Polytheism or Attributes?

I read somewhere, perhaps Heschel, that a person trusts themselves more than their idea of a Divine being. The author went on to illustrate the point. He (I’m assuming at this point that the author was Heschel) invited me to think of the one thing that I couldn’t do for any incentive. Then, he asked me, “Would you do it if G-d told you to do it?” I laughed as I realized that not even God/Goddess was incentive enough to do this thing.

In that moment, my concept of what/who God/Goddess is and what/who I am shifted dramatically.

I thought about this as I percolated on the existence of other god and goddesses in the Torah. The fact that the rabbi agreed with my interpretation did nothing to ease my discomfort around challenging monotheism. In light of Heschel’s (allegedly) exercise, I had to face a myriad of other questions as well…the biggest being, How true do I believe the Torah to be? 

After a few months of sitting with this, and I came to some sort of familiarity around this idea (certainly, I wasn’t comfortable with it yet), I asked my rabbi to show me more places in the Torah where this idea of polytheism is suggested. Ironically, my rabbi pointed to Genesis 1:26: …Let Us make humanity in Our image, after Our likeness…

Elohim,” he explained, “is both masculine and feminine. One description is that Elohim, a plural form, is the blend of Yhvh and El Shaddai.”

There it was. My feminine…creating…the missing piece.

“So,” I asked tentatively, “is that it? Are there no other places where other gods are mentioned?”

“There are,” he assured me, “but not all are explicit. Sometimes you have to read between the lines.”

The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of humans and had children by them. (Gen. 6:4)

“I knew it!” I yelled. “I’ve always thought this meant what it actually says…not that it was differentiating between holy people in the mountain versus unholy people in the valley or other such interpretations.”

“It is hard to refute,” he agreed, “particularly in light of other similar texts.”

Praise, O heavens, his people…Kneel before him, all you gods. (Deut. 32:43)

sons of the Most High… (Ps. 82:6)

sons of God… (Job 38:7)

God has established his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he judges. (Ps. 82:1)

Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? (Ex. 15:11)

When Elyon divided the nations, when he separated the sons of Adam, he established the borders of the nations according to the number of the sons of the gods. Yahweh’s portion was his people, Jacob, his allotted inheritance. (Deut. 32:8–9)

When the king of Moab realized he was losing the battle, he and 700 swordsmen tried to break through and attack the king of Edom, but they failed. So he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him up as a burnt sacrifice on the wall. There was an outburst of divine anger against Israel, so they broke off the attack. (2 Kings 3:26-27)

“This last one,” he explained, “has been interpreted in light of the previous example…that each nation has a Deity assigned to it. It doesn’t really make sense that Israel’s Deity would turn on them after they’d done what He’d asked, but it might make more sense if Moab’s Deity attacked Israel after Moab’s king offered a sacrifice.”

“There are more,” he said, “but I think you get the idea.”

I nodded dumbly. My mind was reeling…everything I thought I knew was, again, being turned upside down. I knew I had asked for this information, but now I almost wished I hadn’t asked…I really didn’t know what to do with this.

Then he turned to Exodus 20:3 and read, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

“In the original text, it really means ‘I am the best in battle of all the gods, so don’t worship them, worship me because I’m the one who brought you from Egypt.’ ”

I sat stunned.

I’d read these verses almost my entire life…especially the last one. But, never had I seen the word other as an implication that other gods or goddesses existed. And, not only is that word implying that they exist, the rest of it is implying something so unbelievable that I’m scared to say it out loud.

“So,” I hesitated, “it almost sounds as though God…whoever this God is…” I speak slowly…not quite believing what is coming out of my mouth…”is giving permission to worship other gods and goddesses, but not to place them higher in importance to Him/Her.”

I was so nervous. I felt like I was blaspheming. I couldn’t believe I was thinking those thoughts, much less saying them out loud.

“Exactly!” he replied.

I laughed…out of nervousness, relief, exasperation, frustration, amazement. What else could I do?

What now?!

To be honest, it took me several years to come to any ease around this idea…in fact, I’m still exploring the implications of this and have renewed my research on this topic. However, I have to thank to Doreen Virtue for offering a bridge of compromise. She offered the explanation that other gods and goddesses were attributes of Divinity, that couldn’t be comprehended except to separate and personify them. I felt much more comfortable with that description, and within that context, I began to explore the world’s religious pantheon.

As I sat in that decision, feeling for fear and warning sensations, I felt none…then laughed.

I think I just became a Hindu.