Your Polytheistic Judaism of the Day

If you are an observant Jew, on Tuesdays you might have more spiritual work than usual.

Every Tuesday at morning prayers, observant Jews recite Psalm 82, an extraordinary and powerful call for justice and kindness.  God demands justice, saying:

How long will you judge unjustly, showing favor to the wicked?

Do justice to the weak and the orphaned.

Vindicate the poor and the destitute.

Rescue the weak and the needy.

Save them from the hand of the wicked.

Okay.  Great.  But there’s a little problem.  From where does God sound this judgment?  “From among the Gods.”  Wait a minute.

How can the God of a monotheistic religion pronounce judgment from “among the Gods”?  It’s obvious that this line troubles many commentators, who often translate the line as “from among the judges,” but that is clearly wrong.  The word used in the Bible is אלהים, “gods”, not שפתים, “judges.”  Robert Alter’s wonderful translation of the Psalms dismisses this attempt as “unconvincing.”

The rabbis of the Midrash tried to say that it meant “judges,” citing Exodus 22:8, which, they say, reads, “the cause of both [litigants] shall come before the judges.”  Except that it doesn’t say that; it says ×›×™ הוא ×–×” עד האלהים, or “both parties shall come before God.”

What to do?  Barring a scribal error, we might start reconceptualizing the nature of ancient Jewish “monotheism.”  Most Biblical scholars (e.g., James Kugel) see ancient Jewry as being henotheistic in any event.  This would be an ironic twist on the present, where, as the joke goes, the agnostic Jew knows precisely what the God whose existence he doubts requires of him.

For our purposes, we might simply start by saying that whatever Jewish monotheism might mean, it is far for more complicated that one God and one humanity.  Alter suggests one supreme God and several lower gods (although that would not be angels, who have a perfectly good word — מלאכים — to represent them.).  Perhaps God mediates Him/Her/It/Self through other agencies, beings, and forces.  I don’t know what that would look like, but it would be a suitable meditation for Tuesdays.

Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

9 thoughts on “Your Polytheistic Judaism of the Day”

  1. But are those Gods in the phrase "from among the Gods" actual Gods? A modern monotheist might say something like that in order to mean "our real God is better than the false Gods you conceive of in your religious practice".

    On the other hand, this would be out of place in a primary religious text (although not in a rabbinical commentary).

  2. I don't remember Alter's explanation, but interpreting elohim as "judges" long predates the midrash. IIRC, the Targum interprets it this way, as does the LXX. Later on, the Ibn Ezra, Rashi, and other rishonim do too.

    What's your argument for saying that elohim actually refers to God in Exodus 21:6, 22:7, and 22:8, besides the fact that it could have used shoftim? (The biblical narrator is surely entitled to make use of an evocative synonym every now and then, and often does.) Reading it as "judges" arguably makes more sense in context, and as I mentioned, it has the weight of tradition on its side. We're not Protestants; Rashi's not just some guy with an opinion.

  3. Anonymous37: Elohim is in fact often used to refer to other gods in the Bible itself. For instance, 1 Kings 18:24:

    וקראתם בשם אלוהיכם, ואני אקרא בשם ה', והיה האלוהים אשר יענה באש, הוא האלוהים

    And call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of Hashem, and the god who answers by fire is God.

    Capitalization is obviously not present in the original, but all but the last instance of elohim clearly refer to Ba'al.

  4. Sorry for the multiple comments, but I should also point out that shoftim is spelled with a tes, not a tav.

  5. Understanding that monotheism isn't simple – or hasn't always been simple – might also help people appreciate the kind of thinking that goes on in the practicing Pagan and Wiccan communities. There you frequently see a "soft" polytheism and a kind of syncretism/henotheism existing side-by-side. Thanks for bringing this up!

  6. Please excuse a Catholic's presumption on entering the discussion, but I like the explanation in the New American Bible (http://www.usccb.org/nab/bible/psalms/psalm82.htm):
    As in Psalm 58, the pagan gods are seen as subordinate divine beings to whom Israel's God had delegated oversight of the foreign countries in the beginning (Deut 32:8-9). Now God arises in the heavenly assembly (Psalm 82:1) to rebuke the unjust "gods" (Psalm 82:2-4), who are stripped of divine status and reduced in rank to mortals (Psalm 82:5-7). They are accused of misruling the earth by not upholding the poor.

  7. I thought it was uncontroversial (at least among people not committed to some fairy-tale reading of the Bible) that Yaweh started as one among many, insisted on being treated as first among many, and only at great length became one-and-only.

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