5767 - #17
Parshat Yitro is a
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
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
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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