כִּי לֹא תִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לְאֵל אַחֵר כִּי יְהוָה קַנָּא שְׁמוֹ אֵל קַנָּא הֽוּא
For you must not worship any other god, because the L”rd, whose name is Impassioned, is an impassioned G”d.
Notice the lovely little orthological curiosity in the Hebrew text? The fifth word, akher, ends with what is called a resh rabbati, that is, an enlarged resh.
Somewhere along the line, it was determined that this resh be slightly enlarged lest people mistakenly read it as a dalet, making the word ekhad, one, rendering the text
For you must not worship one G”d . . .
Now, it is understandable that the rabbis, or the Masoretes, or the scribes (or Moshe, or G”d, if you believe that is the true direct source of the Torah) would be concerned that people do not read the word akher other, as ekhad, one. Monotheism (or at the very least, monolatry, is a central and core tenet of the Israelite religion, what has today become Judaism. Thus the resh ר became enlarged so it could not be confused with a dalet ד .
Considering the context, the concern seems less logical. vv. 11-13 have G”d stating that the inhabitants that stand between the Israelites and the promised land will be driven out, and when they are, the Israelites must
tear down their altars, smash their pillars, and cut down their sacred posts
For the following verse to read “you must not worship one G”d” is contextually ridiculous. So we must ask what were the true concerns of those who added the resh rabbati? Were they assuming that people might have a tendency to read the text literally and closely, in bits and pieces, with little regard for preceding, following, surrounding and even holistic context? Or were they cautioning against that with an obvious gesture? Perhaps they were recommending a close reading approach while at the same time recognizing the inherent dangers.
In defense of those who insisted on the enlarged resh, the phrase “l’El akher” is unique to this location in the Torah. It generally is found in a plural formation, elohim akheirim, other gods. Which raises the question of why here, in this one place, do we find the singular “other god?”
Could this be a hidden indicator of the true nascent monotheism (as opposed to monolatry) that was to be found in the ancient Israelite religion? It was not enough to say “you must not worship other gods” meaning that it’s ok to worship your gods. It was necessary to say “you must not worship any other god except for G”d.” Yet we do not find this construction in the ten commandments or elsewhere in the Torah. It’s always the plural “other gods” except here. Polytheism being the normative order of the day, it (the plural “elohim akheirim”) could easily be misunderstood as giving permission to the Israelites to have and worship their own pantheon, but not the pantheon of other cultures.
Another clue as to why we find the singular here is the text that follows, naming G”d as Impassioned, and stating the G”d is impassioned. (The older translations used “jealous” which, for our purposes, might be more apt.) This is perhaps based upon G”d’s self description occurring earlier in the chapter (vv. 6-7) G”d is not going to be happy if the Israelites worship not just other gods, but worship ANY other god. Period. In the immediately following verses, we’re back to the plural formulations referring to “their gods.”
So far, I’ve managed to mostly skirt around the elephant in the room-the oft raised question of why the Torah refers to “other gods” in a matter-of-fact way. Is it simply a convenient literary device, is it monolatrism, or is it hinting at a nascent henotheistic philosophy.
As a simplistic explanation, monolatry says that there may be multiple gods, but only one of them is worthy of being worshipped. Henotheism posits one god to be worshipped, but that there may be other gods worthy of worship. A henotheist can choose from a pantheon of gods, and even change the god worshipped. Monotheism says simply one G”d. Of course, in Judaism, one of the names for that One G”d is Elohim, a plural word!
Henotheism has a subtlety. In henotheism, there is the idea that a single god may take multiple forms (not only at different times, but at the same time.) With out typical modern hubris, we tend to think that henotheism is a relatively contemporary western idea, because it allows us to to believe that there is really only one G”d, yet worship that G”d in multiple deities. I think our ancestors beat us to that idea a long time ago. I’d suggest that our ancestors proceeded from polytheists, to henotheists, to monolatrists, to monotheists (though our modern monotheism has many elements of henotheism in it. Is it just a matter of semantics whether we say G”d, Allah, Father/Son/Holy Spirit, or do many believe, as I suspect, that these are different manifestations of the same G”d-an essentially henotheistic concept?)
Is the sole appearance of “El akhar” and the multiple appearances of “elohim akheirim” evidence that our ancestors struggled as we do with true monotheism? is the enlarged resh more evidence of this struggle?
That enlarged resh certainly keeps me from accidentally reading the words as ekhad. Yet it also draws my attention to the word akhar, other. It is calling my attention to the fact that another person may believe in and worship another god/G”d? It is telling me to be respectful of others and their other god/G”d, even as it warns me to not follow the ways of the other person, and to not worship the god/G”d of the other person?
All of this leads me to some final questions. If we are all human beings, all b’tzelem El”him, then is there ever really an other? What about in the case of gods/G”d? Can any god be an other god/G”d? Is there room in this universe for more than one god? How does that work? Do they have some sort of association that gets together and decides things? do they fight it out like the Greek, Egyptian, and Norse pantheon?
An atheist would use this to point out the absurdity of believing in a deity at all. Others might criticize this as asking pointless questions akin to asking the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin. Even within Judaism, we have those who criticize Qaballah citing the idea of sefirot as, at the very least, henotheistic.
Yes, it can be simpler to just have faith, to not ask all these questions. Just like the example of pessimist/optimist and the half-full/half-empty glass, we can view the resh rabbanit in 34:14 as a call to tow the monotheistic line, or a challenge to keep questioning. I choose the latter.
Adrian © 2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
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