Rabbinic Judaism and the Plurality of God

In this short post I will be citing two sources to affirm that words such as Elohim (“God”) and echad (“one”) were even understood by Jewish authorities as pointing to a plurality within the Godhead, that the one God exists as a plurality of divine powers and manifestations. 

Elohim and God’s Uni-plurality

I begin by looking at what the rabbis had to say concerning the term Elohim. The following somewhat lengthy quote is taken from the late Rev. Sam Stern who wrote that:

The Jerusalem Edition of the Zohar, in its comment on Genesis 1:1, explains why the authors believe that God is triune. They point out especially that the name of God, Elohim, is made up of the two Hebrew words El and HaymEl means God and Haym means they; therefore, they conclude that God is a plural being. The Zohar passage is as follows:

JehovahElohaynuJehovah. There are three steps to accept the mystery from above. In the beginning God created. In the beginning is the first mystery from where all else spreads…The name takes three forms and from there the name is interpreted in several ways… Rabbi Bechai explained: Elohim is El Haym. These are gods. Remember your creators (Ecclesiastes 12:1). The wise will understand.

The above passage translates the words “Remember now thy Creator” as a plural—”remember your creators.” This translation is based on the word used in the Bible, boraicha, “your creators.” Boraicha contains the letter yod, as well as the aah sound (kometz), at the end of the word, which makes it plural. The singular form is boraich, which does not contain the yod or the kometz.

Further in the passage, the Zohar shows Eliezer and his father entering into a dialogue regarding the threefold nature of God. They conclude that He is revealed with three heads that are united in one. The passage also cites Daniel 7:13 as proof. Daniel 7:13 mentions one like the Son of man coming from heaven with clouds as one person of the godhead, and the Ancient of Days as another person of the godhead. Both of these are one. Here the Zohar makes reference to “three” several times:

Eliezer’s father said to him, Come and see the mystery of the word Jehovah. There are three steps, each existing by itself; yet they are one and so united that one cannot be separated from another… The ancient Holy One is revealed with three heads, which are united in one. That head is three times exalted.

The three lights which come out from Him are included in the three, yet the ancient one is described as being two [Daniel 7:13]. The ancient one includes these two. He is the crown of all that is exalted, the chief of the chief [head of all heads]. He is so high that he cannot be known to perfection. The other lights are two complete one, yet He is described as complete one. He is one. They are united and glorified in one.

Furthermore, in relation to Genesis 1:1, the Amsterdam Edition of the Zohar deals with some of the points mentioned above in the Jerusalem Edition. Further, It presents the attributes of God as both righteous and benevolent:

Elohim is composed of two words, El and Haym. These are God. That Elohimis plural, though there is only one God, is truth. Eliezer sat before his father. We have learned that to him is justice. How is it that wherever we meet Adonai Elohim [yod, hay, vav, hay, the letters of Jehovah’s name], it means mercy?

He answered, It is written, know therefore this day and consider in thine heart that Jehovah is Elohim. Sometimes justice can coexist with mercy and mercy with justice. Come and see the mystery of the word Jehovah. There are three steps, each existing by itself, nevertheless, they are one and so united that one cannot be separated from the other.

Continuing this passage the Zohar presents a new interpretation, which considers the meaning of the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet:

The 22 letters comprehend three steps—the letter chaph signifies the crown, the letter bet signifies binah, understanding…

He is the highest and hidden light, which cannot be known. The ancient Holy One is revealed in three heads that are united in one, and that head is three times exalted. The ancient Holy One is described as being three [Daniel 7:13]…

Rabbi Eliezer Hakkalir, commenting in the Sefer Yetsira, teaches with even greater clarity about three distinct beings in the godhead:

When God created the world He created it through the three sephiroth[countings]—sephersapher and sipper—by which three beings are meant. The rabbi, my lord and my teacher of blessed memory, explained that sepher, sapher and sipper are synonymous with JahJehovah and Elohim, meaning to say that the world was created by these three names.

This great corroboration in the Jewish mystical books of the teaching that God is “three in one” shows that the ancient sages believed in the triune unity of the godhead who created the world. Moreover, the Creator is conceived of as the Name. When a Jewish person wants to say God, he sometimes says Ha Shem, which means The Name. In the same way, the Zohar also uses the names sephersapher and sipper to denote the godhead. (Stern, Can Three Be One?: http://www.thechristianrabbi.org/threeasone.htm; underline emphasis ours)

How interesting to discover Jewish sources claiming the Elohim is composed of two words, El (“God”) and haym (chem – “they”), which when translated literally means “they are God”. Even more interesting is the Jewish references to God existing as three lights, three heads and three beings who are perfectly and inseparably united as one!

This now brings us to my next point.

Echad versus Yachid

The Hebrew Bible primarily uses two main words for the term “one,” namely echad and yachidEchad functions much like the English word does in that it can either refer to a singular individual or a compound/composite unity, to a group of entities united as one, i.e., “one nation,” “one government,” “one family,” “one corporation,” “one group” etc. Yachid, on the other hand, is used to stress the uniqueness and/or incomparability of an object. It can also mean sole or only, referring to someone or something which is solitary or all by itself.

With that said, the word which God told Moses to employ to speak of God’s unity is echad, not yachid:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord (Shema Yisrael, Yhwh eloheinu YHWH Echad):” Deuteronomy 6:4

Christians have often maintained that echad is a more appropriate term to use to describe the unity of God since it allows for the possibility of God existing as a plurality of divine Persons who are perfectly and inseparably united.

What makes this interesting is that the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, also believed that echad actually implies a deeper unity than yachid does, since the former term encompasses or includes plurality as an essential ingredient for unity:

The relationship between Moses and Moshiach is reflected in the numerical value of their names. (In the Holy Tongue each letter is also a number, so that a word is also a string of numbers; the sum of these numbers is the word’s numerical value, or gematria. The gematria of a word represents a deeper stratum of significance than its linguistic meaning, so the fact that two different words have the same numerical value indicates that they are variant expressions of the same truth.) The numerical value of “Mosheh” (Moses) is 345, and that of “Moshiach,” 358. So the difference between Moses and Moshiach is represented by the number 13; otherwise stated, Moses + 13 = Moshiach.

Thirteen is the numerical value of echada word that is the keystone of the Jewish faith. Every morning and evening of his life, the Jew recites the verse Shema Yisrael, Ado-nai Elo-hei-nu, Ado-nai echad—“Hear O Israel, the L‑rd is our G‑d, the L‑rd is echad.” The Jewish people are called “an echad nation on earth” because they reveal the echad of G‑d in the world. And the era of Moshiach is described as “the day that G‑d will be echad, and His name echad.”

Echad means “one.” The Shema proclaims the oneness and unity of G‑d, which the people of Israel are charged to reveal in the world, and which will be fully manifest in the era of Moshiach. But is echad the ideal word to express the divine unity? Like its English equivalent, the word does not preclude the existence of other objects (as in the sequence “one, two, three . . .”), nor does it preclude its object being composed of parts (we speak of “one nation,” “one forest,” “one person” and “one tree,” despite the fact that each of these consists of many units or components). It would seem that the term yachid, which means “singular” and “only one,” more clearly expresses the “perfect simplicity” of G‑d (which Maimonides states to be the most fundamental principle of the Jewish faith) and the axiom that “there is none else besides Him” (Deuteronomy 4:35).

Chassidic teaching explains that, on the contrary, echad represents a deeper unity than yachid. Yachid is a oneness that cannot tolerate plurality—if another being or element is introduced into the equation, the yachid is no longer yachidEchad, on the other hand, represents the fusion of diverse elements into a harmonious whole. The oneness of echad is not undermined by plurality; indeed, it employs plurality as the ingredients of unity. (Chabad.orgThe Numerology of Redemption Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbehttp://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/2741/jewish/The-Numerology-of-Redemption.htm; bold emphasis ours)

Hence, the foregoing shows that we even have Jewish support for the Christian claim that words such as Elohim and echad point to the fact of God existing as a plurality of divine Persons, in contrast to the position taken by many liberal and conservative biblical scholars that such terms do not provide support for the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

Related Articles

Elohim and the Trinity http://answeringislam.net/authors/shamoun/elohim_trinity.html

Biblical Monotheism Examined http://answeringislam.net/authors/shamoun/biblical_monotheism.html

The Gods of Israel have come down to save! http://answeringislam.net/authors/shamoun/israels_gods.html

The Binitarian Nature of the Shema [Part 1] http://answeringislam.net/authors/shamoun/binity_shema1.html

Uniplurality in the Hebrew Scriptures http://www.studytoanswer.net/judaism/uniplurality.html

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