Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Elohim - One God or Many Gods?

This post originally appeared on Rabbi Sonsino's blog, “From Istanbul to Boston

בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים

Rabbi Rifat Sonsino
In Hebrew, for masculine singular nouns, plurality is indicated by the ending im. Thus, for example, yeled “boy” becomes yeladim “boys.”

The Bible uses many terms for God, such as El, Shaddai, YHVH, Elohim--they are all in the singular except for Elohim, which is in the plural. The question is this: how can God, conceived as being the only divinity in the universe—hence, monotheism- have a plural ending? Ancient Rabbis had to deal with this problem and said that the reason for the plural in Elohim is because of all the attributes (e.g. merciful, caring, loving) that are ascribed to one God. On the other hand, is it possible that the term Elohim is a vestige of polytheism in biblical Israel? I would say, yes.

To test whether or not the editors of the Bible considered Elohim a plural or a singular noun, we need to find whether the verbs attached to this name, are in the singular or in the plural. If they are in the plural, we would know that in the past Israelites believed that Elohim referred to many gods. If the verb is in the singular, then we would have to conclude that the term underwent a change, and a plural noun was now considered singular. We have an example of that in English, too. The word “media” is the plural of “medium.” Yet, we often say, “the media says,” not “the media say.” “Media” is now viewed as singular.

Let’s test the use of the word Elohim in the Bible: In the overwhelming cases, the word Elohim is accompanied by a singular verb. For example (see Hebrew title above): the Hebrew Bible begins with b’reshit bara elohim, “When God began to create…”-here the verb bara (“created”) is in the singular. That means the editor of this passage conceived of Elohim as one God. (For other examples, see, Gen. 1: 3; 22: 1; 25: 11; 50:24, and many others).

However, there are a few passages where Elohim is accompanied by a plural verb: when Abraham says to king Abimelekh, “When God (Elohim) made me wander…(hit’u) (Gen. 20: 13) ,” the verb “wander” is in the plural. Similarly, we read, “It was there that God (Elohim) revealed (niglu) himself to him [Jacob]” (Gen. 35: 7). Here, too, “revealed” is in the plural, implying the existence of many gods. (For other examples, see Ex. 22:8; Deut. 5:23; II Sam. 7: 23 and others). The medieval commentator Rashi was aware of this problem but tried to solve it by saying, “all references to godliness and authority are in the plural.” I would argue that these are vestiges of ancient polytheism that crept into the text.

There is no doubt in my mind that at some point in biblical times, Elohim was considered in polytheistic terms, “gods.” A good example is found in the Book of the Covenant, in one of the laws dealing with debt-slavery. According to a sub-section of this law, if the slave wishes to remain with his master for the rest of his life, because “he loves” him, then his master “shall take him before the gods (Elohim)” (Ex. 21: 5) and pierce his ear with an awl. Traditional Jewish commentators say that here the word Elohim means “judges.” So, the owner is taking his slave to the court. Some modern commentators believe that the reference is to the local sanctuary where the master presents his slave before God, perhaps, for an ordeal. For me, this texts simply means that the master brings his slave before the household gods, hence Elohim (see, for instance the reference to the household gods that Rachel had when she left her father’s house, the terafim, Gen.31: 34), and then pierces his ear at the doorpost of his own house with an awl.

This short analysis shows that biblical Israel went through a period of transition from polytheism to monolatry (“there are many gods but only one god for us”) and finally to monotheism (“there is only one God”). The process continued in medieval times into the modern. Old God concepts are not working any more. We need to search for the best explanation of what God means today in order to meet the needs of our own time.

(For details about God concepts in Judaism, see my book, Finding God (with Daniel Syme), NY: URJ Press, 2002, or, The Many Faces of God , NY:URJ, 2004, or , more recently, “What is God’s Real Name?” in my book, Did Moses Really Have Horns? NY: URJ Press, 2009, 12-24).

Rifat Sonsino

Friday, February 3, 2012

TBS Blacks Out Bullying

Last Wednesday, all I saw was black on T-shirts and sweaters, socks and slacks. Children attending our learning programs on Wednesday, January 26 donned black clothing as a symbol of their dedication to "black out bullying." This statewide initiative was a part of "No Name Calling Day."

"No Name Calling Day" was created in following up to a 2010 anti-bullying law. The state law was prompted by the death of Phoebe Prince, a South Hadley student who, law enforcement believe, took her own life as a result of bullying.

In our Elementary Learning program, our day began with an introduction to a variety of our sacred texts that help us understand how we should treat others.

Many classes focused their entire day of study on making people feel kindness and welcome in our community. Mrs. Kappel's 2nd grade student's were so inspired by the day that they made signs for the school, to remind their peers to always be kind to one another.

We  closed our day together in community tefilah (prayer) with an emphasis on peace for everyone in our world.

It is a priority of our school community to ensure that everyone knows that they are welcome and to treat each other with kindness and respect. Together, we can ensure that bullying is never welcome in our community.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Excercising our Minds & Bodies

The children of TBSCC are movers and moving!  I have the privilege of moving with all the Children's Center children.  We have a chance to solidify some of the learning concepts from the kinesthetic realm - we are having so much moving fun!  We "warm up" together - learning about our body parts and all the many ways they can move from head to toe, recognizing all the connections between the bones, muscles, and breathing; time, space and force (fundamentals of dance and movement in its many forms).  Each participant has a chance to lead the group finding their own way of moving across the room.

We have explored:  lines, circles, balance, qualities of  force:  floating to strong pushing or pulling with strength (defying gravity), spacial: personal space and communal space, stretching and contracting, expanding and narrowing, focusing; and time: rhythmic drumming, fast - slow, impulsive - smooth.  We took a journey to outer space and a magic carpet ride and experienced the individual uniqueness of a snowflake.  The children exercise their bodies, their minds and their senses are stimulated and articulated, and then we recenter ourselves to adapt again to the classroom energy, space and pulse.

Next week will be TuB'Sh'vat and we will act out growing as in the Giving Tree.  We are so blessed with such creative, imaginative, and developmentally exceptional children!  I love how they work together enriching our experiences.

Nancy Kreiger aka Dancing Nancy

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A SUPER Congregational Connection that will BOWL you over...



Making a SUPER Congregational Connection


Temple Beth Shalom of Needham, MA and Larchmont Temple of Larchmont, NY have made a very friendly Super Bowl ‘reverse wager’.


If the New England Patriots win the 2012 Super Bowl, Larchmont Temple agrees to display in its front foyer one (1) appropriately colorful sign that reads: “Mazel Tov (!! מזל טוב) to the New England Patriots and Temple Beth Shalom of Needham, MA on winning the 2012 Super Bowl!!” A digital photograph of this display will be sent to Rabbi Jay Perlman for publication in the “Scroll.” This display will remain in the foyer for one (1) week. 

Also, should the New England Patriots win, Temple Beth Shalom agrees to send Larchmont Temple (c/o Rabbi Jeff Sirkman) one (1) case (12 packs) of New England famous NECCO Wafers and 2 dozen chocolate chip cookies from the Chipyard in Quincy Market, Boston. 

As well, Rabbi Jay Perlman and Rabbi Todd Markley agree to wear New York Giants jerseys for a day while at Beth Shalom.

If the New York Giants win the 2012 Super Bowl, Temple Beth Shalom agrees to display in its atrium one (1) appropriately colorful sign that reads: “Mazel Tov (!! מזל טוב) to the New York Giants and Larchmont Temple of Larchmont, NY on winning the 2012 Super Bowl!!” A digital photograph of this display will be sent to Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman for publication in the Larchmont Temple Bulletin. This display will remain in the foyer for one (1) week.

Also, should the NY Giants win, Larchmont Temple agrees to send Temple Beth Shalom (c/o Rabbi Jay Perlman and Rabbi Todd Markley) one (1) crate of GUSS’ Pickles and one (1) NY famous Junior’s Cheesecake.

As well, Rabbi Jeffrey Sirkman agrees to wear a New England Patriots jersey for a day while at Larchmont Temple.

This SUPER contract has been entered into under Temple Beth Shalom and Larchmont Temple rabbinic supervision – via e-mail - in the spirit of fun and friendship.

הכל שריר וקים

With much anticipation for a phenomenal Super Bowl, all of this is valid and binding.

Temple Beth Shalom

670 Highland Avenue

Needham, MA


Larchmont Temple

75 Larchmont Avenue

Larchmont, NY