There is an old joke about a little Jewish boy who comes home from public school proclaiming his newfound knowledge about three gods. Upon hearing the news, his father hollers in indignation, “There are not three gods. There is only one G-d, and we don’t believe in Him!”
This sort of national schizophrenia leads to one of my favorite questions: Which is worse, to be an ethical pagan or an unethical monotheist? Is it better to be a nice guy but believe in three, six, or 245 gods, or to be dishonest and ruthless, but ascribe to the belief of one G-d?
Let me tell you a story that really happened to me.
One day, I got a phone call from a Russian-Jewish immigrant, a single mother who needed help. I had never spoken to her before and didn’t know who she was, but her story was basically this: She was about to be evicted from her apartment because she was desperately behind in her rent; she worked long hours in a minimum-wage job, and when her car broke down she had to use the rent money to fix the car.
When I spoke to the landlord (who was not Jewish), I was surprised when he told me she was a good tenant of three years and, even though she was paying back the rent she owed, it wasn’t according to the schedule outlined in the rental agreement. I tried reasoning with him. “You will lose at least a month’s rent if you evict her, and you will have to fix up the apartment,” I said. My arguments were fruitless. He told me he has hundreds of tenants and he doesn’t make exceptions.
I pleaded with him. “She’s a single mother and will be living on the street with a small child.” He was unfazed.
In desperation, I went for the soul. Unfortunately, he didn’t have one.
“Do you have children?” I asked. He knew exactly what I meant: There is a G-d, and He is watching how you treat this woman. He said to me, “Rabbi, business is business, the church is the church.”
I really wanted to say to him, “Sir, you are a pagan. You have one god in your church that makes you feel good, and one in your business that allows you to abuse people.” But I didn’t say it. I knew he wouldn’t take his anger out on me, but on the single mother.
In the end, I am happy to tell you, the women got her money, and I am sure the landlord regrets his decision. You might ask, how can I be so sure that the landlord regrets his decision? Because there is only one G-d, and I happen to know He doesn’t like it when you treat single moms like that.
It’s as Simple as One, Two, Even Three
One god gives you freedom; two gods make you a barbarian. With one, you are free to be and do what you really know is right. Then why add a second god? Obviously, because you need someone who will allow you to do what you know is wrong.
Barbara Walters was once given a tour of an Israeli prison. She met an Arab terrorist and she asked him, “I am Jewish, do you want to kill me?” His reply was typical pagan: First he said no, but then he added, “What can I do, it’s the will of my god.”
In other words, he disagrees with his god! He thinks his god is immoral. Notice, it’s the same answer as our landlord above — he knows what he should do, but he creates another god so he doesn’t have to do it. That’s a pagan.
Knowing there is only one G-d makes all the difference. I can’t ask G-d to ease my suffering when I turn my face from another's suffering. It’s the same G-d I pray to for mercy who is also looking when I turn away the beggar.
And so, we answer our question. Anyone who is unethical cannot be a monotheist. Someone who ascribes to one rule here and another over there, is, by definition, a pagan.
By Rabbi Stephen Baars
Originally from London, Rabbi Stephen Baars resides in Rockville, Maryland, and serves as executive director of Aish Seminars. He did nine years of post-graduate studies at the Aish HaTorah Rabbinical College in Jerusalem, and has been an educator and marriage counselor for the past 25 years. Learn more at www.getbliss.com and www.core9.live.