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Why Atheism Struggles with Genuine Diversity

And Why True Religion Celebrates It

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • September 1, 2011
  • |
  • 2 Elul 5771
  • Comment

Class Summary:

Have We Become Too Tribal? - True Religion Must Embrace Diversity

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein, in the loving memory of a young Jerusalem soul Alta Shula, Daughter of Rabbi Yossi and Hindel Swerdlov. And in honor of their daughter Yetta Alta Shula, "Aliyah" Schottenstein

First Anecdote:

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."

Second Anecdote:

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 interesting 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 for Divine worship, where offerings would be presented to G-d.

Though the Torah elsewhere[3] 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 comprised of many stones, not of a single stone[4].

But what's the logic? Does it 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, our forefathers built single stone pillars for Divine service, and "it was beloved by G-d." However, once the Canaanites adopted this practice and began building single-stone altars for idolatrous offerings, including the horrific practices of ancient idolatry, G-d rejected them[5].

But why? Just because some tribes used the single stone for idolatry, can't we use it in a productive and meaningful way? The Pagans would also worship the sun, the moon, or water, but we still use them and enjoy them in a beneficial way.

Embracing Diversity

What this prohibition against the single-stone pillar may be teaching us is that though there is one G-d, the altars constructed by the human being to serve Him should not, and could not be of one stone, of one color, dimension, shape and quality.

In paganism, or modern atheism, a human being creates a god, or some higher power, in his or her own individual image. My mind and ego define what is essential, and what is of supreme importance. When god is a product of my image, that god 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. My altar must be constructed of one stone: my own.

Sure, I will tolerate those people and views that my "image" of my god can make peace with. But if you step out of line, I will hunt you down. I have no genuine room for your position. 

The faith of Judaism, the idea of Monotheism, declares the oneness of G-d and the plurality of man. The transcendental G-d of Judaism transcends the natural universe but also any spiritual definition. G-d is undefined by any form, shape, or characteristic, physical or spiritual. We do not create Him in our image; He creates us in His image. Judaism thus challenges me to see G-d's image in the one who is not in my image, for every person knows and feels something about reality, about truth, about G-d that 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.

True Religion Celebrates Diversity

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. Diversity is the trace of an undefined G-d on the human species.   

One of the greatest challenges facing humanity today is the ingrained belief by many Muslims that those of us who do not embrace Islam as a faith and a lifestyle are infidels who need to be converted or killed.

On another level, and in a far more subtle and fine way, one of the challenges facing many communities today (a challenge that has pervaded the history of all religions from the beginning of time), is a sense of tribalism that found a nest among many devout Jews. My way of serving G-d is the only true way, and if you have a different path, you are on the "wrong team." I can't respect you. 

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, one flavor, and one style -- to the exclusion of anything else that does not fit our religious imagination or upbringing. Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely the paths of paganism, polytheism, or atheism, 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. The structures constructed by man to serve G-d are, by definition, 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. But these rules do not step from my ego and comfort zone, but rather from an absolute truth that includes and benefits every human being.

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 (or her) individual identity."

We may compare it to the 88 keys of the piano that lend themselves to infinite combinations. The very same keys allow for so many different expressions. Authentic religion must welcome, not fear, diversity, and individualistic expression. When you truly cultivate a relationship with G-d, a G-d who is undefined by any image or color, 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 Shlomo Yitzchaki lived in France and Germany during the 11th century. His classical commentary on the Bible and the Talmud turned him into one of the greatest and most cherished Torah figures in the history of Judaism.
[3] Exodus 15:22.
[4] This is the difference between the Hebrew expression "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 that they are not used as altars for offerings, but as monuments 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 Tanya.
[8] This essay is based on Mei Haseloach, by the great Chassidic master Rabbi Yosef Mordechai Leiner of Izhbitz (1800-1854), vol. 1 to Shoftim 16:22. Cf. Likkutei Sichos vol. 18 Parshas Korach and the references noted there. See also Likkutei Maharan I, 34:4.

Please leave your comment below!

  • Anonymous -1 year ago


    why single out Muslims? there are memebrs of every religion that sees outsiders as in need of conversion or destruction

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    beila -2 years ago

    I read this article in the Jewish views.  It is a beautiful article!  
    I once read a saying that actions speak louder than words.  These words are great words.  The thing is that without any action from community leaders about this matter, Judaism will become more and more tribal.  The community that I live in is heading in that direction...

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

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    BaruchLevin -6 years ago


    Yishar Koach on your article ,the only problem with it is that it may be use by the non-orthdox jewish sects to justify their deviatioins from Halacha, which I'm sure was not your intention.

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  • S

    shmuel -6 years ago

    How can we?

    You say that we must embrace diversity I ask you this. If the two Satmar Rebbes , Bobover Rebbes, the two factions in the Litvisher world etc. Aren’t able to embrace diversity, how can one expect the man in the street to do so? Doesn’t it start from the top?

    Reply to this comment.Flag this comment.

Essay Shoftim

Rabbi YY Jacobson
  • September 1, 2011
  • |
  • 2 Elul 5771
  • |
  • Comment

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein, in the loving memory of a young Jerusalem soul Alta Shula, Daughter of Rabbi Yossi and Hindel Swerdlov. And in honor of their daughter Yetta Alta Shula, "Aliyah" Schottenstein

Class Summary:

Have We Become Too Tribal? - True Religion Must Embrace Diversity

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