A Jewish Rabbi Defines Monotheism

May 9, 2008
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Only months into my mission we stopped to meet a man that had grown up Mormon but had left the Church and was now attending a Method Church with his wife and family. He was very interested in his forgotten Mormon heritage and enjoyed having us stop by to talk religion.

On one of our visits he showed us a book called Who Needs God by Harold Kushner, a Jewish Rabbi. He lent me the book to peruse. Mission life does not leave a lot of time for reading books, but for the sake of having discussions with him I read through parts of the book, picking out topics that sounded interesting. To this day I still haven’t read the whole book, but enjoyed the parts I did read very much. Kushner is a very insightful man. 

One passage that I read blew me away because it gave such a comprehensive definition of monotheism:

The affirmation of monotheism – that there is only one God – is a moral statement, not a mathematical deduction. If there is only one God and He demands moral behavior, then there can be such a thing as good and evil. (Technically speaking, right and wrong are matters of fact: Who stole the money? Good and bad are matters of morality: Should I take the money?) When there are many gods, as in pagan legends, the issue is not: What is good? The issue is: Which God shall I serve? Which one has the power to protect and reward me? Think, for example, of the conflicts of Homer’s Illiad, where the gods take sides. What pleases one displease another. A person offends one of the gods but is under the protection of another, stronger one. The issue is not what is right but who has the might.

The assertion that there is only one God is the assertion that issues of moral behavior are not matters of personal taste. We cannot decide by majority vote that it is all right to steal and lie, any more than we can decide that winters should be mild or cookies more nourishing than vegetables.

I paused in my reading. With a sudden flood of understanding, I comprehended that I and all Mormons are monotheists and always have been. Our doctrines of the plurality of gods and of the exaltation and deification of humankind do not change our monotheistic status, as defined by Rabbi Kushner, any more than the Trinity doctrine changes other Christian’s monotheistic status.

Based on this moral definition of monotheism, we Mormons do indeed believe there is exactly one God and that there was no God formed before God and there shall be no God formed after God. (Isaiah 43:10)

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35 Responses to A Jewish Rabbi Defines Monotheism

  1. Just for Quix
    May 9, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Insightful, and an excellent way to philosophically bridge the divide. However, I feel firm that a contextual, exegetical study of Isaiah 43:10 is not friendly to LDS soft canon on plurality of Gods. But if we have the rabbi’s thoughts to help bridge the gap, that’s a good start for emotional fellowship.

    Shalom and peace, brother Bruce.

  2. Jay 95
    May 9, 2008 at 1:43 pm

    That is a very insightful way of explaining and understanding our beliefs.

  3. Bruce Nielson
    May 9, 2008 at 1:52 pm

    Thanks for your comments, JFQ and Jay 95.

    JFQ, I’ve really appreciated your emotional fellowship and that of others I have associated with. I am very happy with emotional fellowship and think that is a great starting point.

  4. Anna G.
    May 9, 2008 at 4:50 pm

    What an interesting way of thinking about this issue. I’m a non-Mormon interested in all things Mormon (not really in an investigator way but also not in a Mormons-are-wrong way; more just in an I-think-it’s-fascinating way). The idea that humans can become gods (and the plurality of gods that implies) has been one of the concepts I find most interesting but hardest to grasp.

    So, would you say that if a human achieves exaltation and becomes a god, he or she is still subject to some superior god? Or is the never-changing morality itself the “god”? What does it mean to become a god if you are subject to something else? What does it mean to become a god, in the LDS view, at all? I don’t know if I’m making any sense. I’m just curious and trying to understand.

  5. Ray
    May 9, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    Fascinating and profound, Bruce.

    If “God” is defined according to the Mormon terminology as “Godhood” it changes from a “title” to a “condition”. That changes the discussion at a core, fundamental level that I think applies directly to this thread, since it allows for a plurality of “gods” while defining them as united in one condition of “God” – acting in unison – not demanding obedience to differing commands – etc. It allows for hierarchy AND unity – for gods to be subservient to their God while still being God in their own spheres. This sounds like the moral monotheism Kushner discusses and essentially what Mormonism teaches.

  6. tk
    May 9, 2008 at 5:34 pm

    Anna G.,

    There is an Occasional Paper that was written by Jordan Vajda, OP a Catholic Priest and a member of the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans). His paper compares Patristic and Mormon Doctrines of Divinization. His analysis compares theosis to the Mormon doctrine of exaltation and to first century Christian doctrines. This would be a good read for you to better understand the LDS view.

  7. Ray
    May 9, 2008 at 5:46 pm

    Anna G, my last comment was not intended as an answer to your comment, but it would be my “simple” answer – that “God” is a condition, not a title, and that we have been commanded throughout the Bible to become like God. Perhaps, this is not actually a possibility; perhaps, it is. I personally choose to believe that it is, since that perspective makes the injunction to internalize the characteristics of godliness real and profound and practical and **necessary** – not just advice to be followed or not, based on how I feel any given day.

    Iow, I believe that the great and fundamental heresy of the apostasy is the removal of the Father as an actual Father from Christian theology – someone His children can emulate and grow to approximate. The great correction of the Restoration, imo, is the reinstatement of the Father as our ultimate, eternal objective. The great addition of the Restoration, imo, is the inclusion of women in this eternal vision – by positing the existence of a Mother. (No matter the actual nature of Godhood, I believe strongly that the belief in individual exaltation and the effort required to reach perfection [completion of growth] is critical to Atonement of Jesus as taught in the Gospels. Explicitly including women in that construct by juxtaposing a Mother at the side of a Father is deeply profound, imho, regardless of whether it is an “accurate” depiction of the afterlife.) The temple (and now the Proclamation) is a good example of how our ideal differs from the modification that is practiced in the fallen world, and too many feminists just don’t understand the power of our truly unique theology, imo.

  8. May 9, 2008 at 6:06 pm

    FYI, tk, Father Vajda is now Brother Vajda. He joined the LDS church about 5-6 years ago.

  9. Just for Quix
    May 9, 2008 at 6:07 pm

    tk: Jordan Vajda converted to Mormonism around 03 or 04. While it is true he was with the Dominican Order when his Masters thesis was written, the similarities he saw between early Christian postulates about Theosis, and the Mormon concept, are hardly settled, conclusive or without reasonable disagreement. Dealing only with the content of the paper it is not accurate to characterize Vajda’s writings as having sympathy or consistency within Catholic theology or even early and holistic Christian tradition.

  10. Just for Quix
    May 9, 2008 at 6:38 pm

    Ray said, “Iow, I believe that the great and fundamental heresy of the apostasy is the removal of the Father as an actual Father from Christian theology – someone His children can emulate and grow to approximate.”

    An embodied Father is not tradition that any Christian universal apostasy removed. Furthermore, early Christian theosis was not materially (in species kind or nature) interpreted as may be extrapolated from LDS doctrines. Fair enough for LDS to feel passionate about the nature and uniqueness of its doctrine. I just think it’s historically inaccurate to paint traditional Christian theology as having apostatized from this doctrine that Smith then restored.

    Furthermore Christian theology has never explicitly and universally condemned (to my study anyway) nor excluded the Jewish tradition that YaHWeH encompasses both masculine and feminine characteristics — traditional masculine pronouns notwithstanding — as ultimately our soul identity and divine essence isn’t seen so materially and specie-ally gender fixed as dualist and materialist moderns prefer — including LDS. In this way I think it is confining that LDS-ism is so dualistically committed. Either way, it would be nice if these aspects of our traditions would emotionally take hold a bit more so that gender inclusiveness could improve within the universal Church.

  11. Bruce Nielson
    May 9, 2008 at 8:06 pm

    Anna G asked: “So, would you say that if a human achieves exaltation and becomes a god, he or she is still subject to some superior god? Or is the never-changing morality itself the “god”? What does it mean to become a god if you are subject to something else? What does it mean to become a god, in the LDS view, at all?”

    Anna G, I have a lot more to say on this subject in (hopefully) upcoming posts. This is a profound truth so frankly I have a hard time explaining it using words. But it’s a feeling or experience I have from time to time and then can’t seem to fully explain it.

    But for now, let me just say that if two beings have a oneness of will as profound as, say, the Father and the Son, it really doesn’t matter to either if one is “superior” to the other or not. The Son would share the fulness of the Father and be as fully divine as the Father, and yet the Son would see the Father as greater then He.

    I do not see the Mormon doctrine of deification as being any different at all. In fact, I see it as the definititive explanation of the Trinity that has eluded mortals for centuries.

    From a mortal perspective we worry very much about “who is superior” and “who is the the real leader” but this is specifically important in the mortal world because no one has the same will with anyone else so there is always a question of what would happen if two people cannot resolve their differences or compromise sufficiently or work it out. In the real word, we are forced to have “by laws” so to speak about whose will ends up winning out. But in the economy of God (as Mormons teach of it) this is a meaningless question because you can’t be “a god” without having the very same will as the Father. You will always want what they want and they will always want what you want.

    This is why it is Jesus’ will that we, his disciples, be one as He and the Father are one.

    That’s the best I can do off the cuff. I’ll be recycling these thoughs in a future post but hopefully explain myself better.

    Update: Anna G, I feel I didn’t answer this question for you: “Or is the never-changing morality itself the “god”?”

    I have to confess that I had a long email conversation with a Mormon that did in fact believe that never-changing morality came first. (He never called it a “god”). I do not see it that way. I believe the concept of morality and God are forever intertwined and can’t be seperated like that.

    In other words, there is no church doctrine on this subject. You get to make it up yourself however you can best imagine it.

  12. Bruce Nielson
    May 9, 2008 at 8:10 pm

    >>> I just think it’s historically inaccurate to paint traditional Christian theology as having apostatized from this doctrine that Smith then restored

    JFQ, I know this is going to expose my complete ignorance, but I only learned the word “post modernist” fairly recently. I’m still not even entirely sure what it means. But apparently I am one — or at least have a strong streak of it. From my view, then, I hope you can appreciate that how one sees history is primarily a reflection of one’s own views and thus the facts of history can be freely and easily painted either way.

    This means, I understand where you are coming from and I can see why you would say this. But I feel the same way about what Ray said.

    tk,
    link please.

  13. Ray
    May 9, 2008 at 8:26 pm

    Re: #10 – JfQ, Re-read my comment. I never said “embodied”. I said being able to become like Him. The exact words were, “the removal of the Father as an **actual** Father from Christian theology – someone His children can emulate and **grow to approximate**.”

    That’s a significant difference, my brother.

  14. Just for Quix
    May 9, 2008 at 11:26 pm

    Ray (13) — I agree your nuance is different that my point about the anachronism it would be to assert a Christian embodied Father. I guess I wish I had more to go from to understand your point better. I’d like to learn more.

    Christians have always considered the Father an actual father — those who are justified become His adopted children. His enduring patience and compassion for those who are His is seen as unshakable and tender that we can only partly understand in our own mortal experiences as a parent. There has not been a historical Christian tradition of considering Him of the same species as humanity. So it may be said our role as adopted children is merely a title, but this would not do service to His creative, divine Nature, His overarching behavior of seeking mankind and the very parental, redeeming and transformative relationship into which we are invited. Therefore, I think it only reasonable to conclude Christianity has always had a strong current of believing God our actual father.

    This greatly informs the traditional concept and nuance of theosis that makes it distinct from the LDS view — and I admire your nuance regarding emulation and approximation. Even the thrust of Orthodox theosis in this same nuanced regard has had a strong current in both traditional Catholic and Protestant sanctification theologies. It was primarily the old terminology of referring to it as theosis — becoming a little-g god — that was largely abandoned because it was thought the natural error was to invert belief toward human-centrism as opposed to realizing that it was properly seen as God becoming fully manifest within His glorified creation, which was the traditional nuance.

    Since a strong “theosis” current has continued through Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant theologies, nuanced in the spirit of the Patristic notion (which, then, was never quite a formalised doctrine) of theosis, albeit not identical in each subsequent tradition, I couldn’t quite envision how a Christian concept of Fatherhood could be strongly argued as lost. When you mentioned “removal of the Father as an actual Father” I couldn’t think of a historical Christian correlative to the LDS post-Kirtland view of God’s embodied, exalted homo sapiens, actual Fatherhood. Therefore I read “embodied” into your assertion.

  15. Anna G.
    May 11, 2008 at 11:23 am

    Many thanks to everyone for answering my questions and giving reading suggestions. I look forward to future posts related to this topic.

  16. Ray
    May 11, 2008 at 1:28 pm

    #14 – JfQ, I agree that God as The Father has never left Christian theology, and I agree that “embodiment” describes the fundamental concept of Mormonism’s view of God in comparison to mainstream Christian theology quite well as a generalization, but I personally don’t like it – specifically because of the baggage that surrounds defining the term as people struggle to explain exactly what it means. Let me try to explain.

    For example, the most concise statement is the one in D7C 130:22, which states:

    “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Ghost has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit.”

    That appears to be a straightforward statement of “embodiment” – until you consider that we believe Spirits are “embodied” in a very real and “tangible” way.

    D&C 131:7-8 says:

    “There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; We cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter.”

    Next, we speak generally of “flesh” as the outward surface of our bodies (the flexible structure **within** which we are organized) and “bones” as the inward, skeletal structure of our bodies (the “calcified” structure **around** which we are organized). Each of these aspects of our physical bodies is corruptible and subject to decay. The question then becomes, what does it mean to have a resurrected “body of flesh and bones, as tangible as man’s”? (Btw, as I’m sure you are aware, we use the term “body of flesh and bones” because that was the way Jesus described His resurrected body to the disciples to whom He appeared, with whom he spoke and for whom He ate in Luke 24:37-39:

    ” But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not **flesh and bones**, as ye see me have.”)

    The D&C makes it clear that spirits are “tangible” and “embodied” just as our physical bodies are – only to a different degree and “discernibility”. Given these statements, it becomes very difficult to say with certainty exactly what it means for God to be “tangible” with a body of “flesh and bones”.

    That is a long-winded way of saying that I hesitate to use the term “embodied” specifically I believe it does not describe the condition of the Father (and the Son) in any meaningful way – given our belief that spirits also are “embodied” in a very real way. I prefer to use something that focuses more on our relational growth potential, and I think it is accurate to say that literally “becoming perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” – literally becoming god-like in the fullest sense by reaching a state of godhood similar to that of the Father – literally “growing up to be like Father” – is something that is not found in the orthodox Christian theology of our day. (I know you mentioned this in your response, but I wanted to phrase it in my own way in terms of why I don’t use “embodied”.) In fact, if there is one thing that gets us labeled as a heretical, damnable cult, that probably is it – even though it is taught MUCH more clearly, imo, in the Bible than in the Book of Mormon.

    Given all of that, I generally say something like “God as an *actual* Father” – meaning a creator whose offspring can grow to become like Him – whose children can grow up and approximate Him – who is *actually* a Father in every sense of the word, not just the “spiritual” (or allegorical or symbolic or figurative) ones.

  17. Bruce Nielson
    May 11, 2008 at 2:34 pm

    Interesting thoughts, Ray. Similar to my own. But you used different words then I think I have in the past trying to explain myself… I will borrow liberally from you, of course. (And then claim it’s all my own ideas. :P )

  18. Ray
    May 11, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    If you make any money doing it, Bruce, I want my share.

  19. Carlos U.
    May 13, 2008 at 1:36 pm

    Ana G,

    Recently I heard one of the General Authorities explain it, but I can’t remember the reference. He spoke of how, as a boy becomes a man and a father, he still remains his father’s son. It is the same with us. Our God and Father will forever remain as such, even if we reach such exalted state. And to go along with the subject of the thread, we remain witholden to that which is Good and Right, to that Moral law.

  20. Just for Quix
    May 13, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    Ray (16):

    Thanks for spending the time to articulate all you did re: “embodiment”. I can see better where you are coming from and why this term is not the most precise.

    An interesting word choice to describe mankind as “offspring” rather than “creation”. This may highlight the difference in nuance between our faiths better than “children,” “Father,” or “embodiment.”

  21. Ray
    May 13, 2008 at 1:55 pm

    I agree, BFAM.

  22. August 21, 2008 at 2:23 pm

    very interesting topic here, Mormons have alot in common with Jews i would say

  23. November 3, 2008 at 11:50 pm

    Understanding that God is one necessitates that you worship Him and Him alone. According to the first commandment you can not associate partners to God in your worship, this includes not taking any intermediary between you and God. God’s attributes must be maintained wholly and absolute. i.e. it invalidates monotheism for you say one ‘part’ of him does the creation, and another part does the judging etc. He is whole and absolute and eternal. Thirdly, he is all powerful and he is all just, he can do all things SAVE THE ABSURDITIES. To assert he does the absurdities then again the monotheism is nullified because His attributes are all with him, and not in parts. For example, God is just and so he does not do unjust things like divide himself into parts, or subject limitations of his creation onto himself like urination or defecation, or death.

    It is so simple, so why create such a complex explanation of parts and intermediaries?

  24. Bruce Nielson
    November 4, 2008 at 10:15 am

    Muslim,

    Thank you for your contribution to this discussion.

    Non-Mormon Christians of the world, what say ye?

    His argument against you being monotheists is as good or better than your argument against Mormons being monotheists. Certainly his explanation, be it true or false, is clearer than yours. And his arguments have a certain gut level “logic” to them that are undeniable. Can one really claim true monotheism and Trinitarianism at the same time? Is that really the generally accepted definition of monotheism?

    If his arguments are invalid, which presumably they are, then on what grounds do you claim Mormons are not monotheists?

  25. John M.
    February 24, 2009 at 5:01 am

    Well, you aren’t going to win any awards for logic. Despite the rabbi’s redefinition of the meaning of monotheism, I think that the true meaning is pretty well understood by the average person. Henotheism is the most accurate choice to define Mormon beliefs. How you came up with your conclusion was a masterful stroke of genius and a total disregard for the facts. Isaiah 43:10 means what it says, despite your attempts at rationalizing it away.

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  29. SisterRay
    October 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    The assertion that there is only one God is the assertion that issues of moral behavior are not matters of personal taste. 

    This is just silly. To reduce monotheism to moral objectivism is not to declare faith in the one God; it is to do away with God altogether. God is not necessary for moral objectivism per se — plenty of atheists believe that issues of moral behavior are not matters of personal taste. Indeed, one should be careful of conflating the two, lest morality prove to be just a matter of God’s personal taste, which would contradict moral objectivism. Monotheists who believe in moral objectivism believe that morality is determined independently of anyone’s preferences, human or divine. Moral behavior is not good because God loves it; God loves moral behavior because it is good.

    To reduce monotheism to moral objectivism is to do away with one or the other, either by eliminating the monotheistic faith in God and leaving only an atheistic moral objectivism or by eliminating the objectivity of morality and turning it into the personal taste of one God.

  30. SisterRay
    October 20, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    The assertion that there is only one God is the assertion that issues of moral behavior are not matters of personal taste. 

    This is just silly. To reduce monotheism to moral objectivism is not to declare faith in the one God; it is to do away with God altogether. God is not necessary for moral objectivism per se — plenty of atheists believe that issues of moral behavior are not matters of personal taste. Indeed, one should be careful of conflating the two, lest morality prove to be just a matter of God’s personal taste, which would contradict moral objectivism. Monotheists who believe in moral objectivism believe that morality is determined independently of anyone’s preferences, human or divine. Moral behavior is not good because God loves it; God loves moral behavior because it is good.

    To reduce monotheism to moral objectivism is to do away with one or the other, either by eliminating the monotheistic faith in God and leaving only an atheistic moral objectivism or by eliminating the objectivity of morality and turning it into the personal taste of one God.

  31. Muhammad Abdul Rahamanur
    January 21, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    there is ONE GOD this is absolutely taught by all the true prophets (messengers of God) for if as the above speaker fallacously attempts to show there is plurality of deities, then which one is uncreated? are they all uncreated or where they themselves created? mormon theology says people can become gods, this is clearly a pagan concept totally alien to Christianity in it’s original form, as is the doctrine of the trinity alien to christianity in it’s original. the people of God in former times (Isrealites) where known that there is was and forever shall be ONE GOD all powerful all knowing INFINITE IMMORTAL, if any of these qualitiies (which belong to God alone) are missing then the being talked about is not God, so if there is a plurality of God’s then one would limit the other than niether would be God, then the argument that perhaps one god for this world, each world has it’s own “god” this is a stupid attempt to separate mormomism from classical pagan polytheistic theology. which can easily be reduced to clear atheism, for how can one worship God (declare acknowledge total depedance on him praise and exult him) thinking that he himself shall become “god” through marriage? this spells out hypocrisy. furthermore although the christian concept is that evil created itself, we Muslims believe that God created everything both Good and evil, God does not cause evil but permits it, the evil of his creatures has absolutely no effect on the goodness of God, he says over and over again in the Holy Qur’an he does not like the wrongdoers and for them is the worst end. Severe in punishment is the Lord of Hosts, but he is most kind to his servants. Zalamun (Polytheists) are warned that unless you desist from your word of blasphemy hell shall be your abode you shall remin therein forever your punishment shall neither be lightened nor shall you be reprieved there for the wrongdoers there shall be noone to help. the argument above proven illogical. and Mormons admit now, there religion is new totally alien to the Torah, Gospel, and of course the Qu’ran. no scripture was ever revealed in the americas’s, mormonism is an ultra patriotic american cult simply put.

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