Shoftim: Uprooting the Goddess

August 31, 2011 at 1:18 pm | Posted in Shoftim | 2 Comments

The tree is a potent symbol in many religions, and its roots go deep.  The Torah defines the religion that became Judaism partly by reacting to the other Canaanite religions, adopting some of their attitudes and practices as a matter of course while violently rejecting other practices.  The Torah’s approach to sacred trees is especially subtle.

In the garden of Eden, near the beginning of the Torah, God gives the human being permission to eat fruit from every tree in the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and bad.  When the humans do eat from the forbidden tree, God kicks them out of Eden.  Humankind begins in a state of unconscious unity with God.  Incapable of dualistic thinking, even when the adam (human) is split into two humans, it does not grasp the difference between male and female, between creator and creatures, or between life and death.  After the humans eat the forbidden fruit, they gain knowledge of  “good and bad”—in other words, they understand dualism.

From that point on, Jewish writings, liturgy, and teachings wrestle with the notion of unity (represented by a single god), and the notion of separations and distinctions.

The ancient Canaanite religion claimed that in the beginning there were two, the father god El and the mother god Asherah.  They had intercourse, and created all the other gods.  So the universe was dualistic from the start.  But for the Israelites, in the beginning there was just one God, who created the universe without any sexual partner.  God made all the separations and distinctions in his/her/its creation.

(The Torah uses the masculine pronoun to refer to this asexual God; but Hebrew is a gendered language, in which even inanimate objects and abstract concepts are assigned arbitrary genders.   Nevertheless, even in the oldest parts of the Torah, God is sometimes called El Shaddai, a name combining a masculine idea of God with a feminine idea of nurturing breasts.  From the beginning, God is one, encompassing everything.)

From Exodus through Deuteronomy, Moses keeps insisting that his people must worship only their own God, and shun the multiple gods of the Canaanites.  You shall have no other gods!  No graven images, no idols!

And no sacred trees.

This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim (Judges), includes the second mention of the goddess Asherah, who is viewed as a  serious threat later in the Jewish canon.  Asherah was one name for the mother of all gods and the queen of the heavens, and was associated with trees.

You shall not plant for yourself an asherah of any tree next to an altar of God, your god, that you make for yourself.  And you shall not erect for yourself a standing-stone that God, your god, despises.  (Deuteronomy/Devarim 16:21-22)

asherah = the chief goddess, partner of the chief god El and mother of all other gods; a carved wooden image of this goddess; a tree or grove on a hilltop designated as sacred to Asherah; a wooden pole standing for Asherah

Moses repeatedly tells his people that as they conquer the land of Canaan, they must destroy all hilltop shrines and their sacred images.  Yet in the books of Judges, Kings, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Chronicles, Asherah worship seems to be common among the Israelites.  The standard shrine included an altar, a standing-stone, and an asherah, and was used to worship both Baal and Asherah, and other gods as well if the place was large enough for additional pillars or idols.  The histories of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah are full of kings who erected asherahs and standing-stones, and kings who destroyed them and returned to the exclusive worship of the God of Moses.

Goddess-worship was deeply rooted in Canaan, and lasted for at least two thousand years.  Even after the fall of the second temple, wooden images of Asherah apparently remained plentiful for centuries, and several Talmud tractates discuss when Jewish law does and does not permit the use of wood from a carved asherah or a branch from an asherah tree.  (How can you tell whether a living tree is sacred to Asherah?  The Talmud answers that the tree is an asherah if the priests of the goddess sit under the tree, but refuse to eat its fruit.)

Why was it so important to worship only the god of Israel, and not honor the goddess Asherah?  Historically, it was probably necessary for the Israelites to distinguish themselves from other cultures just to survive as a people.  Religiously, I think the problem is that if you begin with duality, with a universe of separations and distinctions, with a god and a goddess and maybe a few dozen more gods, then it’s hard to grasp the underlying unity of everything.  Beginning with a single god that is not just the god of the Israelites, but the creator behind all of creation, makes it easier to transcend dualism and get an inkling of unity.

That’s why the instruction passed on by Moses is “You shall not plant for yourself an asherah of any tree next to an altar of God, your god, that you make for yourself”.  If you did, you would tend to think of the tree-goddess and the altar-god as equal and opposite forces, as two instead of one.

Furthermore, the purpose of the altar was to offer an animal to God as a substitute for its owner.  Burning the animal was supposed to bring its owner closer to God.  Today, an altar “that you make for yourself” might be a prayer practice, or any other practice designed to bring you closer to God.  Planting the symbol of a second god right next to your “altar” would make you distracted and divided.

Later in this week’s portion, the Torah says:

You shall be wholehearted with God, your God.  (Deuteronomy 18:13)

For me, and for most people, I suspect, it’s hard enough even without distractions to keep remembering that all human beings are interconnected parts of the whole; that everything in our world is interconnected;l and that the whole means a lot more than the sum of the parts.  It’s hard enough to keep returning to any sort of God-consciousness.  It’s hard enough to transcend the world of separations and distinctions and draw closer to the oneness of God … with a whole heart.

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2 Comments »

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  1. Lovely commentary – thank you, Melissa!

  2. 1 can imagine I read it twice. When I am not as versatile on this subject, I agree together with your closings because they make sense. Thanks and goodluck to you.


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