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.

Attributes of the Sacred Feminine

 

The idea of a feminine deity, while deeply resonating with my soul, took a long time to get used to, from an intellectual stand-point. All of a sudden, the simple idea of “One God” was blown out of the water. My fundamental, childhood belief in monotheism now started to be questioned, and I wasn’t sure what to do with that.

After several months of exploring and wrestling with this on my own, I asked my rabbi if a feminine deity meant that Judaism ascribes to polytheism.

He chuckled.

I relaxed.

He didn’t squirm.

I relaxed even more.

He responded by acknowledging that there are plenty of arguments to be made in favor of polytheism due to the many names of God/Goddess.

“They very well could be describing many deities,” he said, “and, in fact, the Torah doesn’t teach that there aren’t other gods or goddesses…just that this is the only one that Jews are to worship.”

I sat up startled. There are other gods and goddesses? And the Torah admits that? Where?!

” However,” he continued, “in light of the Shma (Hear O Israel, our God is One), one might consider that these are all aspects of Divinity…that the Highest Power is a balance of Masculine and Feminine and many other attributes that we only know how to experience separately.”

“I need some time to think about that,” I replied, stunned and overwhelmed…and our study session ended.

That Shabbas, while talking with another very learned man about this topic, he told me about the Thirteen Attributes of God, and to look into those to see if they provided any clues for me. While there are many lists of what these thirteen attributes are, this is the list of the most commonly associated attributes:

  1. Adonai — compassion before a person sins;
  2. Adonai — compassion after a person has sinned;
  3. El — mighty in compassion to give all creatures according to their need;
  4. Rachum — merciful, that humankind may not be distressed;
  5. Chanun — gracious if humankind is already in distress;
  6. Erech appayim — slow to anger;
  7. Rav chesed — plenteous in mercy and abundant in goodness;
  8. Emet — truth in integrity and speaking truth in love;
  9. Notzer chesed laalafim — keeping mercy unto thousands, or remembering the good deeds of the ancestors for a thousand generations;
  10. Noseh avon — forgiving iniquity, or bearing with indulgence the failings of humanity;
  11. Noseh peshah — forgiving transgression, springing from malice and rebellion against Divinity;
  12. Noseh chatah — forgiving sin, or forgiving humanity’s shortcomings due to heedlessness and error;
  13. Venakeh — and pardoning those who deserve punishment or consequence.

I asked him why thirteen. He didn’t know.

“But,” he told me, “I do know that it must always be thirteen. Not more. Not fewer.”

“Why?” I asked. “What does it mean?”

“It’s a mystery,” he said with a smile.

He reminded me of this mystery several months later, after many more similar conversations. It was my last Shabbas service at that synagogue before moving back to California.

With much urgency, he pulled me aside and said, “These are the most important words I can think to share with you as we part: Keep your eyes open.”

Puzzled, I asked, “Why? What am I to see? What am I missing?”

“Just watch,” he replied, gave me a hug, and was gone.

Now, several years later, I look at this list with an added dimension. While there are many debates as to the gender of each of these attributes or names of Divinity, some being feminine and some masculine, what really matters is the blending…the resulting whole thirteen. I now know the significance of it…it is the number of the Sacred Feminine.