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The Sabbath of Song

Mi chamocha ba'eilim Adonai

Mi kamocha ne'edar ba'kodesh

Norah tehilot, oseh feleh

(Exodus 15:11)

Who is like You, O Lord, among the celestials;

Who is like You, majestic in holiness,

Awesome in splendor, working wonders!

(JPS translation, Tanakh, p. 108)

Surely the verse in this week's parashah is among the most famous Hebrew biblical quotations for Jews of all persuasions; not only because of its inclusion in the daily worship after the Sh'ma, but also because of its many melodies.

But stop to think for a moment of its strange meaning. The poem asks which among the gods is equivalent to the Hebrew's deity! What a strange question if those who left Egypt were monotheists. Suddenly we discover that they were not. Pure monotheism, the worship exclusively of a single God, did not emerge until the end of the seventh and early sixth centuries b.c.e., 500 years after the exodus, with the prophets Jeremiah and Second Isaiah (Isaiah chapters 40-66).

The great archeologist William Foxwell Albright termed the early Hebrews henotheists rather than monotheists, meaning that they worshipped a pantheon of gods, among whom Adonai reigned supreme. Witness God's question in Genesis 1:26, "Shall we make mankind in our image, according to our likeness?" Rather than the Greek vision of the gods at war with one another, the Hebrews possessed a vision of an orderly heavenly realm, with a single deity in charge.

Later, when in the sixth century b.c.e. the dualistic Zoroastrians asserted two gods, one of good and light and the other of darkness and evil, Isaiah asserted, "I am the Lord there is none else, I form light and create darkness make peace and create evil..." (Isaiah 45:7) This, too, is quoted prominently in our prayers, "[God} creates light and fashions darkness, creates good and fashions all," in the Yotzer, the first prayer after the Barechu in the morning worship.

In other words, despite the claims of some, Jews have altered and developed our theology over the centuries, thinking of God as appropriate to the world understanding of the day.

Then why would we not alter our God conceptions today, less than a century after the huge events of the Holocaust and the founding of the first Jewish State in 2000 years, and living in the single greatest and most accepting Diaspora community since The Golden Age of Spain a thousand years ago?

How appropriate that we understand differently what God requires of us. What do we do about intermarriage, developing understandings of gender, the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora, and how to govern non-Jews in a Jewish State? We can no more be guided by Maimonides of the twelfth century than by the Torah's idea that those who are inhabitants of the land deserve death or that the same fate awaits those who desecrate the sabbath.

Jews have always conceptualized God practices to respond to new ideas. The statement that one Judaism is authentic because it is "Torah true" is ridiculous on the face of it. Even that form of Judaism has only existed for 150 years, and Hasidism was born in the 18th century. Let's be real: Judaism breathes like an organism, and our relationships to God grow over time.

Be proud of your God ideas and your personal practices. Nurture them in accordance with your understanding of Micah 6:8, "What is it that the Lord requires of you: only to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God."

Shabbat shalom.

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