Also Sprach Zarathustra

You learn something every day.

Yesterday I learned that Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times doesn’t daven shacharis (the morning prayer). How else could you explain what she wrote about the disappearing Zoroastrians?

Those of us who do daven remember that the first blessing before the Shma praises G-d for creating both light and darkness. Why is this so important? It might not have been so crucial, were it not for the Zoroastrians, a group that once dominated the Persian – Iraqi world that hosted our Talmudic sages. They came up with one of the most elegant – even if wrong – solutions to the problem of evil. They posited two gods, one responsible for good (symbolized by light – and they were fire-worshippers, to boot), the other for evil and darkness. Our blessing directly challenged this notion, asserting that the One G-d is responsible for all phenomena, whether we see them as good or not so good. Zoroastrians were the most famous of dualists. Everyone knew that.

Everyone but Laurie Goodstein, who somehow credited them with a core belief in one god. I decided to check the ultimate authority, just in case my memory was playing tricks on me. Wikipedia seemed to back Goodstein, crediting Zoroastrians for coming up with the monotheism thing, and for worshipping but a single god, Ahura Mazda. Stubbornly, I pressed my inquiry forward. I wikied “dualism,” and sure enough, came up with a claim that the Zoroastrians were exemplars of a two-god system. Who was correct?

Perhaps the faith transitioned between different forms. Some reader out there will probably know. What I do know is that Zoroastrians today claim that they are monotheistic, and they are not the only ones to claim that the rest of us do not understand them. If most of us had to point to a modern-day religion that is clearly polytheistic, we would immediately name Hinduism. Yet many of its websites and practitioners claim that they are the oldest monotheistic religion around! Behind the thousand deities it worships, above the Hindu Trinity of three chief gods, there is the ultimate deity responsible for everything. All the other deities are minor league players, subservient to the single player in the majors. Doesn’t that make them monotheists?

The Rambam didn’t think so. At the beginning of his section on Avodah Zarah, Rambam posits that at some point in the ancient world, people became ensnared by a great error. They saw various heavenly bodies as carrying out the bidding of the Creator, and felt that it was proper to praise the Master by paying homage to his servants. With the passage of time, the servants moved up in the prominence of worship, and eventually the single Creator was forgotten altogether. Interestingly, however, the Rambam pauses at the very first step and says וזה הי’ עיקר עבודה זרה – this was the chief idolatry.

In other words, Judaism vigorously wrests the claim of serving the One G-d from those who worship other beings while believing at the same time in a One Who stands behind all those others. We just won’t settle for a watered down monotheism.

This not very revolutionary realization applies in different form to other faiths as well. I sometimes have to explain to Christians the ultimate reason why Jews must reject their faith. I really don’t like doing this, especially to Christian groups with which I have, or am trying to build, a good working relationship. I will only answer the question after explaining that I do not want to compromise our friendship, and that it is perhaps not my place to lecture them as a visitor. They usually insist, and then I gingerly but forcefully tell them what is on my mind. (A day ago, I was invited to speak about Judaism to a law school group at a Christian university. I took questions, and Providence insured that the inevitable question wasn’t popped till the absolute final minutes of the class, which meant that I didn’t completely undermine what I set out to do in the two hours prior.)

The objection for Jews, I tell them, has nothing to do specifically with Jesus and who he was. Rather, it is the very impossibility of anyone taking on the properties of divinity. The issue is not whether G-d became incarnate in Jesus, but that G-d simply cannot become flesh. Beings of flesh are limited; G-d is limitless. G-d cannot become limited. He cannot become less than He is. If He could, He would no longer be G-d. What Christians regard as a great blessing – G-d becoming flesh – Jews regard as both a logical contradiction and a great tragedy. If the reality of G-d is altered ever so slightly, if His nature is made ever so slightly similar to humans, we are stuck on the worst slippery slope of human civilization. In enough time, we will make G-d over in our own image, rather than the opposite. Real monotheism has no room for competitors to G-d, or for limitations on G-d.

The response I usually get is not one of anger, but of stunned silence. It is the first they have heard of this argument. They had always supposed that our rejection of Jesus was primarily a function of not accepting his role as the promised redeemer of Israel. It was not supposed to be about core understandings of the Nature of G-d.

No one I know ever fell to his knees and immediately acknowledged the true G-d after listening to me. But the expressions on people’s faces tell me that the point has at least registered slightly. They make more real to me the words with which we close all our prayers – that one day Hashem will be King of the entire world, and He will be One and His Name will be One.

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5 Responses

  1. Micha says:

    Actually, the “two form” idea is exactly right: Zoroastrianism originally (in the Persian period) taught of a Creator which they called Ahura Mazda. Mazda supposedly created two demiurges, Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu — the sources of good and evil.

    (Angra Mainyu is also called Hariman, and is associated by the Gra in his Peirush al Kamah Agados with Hermon ben Lillis, a figure in a number of stories in the Talmud. See R’ Feldman’s The Juggler and the King — Hermon is “the juggler” in the “medrash” that gives the book its title.)

    There was a period of time, culminating around the time of Koreish (Cyrus), when Ahura Mazda and Spenta Mainyu were identified as one deity, which raised Angra Mainyu to the role of second deity of evil. This is a direct parallel to how idolatry originally emerged, as per Maimonides’ Laws of Foreign Worship; people started by worshiping the forces He put into place, and then forgot that these were not rulers in their own right.

    However, that fizzled out. Possibly because Hashem’s message to Koreish, which He left to Yeshaiah (Isaiah), and Rav Adlerstein refers to in his post.

    Since the days of Madai (the Medes), there emerged two schools: One returned to the idea of two intermediaries. I would think that the Tosafists’ ruling that such beliefs are permitted to non-Jews under the laws of Noah would apply to the two Mainyus more clearly than the Christian trinity.

    The larger school believes that these demiurges are part of the human condition, and do not exist “out there”. This would be their nearest equivalent to our yeitzer hatov (inclination which is good) and yeitzer hara (inclination which is evil). I would think that therefore the majority of contemporary Zoroastrians are unquestionable monotheists.

    Hindu monotheism is only true among those who are sufficiently educated to know that all those gods are different perceptions of the same deity. The Hinduism of the masses is polytheistic, and certainly so in the Rambam’s day, before universal education. There is no proof he was refering to Ghandi’s belief system in the text cited. However, since the Rambam does consider the trinity to be prohibited to non-Jews (in opposition to the Tosafists), the Rambam would still prohibit the intelligensia’s Hinduism.

    And yet, the watered down monotheism of Christianity earned Maimonides’ praise (despite the prohibition) of being a step in the right direction.

    As for whether Ms Goodstein says the berakhos (blessings) before Shema, she isn’t obligated to.

  2. Nachum says:

    A few points are called for:

    1. The article fails to acknowledge that Zoroastrianism is surging in Iran. To a certain extent, it’s more of a cultural heritage thing than a religious one (it’s also celebrated in Afghanistan), involving, for example, the celebration of the Zoroastrian New Year, but it points to a real disatisfaction with Islam, and it doesn’t make the mullahs happy. As with Christianity and Hinduism, our best allies against Muslims may well be people less palatable from the view of strict Hilchos Avodah Zara. (More on that in a bit.)

    2. Zoroastrians may believe in two equal gods, but they only worship one. In their eyes, therefore, they are monotheists.

    3. Zoroastrianism has had a great influence over Judaism, in a number of ways. When the Talmud Bavli speaks of Avodah Zara, it is almost always speaking with Zoroastrianism in mind, as that was the overwhelming culture and religion in the area in which the Bavli was written. The argument is made that there is a necessity of understanding at least this point- and maybe even some more about the religion- to truly understand what the Gemara means, and how it affected the halacha as practiced there. (The famous line in Bameh Madlikim about “Ovdei Kochavim” and their fire rituals almost certainly refers to a Zoroastrian practice.)

    Furthermore, while it’s certainly unlikely, to say the least, that Jews got the idea of monotheism from Zoroaster, there are certainly arguments to be made that some other ideas that arose in Judaism at this time and in that place- ideas about Satan, about the afterlife, and more- were percolating back and forth between the two religions. I’m certainly not coming down on either side, and I’m hardly qualified to do so, but that’s usually what’s meant when these arguments are made.

    4. R’ Adlerstein, I’m sure you realize that the Rambam takes a strict position on the status of Christianity, stating that alleging a “partner” for God is Avodah Zara even for non-Jews. The general Jewish practice these days, based on Ashkenazic Rishonim, is to say that while it’s certainly forbidden for Jews, it’s not quite Avodah Zara (even if it is, of course, not ideal) for non-Jews. Interestingly, Christianity, strictly speaking, does not believe in “partnership” as much as three parts of one god, whatever that means. Hinduism, too (in some schools), believes that all of the millions of gods (and, in some schools, the whole universe) are aspects of one divine being. Is that Avodah Zara for non-Jews? It’s simply multiplying Christianity by a few factors.

    Zoroastrianism seems closest to the “partnership” idea, even though, as said, only one god is worshipped.

  3. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “I’m certainly not coming down on either side, and I’m hardly qualified to do so, but that’s usually what’s meant when these arguments are made.”

    I am also not qualified to discuss the Haskala/Wissenchaft approach. However offhand, I would say that perhaps in some cases, one might speculate that Chazal might have used certain language to respond to contemporary ideas. However, they certainly did not engage in what Rabbi Adlerstein termed in a previous post as “theological kleptomania”.

    I made a similar point in a discussion elsewhere regarding the Me’iri on the Halachic status of Christianity. I don’t think that one can plumb the depths of a Rishon’s thoughts(“shikul hadaas of the Meiri”) and say that his ultimate decision(ie, his attitude in evaluating differing facts in different countries) was influenced by the country in which he lived in.

  4. joel rich says:

    Rabbi Yaakov Elman has done a lot of work in this area. I attended a lecture series he presented concerning understanding the historical impact of Babylonian culture on the Talmud. NOTE: I AM NOT SAYING THAT HISTORICAL UNDERSTANDING IMPACTS CURRENT HALACHA (this is a debate that is well beyond a layperson) but one begins to understand certain aggadic stories as well as why certain issues were burning:-)

  5. Baruch Horowitz says:

    I would also add to my previous comment, that today, as in every generation, we need to concentrate on studying Gemara and other areas of Torah with the proper feelings of reverence and kedushah(holiness). I read that Rabbi Shlomo Miller made this point when addressing the gathering in honor of the recent visit of Rav Shteinman and the Gerrer rebbe in Toronto.

    A commentator on a previous thread wrote of his presumption, while yet in 7th grade, that the reason “we stopped singing[Ahavah Rabba] out loud right before “ahava” was because in the Conservative minyan they didn’t want to encourage us to study Torah with love or passion but rather with dispassionate academic distance and criticism.”

    I have no idea, based on his single anecdote and interpretation, if his understanding is accurate and indicative of a trend in education, but if it would be, then it would indeed be tragic and poignant.

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