Growing up Jewish, I recognized at an early age that I was different from the goyim (gentiles) without knowing quite why. Our Jewish kinship seemed to come from a mutual fear of anti-Semitism. In Hebrew school, I learned that the “Shema,” which literally means “Hear,” was the major contribution Jews had given the world—the philosophy to live by. I was taught that the statement, “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” transformed the world from polytheism to monotheism—from worshipping many false gods to worshipping the one true God. There are three paragraphs in the full Shema. Jews are biblically commanded to recite the “Shema” twice daily (morning and evening) and to inscribe it on the doorposts of their homes. I felt proud of the gift we Jews gave to humanity. I unquestioningly accepted that there was exactly one God and that any other belief was both false and immoral. As a Humanistic Jew who believes in no gods, I guess you can say that I’m closer to monotheism than to polytheism (one is closer to zero than to many). However, were I to make the unwarranted assumption that the world actually was created, I expect it would have been by a committee of creators rather than a single creator. After all, most great scientific discoveries require some kind of team work. Even more important, I can no longer make a case that reducing from many to one the number of acceptable gods has improved human behavior. On the contrary, paganism is a more tolerant faith. As long as people are free to worship and follow their favorite gods, room can always be made for a new deity, but a belief in one jealous and vindictive god can easily lead to barbarous acts.
In Chapter 7 of Deuteronomy, God tells Moses what he wants the Hebrews to do to the current inhabitants of the so-called Promised Land: “Tear down their altars, smash their standing stones, cut down their sacred poles, and set fire to their idols.” Even worse, the Hebrews were ordered to “smite them and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them nor show any mercy to them.” The Hebrews were also told to kill all boys and women who had slept with a man, but they could save for themselves every girl who was a virgin.
Conquering the Promised Land for the Hebrews seemed to be this god’s highest priority, and we have had religious wars there ever since. Were I to actually hear a deity suggest such outrageous behavior, I would hope for a second opinion from another deity.
Unfortunately, in the Hebrew Bible, the most beloved biblical characters are praised for following God’s will, even when God’s will turns out to be barbaric. Abraham, revered as the first Jew and venerated in all monotheistic religions, obeyed the voice of God when God allegedly told him to prepare his son for sacrifice. Had Abraham been more thoughtful of human beings, he might have responded incredulously, “You want me to do what to my son?” He then might have gone about his normal business until he heard from a kinder and gentler god. Abraham was a very moral person by religious standards, but certainly immoral by humanist standards. But the story does end happily for Abraham and his son Isaac. God intervenes at the last minute and tells the dutiful (I was just following orders!) Abraham that God’s thirst for blood would be appeased with a menu substitution of ram’s blood for human blood.
There is no historical or archaeological evidence that Abraham or Moses ever existed, that Israelites were slaves in Egypt, or that they wandered in the desert for 40 years. And that’s the good news, because the Exodus story is inhumane: God brought 10 plagues to Egypt, the last of which was the death of innocent, first-born Egyptian sons. God also told the Israelites to kill a lamb and put its blood on their doors so God would know not to kill first-born Israeli sons. (You’d think an all-knowing God wouldn’t need blood markers to show where the Israelites lived.) The traditional God of both Judaism and Christianity thrives on and even requires blood sacrifices of innocent animals or humans. God provided a getaway route from Egypt for the Israelites by parting a sea and then drowning all the Egyptians in pursuit. These Israelites escaped, only to die in the desert, but their descendants reached the Promised Land after killing inhabitants along the way.
I would like to hope that the author of the Abraham story was somewhat humanistic, and really wanted to end ancient practices of sacrificing children to deities by substituting non-human animals instead. And I wish more people would read and learn from the wisdom of the ancients and the moderns without following, unquestioningly, one particular book, deity, or guru. As a Jewish Humanist, I don’t have the answers to all questions, like the origin of the universe or why there is something rather than nothing. But I still have a “Shema.” Only now it’s a question mark.