The oneness of God

by Rabbi M. Kripke
Before we come to the Ten Commandments, we are told that Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, joins the Israelites in the wilderness. He has heard of Israel’s miraculous escape from Egypt, and now Moses fills in the story for him. Moses tells him not only details of the escape, but also details of the plagues visited upon the Egyptians.
And Jethro exclaims: “Now I know that the Lord is the greatest of all Gods!”
One of our medieval commentators points out that what excited the imagination of Jethro was that not only did the Lord do all these good things for the Hebrews, but He also was responsible for punishing the Egyptians.
To us, this seems natural enough. But to ancient pagans (and Jethro was not a Hebrew), the good was usually attributed to one god, and evils and punishments to another.
In philosophy, Plato’s doctrine of idea vs. matter is the beginning of philosophical dualism, which continues in some forms to this day.
And Christianity’s pitting the spiritual against the physical is a derivative of this kind of thinking. It led, among other things, to classic and medieval Christianity’s view of marriage as essentially a concession to appetite, a way to regulate the evil of the physical.
Personally, I have never been convinced that the stress on the Satan, the anti-Christ, the Devil, both in formal and folkloristic Christianity, is anything other than the continuation of the idea of an extra, a second, an antagonistic god.
Jews have flirted with these ideas also, but they never entered mainstream Judaism.
The Shema insists on the oneness of God. And the prayer-blessing immediately after the Call to Worship, the Barekhu, praises God who creates light and darkness, establishes peace and creates all things.
Is this hard theological doctrine? Undoubtedly it is. But monotheism is impossible without it. Any attempt to dodge the idea that God alone is the only Power also dodges monotheism.
Israel’s Shema affirms the oneness, the uniqueness of God. The thought dawned even on Jethro. And it has been aptly pointed out that the affirmation of the Shema denies not only Trinitarianism, but denies Persian dualism as well, together with all its derivatives.
The idea of monotheism, of one God who is the only power, and thus also “creates woe,” as Isaiah puts it, requires a strong theological stomach. But any attempt to cure the distress over this theological stomach is worse than the distress itself. The cure has side effects, which destroy the luminous idea of the oneness of God, Israel’s watchword, and its greatest contribution to the spiritual life of mankind.