Tag Archives: Theology

Christological statements in the Zohar

Judaism is traditionally monotheistic, and rejects Christian concepts of the Trinity. Christianity is a trinitarian monotheistic: they hold that God exists as three hypostases, but is one being, having a single divine nature. The members of the Trinity are co-equal and co-eternal, one in essence, nature, power, action, and will.

Kabbalah Sefirot Tree

he Zohar: Pritzker Edition

But over the milennia Jewish theology and literature has developed in many different ways. In the 15th century a book began to be published called the Zohar (זֹהַר‎, “Splendor” or “Radiance”.) This was described as the work of a Spanish Jewish writer named Moses de León, who in turn said that he found a secret cache of works written by Shimon bar Yochai (“Rashbi”), a rabbi of the 2nd century CE.  Most Jews at the time didn’t accept that this was literally correct, but within another 2 centuries the Zohar became to be seen as the most authoritative and ancient work of Jewish mysticism. By the 19th century large segments of Orthodox Judaism held that it was an article of faith that the Zohar was legitimate. However, much of it is written in an unclear fashion, and even it’s adherents and commentators have a hard time understanding what the precise teachings are.

Most controversial were the sections of the Zohar which paralled almost exactly the Christian concept of the Trinity.

Moses de Leon himself had a hard explaining why the Christian terminology for the trinity is incorrect, while his Kabbalistic/Zohar explanation of the trinity is correct.

Today, at least in public, Orthodox Jewish Kabbalists claim this is a “misunderstanding” of the Zohar – but not only is it correct, we have textual evidence that the Zohar texts used by Christian missionaries are correct. Later Zohar texts used by rabbinic Jews were altered to more quietly allude to neo-Christian, Trinitarian teachings. Attached below are quotes from Studies in the Zohar, By Yehuda Liebes.

Example 1

‘The Ancient of Days has three heads. He reveals himself in three archetypes, all three forming but one. He is thus symbolized by the number Three. They are revealed in one another. [These are:] first, secret, hidden ‘Wisdom’; above that the Holy Ancient One; and above Him the Unknowable One. None knows what He contains; He is above all conception. He is therefore called for man ‘Non-Existing’ [Ayin]'”
– Zohar, iii. 288b

Example 2

And this teaching from Zohar (II, 53b)

Hear, O Israel, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai is one. These three are one. How can the three names be one? Only through the perception of faith: in the vision of the Holy Spirit, in the holding of the hidden eye alone. The mystery of the audible voice is similar to this, for though it is one yet it consists of three elements – fire, air and water, which have, however, become one in the mystery of the voice. Even so, it is with the mystery of the three-fold Divine manifestations designated by Adonai Eloheinu Adonai – three modes which yet form one unity. This is the significance of the voice which man produces in the act of unification, when his intent is to unify all, from the Infinite (Ein-Sof) to the end of creation. This is the daily unification, the secret of which has been revealed in the holy spirit.

Liebnes writes :

It is interesting to note that R. Moses de Leon also grapples in the above passage with the problematics of the ten sefirot — why they are not threefold as is the Unity of God (and not only why they are not considered one — a philosophical question) — apparently because the tripartite formulations were of such obvious importance to him. Indeed, in writing his response to the questioner in his work confirming the unity of three,13 de Leon also responds to this latter question:

And as to what you have said concerning the sefirot (divine emanations), that they are ten and not three or more, you have made your point very clear. Nevertheless, all the sefirot are contained within the mystery of the triune singularity, as our sages teach us (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, 3): “The world was created through ten sayings, and of three are they comprised —wisdom, understanding and knowledge14 — forming a single source of reality”, {ibid., p. 134)

Indeed, Abner of Burgos also relied on this triad of wisdom, understanding and knowledge, in order to verify the authenticity of the Christian trinity. Y. Baer, in referring to Abner’s words,15 drew a parallel between them and the words of the Zohar in the Midrash ha-Ne^alam in Zohar Hadash to Genesis (Mossad Ha- Rav Kook edition, 4a) and in III:290a-b (Idra Zuta), and the commentary of R. Azriel of Gerona on the passage in his Commentary to the Aggadoth, claiming that not only could such (trinitarian) quotes be used for Christological interpretations, “but that the aforementioned Kabbalist writers had made use of  the idea of the Christian Trinity in their works.”

Later Liebes writes

In the passage cited by Heredia, we find strong emphasis placed upon the mystery surrounding the second element of the Trinity — the son. While it is true that there is no reason to doubt the Christian origin of this element, in my opinion the use of this element in no way implies a forgery. It is quite possible that these words came from the author of the Zohar himself, for allusions to such concepts are to be found in other passages of the book, as we shall see further on in this study. But first let me remark that even at this point we do have a partial proof of the authenticity of this passage: the very beginning of Heredia’s passage does appear in extant editions of the Zohar in III:263a.24 In this Zohar passage, concerning the first of the three divine names in the verse Shema‘ Yisrael, we have the following statement:

“And this is called the father.” While it is true that the term “father” is regularly applied in the Zohar to the sefirah of hokhmah (wisdom), as it is clearly alluded to here, it is nevertheless unusual for the Zohar to simply enumerate the different names of the divine spheres unless they fit within a specific framework of discourse. Thus, only if we assume that Heredia’s addition referring to “son” is authentic will the use of the term “father” seem appropriate within this discourse.

Moreover, it seems to me that if someone wishes to falsify a document, he will forge an entire passage, so as not to be caught in the act of falsifying material, rather than attach a forged section to an authentic passage. This is so especially after we have noted that there are other passages in the Zohar discussing the triune qualities of the Shema,
which the forger certainly would have known (It is hard to imagine that his forgery just happened to chance on the same idea that appears in the Zohar in these places). Why Heredia didn’t hinge his forgery on one of these passages, which would have suited his purposes better than the one in question — a passage discussing five elements rather than the three found in the Shema — is a serious question to ponder.

All these considerations have convinced me that the passage Heredia brings is an authentic Zohar passage, which was apparently later abridged because of its Christian connotation and then woven into another discourse on the Shema.

This change was very likely made by the author of the Zohar himself, who was frightened by his own daring after the first version of his work had been disseminated. Other such instances of this phenomenon — different recensions of the same passage, all written by the author of the Zohar — have been well attested.


Here is a 25 page article (PDF format) Christian Influences in the Zohar, Yehudah Liebes


Infinite loop for rewriting God’s name

The prohibition against blotting out the name of God is concerned only with the four letter personal name, Yud Hey Vav Hey, the tetragrammaton. Its transliterated in English as Y-H-V-H.

The original law was that one should not take this name in a vain oath; this there was prohibition against writing it. Later we developed a rule against writing any Hebrew name of God. Much later, a rule against writing any English name of God.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik disagreed with this. His lesson on this subject is well known: He walked into a classroom, wrote the name “God” on the blackboard, and then erased it.

How, then, could so many feel that we should not write “God”, but rather “G-d”? The very idea is self-defeating: Most Jews never write the tetragrammaton; they use the Hebrew word “Adonai” (Lord) instead. But then people stopped using this word, and instead began substituting HaShem (“The name”) or “God”. Later, these were replaced with “G-d” and “H-Shem”.

Yet each of these letter combinations means exactly the same thing! YHVH means Adonai, means God, means G-d, means HaShem, means H-Shem.

We get an infinite loop that never ends.

What next? HaShem, to H-Shem, to H-Sh-m?

One cannot talk about God unless one has some kind of noun. Once you decide on some new way to type the name (i.e. G-d, HaShem, H-Shem, Ad-nai, etc.), that new way of typing becomes a *new* name of God. So the practice of repeatedly changing characters is a recursion loop; people feel pious, yet its just not a rational practice.

This topic has been the subject of a teshuvah (respona) by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Rabbinical Assembly.

The rabbis, basing themselves on Deut. 12:3-4 deduced that it is forbidden to erase the name of God from a written document. Since any paper upon which God’s name was written might be discarded and thus “erased”, the Rabbis forbade explicitly writing the name of God, except in Holy Books. And provisions were made for the proper disposal of such books.

However, it is clear from the Talmud, (Shevuot 35a-b) that the prohibition applies only to seven Biblical names of God and not to other names or attributes of God which may be freely written. The prohibition was later codified by Maimonides (see Mishneh Torah, Yesodei HaTorah 6:1-2).

Shabbeti b. Meir Hakohen states that the prohibition of erasure of the Divine names applies only to the names in Hebrew but not in the vernacular (see Siftei Kohen to Sh. Ar, YD 179:8, and Pithei Teshuvah to YD 276:9).

However, Yehiel Michael Epstein, in his Arukh Hashulhan (HM 27:3), opposes the practice of writing the Divine Name even in the vernacular in correspondence. As a result the custom has grown among some ritually strict Jews not to write the word God or any other name of God in full, even in the vernacular. The practice of using circumlocutions or hyphenations in the vernacular is not universal even among the most observant Jews.

Conclusion: The practice of writing in the vernacular the full word God and other names of God has clear precedent and justification in the Halakha.

What makes Judaism Jewish?

What makes Judaism, well, Jewish?

Judaism is based on the Hebrew Bible read through the lens of our oral law.

Koren Mishnah closeup of page

While originally transmitted orally, the oral law was ultimately recorded in the Mishnah, the classical Midrash compilations, and later extrapolated on in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds.

Why do we need an oral law? The Torah wasn’t written in a vacuum; it existed within a culture, so cultural/historical context is necessary to understand it.  Reading a book through the lens of a culture’s context, their oral law, in broad strokes is agreed upon as necessary even by secular historians. All the more so, then, for Jewish people who want to live by Torah.

Separate question: How much of the oral law came from the time of the Torah itself is debatable, but whenever the Torah was redacted into its current form, it absolutely had a context.

Joseph Telushkin writes:

Without an oral tradition, many of the Torah’s laws would be incomprehensible. In Deuteronomy, the Bible instructs: “And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart. And you shall teach them diligently to your children, and you shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk on the road, when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes” (Deut 6:4).
…Bind what? The Torah doesn’t say. “And they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.” What are frontlets? The Hebrew word for frontlets, totafot is used three times in the Torah – always in this context (Exodus 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:8, 11:18) and is as obscure as is the English. Only in the Oral Law do we learn that what a Jewish male should bind – tefillin.

There are other benefits from realizing the existence of context: The oral law rescues us from biblical fundamentalism. Consider Deuteronomy 21:18–21 “If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son… and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town…Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death.”

Only fundamentalists imagine that one should do this. In contrast, rabbinical Judaism teaches that this text was never meant literally: It was a divine rhetorical device, explaining the seriousness of such a transgression. In practice, if there was a rebellious child, one would follow the oral law, written down in

* Mishnah, מִשְׁנָה
* Tosefta תוספתא
* classical Midrash מדרש compilations
* Talmud Yerushalmi (תַּלְמוּד יְרוּשָׁלְמִי, Jerusalem Talmud)
* Talmud Bavli ( תַּלְמוּד בבל Babylonian Talmud)

The Mishnah, Makkot 1:10 says that capital punishment should almost never happen. Jeremy Kalmanofsky translates:

סנהדרין ההורגת אחד בשבוע נקראת חובלנית. רבי אלעזר בן עזריה אומר אחד לשבעים שנה.
רבי טרפון ורבי עקיבא אומרים אילו היינו בסנהדרין לא נהרג אדם מעולם. רבן שמעון בן
גמליאל אומר אף הן מרבין שופכי דמים בישראל.
A Sanhedrin that executes once in seven years is called bloodthirsty. R. Elazar b.
Azariah said: even once in 70 years. R. Akiba and R. Tarfon said: had we been in
the Sanhedrin, none would ever have been put to death. Rabban Shimon ben
Gamaliel said: then these sages would have created more murderers in Israel.

Investigation must following certain rules of evidence, and if certain standards are not met then the death penalty may not be given.

Even if one witnessed an armed man chase another into an enclosed space, then later saw him, bloody sword in hand, standing above the corpse of the other man, dead of stab wounds, this would constitute inadmissible conjecture, not hard enough evidence for conviction [Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 37b; Midrash Mekhilta d’Kaspa #20].

Excerpted from Participating in the American Death Penalty,  by Jeremy Kalmanofsky.

This isn’t a modern day reform – according to Judaism, these evidentiary laws were part of the Torah’s system by design. That’s why we can’t “just read the Torah.” People advocate this have never actually read the Bible, for if they did they would find hosts of laws that they personally would find unfulfillable or objectionable – and almost all of the prayers, songs, ceremonies and rituals that they do enjoy, would not even be found there.


Responding to American Gods

Monotheism is incredibly different from polytheism (“paganism”). In Judaism, all forms of polytheism are understood as avodah zarah/idolatry. Monotheism is even more different from paganism when we have a non anthropomorphic view of God.

Still, in polytheism there are some interesting stories told about the ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Norse gods. For the most part we don’t have anything like that. Since we are interested in truth, and believe that God is unitary, that makes sense. But we miss out on some of the storytelling.

Is anyone familiar with the book “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman? It was recently made into a TV series ( it is very well-reviewed, but has some graphic themes which are not family friendly) In this story pagan gods of ancient times are actually real, and were somehow created by human thoughts and belief. To continue their existence, these gods need belief and sacrifice from human worshipers. The show revolves around a conflict between the classical ancient gods, and newly-created deities, gods based on media and the internet and modern-day beliefs.

As Jews, how do we respond to the show? Is it theologically permissible to watch such a show? If so, is there anything we can learn from it? Does it illustrate why we need to be monotheists? Does it offer points or counter points that offer interesting discussion?

We’re discussing this book on our forum Coffeehouse Torah Talk: A havurah for Jewish learning.

American gods

Neil Gillman “On Knowing God”

One of the preeminent Jewish theologians of the 20th century is Rabbi Neil Gillman

Rabbi Neil Gillman On Knowing God

“What does it mean to experience God?  It would seem that we do not see/experience God as we see/experience an apple…. But is the difference between seeing God and seeing an apple an intrinsic difference?  That is, do we require a dual epistemology, one for knowing natural objects and another for knowing God?  Or is there one basic way for humans to experience, and hence, to acquire knowledge of everything?”

“I claim that a single epistemology is sufficient.  To substantiate that claim, I begin by suggesting three possible analogies for the epistemological process involved in knowing God: seeing the New York Knick’s passing game, seeing an ego, and seeing a quark [a sub-atomic particle, which all protons and neutrons are made of].”

“In each of these instances, what we see is a patterned activity.  in the first, seeing a passing game is different from seeing Patrick Ewing.  We clearly see Ewing as we see an apple; we know what he looks like or we identify him by the name and number on his shirt.  But seeing the passing game involves seeing an in-between activity, a patterned relationship in which the ball is moved back and forth between five players.  A passing game is never static, never immobile; it is intrinsically dynamic….But it is perfectly clear that we do see a passing game, and then pass judgements on its quality: sharp, ragged, sloppy, etc….(all, it should be noted, metaphors)…there is a passing game out there; it is not an invention of basketball coaches and players.”

“Similarly, to see an ego is not see an apple.  An ego is not an entity which we can see if we dig deep enough into a human being…To see an ego is to see one specific, complex, pattern of human behavior, that dimension of the person’s behavior which reveals stability and balance.  Here too the frame is limited: the individual human being and his/her life experience.  Here again the experience is interactional: the psychologist and I see the same behavior, but the former brings forth a wealth of professional training and experience…that enables him to see what I can’t see.”

“To the question “Did Freud discover the ego or invent it?” the answer is clearly both.  Freud discovered the pattern, at least partially because he was looking for it and knew what to look for.  But then he identified it, gave it a name, and fitted it into his broader psychodynamic theory (or myth).  But Freud discovered the ego because it was out there to be discovered.  The ego itself is not a fiction….”

“Finally, seeing a quark.  Again, seeing a quark is not like seeing an apple.  But a trained nuclear physicist brings his interpretive structure (theory or myth) to look at the computer print out of the activity that took place in his super-collider and then claims to see a quark.  I look at the same print-out and see a chaotic mass of numbers; he sees a quark.  Or, what he interprets what he sees as a quark, or he sees through the print-out to the “invisible” quark.  Again, the experience is interactional;  without the theoretical structure, the physicist would be like me, seeing nothing of significance….Does the physicist invent the quark or discover it?  Again the answer is both:  he discovers the pattern, but because his theory provides him with a name and a way to identify it when it is there, he can then see the quark.  But the quark pattern is out there to be discovered; it is not a fictitious creation of the physicist.”

“Seeing God is like seeing any of these patterns, probably most like seeing an ego, in the sense that God is a pattern of activity that is “in” history and nature, as an ego is “in” a person…Again the experience is interactional: the believer brings his interpretive structure (the Torah’s religious myth) to his seeing, and see the pattern that we call God.  Do we discover God or do we invent God?  Both.  We discover the patterns and then identify them, name them, and the names our are inventions, just as we invent the names ‘ego’ and ‘quark’.  But if the patterns are discoverable, they are out there to be discovered.”

-> from “On Knowing God”, Conservative Judaism, Volume LI, No.2, Winter 1999.

Gillman writes :

My Seminary education had successfully subverted any literalist understanding of the central Jewish revelational event as described in Exodus 19-20. I was taught that the Torah was a composite document, edited around the 5th century C.E., borrowing from the literature of the surrounding ancient Near Eastern cultures. That “critical” approach to the study of the Bible also questioned the historicity of the biblical narratives, including the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation at Sinai. The evidence for these conclusions struck me as persuasive.

In addition, I had begun to question the very possibility of any human attempt to capture God’s nature or activity in literal terms. I could no longer believe that God literally “descends” on Sinai or “speaks” the words of Torah. If God were truly God, then God could not literally “speak.”

But then what was Torah? Whence its sanctity? Its authority? More broadly, what was the epistemological status of any theological claim? Finally, as a rabbi, how could I justify teaching and advocating the bulk of Jewish practice which, I continued to believe, remained central to any authentic understanding of Judaism? It was in this context that I reverted to the notion of myth.

To this day, my use of the term troubles many of my students. The main problem is that, in American parlance, a myth is synonymous with a fiction, a fairy tale, or worse, a lie – as in the common practice of contrasting “the myth” with “the facts” or “the reality.” That conventional use of the term haunts me whenever I use it.

When I teach “revelation,” I provide my students with a wide range of options, including the traditionalist literal understanding of the issue, along with the more liberal positions from the writings of Heschel, Kaplan, Buber, and Rosensweig. I also teach my own position – that the biblical account of the event at Sinai should be understood as myth. This is what I mean by the term….

The Problematics of Myth, Sh’ma (Sh’ma website)

The Problematics of Myth, Sh’ma (BJPA website)

How to learn about Judaism

We have had many people join, coming from non-Jewish backgrounds. As adults, it is hard to even understand Judaism, when everything one reads is first viewed through a lifetime of Christian theological assumptions. So the only way to learn about Judaism is to put Jesus aside, and study Jewish sources.

What do Jews believe about the Bible? Read “Biblical Literacy: The Most Important People, Events, and Ideas of the Hebrew Bible” Joseph Telushkin.

What do Jews believe about God? Read “Man Is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion” Abraham Joshua Heschel. A profound work that reflects on how man can apprehend God and have an encounter with the ineffable, and the radical amazement that man experiences when experiencing the presence of the Divine.

What is Jewish theology – what are the ways in which we believe? Check out “Great Jewish Thinkers: Their Lives and Work”, Naomi E. Pasachoff
This short (200 page) introduction to Jewish thinking. Presents the lives and work of classical Jewish philosophers such as Saadia Gaon, Yehudah Halevi, Maimonides (Rambam), Mystics such as Moses de Leon (author of the Zohar), Isaac Luria and Israel Ben Eliezer – The Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidic Judaism.) Modern Jewish thinkers such as Moses Mendelssohn, Theodore Herzl (founder of modern Zionism), Ahad Haam, and also 20th century Jewish philosophers

How has halakhah developed over time? “A Tree of Life: Diversity, Creativity, and Flexibility in Jewish Law” Louis Jacobs. Littman Library of Jewish Civilization.

What does it mean for a Jew to believe in God? How can we use words to describe God? Is God “one”? The Unity of God

What is God?

What are the many different ways that religious Jews have traditionally understood God?

Major ways of understanding God

Revelation: Judaism affirms that the Bible is, in some way, the product of divine revelation. But what does that even mean? How can God “speak” to people? Here is an overview of several Jewish responses.


What about Bible prophecies? Most non-Jews were raised in a culture where they were assured that the Bible made specific prophecies about the future, and they all came true. But outside of the most strictly Orthodox communities, most religious Jews have never read the Bible in this way: The Bible is a not a sci-fi manual already laying out the future.

Supposed Bible prophecies about the future

Why study Judaism’s oral law? Isn’t the Bible alone, enough? Not at all, and here is why:

Mishnah: the beginning of Judaism’s oral law

Judaism is NOT identical with the religion of the Bible. Judaism is based upon the way in which the Rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash interpreted the Bible, and for good reasons. Here is why and how Judaism differs from more fundamentalist faiths.

Tradition and change in rabbinic literature

These online introductory essays are unlike most other websites: They don’t push the view of one specific theology. Instead, they include a range of traditional Jewish views, and note differences in interpretation by those in the Conservative, Orthodox and Reform communities.

Idolatry: The boundaries of Judaism

Like other faiths, Judaism has no one, precisely defined theology: rather, there are a diversity of views on the nature of God, how God interacts with the world, and what the essential principles of Jewish faith should be. There are many rationalist interpretations of Judaism, viewed through the lens of philosophy, and many mystical interpretations, viewed through the lens of kabbalah and mysticism.

However, there are also theological boundaries, beyond which a person’s belief would be deemed heresy.

What are the boundaries of Jewish theology?

Judaism forbids avodah zarah/עבודה זרה, idolatry.
The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) has many statements against avodah zarah, written in different historical eras, in response to different issues. Idolatry includes any of these:

the worship of idols/images
the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols (or images)
the worship of animals or people
the use of idols even in the worship of God

The Hebrew Bible makes clear that God has no shape or form, and is utterly incomparable; thus no idol or image could ever capture God’s essence. For example, when the Israelites are visited by God in Deut. 4:15, they see no shape or form.

It is true the Bible uses anthropomorphisms to describe God, (e.g. God’s mighty hand, God’s finger, etc.) but these are poetic, not literal descriptions. This is reflected in Hosea 12:10 which says, “And I have spoken unto the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and by the hand of the prophets I use similes.”

The Bible records a struggle between the prophet’s attempt to spread pure monotheism, and the tendency of some people, especially rulers such as Ahab to accept or to encourage others into polytheistic or idolatrous beliefs. The patriarch Abraham was called to spread the true knowledge of God, but the prophetic books still reflect a continuing struggle against idolatry. For example, the Biblical prophet Jeremiah complains: “According to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah” (2:28).

The Bible has many terms for avodah zarah/idolatry, and their usage represents the horror with which they filled the writers of the Bible. Thus idols are stigmatized “non-God” (Deut. 32:17, 21 ; Jer. 2:11 ), “things of naught” (Lev. 19:4), “vanity” (Deut. 32), “iniquity” (1 Sam. 15:23 ), “wind and confusion” (Isa. 41:29 ), “the dead” (Ps. 106:28 ), “carcasses” (Lev. 26:30; Jer. 16:18), “a lie” (Isa. 44:20 et passim ), and similar epithets.

Pagan idols are described as being made of gold, silver, wood, and stone. They are described as being only the work of men’s hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit. (Ps. 135:15-18)

What was the idolatry/paganism described in the Bible?

A classic work is “The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile”, by Yechezkel Kaufmann. It’s Hebrew title is תולדות האמונה הישראלית, (Toledot HaEmunah HaYisraelit.) English readers know this book from its translation by Moshe Greenberg.

Clearly, the Bible condemns the external practices of idolatry – worship of figures/idols. But the Bible’s description of idolatry is overly literal – most pagans didn’t really believe that their idols were gods; historians have shown that pagans believed that their idols were just representations of their deities. So Kaufman asks, why doesn’t the Bible directly attack the theology of paganism itself? Page 20 of The Religion of Israel states

It seems incredible that Israel should have been totally unaware of the nature of pagan beliefs. For Israel was always in contact with its pagan neighbors, and moreover, had believing pagans in its midst. Certainly there were circles who knew about paganism more than is reflected in the Bible. What is shown by the fact that the Bible bases its whole polemic on the argument of fetishism is that the chief influence of foreign beliefs on Israelite religion did not involve mythological materials and that the age-long battle of the Bible with idolatry did not involve mythological polytheism.

This compels us to examine anew the conventional views regarding foreign influences on Israelite religion during biblical times. Moreover, we shall have to re-examine fundamentally the nature of Israelite “idolatry” during this period.

It is clear now that the question as to the origin of Israelite monotheism has been erroneously formulated. We cannot ask whether it was during the preprophetic or prophetic age that the religion of YHWH came to deny the reality of the foreign gods. The Bible nowhere denies the existence of the gods; it ignores them.

In contrast to the philosophic attack on Greek popular religion, and in contrast to the later Jewish and Christian polemics, biblical religion shows no trace of having undertaken deliberately to suppress and repudiate mythology. There is no evidence that the gods and their myths were ever a central issue in the religion of YHWH. And yet this religion is non-mythological. Fossil-remains of ancient myths cannot obscure the basic difference between Israelite religion and paganism. It is precisely this non-mythological aspect that makes it unique in world history; this was the source of its universal appeal.

The Bible’s ignorance of the meaning of paganism is at once the basic problem and the most important clue to the understanding of biblical religion. It underscores as nothing else can the gulf that separates biblical religion from paganism. A recognition of this gulf is crucial to the understanding of the faith of the Bible. Not only does it underlie the peculiar biblical misrepresentation of paganism, it is the essential fact of the history of the Israelite religion.

Kaufman concludes that little relationship existed between the ancient Canaanites and Israelites. In his view, the influence of ancient near-eastern pagan religions existed only prior to the time of Moses.  Monotheism was an original development of the Israelites themselves. After the Israelites became monotheistic, their theology no longer was related to the mythological pagan ideas around them -to the extent that the Scriptures do not even understand paganism.

“Israelite religion was an original creation of the people of Israel. It was absolutely different from anything the pagan world knew; its monotheistic world view has no antecedents in paganism.”


Examples of ancient idolatry

Yermiyahu (Jeremiah) attacks those who worship the pagan deities Baal and the Queen of Heaven; the pagans believed that these deities has sexual intercourse; their religious followers taught that humans here on Earth should have sex, even with pagan temple prostitutes, in order to stimulate the deities into heavenly sex.

Ironically, these ideas persisted through history through Gnostic texts, and somehow became embedded within the Zohar – a core text of Jewish mysticism.  On this, Yehudah Ilan writes

The kabbalah, however, reintroduced these mythological concepts to the point where kabbalistically-minded individuals truly believe that blessings, etc. come into the world via the supposed unification of male and female forces in a heavenly realm. So, even though Yermiyahu HaNavi (cf. 7:18; 19:4-5; 23:27; 44:17-22, et al) railed against the worship of Baal and the Queen of Heaven (which featured sexual relations with temple prostitutes in order to encourage the deities to do likewise above), [Hasidic Jewish] husbands and wives are now taught that the mystical purpose of their sexual relations on Friday night is for the supposed unification of the sefirot of Tiferet (also called “Tzadik” and representative in the kabbalah of the male member) and Malkhut (also called “Shekhinah” and representative in the kabbalah of the female genitalia). In effect, we have in many ways returned to our ancient errors through such teachings.

Major Problems with the Kabbalah: Forthodoxy

Jewish view of Christianity

Some places in the Talmud view Christianity as a form of idolatry prohibited not only to Jews, but to gentiles as well. Rabbis with these views did not claim that it was idolatry in the same literal sense as pagan idolaters in Biblical times, but that it relied on idolatrous forms of worship (i.e. to a Trinity of gods and to statues and saints.) (Babylonian Talmud, Hullin, 13b)

Other rabbis held differently, and by the middle ages a new consensus was reached in which Christianity was generally not held to be idolatry.
– “Exclusiveness and Tolerance”, Jacob Katz, Oxford Univ. Press, 1961, Ch.10

Maimonides writes that Jesus was wrong to create Christianity and that Mohammed was wrong to create Islam; he laments the pains Jews had as a result of persecution from followers of these new faiths that attempted to supplant Judaism. However, Maimonides then goes on to say that both faiths help God redeem the world. In his Mishneh Torah, he writes:

Jesus was instrumental in changing the Torah and causing the world to err and serve another beside God. But it is beyond the human mind to fathom the designs of our Creator, for our ways are not God’s ways, neither are our thoughts His. All these matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth, and the Ishmaelite (Mohammed) who came after him, only served to clear the way for the King [[Messiah]] to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord, as it is written ‘For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they all call upon the name of the Lord to serve Him with one consent.’ (Zephaniah 3:9). Thus the messianic hope, and the Torah, and the commandments have become familiar topics of conversation among those even on far isles, and among many people, uncircumcised of flesh and heart.(“Mishneh Torah”, Maimonides, XI.4

This paragraph used to be censored from many printed versions of the Mishneh Torah because it contained verses critical of Jesus.

“Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People” Menachem Kellner, State Univ. of New York Press, 1991