On One Leg: The Stability of Monotheism

Philosophy and Theology 26 (1):187-206 (2014)
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Abstract

A potential proselyte asks the great rabbi Hillel to explain the Torah to him while he stands ‘on one leg.’ Hillel responds with, essentially, the Golden Rule. This Talmudic anecdote is invariably read as critical of anyone who wants a Torah for Dummies. I offer a different interpretation. The Torah-based position, theologically speaking, rests on one principle and one principle alone, God. ‘How can an account of the creation as a whole rest on one principle only? Won’t such a structure stand unsteadily, like a person on one leg?’ Hillel’s response to the request for a distillation of the Torah does home in on the Bible’s novelty. It homes in on what God does and what pagan deities cannot do. But God’s contribution, while needed to account for the human sector of the creation, cannot manage the extra-human sector. For that, a principle that belongs to paganism is required. The whole can stand steadily, as can the proselyte, only on two legs. So his conversation must be with reservations. He might not be able to intone the main creedal profession of the Torah-based religion, the Shema. ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord [alone] is our God, the Lord is one’ (Deuteronomy 6:4). The Torah’s defenders have more of a case to make.

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Mark Glouberman
Kwantlen Polytechnic University

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