Accessing God in a Man-Made World

There is no need to ascend to heaven--or build a tower--to find God.

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Provided by the Jewish Theological Seminary, a Conservative rabbinical seminary and university of Jewish studies. Reprinted with permission of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The last mythological fragment we have in the Torah before we come to the figure of Abraham is the Tower of Babel. With this episode theTorah turns its attention from the universal to the particular, from the history of humanity to the descendants of Shem, Noah's firstborn son.

As preserved, the story is but nine verses--brief, insignificant and unedifying, not much more than a dismissive satire on Babylon. At best, we try to connect this fragment to the mystery of human language. If we are all progeny of Noah, how did we come to speak so many different languages?

But that question has a slightly academic ring to it. What is really missing at this juncture in the narrative of the Torah is an etiology of polytheism. Given that the polemic against polytheism plays such a central role in the canon of ancient Israel, why is there no speculation in narrative form as to how humanity strayed from monotheism to polytheism?

How Humanity Lost Its Way

Indeed, the early chapters of Genesis assume that our first ancestors were monotheists. They sensed intuitively that the built-in multiplicity of reality emanated from a single supreme deity with whom they could readily communicate. Adam and Eve "heard the sound of the Lord God moving about in the garden at the breezy time of day" (3:8). Cain and Abel and Noah after them offered sacrifices spontaneously to express their thanksgiving to God (4:3-4, 8:20). In short, we are left in the dark by the Torah as to how humanity lost its way theologically.

It is that omission which prompted Maimonides, the most historically inclined of the medieval Jewish philosophers, to put forth a theory on the origins of polytheism. Humanity's slippage was marked by good intentions. First, they paid homage to heavenly bodies out of the belief that God would be pleased by their honoring God's entourage. Second, they put within the temples erected for this purpose physical images of God's entourage. At this point, humanity was still cognizant that behind these signifiers God reigned supreme. But by the third stage that crucial link was broken. The effort to give physical and artistic expression to God brought humanity to worship the signifier as an idol that embodied transcendent power.

Examining The Context

According to Maimonides the mission of Abraham and the nation sprung from his loins was to repudiate that fragmented notion of transcendence along with the morality and mores that derive there from (MishnehTorah, Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 1:1). To overlook that historical context, Maimonides claimed in his Guide to the Perplexed was to render many of the Torah's injunctions inexplicable (III, 37), and it is no accident that in his code the number of mitzvot [commandments] to be found in the book on idolatry (51) far exceeds the number in any other book.

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Rabbi Ismar Schorsch

Rabbi Ismar Schorsch served as chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.