Monotheism: Early Disruptive Innovation

לֹֽ֣א יִהְיֶֽה־לְךָ֛֩ אֱלֹהִ֥֨ים אֲחֵרִ֖֜ים עַל־פָּנָֽ֗יַ ׃

“You shall not have any other gods before my face”

Exodus 20:3

Monotheism has become such a successful theological belief that it is hard for modern people to comprehend just how radical a departure this first of the Ten Commandments would have been in the ancient world. Today we call this kind of idea a disruptive innovation, and the rate at which technological advances propel change has actually created a world in which we have come to expect dynamic, radical new ideas all the time. That’s not what the world used to be like.

The idea that there was only one divine actor was so unusual in the ancient world that it even took the Children of Israel, who lived through the revelation at Mount Sinai that we read this week in Parashat Yitro, many centuries to finally shed their own attachments to other gods and idols. The idea has come to be a central foundational tenet of what it means to be a Jew – it is belief in the divinity of Jesus that fundamentally differentiates Christian and Jewish theology. The Shema, which is an affirmation of monotheism (Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is One) that is said multiple times daily in some streams of Judaism, sits at the core of Jewish prayer and belief.

Today the idea of one god has become so popular that we can’t really comprehend what it might have been like to try to explain it to someone who believed in many gods. It was probably similar to the reaction you might have gotten when trying to convince people that earth wasn’t flat in the 1600’s. Judaism has contributed many disruptive innovations to the world, and our day schools continue to operate under the other core value expressed during the revelation — that if we can engage in a meaningful relationship with the divine, we can operate as a light to other nations throughout the world.

This value is played out daily in Jewish schools, in the work our Federations and agencies undertake to serve those in need, and in the scientific and medical advances pouring out of Israel. I am deeply proud to be part of this effort to improve the world, and to teach children that living meaningfully includes serving others.

This week, ask your children how they think they can be a light for others, and also what big changes they would like to be part of creating in the world.

Shabbat Shalom,