An introduction to the writings of Israeli Biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann and his radical observation that the Torah is clueless regarding pagan religion and polytheism…. and the surprising conclusion he draws regarding the origins of ancient Hebrew monotheism.
Recorded live at TCS, The Conservative Synagogue of Westport Connecticut, this review of Kaufman’s discovery is processed through the lens of Philosopher of Science, Thomas Kuhn and his concept of Paradigm Shift and Incommensurability.
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Rav Yehuda says that Rav says: The Jewish people knew that idol worship is of no substance; they did not actually believe in it. And they worshipped idols only in order to permit themselves to engage in forbidden sexual relations in public, since most rituals of idol worship would include public displays of forbidden sexual intercourse.
Rav Mesharshiyya raises an objection to this statement from the following verse: “Like the memory of their sons are their altars, and their Asherim are by the leafy trees, upon the high hills” (Jeremiah 17:2). And Rabbi Elazar says that this means that the Jewish people would recall their idol worship like a person who misses his child. This interpretation indicates that they were truly attached to idol worship.
The Gemara continues to relate the story of the prayer in the days of Nehemiah: The people fasted for three days and prayed for mercy. In response to their prayer a note fell for them from the heavens in which was written: Truth, indicating that God accepted their request.
The form of a fiery lion cub came forth from the chamber of the Holy of Holies. Zechariah, the prophet, said to the Jewish people: This is the evil inclination for idol worship. When they caught hold of it one of its hairs fell out, and it let out a shriek of pain that was heard for four hundred parasangs [parsei]. They said: What should we do to kill it? Perhaps Heaven will have mercy upon it if we attempt to kill it, as it will certainly scream even more.
The prophet said to them: Throw it into a container made of lead and cover it with lead, as lead absorbs sound. As it is written: “And he said: This is the evil one. And he cast it down into the midst of the measure, and he cast a stone of lead upon its opening” (Zechariah 5:8). They followed this advice and were freed of the evil inclination for idol worship.
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב יודעין היו ישראל בעבודת כוכבים שאין בה ממש ולא עבדו עבודת כוכבים אלא להתיר להם עריות בפרהסיא
מתיב רב משרשיא (ירמיהו יז, ב) כזכור בניהם מזבחותם וגו’ וא”ר אלעזר כאדם שיש לו געגועין על בנו
יתבו תלתא יומא בתעניתא בעו רחמי נפל להו פיתקא מרקיעא דהוה כתיב בה אמת
נפק כגוריא דנורא מבית קדשי הקדשים אמר להו נביא לישראל היינו יצרא דע”ז בהדי דקתפסי ליה אישתמיט ביניתא מיניה ואזל קליה בארבע מאה פרסי אמרו היכי ניעבד דילמא משמיא מרחמי עליה
א”ל נביא שדיוהו בדודא דאברא וכסיוה באברא דשייף קליה דכתיב (זכריה ה, ח) ויאמר זאת הרשעה וישלך אותה אל תוך האיפה וישלך את האבן העופרת אל פיה
2. Unity and Incorporeality
The question of the emergence of Israelite religion is a sui generis problem in the history of the human spirit first of all because of the popular character of Israelite monotheism. To our way of thinking, the idea of God’s unity is one of the most abstract ideas in human thought. We regard this idea as bound up with abstraction (hafshatah) from the multitude of phenomena manifested in our world and with grounding all reality on an invisible unity beyond our comprehension.
The one God is the cause of causes, eternal substance, the being of all beings, transcending everything sensible and conceivable, beyond all conception of time and space, a supreme idea. The question is: How could such a faith come into being in ancient Israel? Israelite culture was a culture of shepherds and farmers. Moreover, even in a later period the creative genius of the Israelite people did not find embodiment in the creation of a conceptual culture (nor, for that matter, in the creation of a technological culture). Israel did not create conceptual science, logic, philosophy, or natural science. Its strength was in poetry, narrative, ethics, religious vision, and the like, far from theoretical abstraction. Nor was its language rich in abstract concepts. The Hebrew of the biblical period was a pictorial and poetic language, unfitted for expressing philosophical views. How, then, was the monotheistic idea conceived in ancient Israel within such a cultural rubric? Moreover, biblical monotheism did not arrive at abstract expression. The Bible innocently resorts to tangible descriptions of God. It does not sense any defect in depicting God through imagery.
At any rate, there would be place here for gropings and hesitations. However, in the prophetic books there are no gropings or hesitations. Monotheism is visibly present and self-evident, and there is no hint that it is a new idea.
The General Character of Israelite Religion, Yehezkel KAUFMANN in Toledot ha-emunah ha-yisre’elit, translated by Lenny Levin
3. Where Israelite Religion differed
Israelite monotheism could not comprehend idolatry or magic. At best, idols and various forms of polytheistic worship were treated as fetishes, things used in rituals that were not associated with any meaningful mythology or theology. On a popular worship of objects that was not genuinely polytheistic (because it is unrelated to any specific foreign deity) but was “a magical, fetishistic, non-mythological worship of images”, a worship that was fundamentally unfamiliar with the realities of polytheistic worship and the icons that played a role therein: “Worship of ‘dumb idols’ is, in the biblical view, arrant, sinful foolishness”, for the idols, unlike the lower ranking gods, are not real; they have no power, not even the derivative power that, say, Chemosh or Marduk enjoy in the view of biblical monotheism.
- The ancient lore knows of no war between YHWH and other divine powers,
- No mythology surrounds God. He is not born; he does not die; he is not sexed; he is not part of the natural world. This God has no “genealogy,” no lust, no birth, no progeny, no growing up, no death, and so forth. Israelite lore does not know how to tell anything about the life of this God, the events (This is very different from many known ancient Near Eastern stories about gods.)
- Israelite Religion was exoteric. The bible reflects common, public, shared knowledge. Moreover, all teaching is official and authoritative. Priests are the public educators. The popular belief conceived of this God the same way. This means that the basic idea of Israelite religion was bound up from its inception in a radical division between God and the world.
- “Fate” has no power over him.
- Sanctity is not “natural” closeness to divinity or belonging to the divine in a property relation … It knows of no material object that is sacred in its own right. ..it does not know of any category of holy objects in nature. It concentrated all sanctity in God, who rules the world, in the God who transcends the cosmos. Objects can only possess “historical” sanctity by virtue of God’s will or as a result of God’s deeds and commandment.
4. No mythological drama in Ancient Israel
The basic idea of Israelite religion—the supremacy of the divine will, raising God over every nature and fate—left no room for the tension of divine forces fighting each other, for a divine mythological drama. Is there any place for drama, for activity, for striving for living embodiment where there is one supreme decisive will?
Israelite religion transferred the divine world drama from the domain of nature and its forces to the domain of the human will. The divine will rules over all. But it has one “limitation”: the will of the human, to whom God has granted free choice and the power to sin. By human sin, the supreme divine will has become, as it were, impaired. This is the opening for evil in the world. Opposite the divine will is set the human will; in place of the mythological tension between divine forces comes the moral tension between God’s will and man’s will. This is the special sphere of the divine drama in Israelite religion. To the absolute will belongs an aspiration that remains to be fulfilled. God commands, and the human can either fulfill God’s command or disobey Him. In place of mythological tension comes historical tension. This religion was interested not in the events of the god and his life, his desires, his wars, and his victories among the other gods but in the events of God’s commandment, His teaching, His activity among human beings. Human society, human history, man’s religious and ethical dedication—these were the campaigns of the “war” of the supreme God.
[Conversely] He was not a restful and serene God of the heights (such as the contemplating God of Aristotle/Maimonides. There is no Nirvana here), happy in self-satisfaction, who had nothing to do with the lower worlds and with human fate. He was a “zealous God,” commanding and demanding, keeping track of sins and performing kindnesses, a redeeming God, doing good and creating evil. He was close to man’s life and destiny. This faith was intrinsically connected with revelation and prophecy.
5. Prohibition against Fetish Worship
The Bible never specifically addresses the worship of representations of YHWH but lumps it together with idol worship in general. The Bible never distinguishes between graven images of YHWH and graven images of pagan gods but includes them all in the category of “other gods.”
The Bible does not at all conceive of the graven images as representations of divinity but as fetishes.
Neither the Torah nor the prophets devote one kind of utterance against graven images of YHWH and another against graven images of other gods. In the classic prohibition of graven images in the Ten Commandments (in both versions), graven images and pictures are forbidden after the prohibition of other gods (Exod. 20:3–4, Deut. 5:7–8). The text does not say, “I am YHWH your God… Do not make for Me any graven image or picture… Do not have any other gods… Do not make a graven image or picture of them, etc.” … they chastise the people for worshipping graven images in general and only give one reason to this prohibition: it is the ignorant worship of “wood and stone.”
6. Unity of God
In both the song of Deborah and the creation legends, YHWH rules the world alone, and there is no other god with him (or against him!). God’s unity is the primal idea, not God’s ethical character or historical activity. In biblical monotheism, the cosmic element is fundamental.
For we should not think that the concrete depictions of God (anthropomorphisms) in the Bible are only remnants of folk legend or poetic figures of speech with only a symbolic intention, as later philosophers interpreted them. The entire biblical literature, without distinction of source or stratum, envisages a visage of God and does not regard this as a defect. The Bible has no abstract God-concept, nor does it have any drive to abstraction. Moreover, one can say that throughout Jewish literature, up to the point that Greek influence started to operate in it, there is no sense of defect in envisaging a visage of God.
Israelite religion vanquished the corporeal depiction of God in [only] one basic and decisive respect: it depicted God as outside every connection with the material of the world. … Moreover, it depicted Him as above all connection to the laws of the world, to nature, to the stars, to fate. This is the point of departure between Israelite religion and paganism; from this point, it ascended to its own unique sphere. Its God is above mythology and above nature; that is its fundamental idea. … this idea is imprinted in the entire being of Israelite religion and woven into its entire tapestry.
God was regarded as sublime but not incorporeal.
The question of the divine image was in fact raised only in the border zone where Judaism came into contact with Greek thought. …. the whole problem of whether God has a visible form is outside the purview of original Judaism.
Israelite faith thus originated not from one or another historical event, not from sealing a national covenant, not from political prosperity, not from the trauma of destruction, and so forth, but from the revelation of a new religious-metaphysical idea. In the course of the generations this idea would generate an entire worldview and life regimen, even though at the time it came into the world enveloped in a national garb and intertwined with the events of the day.
It was steeped in transcendence unequalled since in the world. But it could be grasped in vision and likeness. It was born through visionary intuition and could be grasped through symbols. Therefore, it could be made into a popular faith. A God whose rule knew no bounds, who was all-capable, from whom everything originated, who was holy, sublime, zealous, ruling over good and evil, sending the word of His rule by way of prophets, one with no equal—all these could be grasped by popular religious feeling. This idea could be born among the people of the desert and could arouse passion among the people of the desert. A similar idea aroused passion at a later time among the Arab tribes at the time of Mohammed.[i]
9 Paradigm Shift – Incommensurability – Thomas Kuhn
Paradigm Shift – “This is the idea that, in the course of a revolution and paradigm shift, the new ideas and assertions cannot be strictly compared to the old ones. Even if the same words are in use, their very meaning has changed. That in turn led to the idea that a new theory was not chosen to replace an old one, because it was true but more because of a change in world view”
Incommensurability. – “This is the idea that, in the course of a revolution and paradigm shift, the new ideas and assertions cannot be strictly compared to the old ones. Even if the same words are in use, their very meaning has changed. That in turn led to the idea that a new theory was not chosen to replace an old one, because it was true but more because of a change in world view”
— The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition by Thomas S. Kuhn
When a paradigm shift occurs, in some sense the world changes. Or to put it another way, scientists working under different paradigms are studying different worlds.
For example, if Aristotle watched a stone swinging like a pendulum on the end of a rope, he would see the stone trying to reach its natural state: at rest, on the ground. But Newton wouldn’t see this; he’d see a stone obeying the laws of gravity and energy transference. Or to take another example: Before Darwin, anyone comparing a human face and a monkey’s face would be struck by the differences; after Darwin, they would be struck by the similarities.
A consequence of Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts is that science does not progress in an even way, gradually accumulating knowledge and deepening its explanations. Rather, disciplines alternate between periods of normal science conducted within a dominant paradigm, and periods of revolutionary science when an emerging crisis requires a new paradigm.
That is what “paradigm shift” originally meant, and what it still means in the philosophy of science. When used outside philosophy, though, it often just means a significant change in theory or practice. So events like the introduction of high definition TVs, or the acceptance of gay marriage, might be described as involving a paradigm shift.
[i] Aharon Kaminka says that the Bible’s war on paganism is “a riddle still seeking a solution.” Apparently, he did not find in my words even an attempt to solve this riddle. But in truth, I did propose a solution, and I do not see the possibility of any other solution. The solution is this: the decisive battle with paganism in ancient Israel occurred at the beginning of the dawn of the new idea, in Moses’s day. The battle was short. Israelite paganism was smashed to smithereens, and the new faith was implanted in the Israelite nation. Something like this battle also occurred in Arabia in the days of Muhammad. Paganism disappeared once and for all from the horizon of the Arab nation, and was perceived as from behind a cloud. Only fossilized remnants of paganism remained among the Arab people. Likewise, the influence of foreign paganism on ancient Israel was fossilized from that time on and consisted of worship of idols. The cultural legacy that Israel received from paganism—legends, laws, poems—was the legacy of Israel’s pagan past, which in the previous period had been connected to the pagan cultural world. There is nothing in that legacy to compel us to assume contact in the later period. For this reason, the entire Bible perceives paganism through a cloud and conceives it to consist only of idol worship. We should recall that paganism was forgotten by the writers of Islam, too, in a relatively short time, and they knew it as little more than idol worship. Yehezkel Kaufman, THE SECRET OF NATIONAL CREATIVITY