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Elokeynu Echad - Yes! But Judaism as the source of Monotheism NOT!

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A common refrain tells us that Judaism was the first monotheistic religion and that our ancestors were the first to “discover” that there is one God. There are several reasons why this statement is slightly inaccurate.
 
For one we have evidence of other monotheistic trends that predated the Israelite community. Akhenaten, an Egyptian Pharaoh in the mid-fourteenth century, in an unprecedented move broke with classical Egyptian polytheism and demanded the worship of the sole sun-god Aten. Interestingly enough, many scholars beginning with the famous psychologist Freud have actually suggested that the monotheism of the early Israelites was due to this Egyptian influence. However, as the majority of historians reject the biblical exodus, it seems like the monotheism of Akhenaten and the monotheism that grew out of ancient Israel centuries later are fundamentally disconnected.
 
Furthermore, around the time that the Jewish prophets began rallying behind monotheism, other traditions in far away areas were busy developing their own ideas of a single divine power. In the early Vedic period of ancient India a quasi-monotheistic idea was set forth in the Hindu conception of the ultimate oneness of the Braman. Similarly, in Babylonia, Zoroastrians came up with a religion centered around a type of henotheism, in which they believed that the many gods were manifestations of the one ultimate God.
 
The Jewish concept of monotheism seemed to have arisen in parallel to these other traditions and faiths sometime in the seventh or eighth century. Starting with a polytheistic society, eventually becoming henotheistic, and finally landing on monotheism, at the surface level it appears that there is nothing fundamentally unique or special about the monotheism of our ancestors.
 
However, I believe that monotheism in itself isn’t too important. The importance of Jewish monotheism is exactly what it is not.
 
Let me explain.
 
In the Iron Age society from which Judaism and Jewish monotheism was born everything revolved around a caste system. This hierarchy would define every aspect of one’s identity before one was even born and it was nearly impossible to break this oppressive system.
 
Now the reason why this system was impermeable is that it was ordained by the gods. Even one born on the lowest rung of the caste ladder, destined to a life of misery, would never dare to challenge the will of the gods. There was only one problem. Namely, the kings and many of the nobles in these ancient societies were often themselves self-proclaimed gods, thus ensuring that their power remained unthreatened.
 
The Jewish prophets came on to the scene with a radical idea that would forever change the history of religion. The idea that God is one, is an idea fought for throughout the Hebrew Bible - but it is not this statement alone that would change the world. Not only is God the only God, these prophets proclaimed, but that also means that you may not have any other Gods.
 
The second of the ten commandments, or the logical contrapositive of the statement “God is one” is that there musn’t be other Gods. This means that any human claiming divine power to enforce his power or hierarchy is not only falsified but also rebuked. Furthermore, since there is only one God who created everything, it follows that every human being was created by (or in the image of) that God, making all humans inherently valuable and equal.
 
Jewish monotheism is not just the fact that there is one God. It also means that anything else, be it a person, object, place, or even a worldview should not be deified. More so than monotheism, it is this negation of polytheism or idolatry that is the real importance of Jewish monotheism. In other words, the importance of Jewish monotheism is exactly what it is not.
 
   Moshe Daniel Levine regularly writes blog postings for Jewish Values Online.
 
Please note: All opinions expressed in Blog Postings and comments on the Jewish Values Online site and through Jewish Values Online are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views, thoughts, beliefs, or position of Jewish Values Online, or those associated with it.
 

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