Shaya Cohen -


Does Anyone Worship a Powerless Deity?

Mankind is programmed from birth to respect power: it is The Law of the Jungle. Every animal instinctively understands that survival requires being afraid of those who are more powerful than you, and, in turn, instilling fear in every creature who is less powerful than you.

Absent a higher-order religion, humans are no different. When we follow our instincts, we, too, submit to forces that we cannot control (think of the leftist response to the homophobia of Islam), while seeking to dominate everyone whom we might be able to subjugate.

Thus primitive pagans made every mountain a god, every natural force a deity – because they were clearly more powerful than the people. And since people in a state of nature are necessarily always up against the Malthusian limits of population and not far away from starvation, death by exposure, or countless other natural threats, it never hurts to be careful and appease the god. If you fear it, then it is a deity.

Today’s enlightened secularists have discovered paganism anew. Society anthropomorphizes everything in nature: Gaia may be a single deity – but is still represented by Her constituent parts, the forces we can perceive: polar bears, tornadoes, the gulfstream, angry volcanoes. We even name passing weather systems!

All this is to help understand some of the more obscure verses in the text of the Torah.

You shall not set up … beside the altar of your G-d that you may make, and do not erect a stone pillar; for such your G-d detests.

Why does G-d detest a stone pillar in a place of divine connection? Well, what is such a stone pillar in the ancient world? It is an obelisk. Note the imagery: an obelisk is a large stone phallus. It is a raw acknowledgement of the power of masculine potency. An obelisk is a way to worship both male sexual power, and power in itself. It brings our animal masculinity (as opposed to our intellectual and spiritual sensitivity) into the open.

Indeed, in recognizing open power we acknowledge that the ultimate form of Might Makes Right is the ability to force another human being against their will: the obelisk is a symbol of the ultimate superiority of male lust over any other person’s autonomy. The obelisk triumphantly stands for the power of men to rape.

The G-d of the Torah has no problem with polytheists (like the Egyptians) seeing G-d as more powerful than their own deities: that was a stated purpose of the Exodus, after all. But G-d does not want the Jewish people to make the fact that G-d is powerful into the reason why we connect with Him. After all, if we think that power is itself evidence of divinity, then G-d is only one force among many. He may the most powerful, but that does not exclude other powerful forces from being considered gods in their own right.

If we worship power, then the G-d of the Torah is not unique! If we viewed power as divine, we would worship nature.

G-d does not want to be worshipped because He is powerful. The Torah makes it clear that from his people, G-d instead desires relationship, connection, and a partnership that can even be akin to marriage. And we know that displaying raw superior power into a partnership or a marriage is not a recipe for success. Marital rape is still rape. Power, in itself, should not be at the core of our relationship. Even – and especially – in an unequal relationship, stressing the inequality breeds resentment and misery.

Paganism is precisely the opposite. Nobody worships a powerless deity. So worshipping the earth or wind or fire is all about investing in the ideology of power.

The Torah keeps telling us that we are not meant to be animals, observing the Law of the Jungle. We are supposed instead to love the stranger, the orphan and the widow. We are supposed to care for those who in a state of nature would be below us. So any symbolism that promotes a power hierarchy, anything that openly trumpets animalistic urges by sporting our libidos in public, in antithetical to connecting with G-d.

P.S. Jacob sets up these pillars – and sometimes as displays of power (the separation between him and Laban), other times to mark a place, including Rachel’s grave. It is important to recognize he did this before G-d issued the prohibition, and indeed before G-d revealed himself as more than one deity among many.

Comments are welcome!

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