My Thoughts are not like Your Thoughts (Says God)

My Thoughts are not Like Your Thoughts
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2012

Every convert to Judaism has their stories about the experience. (I see some heads out there nodding vigorously.) My story begins in my late twenties. I rediscovered my Jewish pioneer family history and that sparked an odyssey of my own. I studied intensively with a very Conservative rabbi, obsessively reading every book on Judaism I could get my hands on, which was a significant number since I worked in the graduate library at UC Berkeley. I studied every topic from Israelite purity laws to contemporary text criticism.
Finally the day came and I sat before the Beit Din, a rabbinic court comprised of my rabbi and two Orthodox rabbis whom I had never met before. I was ready for them. I could recite, I could elucidate and explain….
Unfortunately, I did not get to do any of those things. All they asked me was how to make brisket and chopped liver. When I did not answer satisfactorily—I was a vegetarian at the time—one of the rabbis promised to have his wife send me recipes. Finally, my rabbi, who knew how much I had studied, invited them to ask a different kind of question, something more…..intellectual. So one of the other rabbis, after looking me up down doubtfully said,
“You know anything about the Prophets?”
I nodded eagerly. Then he said,
“So name one.”
“Isaiah,” I answered off the top of my head. Wondering what he would ask next. To my dismay, he seemed satisfied with that answer and quite done with the examination.
Not me. I had to show them that I had studied hard and learned!
“But isn’t it really two Isaiahs,” I blurted out, watching their faces change in surprise. “One before the destruction and another different….”
I didn’t get to finish. Suddenly, my rabbi leapt up and leaned over the table so far between the Orthodox rabbis and me that I thought he was going to fall over.
“I think we’re done here!” he exclaimed. “I think we have heard enough! What do you say, rabbis?” Started, they agreed. I imagined they had made themselves hungry with all that talk about food. What I didn’t know was that the very modern notion that the prophet Isaiah was really two men would have been considered blasphemy, and without the rapid intervention of my rabbi, the day could have ended without this new Jew being added to the fold.
It is also true that my suggestion that Isaiah had been written by two different men was in error. Basing their conclusions on historical references, and certain marked changes in style, modern scholars think that the author of the book of Isaiah was actually three men, and maybe more. Blasphemy and a half!
The first Isaiah, scholars call Proto-Isaiah, though I suspect that was not his real name. From around the 8th Century BCE, he prophesizes the punishment of Israelites for straying from true path of Adonai. The sins of which Proto-Isaiah accuses Jerusalem are not idolatry but cultism and hypocrisy. These familiar verses have come to form the backbone of Reform Jewish practice:
Hear the word of the Lord!….
“What need have I of all your sacrifices?”
Says the Lord.
“I am sated with the burnt offerings of rams,
And suet of fatlings,
And blood of bulls;…
Who asked that of you?
Assemblies with iniquity
I cannot abide…..
Your hands are stained with crime—
Wash yourselves clean;…
Cease to do evil
Learn to do good
Devote yourselves to justice
Aid the wronged….
Isaiah 1:10-17

A new covenant is here announced. The bloody cultic sacrifices required by the tribal Israelite God are rejected for a new definition of righteousness: an honest life and the pursuit of justice. Unfortunately, this first Isaiah’s words fell on deaf ears. No steps were made to effect teshuvah in the Temple or the government. Judah in fact was soon crushed by the ancient superpower known as Assyria.
Proto-Isaiah’s chapters, 1-39, can be dark and violent. However, it is Proto-Isaiah, who also promises a messiah, a child who will be born of a young woman, and who will be named, “Emanuel,” God with us. These are the prophesies Christians will later interpret as foretelling the coming of Jesus, and Handel will use many of the verses as lyrics in his famous oratorio The Messiah.
The third prophet whose writings are at the end of the book of Isaiah may in fact be a group of prophets and scholars call them Trito-Isaiah. When Judah is crushed by Assyria, a part of its upper class—leaders, priests, scribes, and officials—were kidnapped en mass and resettled way north inside Assyria. This is our first dispersion or Galut. While we are there, Assyria falls to the next superpower Babylonia, and their ruler grants the Israelite petition to return to their homeland. Trito-Isaiah’s multivocal prophesies concern that return, and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. These chapters are fraught with conflict but also stirring in their triumphalism. You may recognize Isaiah 60:1 as a famous line from Handel’s Messiah:
Arise! Shine! For Thy Light has Come
The glory and the consolation continue in promises such as in 65: 17, which I love to hear read on Yom Kippur:
For behold! I am creating
A new heaven and a new earth;
The former things shall not be remembered
They shall never come to mind
Be glad then, and rejoice forever
In what I am creating
For I shall create Jerusalem as a joy
And her people as a delight.

Trito-Isaiah offers us a vision of a Jerusalem rebuilt on the foundations of a new covenant. From our Haftorah this morning, our focus is the Isaiah in the middle, so to speak, between Proto and Trito, after the destruction and exile and before the Return.
This second or middle Isaiah the scholars have christened Deutero. Covering chapters 40-55, Deutero Isaiah’s prophesies are to the small portion of Israel that was in exile, experiencing the first Jewish diaspora. The fundamental message is one of the reacceptance of Israel as the servant of God, and of a second Exodus. This time, the escape from foreign bondage will be fore Assyria /Babylonia.
However, Deutero Isaiah is far more than a series of lovely consoling poems and metaphors. It is here, in this book, these prophetic chapters uttered in lonely exile that the mighty God of the Israelites reveals Himself as the One and the Only God. Here, and once before in Deuteronomy, not in Genesis or Exodus, Leviticus or Numbers. It is now, and for a saddened remnant in Exile that Adonai comes to fullest revelation as the One and Only, the establishment of the Israelite religion as monotheism.
Some of you doubtless want to answer and say, “But Rabbi haven’t we known all along in the Torah that our God is One?” It’s a good question and you would be 100% right. We did learn the Sh’ma back in Deuteronomy 6 and that does state that our God is One. It doesn’t state, specifically however, that there is One God.

Looking closely at the Torah, it is not at all clear that the early Israelites we monotheists. It appears that, beginning with Abraham, we may have been more ‘monolotrists,’ a people who worship One God and no other gods. It is a little muddy whether or not the ancient Israelite knew that our God was in fact the One and Only.
Evidence of this confusion or ambiguity abounds. For example, consider the song from the Torah that we sing celebrating the parting of the Red Sea.
Micamoca ba’elim Adonai?
Exodus
Translates as: “Who is like you among the gods, Adonai”
At the Red Sea they did not know yet that there were no other gods. They thought, in fact, there were other gods and our God was the Greatest. That is, in a simple way, how ancient polytheism worked. Each tribe had one or maybe even a number of gods, with one being the greatest and the strongest. When tribes went to war, it was, in a way, one god against the other guy’s god. The understanding of the Hebrews leaving Egypt was that their God was greater than the Egyptian gods. Just look at what the Israelite God had just done to Egypt!
Understanding ancient Israel in a polytheistic setting suggests alternate interpretations of many basic passages. For example, the very ancient word denoting our God, Elohim, is grammatically the plural form of a word for God, El. Eloheinu literally means Our Gods.
Keeping that in mind, we look again at our Shma,
Sh’ma Yisroel, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad

And we realize that another possible, most basic meaning and purpose of the Shma might have been to reinforce that the god traditionally signified by the word Adonai and the ancient god-cluster indicated by Elohainu might be One and the Same.
And furthermore that everytime God identifies Gods-Self as
Ani Adonai Elohainu asher hotz
That brought you out of Egypt
This ubiquitous phrase which we mostly interpret as a reminder of the nature and history of the relationship between God and Israel, could also more simply be God reminding Israel which God He is.
In BCE God calls to the crushed and exiled Jews in Assyria there is a profound change. God does not remind Israel of who He is. “I know you,” He says, “but you have never known Me.” He is not a god to be recognized from among other gods. As Isaiah proclaims:
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
Israel my chosen one,
I call you by name,
I hail you (Israel) by title, though you have not known me,
I am the Lord and there is none else;
Beside me, there is no god.
I engird you, though you have not known me,
So that they may know, east and west,
That there is none but me.
Is. 45: 4-6a

A stunning revelation to downtrodden Jews in exile: There is no other God but Adonai. When God says, “I know you, but you have never known Me,” signifies that they really did not know on a deep level or even on a functional level that there was only one God. That means, with all their centuries of experience with Adonai, all the history and laws and sacrifices—they never really knew Who they were dealing with. They never even guessed at God’s real nature. And, frankly, the difference between one god among a bunch of gods, and One and Only God is simply mind-bending.
It’s a game changer, a complete shift in paradigm. It isn’t turning a page, it leaping from drawing in caves to surfing the World Wide Web.
Centuries later, in the Arab Peninsula there will still be polytheistic tribes warring with one another, each proclaiming their god or gods are the greatest. One of those gods was named Allah and over the years this Allah gained power and prestige until a prophet named Mohammad proclaimed Allah the one and only God. The same message emerges again in very roughly the same process. In a pantheon of gods, one begins to stand out, and suddenly the truth is revealed this is not just the greatest God, this is the only God.
That this stunning revelation and theological revolution should occur to a small captured elite in Assyria is fascinating all by it, though we can probably infer some of the reasons this happened. First, God—the God they knew—had made a covenant with Israel. Sovrenty over a promised land flowing with milk and honey had been ceded to them. Now the land of Israel was barren and impoverished, under the iron heel of a brutal conqueror.

It must have seemed as though the covenant was broken, or perhaps their god, Adonai, had been no match for the Assyrian divinities, depicted in stone as ferocious half human half beasts with wings. Perhaps as it occurs in the flow of history, the time of Israel and of Judah, of Eloheinu and Adonai of the great Temple in Jerusalem is simply coming to a close. Assyria itself, Persian superpower will fall to Babylonia and be erased except for it monuments. Perhaps the same time has come for tiny Israel and her angry, obscure Yahweh.
Or perhaps that world along with its entire theological edifice, needed to be completely and utterly destroyed in order for an earth shaking New Idea to be introduced.
What a shock it must have been. “You don’t know Me,” God says to the elite of Jerusalem, the priests and the learned who prided themselves in knowing Adonai best. With the destruction and exile, God had brought them to their knees economically, politically, and religiously. With this single line—You don’t know me—God throws them down on their faces spiritually and intellectually. They knew ritual and order of sacrifice; they knew festivals and full moon. They knew all these things, and they knew nothing.
Assyria was not exile. It was boot camp. These unwitting recruits had their world torn apart so it could be put together again, in an entirely new way.
Let us pause to examine the difference between polytheism and monotheism. If there are many gods, then logically, we can describe them to a degree.

The first and perhaps most important thing we can say about many gods is that, like humans, they must all be limited: they are limited in their power, strength, and abilities. If that wasn’t the case, they couldn’t war against one another, conquer and/or be vanquished.
The second thing we can say about multiple gods is that they are, like humans, subject to change and being changed. If they war against each other and sometimes win and sometimes loose, they are subject to change.
Maimonides would add here that if they were limited and subject to change then they must be composite, meaning made up of various parts—kind of like us: body, spirit, character….etc.
Like humans, if they are limited and mutable—subject to change—in some parts of their makeup they must be limited and subject to change in other parts as well—such as their personality, their virtues, and vices, and even or especially their mood. The benefit derived from them would vary, as would the possibility of destructive influence. They could never be entirely and forever one thing, such as compassionate because they simply would not have the capacity to be entirely and forever anything.
You may have noticed by now that we are not only describing humans but also we are describing the ancient God of the Israelites, of the Torah, who was mighty among all the other gods, compassionate but also extremely vengeful and destructive. The God of the Torah, finds things out, changes His Mind, gets angry, and sometimes overreacts to the communities’ sin. In fact, whether looking at polytheistic gods in general or the Toraitic God in particular, what we are describing is ourselves, us humans, writ large and immortal.
Polytheism is an easy religion to understand because it corresponds to the reality from which it is constructed.
Monotheism is entirely something else. The notion of One and Only God corresponds to no part of our limited, changeable, and composite reality.
Maimonides says that God is so ‘other’ from us and our knowledge that there is no positive statement we can make about God.
For example, we cannot say, “God is mighty,” for everything we know about might and mean by the word mighty is limited and fragmented by our human experience of might, the physics of might and the experience of might are all predicated on having and observing physical bodies and God does not have a physical body. Maimonides might allow us to say, “God is mighty in a way entirely other than humans understand what is mighty.”
Philosophers and other humans will go on to struggle with the nature and meaning of God’s total and complete otherness as long as we exists. What is thrilling to me is that Deutero Isaiah begins that discussion right here with an exquisite description included in our Haftorah this morning:
For My Thoughts are not Your Thoughts,
Nor are My Ways your ways.
The polytheistic gods are bound by their likeness to humans. The One and Only God is Something Else entirely. The monotheistic God is so wholly Other that God does not even have thoughts, or make plans, or speak words the same way we do. We cannot say, for example, “God is thought,” though we might say, “God is Thought in a way entirely other than what humans know as thought.”
God has ways, but not after any fashion that we humans can understand as ways.
The prophet does not stop there but illumines with a passage which may present the most radical revelation yet. This is the passage I personally chose years ago to be my special text at my ordination. Besides its beauty it marks the beginning, I think, of both Jewish philosophy and mysticism:
For My Thoughts are not Your Thoughts,
Nor are My Ways your ways.
But as the heavens are high above the earth,
So are My ways high above your ways
And My Plans above your plans.
For as the rain or snow drops from heaven
And remains not there,
But soaks the earth
And makes it bring forth vegetation,
Yielding seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is the word that issues from My mouth
But performs what I purpose
Achieves what I sent it to do.
Isaiah 55:8-11

God’s thoughts are not like my thoughts. Well thank God! My thoughts are limited to my preoccupations and priorities. My thoughts are permeated with emotions like fear and anger. My thoughts are shaped by the structures around me. My thoughts get even more muddled when I am sleeping.

God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts. Well, thank God! Our thoughts, the thoughts of the human race have brought us the atom bomb, global warming, mass starvation, slavery, and genocide. Our thoughts as Jews have split the Jewish people into factions that declare to one another, “Have thoughts like us or You’re not Jewish!”
Our thoughts cannot envision Olam Haba, the better world to come, nor perceive the way there. (God’s Thought does.)
Our ways are not like God’s Ways. Thank God! Our ways are shortsighted shortcuts, in keeping with our boundaried physical and mental stature in time and space. The One and Only God have no such limitations in any dimension.
Our words are not like God’s Words, Thank God!
Our words are limited to our language and cut out the majority of the human race and all the living world. Our words are fragmented by time, place, and whim. Our words are mutable, sometimes kind, sometime harsh, soft or shouting, sometimes productive, sometimes destructive.
Isaiah tells us Gods words are like the rain that falls to the earth…bringing forth vegetation, seeds to plant and bread to eat. No, let me say that again, Isaiah tells us that the Limitless One and Only God’s words fall like the rain to the earth and need never cease or change. God’s words always and unchangingly like seeds that grow bearing more seeds that grow bearing more seeds that grow always and unchangeably sustaining all life everywhere. The One and Only God doesn’t run out and the One and Only God does not change.

This sublime revelation was hinted at in the first chapter of Genesis: And God said, “let there be growing things…. And it was so.” The question of philosophy and kabbalah alike—how does the One and Only God Who is wholly Other interface with the material world—is given first answer here.
For My Thoughts are not Your Thoughts,
Nor are My Ways your ways.
But as the heavens are high above the earth,
So are My ways high above your ways
And My Plans above your plans.
For as the rain or snow drops from heaven
And remains not there,
But soaks the earth
And makes it bring forth vegetation,
Yielding seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is the word that issues from My mouth
But performs what I purpose
Achieves what I sent it to do.
Isaiah 55:8-11
A first attempt to explain to the world what it means to have One and Only One God. The challenge to all of us mere humans to struggle to understand what is by its very definition the ineffable. The promise of power, life, and constancy, but a power, a life and a constancy unlike any power life constancy words and ways that we poor humans have ever known.

My Thoughts are not Like Yours (Says God)
Rosh Hashanah Sermon 2012

Every convert to Judaism has their stories about the experience. (I see some heads out there nodding vigorously.) My story begins in my late twenties. I rediscovered my Jewish pioneer family history and that sparked an odyssey of my own. I studied intensively with a very Conservative rabbi, obsessively reading every book on Judaism I could get my hands on, which was a significant number since I worked in the graduate library at UC Berkeley. I studied every topic from Israelite purity laws to contemporary text criticism.
Finally the day came and I sat before the Beit Din, a rabbinic court comprised of my rabbi and two Orthodox rabbis whom I had never met before. I was ready for them. I could recite, I could elucidate and explain….
Unfortunately, I did not get to do any of those things. All they asked me was how to make brisket and chopped liver. When I did not answer satisfactorily—I was a vegetarian at the time—one of the rabbis promised to have his wife send me recipes. Finally, my rabbi, who knew how much I had studied, invited them to ask a different kind of question, something more…..intellectual. So one of the other rabbis, after looking me up down doubtfully said,
“You know anything about the Prophets?”
I nodded eagerly. Then he said,
“So name one.”
“Isaiah,” I answered off the top of my head. Wondering what he would ask next. To my dismay, he seemed satisfied with that answer and quite done with the examination.
Not me. I had to show them that I had studied hard and learned!
“But isn’t it really two Isaiahs,” I blurted out, watching their faces change in surprise. “One before the destruction and another different….”
I didn’t get to finish. Suddenly, my rabbi leapt up and leaned over the table so far between the Orthodox rabbis and me that I thought he was going to fall over.
“I think we’re done here!” he exclaimed. “I think we have heard enough! What do you say, rabbis?” Started, they agreed. I imagined they had made themselves hungry with all that talk about food. What I didn’t know was that the very modern notion that the prophet Isaiah was really two men would have been considered blasphemy, and without the rapid intervention of my rabbi, the day could have ended without this new Jew being added to the fold.
It is also true that my suggestion that Isaiah had been written by two different men was in error. Basing their conclusions on historical references, and certain marked changes in style, modern scholars think that the author of the book of Isaiah was actually three men, and maybe more. Blasphemy and a half!
The first Isaiah, scholars call Proto-Isaiah, though I suspect that was not his real name. From around the 8th Century BCE, he prophesizes the punishment of Israelites for straying from true path of Adonai. The sins of which Proto-Isaiah accuses Jerusalem are not idolatry but cultism and hypocrisy. These familiar verses have come to form the backbone of Reform Jewish practice:
Hear the word of the Lord!….
“What need have I of all your sacrifices?”
Says the Lord.
“I am sated with the burnt offerings of rams,
And suet of fatlings,
And blood of bulls;…
Who asked that of you?
Assemblies with iniquity
I cannot abide…..
Your hands are stained with crime—
Wash yourselves clean;…
Cease to do evil
Learn to do good
Devote yourselves to justice
Aid the wronged….
Isaiah 1:10-17

A new covenant is here announced. The bloody cultic sacrifices required by the tribal Israelite God are rejected for a new definition of righteousness: an honest life and the pursuit of justice. Unfortunately, this first Isaiah’s words fell on deaf ears. No steps were made to effect teshuvah in the Temple or the government. Judah in fact was soon crushed by the ancient superpower known as Assyria.
Proto-Isaiah’s chapters, 1-39, can be dark and violent. However, it is Proto-Isaiah, who also promises a messiah, a child who will be born of a young woman, and who will be named, “Emanuel,” God with us. These are the prophesies Christians will later interpret as foretelling the coming of Jesus, and Handel will use many of the verses as lyrics in his famous oratorio The Messiah.
The third prophet whose writings are at the end of the book of Isaiah may in fact be a group of prophets and scholars call them Trito-Isaiah. When Judah is crushed by Assyria, a part of its upper class—leaders, priests, scribes, and officials—were kidnapped en mass and resettled way north inside Assyria. This is our first dispersion or Galut. While we are there, Assyria falls to the next superpower Babylonia, and their ruler grants the Israelite petition to return to their homeland. Trito-Isaiah’s multivocal prophesies concern that return, and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. These chapters are fraught with conflict but also stirring in their triumphalism. You may recognize Isaiah 60:1 as a famous line from Handel’s Messiah:
Arise! Shine! For Thy Light has Come
The glory and the consolation continue in promises such as in 65: 17, which I love to hear read on Yom Kippur:
For behold! I am creating
A new heaven and a new earth;
The former things shall not be remembered
They shall never come to mind
Be glad then, and rejoice forever
In what I am creating
For I shall create Jerusalem as a joy
And her people as a delight.

Trito-Isaiah offers us a vision of a Jerusalem rebuilt on the foundations of a new covenant. From our Haftorah this morning, our focus is the Isaiah in the middle, so to speak, between Proto and Trito, after the destruction and exile and before the Return.
This second or middle Isaiah the scholars have christened Deutero. Covering chapters 40-55, Deutero Isaiah’s prophesies are to the small portion of Israel that was in exile, experiencing the first Jewish diaspora. The fundamental message is one of the reacceptance of Israel as the servant of God, and of a second Exodus. This time, the escape from foreign bondage will be fore Assyria /Babylonia.
However, Deutero Isaiah is far more than a series of lovely consoling poems and metaphors. It is here, in this book, these prophetic chapters uttered in lonely exile that the mighty God of the Israelites reveals Himself as the One and the Only God. Here, and once before in Deuteronomy, not in Genesis or Exodus, Leviticus or Numbers. It is now, and for a saddened remnant in Exile that Adonai comes to fullest revelation as the One and Only, the establishment of the Israelite religion as monotheism.
Some of you doubtless want to answer and say, “But Rabbi haven’t we known all along in the Torah that our God is One?” It’s a good question and you would be 100% right. We did learn the Sh’ma back in Deuteronomy 6 and that does state that our God is One. It doesn’t state, specifically however, that there is One God.

Looking closely at the Torah, it is not at all clear that the early Israelites we monotheists. It appears that, beginning with Abraham, we may have been more ‘monolotrists,’ a people who worship One God and no other gods. It is a little muddy whether or not the ancient Israelite knew that our God was in fact the One and Only.
Evidence of this confusion or ambiguity abounds. For example, consider the song from the Torah that we sing celebrating the parting of the Red Sea.
Micamoca ba’elim Adonai?
Exodus
Translates as: “Who is like you among the gods, Adonai”
At the Red Sea they did not know yet that there were no other gods. They thought, in fact, there were other gods and our God was the Greatest. That is, in a simple way, how ancient polytheism worked. Each tribe had one or maybe even a number of gods, with one being the greatest and the strongest. When tribes went to war, it was, in a way, one god against the other guy’s god. The understanding of the Hebrews leaving Egypt was that their God was greater than the Egyptian gods. Just look at what the Israelite God had just done to Egypt!
Understanding ancient Israel in a polytheistic setting suggests alternate interpretations of many basic passages. For example, the very ancient word denoting our God, Elohim, is grammatically the plural form of a word for God, El. Eloheinu literally means Our Gods.
Keeping that in mind, we look again at our Shma,
Sh’ma Yisroel, Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ehad

And we realize that another possible, most basic meaning and purpose of the Shma might have been to reinforce that the god traditionally signified by the word Adonai and the ancient god-cluster indicated by Elohainu might be One and the Same.
And furthermore that everytime God identifies Gods-Self as
Ani Adonai Elohainu asher hotz
That brought you out of Egypt
This ubiquitous phrase which we mostly interpret as a reminder of the nature and history of the relationship between God and Israel, could also more simply be God reminding Israel which God He is.
In BCE God calls to the crushed and exiled Jews in Assyria there is a profound change. God does not remind Israel of who He is. “I know you,” He says, “but you have never known Me.” He is not a god to be recognized from among other gods. As Isaiah proclaims:
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
Israel my chosen one,
I call you by name,
I hail you (Israel) by title, though you have not known me,
I am the Lord and there is none else;
Beside me, there is no god.
I engird you, though you have not known me,
So that they may know, east and west,
That there is none but me.
Is. 45: 4-6a

A stunning revelation to downtrodden Jews in exile: There is no other God but Adonai. When God says, “I know you, but you have never known Me,” signifies that they really did not know on a deep level or even on a functional level that there was only one God. That means, with all their centuries of experience with Adonai, all the history and laws and sacrifices—they never really knew Who they were dealing with. They never even guessed at God’s real nature. And, frankly, the difference between one god among a bunch of gods, and One and Only God is simply mind-bending.
It’s a game changer, a complete shift in paradigm. It isn’t turning a page, it leaping from drawing in caves to surfing the World Wide Web.
Centuries later, in the Arab Peninsula there will still be polytheistic tribes warring with one another, each proclaiming their god or gods are the greatest. One of those gods was named Allah and over the years this Allah gained power and prestige until a prophet named Mohammad proclaimed Allah the one and only God. The same message emerges again in very roughly the same process. In a pantheon of gods, one begins to stand out, and suddenly the truth is revealed this is not just the greatest God, this is the only God.
That this stunning revelation and theological revolution should occur to a small captured elite in Assyria is fascinating all by it, though we can probably infer some of the reasons this happened. First, God—the God they knew—had made a covenant with Israel. Sovrenty over a promised land flowing with milk and honey had been ceded to them. Now the land of Israel was barren and impoverished, under the iron heel of a brutal conqueror.

It must have seemed as though the covenant was broken, or perhaps their god, Adonai, had been no match for the Assyrian divinities, depicted in stone as ferocious half human half beasts with wings. Perhaps as it occurs in the flow of history, the time of Israel and of Judah, of Eloheinu and Adonai of the great Temple in Jerusalem is simply coming to a close. Assyria itself, Persian superpower will fall to Babylonia and be erased except for it monuments. Perhaps the same time has come for tiny Israel and her angry, obscure Yahweh.
Or perhaps that world along with its entire theological edifice, needed to be completely and utterly destroyed in order for an earth shaking New Idea to be introduced.
What a shock it must have been. “You don’t know Me,” God says to the elite of Jerusalem, the priests and the learned who prided themselves in knowing Adonai best. With the destruction and exile, God had brought them to their knees economically, politically, and religiously. With this single line—You don’t know me—God throws them down on their faces spiritually and intellectually. They knew ritual and order of sacrifice; they knew festivals and full moon. They knew all these things, and they knew nothing.
Assyria was not exile. It was boot camp. These unwitting recruits had their world torn apart so it could be put together again, in an entirely new way.
Let us pause to examine the difference between polytheism and monotheism. If there are many gods, then logically, we can describe them to a degree.

The first and perhaps most important thing we can say about many gods is that, like humans, they must all be limited: they are limited in their power, strength, and abilities. If that wasn’t the case, they couldn’t war against one another, conquer and/or be vanquished.
The second thing we can say about multiple gods is that they are, like humans, subject to change and being changed. If they war against each other and sometimes win and sometimes loose, they are subject to change.
Maimonides would add here that if they were limited and subject to change then they must be composite, meaning made up of various parts—kind of like us: body, spirit, character….etc.
Like humans, if they are limited and mutable—subject to change—in some parts of their makeup they must be limited and subject to change in other parts as well—such as their personality, their virtues, and vices, and even or especially their mood. The benefit derived from them would vary, as would the possibility of destructive influence. They could never be entirely and forever one thing, such as compassionate because they simply would not have the capacity to be entirely and forever anything.
You may have noticed by now that we are not only describing humans but also we are describing the ancient God of the Israelites, of the Torah, who was mighty among all the other gods, compassionate but also extremely vengeful and destructive. The God of the Torah, finds things out, changes His Mind, gets angry, and sometimes overreacts to the communities’ sin. In fact, whether looking at polytheistic gods in general or the Toraitic God in particular, what we are describing is ourselves, us humans, writ large and immortal.
Polytheism is an easy religion to understand because it corresponds to the reality from which it is constructed.
Monotheism is entirely something else. The notion of One and Only God corresponds to no part of our limited, changeable, and composite reality.
Maimonides says that God is so ‘other’ from us and our knowledge that there is no positive statement we can make about God.
For example, we cannot say, “God is mighty,” for everything we know about might and mean by the word mighty is limited and fragmented by our human experience of might, the physics of might and the experience of might are all predicated on having and observing physical bodies and God does not have a physical body. Maimonides might allow us to say, “God is mighty in a way entirely other than humans understand what is mighty.”
Philosophers and other humans will go on to struggle with the nature and meaning of God’s total and complete otherness as long as we exists. What is thrilling to me is that Deutero Isaiah begins that discussion right here with an exquisite description included in our Haftorah this morning:
For My Thoughts are not Your Thoughts,
Nor are My Ways your ways.
The polytheistic gods are bound by their likeness to humans. The One and Only God is Something Else entirely. The monotheistic God is so wholly Other that God does not even have thoughts, or make plans, or speak words the same way we do. We cannot say, for example, “God is thought,” though we might say, “God is Thought in a way entirely other than what humans know as thought.”
God has ways, but not after any fashion that we humans can understand as ways.
The prophet does not stop there but illumines with a passage which may present the most radical revelation yet. This is the passage I personally chose years ago to be my special text at my ordination. Besides its beauty it marks the beginning, I think, of both Jewish philosophy and mysticism:
For My Thoughts are not Your Thoughts,
Nor are My Ways your ways.
But as the heavens are high above the earth,
So are My ways high above your ways
And My Plans above your plans.
For as the rain or snow drops from heaven
And remains not there,
But soaks the earth
And makes it bring forth vegetation,
Yielding seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is the word that issues from My mouth
But performs what I purpose
Achieves what I sent it to do.
Isaiah 55:8-11

God’s thoughts are not like my thoughts. Well thank God! My thoughts are limited to my preoccupations and priorities. My thoughts are permeated with emotions like fear and anger. My thoughts are shaped by the structures around me. My thoughts get even more muddled when I am sleeping.

God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts. Well, thank God! Our thoughts, the thoughts of the human race have brought us the atom bomb, global warming, mass starvation, slavery, and genocide. Our thoughts as Jews have split the Jewish people into factions that declare to one another, “Have thoughts like us or You’re not Jewish!”
Our thoughts cannot envision Olam Haba, the better world to come, nor perceive the way there. (God’s Thought does.)
Our ways are not like God’s Ways. Thank God! Our ways are shortsighted shortcuts, in keeping with our boundaried physical and mental stature in time and space. The One and Only God have no such limitations in any dimension.
Our words are not like God’s Words, Thank God!
Our words are limited to our language and cut out the majority of the human race and all the living world. Our words are fragmented by time, place, and whim. Our words are mutable, sometimes kind, sometime harsh, soft or shouting, sometimes productive, sometimes destructive.
Isaiah tells us Gods words are like the rain that falls to the earth…bringing forth vegetation, seeds to plant and bread to eat. No, let me say that again, Isaiah tells us that the Limitless One and Only God’s words fall like the rain to the earth and need never cease or change. God’s words always and unchangingly like seeds that grow bearing more seeds that grow bearing more seeds that grow always and unchangeably sustaining all life everywhere. The One and Only God doesn’t run out and the One and Only God does not change.

This sublime revelation was hinted at in the first chapter of Genesis: And God said, “let there be growing things…. And it was so.” The question of philosophy and kabbalah alike—how does the One and Only God Who is wholly Other interface with the material world—is given first answer here.
For My Thoughts are not Your Thoughts,
Nor are My Ways your ways.
But as the heavens are high above the earth,
So are My ways high above your ways
And My Plans above your plans.
For as the rain or snow drops from heaven
And remains not there,
But soaks the earth
And makes it bring forth vegetation,
Yielding seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is the word that issues from My mouth
But performs what I purpose
Achieves what I sent it to do.
Isaiah 55:8-11
A first attempt to explain to the world what it means to have One and Only One God. The challenge to all of us mere humans to struggle to understand what is by its very definition the ineffable. The promise of power, life, and constancy, but a power, a life and a constancy unlike any power life constancy words and ways that we poor humans have ever known.

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