A man goes out with a woman on their first date. For the first three hours he talks only about himself, his history, accomplishments and interests. Finally, he turns to her and says: "Enough of me speaking about myself; let me hear what you have to say about me."
The rabbi was hospitalized recovering from a heart attack when the president of the congregation visited him. He said: "Rabbi, I have good news and bad news." "First the good news" the rabbi said. "On behalf of the board of directors I am here to wish you a speedy recovery."
"That’s wonderful" said the rabbi, "and what’s the bad news?" "The vote was 7 to 6."
Despising Single Stones
This week's Torah portion, Shoftim, communicates the following commandment (1): "You shall not erect for yourself a pillar. This is something which the Lord your G-d despises."
The most basic biblical commentator, Rashi (2), explains this as a prohibition against erecting an altar of a single stone, even if the intent was to use this altar as a place where offerings were presented to G-d.
Though the Torah elsewhere (3) clearly allows the existence of altars made of stone in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and in the Tabernacle in the desert, Rashi explains that this is only true of altars made of many stones, not of a single stone (4).
Yet one wonders about the logic of distinguishing between an altar built of many stones that is deemed desirable by G-d vs. an altar built of a single stone which the Torah defines as an object of G-d's hate. Does it really make a difference whether you present an offering on an altar of one stone or of many stones?
Rashi explains that the difference is not intrinsic but historical. In the times of the Patriarchs, Rashi writes, they would build single stone pillars for the sake of presenting offerings to G-d, and "it was beloved by G-d." However, once the Canaanites adopted this practice and began building single-stone altars for idolatrous offerings, G-d rejected them (5).
Yet the question remains, why did the Canaanite idol worshippers embrace the
single-stone altar? Logically, the converse should have occurred: An altar of many diverse stones seems consistent with the polytheistic approach -- worshipping many diverse gods -- while an altar made of one piece is more reflective of the monotheistic Jewish faith that insists all worship must be directed to a single, universal G-d. Why did history dictate that the pagan polytheists embraced the single-stone model?
What this prohibition against the single-stone pillar may be teaching us is that though there is one G-d, the altars constructed by man to serve Him need not -- indeed should not -- be of one stone, of one color, or one dimension, shape and quality.
Perhaps the greatest challenges facing humanity today is the ingrained belief by many a Muslim that those of us who do not embrace Islam as a faith and a lifestyle are infidels who need to be converted or killed. Many Muslim leaders are laying the groundwork for a grand war between Islam and the West (and of course Israel), in order to restore the world to its appropriate equilibrium, a world dominated by Islam.
On another level, and in an infinitely more subtly and fine way, one of the challenges facing many Jewish communities today (a challenge that has pervaded the history of all religion from the beginning of time), is a sense of tribalism that found a nest among many devout Jews. This is the feeling that my way of serving G-d is the only true way, and if you have a different path, you are on the "wrong team."
Many of us feel that in the construction of the "altars," the structures in which we serve G-d, there is room for only a single stone, a single path, a particular flavor and style, to the exclusion of anything else that does not fit our religious imagination or upbringing.
Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely the path of paganism and polytheism that invite a singular altar, made of one stone, while the monotheistic path of a singular G-d welcomes the diverse altar, made of many distinct stones. Why?
Paganism is founded on the notion that a human being creates god in his own individual image. When G-d is a product of my image, that G-d is inevitably defined by the properties of that image. Since no two human images are identical, it follows that your god, the god of your image, cannot serve as my god as well. My god must be worshiped in my way, based on my perception of who he is and what he stands for. Therefore, my altar must be constructed of one stone: my own.
The faith of Israel -– the progenitor of Christianity and Islam – on the other hand, declares the oneness of G-d and the plurality of man. The transcendental G-d of Judaism is the G-d, who not only transcends the natural universe, but also the spiritual universe articulated in every single heart, and who imparts fragments of His truth into every human spirit. The challenge set forth by Judaism is to see G-d's image in one who is not in my image.
Judaism teaches that every person knows and feels something no one else does. None of us knows all the truth and each of us knows some of it. Like a symphony composed of many notes, each of us constitutes an individual note in the divine symphony, and together we complete the music. If G-d wanted you and me to experience Him and serve Him in the same way, one of us would be superfluous.
Diversity within religion is not only a factor we must reluctantly accept; it is a cause for genuine celebration. It grants us the opportunity to encounter G-d, since it is only in the face of the other that we can discover the part of G-d that we lack in our own face. The result of a relationship with a transcendental G-d is a growing appreciation of people's differences, not merely as tolerable, but as the essence of a rich and rewarding human and religious experience.
“Diversity is the one true thing we all have in common, celebrate it every day,” a wise man once said. There is a profound truth to this: Diversity, Judaism teaches, is the trace of an undefined G-d on the human species.
Diverse Models of Worship
This may be the reason the Torah teaches us that the altar to worship G-d must be constructed from many different stones. This represents the Jewish vision that the structures constructed by man to serve G-d ought to be diverse and individualistic (6).
This does not mean that G-d condones every act done in His name. The G-d of the Bible created absolute universal standards of morality and ethics that bind us all. At times, people allow evil choices to totally eclipse the trace of G-d within them. To the Jewish people, G-d presented an absolute system of Torah and mitzvos. Yet within this framework, every human possesses his or her unique path to Truth. One of the great masters put it this way (7): "The concrete laws of Torah are the same for us all, but the spiritual experience of Torah, the feelings of love and awe, contain infinite pathways, one for each person, according to his individual identity." We may compare it to the 88 keys of the piano that lend themselves to infinite combinations.
Authentic religion must welcome, not fear, diversity and individualistic expression. When you truly cultivate a relationship with G-d, you know that in the presence of other-ness, you can encounter a fragment of truth that you could never access within your own framework (8).
1) Deuteronomy 16:22.
2) Rabbi Sholomo Yitzchaki lived in France and Germany during the 11th century. His classical commentary on the Bible and the Talmud turned him into one of greatest and most cherished Torah figures in the history of Judaism.
3) Exodus 15:22.
4) This is the difference between the Hebrew expressions "Matzavah" vs. "Mizbach." Matzavah is an altar made of a single stone while mizbach is an altar built of many stones. That is why the tombstone erected on a grave is called in Hebrew a Matzavah, since it is made of a single large stone. The reason that tombstones in cemeteries are permitted is because they are not used as altars for offerings, but as monument for the dead (see Midrash Hagodol to this verse. Cf. Abarbanel here).
5) Rashi here from Sifrei section 146.
6) This may be the deeper reason why during the time of the Patriarchs the single-stone altar was welcome and used. For during the time of the Patriarchs, prior to the development of the Jews into a nation, each of the Patriarchs embodied a particular mode in serving G-d, which became the paradigm of service in that generation.
7) Tanya chapter 44. Cf. introduction to the Tanya.
8) This essay is based on Mei Haseloach vol. 1 to Shoftim 16:22. See also Midrash Rabah Pinchos 8:2; Likkutei Moharan I, 34:4.
My thanks to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial help