Dvar Torah (7th Day Pesach): Mi Chamocha and Holding Different Voices

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 10 April 2015

[The dvar torah began with Josh singing Mi Chamocha to 4 different melodies]


It is so familiar, mi chamocha, sung in such wonderful ways.

So familiar that we probably don’t even notice the theological problem at its heart.

Mi Chamocha Ba-elim Adonai – Adonai, who is like you among the Gods.
Among the Gods? There are other Gods? Surely it is a – the – fundamental tenet of Judaism that we believe in the existence of just one God.  Ethical monotheism, at the heart of Judaism.  The belief that there is just one God and that God cares how we behave.

But we’re about to read it in Shirat HaYam: Mi Chamocha Ba-elim Adonai – Adonai, who is like you among the Gods.
It is there in Black and White.

The rabbis heard the problem in the text straight away.  The early midrash Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael is quick to try to interpret the issue away, that pesky Ba-elim:
It actually means “Who is like you among those who are strong; or who is like you among those who call themselves Gods – like Pharaoh or the Assyrian or Babylonian emperors; who is like you among those whom others call Gods – who, Mechilta notes – peh lahem v’lo y’dabeiru (as we’ve just read in Hallel), because, very cleverly, mi chamocha ba-ilem – who is like you among the mute.

The rabbis can’t cope with the plain meaning of the text, but there it is: who is like you – our God, most powerful God, among the others that exist.
It’s elsewhere in the Song, too: zeh eli v’anvehu – this is my God – this one, not the other ones.

It is even there, for what it is worth, in the Ten Commandments: not ‘there are no other gods but me’, but ‘you shall have no other Gods but me’ from among the ones out there.

The truth is that Judaism, or rather Israelite religion, did not always hold the rigorous monotheism it came to insist upon.  In the earlier layers of the bible – and Shirat HaYam is thought by many to be very early indeed – in the early layers of the bible we see the evidence of our ancestors different theology: not monotheism but what the scholar Wellhausen termed monolatry.  That is, recognition of the existence of multiple gods, but the consistent worship of just one.

It makes the marriage imagery of the covenant with God make more sense – there are lots of women/men, but I am exclusively in relationship with this one.

We can be pretty sure that our ancient ancestors were monolatrists not monotheists – maybe not even monolatrists – there are hints from archaeological finds that the ancient God they called YHVH had a female consort, known as Asherah; and there is certainly evidence that while the public sphere included the exclusive worship of YHVH, other gods had their place in the private sphere – with household idols and worship practices.
Now, this is not, importantly, the sole voice in Torah: we need only look at Deuteronomy where we read:
Ki Adonai  hu ha-elohim bashamayim mima’al v’al ha-aretz mitachat; ein od
Adonai is God in heaven above and on earth below- there is no other

Which, of course, also finds its way into the liturgy in the Aleinu.
Now, why do I talk about this today?

It is important to remember the profound ability of our tradition to hold different voices, different ideas, different theologies within the same text – ours is a multivocal tradition.  It is Judaism’s greatest asset.  Elu v’elu divrei Elohim chayyim, remember.

And not only the profound ability to hold different voices, not only to accommodate difference, but also to evolve and adapt.  We sometimes think of ourselves as the reformers – certainly others say that we are – but our tradition has always evolved and moved – until it got stuck somewhat in the Middle Ages.  It even changed in perhaps the most fundamental way – its understanding of God and the world –
Judaism was evolving and adapting in its earliest iterations.

As we read Shirat HaYam, with its triumphalism and God of war, we should remember that any idea there is an exclusivity of truth is not one that the bible claims for itself.  Nor should anyone else.
Concepts of authenticity or correctness against some standard or other have no place in Judaism – nor should any voice that says change is not possible –
Ours, let’s remember is a religion which can contain both ein od, and the wonderful singing of mi chamocha.