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.