What can our tradition mean when it tells us in psalm 82: “You are all Elohim, all the children of the Most High”? And why is the next verse: “Nevertheless, you shall die like mortal beings.” Is it suggesting we are gods?
In that same psalm, Elohim is used as a word both for God and for
judges – connecting human judges to a divine justice.
And of course “Elohim” is also used to describe false “gods” in the bible. So what is the Bible telling us here?
The psalm is often read as if those responsible for dispensing justice are on a par with God, representing the divine being; and so any corruption or injustice by them is a particularly heinous crime.
God is challenging them to hold onto their values and principles against the pressures that might cause them to bend justice in favour of powerful interests.
The Midrash has a more interesting view. When Israel accepted the Torah at Sinai, the angel of death lost power over them and they became god-like. (Shemot Rabbah 32:7).
But no sooner had they accepted Torah than they made the golden calf – and this sin lost them eternal life. They became mortal once more.
Just as in the story of the garden of Eden, the Bible is alluding to us having once been immortal and godlike beings who lost this status through an act of defying – or not trusting – God.
While we are all the children of “the Most High”, with the ability to emulate and promote God’s justice in the world, we are reminded that our own ambition or fearfulness stops us from fulfilling that potential.
The psalm reminds us it is through championing justice that we come most closely to God, and reminds us too how we avoid understanding – and acting – on this knowledge.
- Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in south London for 30 years