at Sinai and the listing of the Aseret Hadibrot1 – the Ten Words or, the more colloquial, the Ten Commandments. We are presented with a sublime summary of the basic categories of responsibility for every Jew which has no parallel with respect to its breadth and depth. It is an amazing feat to frame all of the commandments under ten succinct headings.2 Although, the Ten Commandments are a unique and incredible source of law that has informed ethics, values, and behaviour in the West for millennia, they still require review and critique in order to obtain insight into the nature of the law and the nature of Torah in general. This Insight will, in this spirit, address the concepts of monotheism and monolatry within the Ten Commandments.

Every Jewish child is taught that Avraham Avinu introduced, to the world, monotheism,3 meaning the belief that there is but one God and no others. In Biblical times, it was commonplace for civilizations to believe in a pantheon of local gods or in the concept of a god who represented a nation. This national god competed with other national gods and the strength or power of a particular god was determined by the success of the people who worshipped him. Monotheism challenged this perception. This is the message of Torah; yet, sometimes, the message is not so

Early in the parashah, Moshe Rabbeinu is reunited with his father-in-law Yitro. Upon their meeting, Moshe related all of the goodness that God had bestowed upon the Israelites and Yitro replied: “Now I know that the Lord is greater than all other gods.” 4 In the Rabbinic tradition, Yitro is known as a great idolater who worshipped every possible type of “deity” yet eventually converted to Judaism. 5 He is the convert par excellence.  He is praised by the Talmudic Rabbis for being the first to bless God for his intervention in history and for protecting the Israelites.  His merit is so great that even the parashah which includes Divine Revelation is named after him.  However, he is never challenged in the Rabbinic tradition for these words, his praise of God noted above; it seemingly acknowledges that there are numerous Divine forces and the Lord is simply the greatest amongst them.  This smacks of monolatry. How can we understand these words of Yitro?


Just a few chapters later, when we read the Revelation narrative, again we see signs of monolatry. Shemot 20:2, the first commandment, states, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.” The pshat, straightforward understanding, of the text seems to suggest the nationalistic model, as the Lord is the Divine Force that cared specifically for the Israelites. Why did the text not state ‘I am the Lord of the entire world’? The second commandment is even more problematic as it states, “You shall have no other gods before me.”6 Why does the text not state explicitly that there are no other gods at all? It instructs the Israelites that other gods cannot supersede their God, but why would the text even mention a concept of other divine beings? Granted, we have a tradition that there is an angel assigned to each nation, but none to Israel as God is responsible for Israel.  However, this text is not discussing angels.

Thankfully, if one reads the entire Five Books of Moses, in Devarim 4:35, when Moshe is reviewing the Divine Revelation, he comes to teach, “Unto you it was shown so that you might know that the Lord, He is God; there is none else beside Him.” In order to understand the meaning of the Torah text, one needs to be familiar with all five books. It is an integrated whole and one cannot extrapolate lessons from one segment of the Torah without taking into consideration other segments of the Torah.  When one continues to read Tanach, the entire Bible, the prophetic books are even further explicit in their embracing of monotheism and destroy any possibility of monolatry, especially in Yishayahu and Yirmiyahu. This suggests that the real message of the Torah, that was carried forward historically, is clearly that of monotheism and earlier texts that suggest otherwise, need to be viewed in this light. Still, this does not completely satisfy the earlier question regarding how, especially in perhaps the most sublime and holy narrative of the Torah, there is even a possibility of a monolatrous undercurrent in the presentation of the text.

Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim 3:32 argues that the Israelites needed the sacrificial system, because it was the only system of Divine worship that they could understand. If God had instituted prayer as Divine service, they Israelites would simply not comprehend how to use this system for worship. God understood the level of the Israelites and legislated His commandments in the Torah accordingly. In the same vein, it is important for one to realize that the Israelites who left Egypt were emerging, as a free people, from a nation of slaves. The period of wandering in the desert was, as such, also a time of nation building. The Israelites were an enslaved ethnic group with no national identity. They were redeemed and experienced encounters with God that were simply incomprehensible, including: the splitting of the Sea, the provision of manna to sustain them, and Divine Revelation at Sinai. This group of people needed to understand that they were not just receiving Divine teaching and wisdom, but were also being forged into a nation at the same time. With this in mind, the text explicitly articulates a parochial relationship between God and Israel that transcends God’s relationship with other nations.  At the beginning of the parashah, we learn about this unique bond as Israel is called a segulah – a treasure to God and they are challenged to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.7 Therefore, as the Israelites were requested to have a special and parochial relationship with God, so too was God’s relationship with the Israelites articulated in a parochial manner. Hence God states that ”I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt.” This verse reflects a sense of connection, a special relationship that had to be articulated early in the nation building process. Even with the possibility of misunderstanding and the possible perception of monolatry,8 this message had to be articulated, Only after the completion of nation building could Israel fully comprehend, appreciate, and articulate the full nature of God’s involvement in the world and that there is none other besides Him.

. 4.


Lance Davis


1 “Passages” is a Canadian television show featuring Torah discussion on various topics usually centred on a passage from the Torah, the Tanach or the Talmud.

2 See, Shemot 21:2-11.

3 To be more precise, Avraham was not really the first monotheist. Obviously, Adam Harishon, Noach, Shem, amongst others, all only believed in One God. The uniqueness of Avraham lay in the fact, as identified in Rashi, Bereishit 12:5, that he was the first to go out and spread the knowledge of One God. In this way, he can be said to have brought monotheism to the world.

4 Shemot 18:11.  .

5 See Rashi, Shemot 18:11.

6 Shemot 20:3.

7 Shemot 19:5-6

8 See, also, Rashi, Bereishit 1:26.

Nishma, 2007


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