Yehezkel Kaufmann on Monotheism

I’m reading Baruch Halpern’s “‘Brisker Pipes than Poetry’: The Development of Israelite Monotheism” (Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel [Fortress Press, 1987], 77–115), and I came across an interesting quote from Yehezkel Kaufmann’s toledot ha’emuna hayyisra’elit (translation is from Moshe Greenberg, The Religion of Israel [University of Chicago Press, 1960], 137):

Even the worship of other supernatural beings . . . cannot be considered in necessary contradiction to monotheism . . . The One is not necessarily “jealous” in a cultic sense. There is room in monotheism for the worship of lower divine beings—with the understanding that they belong to the suit of the One. Thus Christianity knows the worship of saints and intercessors, as does Islam. . . . I sraelite monotheism tended toward cultic exclusivism and was crystallized in this form in the Bible. But during the pre-exilic period Israel was still moving from the basic monotheistic idea to its extreme cultic consequence.

I think this is an interesting perspective, and given the word “monotheism” was coined as an antonym to atheism and not polytheism, there may be some merit to it. James McGrath uses sacrifice as the act that is unequivocally identifiable with worship in the ancient period, but in modern times what does worship mean? Most Christians would object to the notion that they worship saints and intercessors, but is the difference between devotion and worship a meaningful one? What are your thoughts?


6 responses to “Yehezkel Kaufmann on Monotheism

  • Nitsav

    I’ve raised this in discussion before, and it’s usually brushed aside with “Well, he must not be a real Jew, because REAL Jews are and always have been strict monotheists.”😉

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comments. The No True Scotsman fallacy is unfortunately very common. I wonder what a “real Jew” from the sixth century BCE would say to today’s “real Jews.”

      I think Kaufmann is trying to rationalize the presence of very clear monolatry in the Hebrew Bible without leaving the semantic scope of the word monotheism. I think he has to invent a new pocket for that semantic scope, but I find it a more intellectually honest route than just flat denying there is monolatry in the Bible.

  • WalkerW

    Halpern’s article (along with Kaufmann’s quote) made it into a recent blog post of mine. It is a response to one of Aaron Shafovaloff’s critiques. Thanks for making me aware of it!

  • vikas malik

    sir, i m vikas malik from India, and research scholar at center for comparative religion and civilization, jamia millia islamia, new delhi. i want to know, the ideas of Kuafmann on monotheism and polytheism, plz hurry i need it very urgent…..

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