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Is Monotheism Hazardous to Life?

Is Monotheism Hazardous to Life?

Hasn't it caused as much evil as good?

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Hey Rabbi:

It seems to me that monotheism is a solution to nothing. Before monotheism, we had barbarians. After monotheism, we had barbarians. Monotheistic barbarians.

Before monotheism, we had wars in the name of a whole pantheon of gods. After monotheism, we had wars in the name of a supreme god.

It’s one thing when you go to war with “Our god is bigger than your god.” Those wars, bad as they were, were local. It’s another when you declare “Ours is the only god!” Those are the wars that can destroy the world.

Or is that the entire goal of monotheism—to wipe all disbelievers off the face of the earth?

—Kinda Angry

Hey Kinda:

You’re right. Monotheism is a dangerous belief. You’re right. Monotheism is a dangerous belief.Perhaps one of the most dangerous beliefs there is. Because it leaves no room for anything else. You could destroy the world with this belief.

There’s another dangerous belief. That’s belief in the human being. One who worships human intellect as the measure of all things has also proven himself capable of destroying the world with his beliefs. Because a human’s mind cannot help but be bribed by his own ego.

For either of these beliefs—the belief in human beings and the belief in One G‑d—to safely enter our world, the two concepts had to be married together.

For monotheism to work, a crucial fact about this One G‑d must be accepted: That He is in love with this world He has made, and especially with the people He has placed upon it.

For human intellect to function safely, we must first accept that there is something beyond intellect, something eternally and immovably good and life-affirming Who determines what is true and what is not, what is right and what is wrong.

Look through the annals of history and you will see it: When this sort of belief has guided men and women, whatever religion they followed, those people brought peace, wisdom and progress into the world.

Today, we desperately need this marriage of beliefs. With it, we can heal our world.

Two Themes of Beginning

Take a look at the opening of Genesis and you will see these two themes.

There are actually two narratives of creation there: The first is centered on the theme of G‑d as creator, the second focused on the theme of Adam, the first human being, created “in the divine image.”

Take one narrative without the other, and you’ve lost everything. If G‑d leaves no room for man, or man leaves no room for G‑d, you’ve got one lousy story ahead of you.If G‑d leaves no room for man, or man leaves no room for G‑d, you’ve got one lousy story ahead of you.

Even in the first narrative alone, take a closer look: G‑d creates and then He declares each thing He makes to be good. When it’s all done, it’s declared “very good.”

That’s an essential part of the narrative: The Creator appreciates His creation. It has purpose and meaning to Him.

No, this world was not created for some apocalyptic finale, neither was its magnificence formed only to dissipate into ionized gas. It was created, as Isaiah says, “not for desolation, but to be lived upon.” And to find divine meaning in that life.

G‑d loves life. Life is G‑dly. The two, of necessity, go hand in hand.

The Alefbet of Creation

An ancient Midrash says the same in the language of a parable. 1

It says that the G‑d chose to create the world beginning with the second letter of the alphabet, rather than the first. Why? Because if the world began with the first letter, it would be a world that allowed for only one singularity. Nothing else would have meaning. It would be a meaningless, dark world.

So instead He created it beginning with the second letter—the letter beit of Breishit. Only later, when He gave the Torah, did He begin with the first letter—the letter א alef of אנכי Anochi.

That way, there would first be a something, a world, and then we would discover the meaning of that world.

What is that meaning?

That even when there is a world, there is truly only One; there is nothing else but Him. This world is the ultimate mystery of the divine, and it is up to us to unveil that mystery—by cherishing life.Because this world is the ultimate mystery of the divine, and it is up to us to unveil that mystery—by cherishing life, nurturing life, and doing all the best things we can with life. By cherishing His world.

Two Kinds of One

That’s the real meaning of “G‑d is One.”2

Some people think that’s a statement of belief in a supreme deity—one who is so big, he has exclusive rights over everything. Which means that nothing has real value.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the rabbi who, in discussion with a self-professed atheist, said, “The god that you don’t believe in, I also don’t believe in.”

Because these people haven’t really escaped the paradigm of polytheism. They are still orbiting within its gravitational pull. They see the world around them as something entirely separate from the G‑d that created it.

That’s not the meaning of “G‑d is One.”

“G‑d is one” is a statement about the essential fabric of our reality.“G‑d is one” is a statement about the essential fabric of our reality. It’s a statement that “in the heavens above and on the earth below, there is nothing else but Him.” And that can only be so if this world He has created has divine meaning.3

“G‑d is one” tells you: Look at this amazing creation you inhabit. Listen to the majestic harmony of a billion trillion parts. Peer upon the infinite wisdom that lies within each of its details. Discover G‑d here. Because in all the things that He has made, there is a wondrous paradox—that within the endless diversity of all opposites breathes a perfect oneness.

Blind Faith Vs. Solid Faith

How do people come to these bizarre conclusions about G‑d and what He wants from them? How could you have a god who created a world and wants to see its destruction?

Because their beliefs are based on their own need for power.

When the god you worship is based on your need for power, or even on your sense of reason, that god can never be bigger than you.When the god you worship is based on your need for power, or even on your sense of reason, that god can never be bigger than you. You are, after all, its foundation. So the bigger this god becomes, you will always be bigger than it.

This kind of belief is in the same category as “blind faith.” Blind faith is an instinct to just follow, to allow your ego to be swallowed into a much greater whole—and thereby become an even greater ego.

And that leaves the whole world at your disposal.

The way out is to begin from the opposite end. Begin with a sense that this reality is not predicated on your existence, but upon a singularity that transcends all things and is found within all of them.

When you really get that, it’s only natural to ask, “If so, what am I doing here? What is this world doing here? What is this all about? What is the meaning?” And you search for meaningful answers.

If you think about these questions with a clear mind, looking at this amazing world about you, you’ll certainly realize that the Creator of this world desires diversity.

And that’s what Jews believe—that in the messianic era there will still be many nations. “No nation shall raise a sword against another. They will learn war no more.”4 They won’t all become Jews.5 They will be good people, keeping the basic laws of civil human behavior—known as the “laws of Noah.”6

And in those times, as Maimonides writes, “the entire occupation of the world will be to know G‑d.”7 All these nations will see the oneness of the divine in each thing, each from their unique perspective.

Faith, Love & G‑d

That sense, that capacity to start with a point beyond yourself, is called emunah. Some translate that as “belief,” but they miss the point.

Emunah is an intuitive knowledge of a reality that is much greater than you. It is a knowledge that is beyond our sense of reason, because it is capable of escaping the ego.

So that if you have true emunah you feel truly small. You feel that your entire existence is not to “just be,” but for a purpose.

With faith predicated on ego and power, there is no room for others. With emunah, there is space for everyone. There is a sense of mission, a commitment to life, and to finding meaning in all things.

That’s something accessible to all people. If you truly love G‑d, you love that which G‑d loves.Whatever trappings your monotheism may take on, if you truly believe in G‑d’s oneness, that oneness will include a love for life, for living beings, and especially for your fellow human beings. Because if you truly love G‑d, you love that which G‑d loves.8

Footnotes
1.
Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 1:14; Zohar, beginning of Parshat Vayigash; Maamar V'HaBriach Hatichon 5658; Maamar Chayav Inish 5718.
3.
See Maamar Havaye Li B’ozrei 5717, chapter 11b;
5.
See Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Laws of Kings, chapters 11-12. Elucidated in Likutei Sichot volume 23, page 179. See there, especially footnote 76.
6.
Talmud, Sanhedrin 56a.
7.
Ibid.
8.
See Hayom Yom, Nissan 28.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at Chabad.org, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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CC NY August 5, 2017

After reading this article and responses which touches on a topic that seems to exemplify how angry and uninformed the masses are about God, religion and history, it only highlights their inability to find God in their lives. It is an ocean deeper than the great Atlantic rift ...the abyss.
The Torah with all its written and oral strength is the great treasure that eludes the world of secularism and those who do not seek it or ridicule it, want to feel like they are god, not beholding to a "fictional being" telling them what is good or evil....their reactions are a tale as old as the world...it never changes..but they don't know it or care to.
Self righteousness blinds their reasoning and it's a waste of time to even try to educate them.
All the world was created by God. He seemed to create a unique system of opposites. ...good vs. evil..hot vs cold etc. Thanks to Judaism, the Torahs light reaches those who seek Truth & God. Reply

Avram NYC August 4, 2017

Greetings. My question is why was Spinoza excommunicated, eventually un-excommunicated, for stating that God and the world were one and not separate? Reply

Barbara August 4, 2017

This is very good!
But I hope that people don't misunderstand it to mean that measures should not be taken to protect ourselves from those with full intent to harm us. Already too many people in various places attempt to "embrace with love" those who want us dead..Those who are completely devoid of a love for even their own lives or those of their children..As a group, of course I mean people who "follow" islam...But there are many non-muslim individuals just as devoid of a basic love for Life itself, and only G-d knows why. But we must protect ourselves because G-d put survival instinct into us for a good reason. Reply

Larry Thailand August 3, 2017

Beautiful illustration! Well suited to the essay. Reply

Kenneth olen Smith Denison, Texas August 3, 2017

Dear wonderful Rabbi Freeman , "Todah Raba for your wonderful insights into the human mind and the belief in the Creator. I was born with a great curious mind, i wanted to learn everything about our world.I would read two books a week on many subjects and from them i could see that we were coming to a place in history where, problem solving is getting harder and harder. I work for the military for about ten years, and could see where necessity for military power would be the norm, because of natural resources would become scarce. I am amazed at the Creator He made a planet so very wonderful with a very special purpose for His children. The One G_d of Abraham Isaac and Jacob greatest desire is to dwell with His creation in love and peace, a world of sharing the love of the Creator with each other forever. I feel we are living in a time when we know that the end of man's rule is near, and that the One G_d of Abraham Isaac and Jacob must rule our planet and the inhabitants. Reply

Emil M Friedman Hillside, NJ August 2, 2017

"When this sort of belief has guided men and women, whatever religion they followed, those people brought peace, wisdom and progress into the world."

But what about Hashem telling us (towards the end of Bamidbar and in the beginning of Devarim) to annihilate several entire nations (children included)? Ironically, we read those parshiot as Tisha B'Av approaches. Reply

Davida August 2, 2017

To me the Torah says there's lots of gods who appear as some source, including the One identified as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That's the Only one who claims to have created all things and who alone delivers the faithful from evil through justice and mercy. He is my God in whom I trust. Great well thought out article and comments. Thanks. Reply

Pete WA August 2, 2017

God is God and the commands are universal. So if the religious authorities would teach this then nobody would destroy anything in God's name because we have all been prohibited from killing, which is called murder or shedding blood.

How can bloodshed be prohibited if human beings can be moved to violence beyond rational decision making?

We build a fence around the command: no standing armies, no accululation of weapons, no piles of nerve gas, and no coercion and intimidation as a recourse to ensuring compliance with governmental authorities.

If you want God, and God is one, then you've got to accept humanity as one with God. And that means all humanity. Period. But if you divide humans into warring fractions, national, religious, ideological -- one thing opposite another -- then you open the door for destruction.

Peace. We're all one. Reply

Shmuly August 1, 2017

Amazing! Thank you Rabbi Freeman, one of your best articles yet! Reply

Patricia via chabadpasadena.com July 31, 2017

Is it possible for your consciousness to comprehend good people who no nothing of Noah and his laws? A Creator who bestows laws and morals for people who have never read the Torah?
One G-d bigger than you and your sense of reason?
That day is today, there is nothing in the world to come that is not already here now, it will always be bigger than any of us. Reply

The Editorial Team July 30, 2017

This article was modified and expanded on 7/30/2017, at the request of readers. Reply

Anonymous Pretoria, South Africa March 22, 2012

DOUBLE STANDARDS •Who started the first world war ? …………………..Muslims ?
•Who started the second world war ? ………………..Muslims ?
•Who killed over 6 million Jews in Europe? ………………..Muslims ?
•Who killed about 20 million of Aborigines in Australia ? Muslims ??
•Who sent the nuclear bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki ? Muslims ??
•Who killed more than 100 million of Indians in North America ? Muslims ??
•Who killed more than 50 million of Indians in South America ? Muslims ??
•Who took about 180 million of African people as slaves and 88% of them
died and were thrown in Atlantic Ocean ? Muslims??? ?? No , They weren't Muslims!!!
•Who sent aircraft bombers to bomb Iraq and kill for over 10 years …. Muslims???
•Who sent aircraft bombers to bomb Afghanistan and kill for over 10
years …. Muslims???
•Who is using Drone attacks to kill and maim in North Pakistan and
Afghanistan …………. Muslims???
•First of all, You have to define terrorism properly... Reply

Robert NC August 2, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

-Who put an end to the corruption, terror and Tirany of the Roman empire?
- Who defeated Hitler and Nazism?
- Who put an end to Soviet empire?
- Who delivered an entire continent from a pagan religion that sacrificed its people and children to their gods?

I could go on, but the bottom line is that these people from many nations did great positive things because they based their faith on the G-d of the Torah. Those among them who did horrible things where not following the very basic tenets of their faith. Reply

Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell Riverside, CA, USA June 5, 2011

My opinion on this issue.. Is that I have formulated a concept of G-d in my mind that allows me to be at peace with this idea. My concept of G-d is that He is a spirit, an attitude, a feeling, a power within and without me, all that is good, wonderous, amazing, positive and wonderous. I do not, therefore, believe in most of OUR Bible stories, and for sure not in ANY of the Koran's stories which attribute to G-d human feelings, motives or actions. I don't believe it, and therefore, my type of belief in one G-d does NOT equate Him with Evil. On a lighter note, I do sometimes wish He would be my avenger when people are mean to me. Then, by coincidence, if something terrible happens to those people, I don't take delight, but on the other hand, I kind of think G-d heard my prayers. That doesn't mean I would use my belief in Go-d to mow down people who harm me. I think people USE their beliefs to JUSTIFY waging war and terror. That has nothing to do with the real G-d. I know some Muslims who HATE terrorism, btw. Reply

David Chester Petach Tikva, Israel August 3, 2017
in response to Karen Joyce Chaya Fradle Kleinman Bell:

Divine splinter--the soul Karen et al: what you are writing about is the divine soul although you may not be aware of it. This is a very comforting concept, except for the fact that we believe that the soul will be judged at one stage of its passage, and that this may not be a pleasant experience! We know very little about the soul and I would like to see Chabad produce a course about it. How should we prepare our souls for this judgment and at what age should this preparation begin? Reply

Donald riverside, ca August 24, 2009

Simply amazing Tzvi Freeman always amazes me with his answers and explanations. Reply

Stephen Weinstein Camarillo, CA via chabadcamarillo.com September 7, 2008

Monotheistic barbarians existed long before Islam. The earliest recorded act of terrorism, and possibly the earliest recorded use of biological warfare, was when Moses used his staff to bring the ten plagues. Subsequently, tactics that would today be considered barbarian were used against the canaanites. You can be critical of Monotheistic barbarianism, but be honest about it. We started it, longer before the Moslems followed our example. Reply

Adam August 4, 2017
in response to Stephen Weinstein:

I have to agree Stephen. But not all religions have a history of violence. Jainism is probably the world's only religion never to engaged in any warfare, primarily because the central tenants of Jainism are non-violence, which goes to core of even their diet which is vegetarian. Reply

Luke Lim Singapore January 16, 2007

Evil as an arguement against G-D All too often, the evil we humans commit (especially under the pretext of religion) is used as a weapon to disprove G-D's existance. I know this only too well; many folks (mostly youths) I meet in a forum has been using this as one of their main reasons why they don't believe in any religion (G-D's not "hip" nowadays *shakes head*).

What can we say to convince them otherwise? That the human eye cannot say what the Divine sees? "Don't worry, everything will end up well"? That doesn't sound very convincing even to me.

I must say I am rather confused on how we should address this. Reply

Rob van Dijk Amsterdam, Netherlands August 7, 2006

There are many non believers who say that religion is the cause of the most 'kills' in history, and therefor it can't be good. Back to school; I'd say ... Tthe most "efficient" murders of the 20th century where all commited in the name of secular ideologies (by the likes of Hitler/Stalin/Mao, to name but three), litterally millions! Reply

Levi Itshak Paris, France August 4, 2006

Men caused evil but not Torah Concerning our Torah, I would say that, in my opinion, it isn't able to bring chalom in the world without the contribution of man. Torah seems to say it: man has the free will to comply with it or not. The Talmud says that three things need man to pain to be obtained, in which there is Torah. So I think Torah gives the way to bring chalom but it is our part to respect it.
To conclude, if such evil exist in the world, we have the entire responsability to eradicate it. Reply

Anonymous October 12, 2004

Ignorance I am truly amazed at some of these questions. Dear Rabbi, you have some teaching to do. Reply

Eli Milwaukee, WI August 26, 2004

Flawed logic Several distinctions exist between martyrdom in the Jewish tradition and martyrdom in the Muslim tradition. First, an integral part of Judaism espouses tolerance and acceptance of other faiths, whereas Muslims have and continue to espouse zero tolerance of other faiths (Mr. Bush no pun intended). Second, we dont seek Martyrdom nor do we superimpose it on others. Lastly, in reality, monotheism has put restraints on human machinations that have lead to rationalization of horrific genocidal acts against humanity (e.g. the former Soviet Union, Nazi Germany).

Yes I do agree that institutionalized religion can be used for the most evil of purposes, and has been used in the past for such. Does that indict the people who use religion as a tool for committing evil or does it indict the religion itself? Monotheism is a belief that has put restraints on evil. We only realize evil when it happens, not when its prevented. There is no telling how much good has come out of monotheism. The bad is only apparent because we tend to overlook the good. Reply

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