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The History of Monotheism

The History of Monotheism


The essence of Judaism is the belief in the One G‑d. Indeed, all monotheistic faiths trace their origin to Abraham, the discoverer (or re-discoverer) of this truth.

The Jewish belief in G‑d is expressed in the first two of the Ten Commandments. The first affirms the truth of His being. The second is the negative complement to the first—the disavowal of idolatry. Idolatry is not necessarily a lack of belief in G‑d; indeed, the Second Commandment begins, “You shall have no other gods before Me.” Rather, idolatry also includes any denial of G‑d’s oneness—His absolute singularity, unity and exclusiveness of being. To ascribe any divisions or compartmentalizations to the Divine being, or to believe that G‑d has any partners or intermediaries to His creation and sustenance of the universe, is to transgress the prohibition of idolatry.

The particulars of the laws of idolatry are spelled out by Maimonides in his Mishneh Torah, in a twelve-chapter section entitled Laws Concerning Idolatry and its Customs. Here Maimonides defines idolatry and examines the various forms of idol-worship and its accompanying practices, the penalties they carry, the status of an idolator, etc.

In the first chapter of Laws Concerning Idolatry, Maimonides outlines the history of man’s recognition of the truth of the One G‑d. Originally, man knew his Maker; but

in the generation of Enosh (Adam’s grandson), humanity erred grievously, and the wisdom of that generations wise men was confused; Enosh himself was among those who erred. Their error lay in that they believed that it would be pleasing to G‑d if they were to venerate the forces of nature which serve Him, as a king desires that his ministers and servants be venerated. Soon they were erecting temples and altars to the sun and the stars, offering sacrifices and hymns of praise to them, believing all this to be the will of G‑d.”

In later generations, Maimonides continues,

there arose false prophets . . . and other charlatans who claimed to have received communications from the various heavenly bodies as to how they are to be served and which images are to represent them. As the years went by, the venerable and awesome name of G‑d was forgotten from the lips and minds of humanity; no longer were they aware of Him at all. The common folk knew only the wood or stone image in its stone temple which they had been trained from childhood to bow down to and serve and swear by. The wiser ones among them believed in the stars and constellations that these images represented. But none recognized or even knew of the Creator, except for rare individuals such as Enoch, Methuselah, Noah, Shem and Eber. And so the world turned, until the pillar of the universe, our father Abraham, was born.

No sooner was [Abraham] weaned—and he was but a small child—that his mind began to seek and wonder: How do the heavenly bodies orbit without a moving force? Who moves them? They cannot move themselves! Immersed amongst the foolish idol-worshippers of Ur Casdim, he had no one to teach him anything; his father, mother and countrymen, and he amongst them, all worshipped idols. But his heart sought, and came to know that there is one G‑d . . . who created all, and that in all existence there is none other than Him. He came to know that the entire world erred . . .

At the age of forty, Abraham recognized his Creator. . . . He began to debate with the people of Ur Casdim. . . . He smashed the idols, and began to teach the people that it is fitting to serve only the one G‑d. . . . He continued to call in a great voice to the world, teaching them that there is one G‑d for the entire universe, and that Him alone is it fitting to serve. He carried his call from city to city and from kingdom to kingdom. . . . Many gathered to ask about his words, and he would explain to each according to his understanding, until he had shown him the path of truth. Thousands and then tens of thousands joined him . . . and he implanted this great principle in their heart and wrote many books on it. After Abraham’s passing, Isaac, and then Jacob, continued his work, until Jacob’s descendents, and those who joined them, formed a nation that knew G‑d.

However, when the people of Israel dwelled in Egypt for many years, they regressed to learning from the behavior of the Egyptians and to worshipping idols with them. . . . Just a little longer, and the great principle implanted by Abraham would have been uprooted, and the descendents of Jacob would have reverted to the error of humanity and their contorted ways. But out of G‑d’s love to us, and His keeping of the oath He made to Abraham . . . G‑d chose Israel as His, crowned them with mitzvot and instructed them the way in which to serve Him, and the laws concerning idolatry and those who err with it.

History as Law

Thus Maimonides concludes the first chapter of Laws Concerning Idolatry. In the next eleven chapters he proceeds to spell out the legal particulars of “idolatry and those who err with it.”

The Mishneh Torah is a purely halachic, or legal, work. On the rare occasions on which Maimonides digresses with a historical fact or a philosophical insight, it is always revealed upon closer examination to be a legally instructive point. The same is true of the opening chapter of Laws Concerning Idolatry: every detail of this lengthy history is a halachah, a crucial component of the Torah’s prohibition of idolatry. In this essay we will dwell on two of the important points that Maimonides is making in this chapter.

Maimonides’ first point is that idolatry is not only a religious sin but also a rational error. Enosh’s generation “erred grievously, and the wisdom of that generation’s wise men was confused”; humanity was deceived by false prophets and charlatans. Abraham arrived at the truth of G‑d’s oneness not by Divine revelation or supernatural powers, but in a process by which “his mind began to seek and wander . . . until he comprehended the truth and understood the righteous path by his sound wisdom.” He gained adherents to his faith not by working wonders or prophesying in the name of G‑d, but by explaining to each according to his understanding, until he had shown him the path of truth. Maimonides does not mention G‑d’s many revelations to Abraham (see Genesis 12:1, 12:7, 15:1–21, et al); he also makes no mention of the many prophecies and miracles that accompanied the development of the nation that knew G‑d in its formative years. For even if none of this had come to pass, man could still have come to recognize the oneness of G‑d, and would have been expected to do so. Idolatry is irrational; man, using nothing more than his capacity to reason, can discern its fallacy and discover the truth.

[This is also emphasized by Maimonides’ statement that “at the age of forty Abraham recognized his Creator.” There exist several accounts as to the year of Abraham’s discovery. The Talmud states that Abraham recognized his Creator at age 3; other sources cite his age at the time as 4; still others as 50. Maimonides’ source seems to be a variant version of the Midrash that states that he was 40. As many commentaries suggest, there is no contradiction between these accounts—each represents another level of recognition achieved by Abraham. Indeed, Maimonides himself informs us that his quest began “soon after he was weaned, and he was but a small child.” Why, then, does Maimonides choose to speak particularly of the recognition Abraham attained at age forty? Indeed, of what halachic significance is Abraham’s age at all? But Maimonides wishes to again underscore that Abraham’s refutation of idolatry was a rational one. Forty is described by our sages as “the age of understanding”—the point at which a person’s cognitive powers attain full maturity. Thus, the level of discovery Abraham achieved at age 40 represents his ultimate understanding of the Divine truth.]

On the other hand, near the end of the historical account, Maimonides makes the very opposite point: without Divine intervention, the faith founded by Abraham would not have survived.

Human reason is not enough. It can expose fallacies, discover truth, transform a life, convince thousands, found a nation. But it is only as strong as the human self of which it springs. It can be distorted and suppressed by the tribulations of life: break the person, and you have invalidated his or her ideas. The exile and hardship experienced by the Israelites in Egypt almost destroyed the nation that knew G‑d. If G‑d had not revealed Himself to us at Sinai, the great principle implanted by Abraham would have been uprooted.

Mind and More

In this first chapter of Laws Concerning Idolatry, Maimonides is instructing us how the mitzvah “You shall have no other gods before Me” is to be observed.

It is not enough to say: “G‑d revealed Himself to us at Sinai and told us that there are no other deities or forces that are partner to His being and His rulership of the universe. So I know that it is so. If He said so, that’s enough for me: the logic of this truth is irrelevant.” No, says Maimonides. The Second Commandment obligates the Jew that his mind, not only his convictions, should negate the possibility of other gods. He must not only accept that this is so, but also comprehend that, rationally, it cannot be otherwise. Every Jew is commanded to develop the recognition of Divine truth attained by Abraham: a recognition so absolute that it can, by the force of reason alone, dispel a universally entrenched doctrine and convince thousands to transform their lives.

On the other hand, a person might take this to the other extreme, and say: “The oneness of G‑d is not a matter of faith, it’s a fact. The nature of reality attests to it—I can prove it to anyone. It is the revelation at Sinai that is irrelevant. Monotheism is a rational truth, supported by irrefutable arguments.”

That may be so, Maimonides is saying, but the Jew’s denial of alien gods is more than an irrefutable philosophy. It is a faith implanted in the core of our souls, which endures also when logic ceases to function and reason is rendered impotent. To truly believe, one must comprehend, but comprehension alone is but the mortal shadow of immortal faith. The philosophy-faith of Abraham barely survived Egypt; the supra-rational faith we attained at Sinai, where G‑d chose Israel as His, crowned them with mitzvot and instructed them the way in which to serve Him, has survived a hundred Egypts and every madness of history.

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
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David Elden USA June 20, 2017

This helped a lot Reply

jim dallas November 10, 2016

stands to reason, and beyond how much proof does it take, before you know He is G-d? Reply

Juda August 13, 2014

Re: This essay is full of contradictions. Perhaps you should check the bible a bit more closely....
Deuteronomy 4:35 "You have been shown, in order to know that the Lord He is God; there is none else besides Him."

Deuteronomy 4:39 "And you shall know this day and consider it in your heart, that the Lord He is God in heaven above, and upon the earth below; there is none else."

Ilan August 12, 2014

This essay is full of contradictions. I invite you to debate this article. The Torah clearly demonstrates that god was only perceived as a better god until the establishment of Judea. Check the way you described the second commandment in your own article. Also, you are using to much rethoric in the way you explain maimonides Reply

Anonymous October 14, 2010

simple Monotheism Is it possible to sum up the last paragraph in two points ?

1. A Jew is a Jew. When the madness of history against Jews takes place, the madmen do no ask whether the Jew is an atheist or believer in The One, G-d.

2. It may be easier to define a Jew as a ' follower of Torah '. As Chassidus points out, all Jews have the Torah/Jewish soul at birth, or even in the fetal stage. In this context, Torah is G-d. Jews are born as G-d/Torah believers/followers. What becomes of this capacity as the person develops is a matter of Free Will. It is a tiny minority that are so evil that they have no chance of tshuva (repentance) or redemption. The vast majority of humanity try to follow the good inclination. Secular Jews are included.

If i am off base in these ideas , it is not important. It is not intended as an argument, but rather a humble opinion. Reply

Shahid October 13, 2010

Monotheism Reading this article is a great learning experience. Many thanks to Chabad for this effort to bring light to the world! Reply

Brian S Simsbury, CT October 12, 2010

re:re: Emanations And On The Angels If an Emanation is not Essential is it then but a Manifestation? In which case the entire pantheon of the Greco-Roman world may be construed as the manifestations of a deeper Essence as well?
To Anon in Chi. The Angels are created entities. They are irrelevant to Oneness of the Creator. Reply

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman October 12, 2010

Re: The Emanations of Kabbala On the contrary: The Kabbala of the Corodoverian and Lurianic schools, uses the metaphor of emanations in order to explain how G-d's attributes do not imply any plurality in Him, since they are only emanations, but not essence.

These Kabbalists were acutely aware of these issues, being well versed in philosophy and halacha. Contemporary popular presentations often fail to take these matters in regard with the same caution as the original, classic works. Reply

Brian S simsbury, CT October 12, 2010

The Emanations of Kabbala "To ascribe any divisions or compartmentalizations to the divine being, or to believe that G-d has any partners or intermediaries to His creation and sustenance of the universe, is to transgress the prohibition of idolatry."
It seems there is but the thinnest of lines between the emanations of Kabbala and "compartmentalization" of G*d. Reply

Marie Tarr Wrens, GA November 8, 2008

Monotheism I didn't grow up in this way, but somehow it was here, hidden in the depths of my soul. I am referring to the first & second commandment. I was brought up in a somewhat Christian family, but never could accept a belief in a trinity. That is idolatry! Reply

shy to queen creek, aaz October 28, 2008

awesome i kinda like this website it gives alot of information!!! so thanks fo helping on my homework!!! Reply

peter wanjohi nairobi, kenya November 7, 2007

To:Chanah Mathematically,the absolute one is known though it's physically considered a zero or non-entity.Yet the true shape/nature of earth/universe/particles precludes the concept of an indepedent physicality free from the fetters of an all-pervading mystical realm/denominator.This fact is known but hoarded by people of ulterior motives Reply

Chanah October 29, 2007

Re: The next step Thank you. That's interensting.
So, are you agreeing with the idea that G-d's very existence is beyond proof, or is attempting to prove it worthwile?
As for G-d's role in the world - are you saying that this is a matter of proof?
I'm not sure that the point you brought can be considered a proof, strictly speaking.
Proofs are often rebutted. Then there is the statement, "G-d is beyond proof or logic;" in other words, that He cannot be proved and that is not our job.
I'm wondering what the truth is in that discussion, as presented by Torah and/or Chasidus.
Is G-d actually prove-able? Reply

Tzvi Freeman Thornhill, Ontario October 26, 2007

Re: The Next Step It doesn't seem that Avraham needed to prove G_d's existence. The idolaters of his time most likely didn't disagree that there was a single most powerful god. The issue was that this most powerful G_d is concerned with what's happening down here and takes care of it, all Himself--without need for autonomous "other gods".

How would he demonstrate this? Most likely by demonstrating the underlying harmony of all phenomena--that all appears to have a single conductor, that there are common patterns an rhythms that pervade all things.

In other words, Avraham was the first scientist. Reply

Anonymous ottawa October 22, 2017
in response to Tzvi Freeman:

some religions divide G-d to make mercy and justice possible in the divine, but all you have to do is abandon Aristotle, and suddenly G-d can be one. Reply

Yehudit Israel October 25, 2017
in response to Tzvi Freeman:

1) "Avraham was the first scientist". Modern science (unified Field Theory, Quantum Physics, etc) is 'proving' Avraham's perception.

2) The Shema addresses the idea of multiplicity (ie 'celestial' beings of any midot- 'good' or 'bad') that humans create in our world (elokeinu) and asserts that, since we are formed as creative partners (b'tzelem elokim) we live so that WHAT we create is congruent with the will of transcendent Creator ( Y-K-V-K).

3) The transcendent Creator (Y-K-V-K) is actually directly and personally involved in our lives and once we begin listening (Shema) we begin to 'perceive' and 'know' this intimately: ד ע " know +עד testify/witness beyond all cerebral attempts to cogitate the infinite, transcendent Creator He is 'knowable' in the essence of the Heart - ש- , the point of the 'yud', all direct us to this intimate, indescribable place of non-cerebral 'knowing' Reply

P.wanjohi nairobi, kenya October 22, 2007

Monotheism I have heard that in hebrew parlance, to deny the existence of G-d is like to deny existence itself, so can there be more than one existences?Even english does not seem to agree,unless you are talking of physical/nonphysical existences. Now the physical is destructible and therefore time-bound. It all boils down to one eternal dominion, with the physical as a figment of infinite imagination.From the perspective of the characters in the dream, physical existence is real and tangible Reply

Yehudit Israel October 25, 2017
in response to P.wanjohi:

I think the Creator created us with the sense of 'i' so that we 'feel' and experience His creation as real and tangible. Just like a dream and the characters in the dream feel real. Reply

Chanah October 17, 2007

The Next Step This article seems to say what many contest, that belief in G-d begins with logic.

Avraham "proved" G-d's existence, as I understood.

If that's the case, what is the proof, or where can I find it?

Thank you. Reply

Anonymous Chicago, IL December 23, 2006

History of Monotheism There are a couple of biggies that I don't see addressed here:

1. Aten / Atenism as the precursor to Monotheistic Judaism.

2. Angels. They are in the texts, are superhuman, and appear by name. (e.g. Gabriel, Michael, Raphael, Uriel, Raguel, Sariel, and Jerahmeel).

I have seen attempts at semantic gymnastics that argue that angels were never to be viewed as actual superhuman beings, but rather forces of nature that happened to have regular names. No way, Jorge. Purely conceptual thought has always been limited to those above the 67th percentile (or so) of intelligence. The average person is a literal thinker. 'An Angel came down and .....' means just that, to more than 50% of any population... Reply

Yehudit Israel October 25, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

1) IMO: The Aten understanding did not take root with any one people and was not carried forward through the generations, whereas Avraham's and then Moshe's perception did

2)Re: Angels/Sefirot: See the book "Flames", translated by Naphtali Roesenthal Reply

seger longmont, co October 30, 2006

history of monotheism Truly awsome commentary it really hit home because its the journey i've been on for some time Reply

Anonymous New York, NY July 24, 2006

Why there is competition to establish one's own religion as the best example of monotheism, I do not know.

I have heard this claim a number of times - I find it to be offensive. It is intended to show that one religion is 'better' than others.

Monotheism refers to one interventionist G*d. That's just consolidation of power. 'There is one pie and only one pie, and it has no slices. It is, therefore, superior to all sliced pies and other non-sliced pies, as 'we' hold the copyright on non-sliced-pie-ism.

It still assumes the existence of an interventionist all-powerful entity that performs 'magic' (whatever you would like to call the ability to do things that no person can do). That's completely in keeping with the most primitive beliefs - minus the slices in the pie... Reply

Susan Boca Raton, FL October 23, 2017
in response to Anonymous:

If you sense a certain "competitiveness" in some remarks here it is because the authors are not objective researchers. They are looking to support their own "thesis" and likely find this article does not support it. I love this site because my soul connects with Chassidism and I get spiritual value on that basis. However I am also a secular writer/researcher and if I wanted to approach monotheism from a non-religious perspective, I would study Chassidism's view; Modern Orthodox Jewish view, Christian view, Islamic view and perhaps early Atenism. I would not debate one against the other; just present their views. Reply

Yanki Tauber November 3, 2004

Reply to Simon Holloway The prohibition against idolatry, as contained in the 2nd of the "Ten Commandments" commanded to the people of Israel at Mt Sinai, most definitely includes the prohibition against believing in "shituf" ('partnership'). See the chapter in Maimonides cited in the essay and ALL compilations of Torah law. There is not a single halachic authority that differs on this point.

The discussion you mention pertains only to the prohibition against idolatry contained in the Seven Noahide Laws binding upon non-Jews, which according to some halachic opinions does not include a prohibition against "partnership." Reply

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