Monotheists? Not more moral.

Intro: Monotheism v. polytheism

Rather recently, I heard a young rabbi, a friend of mine, discussing monotheism with one of his Talmud students. She had been troubled by the line of religious reasoning that he’d espoused to the class; and she challenged him on the supposedly unique righteousness of monotheism.

His responses to her, I believe, were fairly reasonable.


Monotheism & me

The only concept of a supernatural being that I can wrap my mind or heart around is a single, omnipotent, and unknowable one. The existence of a creator of the universe is more plausible to me than a ‘Big Bang’, but I also put a very heavy emphasis on this being’s unknowable nature, far, far, far beyond possible human comprehension and our senses.

To be fair, I was born and raised a Jew, and my monotheistic beliefs (which are not entirely mainstream within the traditional Jewish community because I don’t much believe in a God who cares about anyone or involves himself in the lives of human beings) are clearly a product of my heritage and upbringing. If I had been born and raised elsewhere (India, for example), I very likely would have come to believe in polytheism. Still, this is where I stand.

Incidentally, this happens to be one challenge I have come to for those of any Abrahamic faith – why would God only be motivated to share Ultimate Truth (and therefore: Salvation) with a limited number of human beings in only one corner of the world? No answer to this question that I have come across has satisfied me.


Two arguments for pure monotheism

The young rabbi made several arguments for monotheism over polytheism, two of which especially resonate with me:

  1. Monotheism encourages personal responsibility because there is only one Divine address to which one can address one’s grievances and desires. If prayer and penitence do not bring the desired results, one can then only find solutions on one’s own;
  2. Pure monotheism rejects all images of God, whereas the majority of gods of polytheistic faiths have bodies that resemble those of human beings. In this way, polytheistic faiths encourage, albeit perhaps unintentionally, the worship of humankind itself.

These arguments, as I noted, work for me… but only intellectually and theoretically.

Why?


Monotheism in the real world

All of this theory utterly falls apart when I consider the behavior of human beings around the globe throughout all of history. Are polytheists more or less moral because of their beliefs? Are monotheists? Are atheists? Simply – no. No, not at all.

In fact, that’s not even to mention those people of all faiths who act horribly and evilly towards others. Anyone of any faith can perpetrate evil.

These have been my observations over the course of my four decades, and I consider myself a fairly well informed and well read person. Human beings have been arguing over and killing one another over faith for thousands of years, but ~ ultimately? What’s the point? What difference does it make in the real world? Who can truly claim that their chosen faith produces kinder, better people or a kinder, better world?

Thus, while I view existence through a strictly monotheistic lens, and while I can make some logical and reasonable arguments to support my faith perspective, none of that is to say that my beliefs are better than anybody else’s – neither I nor any other person who shares my religious views is inherently better than any other human being; and I wouldn’t necessarily assume that anyone who shares my monotheistic views is moral, kind, or just. Some are; others, unfortunately, are not.


And… then there’s professional monotheism

Disappointingly, I have found that I must always take everything that any religious leader espouses with several grains of salt.

This particular young rabbi, before he joined the clergy, was simply my friend; and he used to speak with others about his own deep doubts in his faith convictions (which he had been raised into, for his extended family is all Orthodox, and his father too is an Orthodox rabbi). He used to struggle with whether Judaism was indeed the Truest faith. He used to be forthcoming about doubting his connection to God and wonder about whether God was listening to him at all. This struggle of his over his religious views was profoundly compelling to me – it was relatable – it drew me… and I felt that it fed our friendship.

Then my friend became a rabbi and decided, it seems, that it was incumbent upon him to promote traditional Jewish monotheism as the most moral faith, regardless of the evidence…

And, ever since then, I have been finding it increasingly difficult to speak with him about matters of faith at all ๐Ÿ˜ž

Hรคrfรฅgel, or: Hoopoe

โ€˜War Poetryโ€™ โ€“ a dโ€™Verse poetics prompt

OOOP! 
  OOOP! 
    OOOP! OOOP! your haunting
  calls, dire warnings ere impending
    falls, unheeding ape-men charging
      tall, ignoring farsighted soarings

OOOP! 
  OOOP! 
    OOOP! OOOP! you've studied
  death, counted those countless muddied
    breaths, swooping, swiping with bloodied
      sneath, men's legions life-and-limbless

OOOP! 
  OOOP! 
    OOOP! OOOP! this hallowed
  Land, sought endlessly by shallow
    men, mauled bodies from green gallows
      hang, you ~flutter~ 'bove friendlessly

OOOP! 
  OOOP! 
    OOOP! OOOP! harbinging
  croon; was it crowned bird's unhinging
    tune that left this sand Land tinged in
      prune, seeped deeply dark in Cain's sin?

d’Verse

At dโ€™Verse, we were asked to pen ourselves new war poems. No matter our personal experiences, we all fear what war can do. Maybe itโ€™s something we’ve met in the eyes of refugees, in our nightmares, or from reading books…

The hoopoe, the national bird of the State of Israel, where I proudly reside, inspired my war poem (above). For more on that, see below.


Hoopoe: harbinger of war?

The State of Israel’s national bird is the hoopoe, which I alluded to in my d’Verse poem yesterday. In response, my poet-blogger-friend Bjรถrn just informed me that in Swedish, this creature is known as ‘hรคrfรฅgel’, which is loosely translated as: ‘army-bird’.

The hoopoe actually gets its English name from the sound it makes while singing. The song is a deep, haunting โ€˜oop oop oopโ€™ that has led to the bird being associated with death and the Underworld in Estonian tradition. The song itself is said to forebode death. Across the majority of Europe, it was thought of as a thief and as a harbinger of war in Scandinavia…

-Lexi Menth, ‘Crown of Feathers โ€“ Hoopoe’, 2015

Hoopoe: magical, medicinal bird?

For the purposes of my “war poem” above I deliberately address the hoopoe as a harbinger of death and war, but it is only fair to note that this elegant bird is regarded very positively in most cultures, including throughout the Middle East and in Islam.

The bird known as the hoopoe… has been a common motif in the literature and folklore of eastern Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures, from ancient to modern times. As a solar symbol, it was often associated with kingship, filial piety, and wisdom, and its body was believed to possess potent magical and medicinal properties…

-Timothy Schum, ‘From Egypt to Mount Qฤf: The Symbolism of the Hoopoe in Muslim Literature and Folklore’, 2018

Still…

Still, Bjรถrn’s comment to me regarding the hoopoe in Swedish lore excited my imagination and reminded me of the following animated video, which puts the bloody history of the “Holy Land” to music:

Whoโ€™s Killing Who? A Viewerโ€™s Guide: https://blog.ninapaley.com/2012/10/01/this-land-is-mine/

Wherefore ‘ben Alexander’?

Some basics of Jewish names

Most Jewish people have Jewish names, which they use in religious contexts, although they do not necessarily go by them in public. Some Jewish names like mine (David) are universal enough, but others do not roll off the gentile tongue so easily. Jewish names are typically of Jewish languages: primarily Hebrew, Yiddish, or Ladino.

Of course, as many Jews are secular; non-practicing; or unaffiliated with religious community, their Jewish names are not particularly relevant in their daily or weekly lives. It’s the Jews who somewhat regularly attend synagogue services who are most often called by their Jewish names.

Now, in the traditional religious context, one is not simply known by his/her Jewish first name. One is known as [first name] [son/daughter of] [parent’s name]. For prayers of healing, I would be called David [son of] [mother’s name]. When I am called to make a blessing upon the Torah scroll at the synagogue, I am traditionally called David [son of] [father’s name].

One notable thing regarding my personal Jewish identity is that neither of my parents were assigned specifically Jewish names at birth because they were both born into the militantly secular and institutionally antisemitic USSR; for the most part, Jews in the USSR were inclined to downplay their Jewish identities. My Mama is Svetlana. My Papa was Alexander.


‘ben Alexander’

As an adult, I became religious, and that’s when being called up to make blessings upon the Torah scroll at shul became relevant to me.

At the first, as I was learning the ropes, I was rather self-conscious about being called up as David [son of] Alexander. Nobody else in any of my Jewish communities had such a Jewish name, nor a father with such a Jewish name as Alexander. Being called David [son of] Svetlana would be even more uncommon, but I have never been sick enough to need or request prayers for health – so that situation has yet to arise.

Anyway, my proclivity for Jewish tradition and active involvement in religious Jewish community ultimately caused me to internalize Papa’s name as a significant part of my identity. His name was officially part of my name; and… perhaps you’ve already surmised that the Hebrew for [son of] is [‘ben’].

I am, therefore, the Jew known as David ben Alexander.


‘Alexander’

The Legend of the Gordian Knot

Papa the mathematician launched his educational mathematics website in 1996, shortly after the Internet had made its way into people’s homes around the world. But what to call it?

At the time, we were living on a street called Alexander Road, which amused Papa and somewhat excited his imagination; and he decided to call his website and company ‘Cut the Knot’ after the legend of Alexander the Great and the Gordian Knot. Papa’s vision was to present mathematics as only seemingly impossible to conquer. Much like the Gordian Knot, which Alexander the Great cleverly sliced apart, Papa believed that mathematics riddles all had comprehensible, straightforward solutions.

The name ‘Alexander’ among Eastern Europeans

I’ve come to learn that in Eastern Europe, some non-Jewish names are more common among Jews than others. To the trained ear, such names suggest that their owners could very well be Jewish. Boris, Mark, and Alexander are such names. (Other gentile names generally trigger the opposite assumption… for example: Fyodor, Nikolai, Vasily.)

I never thought to discuss Papa’s name with him, but he would certainly have been sensitive to this cultural nuance.

The name ‘Alexander’ among Jews

I couldn’t tell you exactly when I learned this, but it turns out that the name Alexander is, surprisingly, a Jewish name, even though it is of distinctly Greek origin; and – it entered Jewish culture because of Alexander the Great.

In the Talmud there is a popular Jewish story about an interaction between Alexander the Great and the Jewish High Priest Simeon the Just, in which Alexander bowed down to the Jew (Tractate Yoma 69a):

ื‘ืขืฉืจื™ื ื•ื—ืžืฉื” [ื‘ื˜ื‘ืช] ื™ื•ื ื”ืจ ื’ืจื–ื™ื [ื”ื•ื] ื“ืœื ืœืžืกืคื“ ื™ื•ื ืฉื‘ืงืฉื• ื›ื•ืชื™ื™ื ืืช ื‘ื™ืช ืืœื”ื™ื ื• ืžืืœื›ืกื ื“ืจื•ืก ืžื•ืงื“ื•ืŸ ืœื”ื—ืจื™ื‘ื• ื•ื ืชื ื• ืœื”ื ื‘ืื• ื•ื”ื•ื“ื™ืขื• ืืช ืฉืžืขื•ืŸ ื”ืฆื“ื™ืง ืžื” ืขืฉื” ืœื‘ืฉ ื‘ื’ื“ื™ ื›ื”ื•ื ื” ื•ื ืชืขื˜ืฃ ื‘ื‘ื’ื“ื™ ื›ื”ื•ื ื” ื•ืžื™ืงื™ืจื™ ื™ืฉืจืืœ ืขืžื• ื•ืื‘ื•ืงื•ืช ืฉืœ ืื•ืจ ื‘ื™ื“ื™ื”ืŸ ื•ื›ืœ ื”ืœื™ืœื” ื”ืœืœื• ื”ื•ืœื›ื™ื ืžืฆื“ ื–ื” ื•ื”ืœืœื• ื”ื•ืœื›ื™ื ืžืฆื“ ื–ื” ืขื“ ืฉืขืœื” ืขืžื•ื“ ื”ืฉื—ืจ ื›ื™ื•ืŸ ืฉืขืœื” ืขืžื•ื“ ื”ืฉื—ืจ ืืžืจ ืœื”ื ืžื™ ื”ืœืœื• ืืžืจื• ืœื• ื™ื”ื•ื“ื™ื ืฉืžืจื“ื• ื‘ืš ื›ื™ื•ืŸ ืฉื”ื’ื™ืข ืœืื ื˜ื™ืคื˜ืจืก ื–ืจื—ื” ื—ืžื” ื•ืคื’ืขื• ื–ื” ื‘ื–ื” ื›ื™ื•ืŸ ืฉืจืื” ืœืฉืžืขื•ืŸ ื”ืฆื“ื™ืง ื™ืจื“ ืžืžืจื›ื‘ืชื• ื•ื”ืฉืชื—ื•ื” ืœืคื ื™ื• ืืžืจื• ืœื• ืžืœืš ื’ื“ื•ืœ ื›ืžื•ืชืš ื™ืฉืชื—ื•ื” ืœื™ื”ื•ื“ื™ ื–ื” ืืžืจ ืœื”ื ื“ืžื•ืช ื“ื™ื•ืงื ื• ืฉืœ ื–ื” ืžื ืฆื—ืช ืœืคื ื™ ื‘ื‘ื™ืช ืžืœื—ืžืชื™ The twenty-fifth of Tebeth is the day of Mount Gerizim, on which no mourning is permitted. It is the day on which the Cutheans demanded the House of our God from Alexander the Macedonian so as to destroy it, and he had given them the permission, whereupon some people came and informed Simeon the Just. What did the latter do? He put on his priestly garments, robed himself in priestly garments, some of the noblemen of Israel went with him carrying fiery torches in their hands, they walked all the night, some walking on one side and others on the other side, until the dawn rose. When the dawn rose he [Alexander] said to them: Who are these [the Samaritans]? They answered: The Jews who rebelled against you. As he reached Antipatris, the sun having shone forth, they met. When he saw Simeon the Just, he descended from his carriage and bowed down before him. They said to him: A great king like yourself should bow down before this Jew? He answered: His image it is which wins for me in all my battles.

In brief, Alexander the Great bowed to the Jewish High Priest because the image of the Priest’s face would appear before him before his battles, leading him to victory when he was on the battlefields. Ultimately, according to legend, Alexander the Great left the Holy Temple in Jerusalem be.

Further adds Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin:

… for memorializing the occasion, [Simeon the Just] suggested… [that] all male [Jewish priests] born that year would be named โ€œAlexander.โ€

Alexander liked the idea, and the Jews, who were very thankful to Alexander for all that he did for them, including sparing the Holy Temple from destruction, gratefully named their children after him. Thus, the name Alexander forever became a Jewish name.

‘Why Is Alexander a Jewish Name?’ by Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin

I actually have no idea if Papa knew about this Talmudic story, but I get a real kick out of the fact that Papa’s name is, indeed, a Jewish one; and not only that – Papa’s name became a Jewish name because of the same great conqueror who inspired the culmination of Papa’s lifework: ‘Cut the Knot’.


Ben Alexander’ or ‘ben Alexander’

I haven’t made mention of this before, but I actually created this WordPress account in 2012, long before Papa died – long before I became ‘The Skeptic’s Kaddish’. Back then, my blog had a rather uninspired Jewish blog name; and – back then I was blogging anonymously.

I have always enjoyed writing, but it’s only been in the past several years that I’ve felt comfortable enough in my own voice to blog so very publicly about sensitive personal matters under my own name. Back in 2012, I deliberately called myself ‘Ben Alexander’ so that nobody would find me out. I deliberately chose it as my pen name, knowing that most people would parse ‘Ben’ as a common English name. That’s why I capitalized it back when.

Then – in April of 2020 when I was transferring the many posts I had written about reciting kaddish for Papa to this website, I made a seemingly slight change to my handle. I changed the first letter to lower case, rendering myself ‘ben Alexander’, and thereby deemphasizing the ‘Ben’.

Of course, people still continue to assume that my full name is actually ‘Ben Alexander’, but that is okay with me. For those who are curious enough to explore my website and get to know me, I have an ‘about’ page with my full name available therein. I am, as they say, hiding in plain sight.

This version of my name continues to feel so very right and comfortable… I am deeply proud to be known as:

David ben Alexander.