Thursday, May 27, 2010

Creatio Ex Nihilo in the Zohar

I'm currently reading Isaiah Tishby's The Wisdom of the Zohar (Mishnat ha-Zohar), an excellent anthology of material on different subjects from the Zohar, that key book of the Kabbalah, the predominant form of Jewish mysticism.
For beginners I would probably even recommend this over Daniel Matt's translation. This has the advantage of being organized thematically. Both of course are superb.
The following is a passage dealing with creatio ex nihilo, or creation from nothing. This conception is not quite as straightforward as standard Christian teaching has it. According to this passage there are two forms of creation, beriyah (creation), which is creation from nothing, and asiyah (making), or creation from something substantive. The body comes from nothing, the form from something substantive, i.e. light from above.

Rabbi Tanhum began by quoting: "Thus says God, the Lord who created the heavens, and stretched them forth..." (Isaiah 42:5). When the Holy One, blessed be He, created His worlds, He created them from nothing, and brought them into actuality, and made substance out of them; and you find the word bara (He created) used always of something that He created from nothing, and brought into actuality.
Rav Hisda said: Were the heavens really created from nothing? Were they not created from the light above?*
Rabbi Tanhum said: It is so. The body of the heavens** was created from nothing, but their form from something substantive.*** And so it was with man.**** So you find "creation" used of the heavens, and subsequently "making": "To Him that made the heavens" (Psalm 136:5) - from something substantive, from the light above.
Rabbi Tanhum also said: "Making" is the provision of something with the size, stature, and quantity that it has, as it is said, "And David made a name for himself" (2 Samuel 8:13).

* From the light of the angels.
** The basic matter of the heavens.
*** From the supernal light.
**** Man's body is made from hylic matter, which is brought from potentiality into actuality, but his soul is derived from the light of the Throne of Glory.
-Zohar Hadash, Bereshit 17b, Midrash ha-Ne'elam.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On the Symbolic Lessons of Nature

Kings are anointed only near a spring, that their kingship may run long and smooth, as it is said (1 Kings 1:33): 'And the king said unto them, Take with you the servants of your lord... and bring him down to Gihon.'
- The Babylonian Talmud, Horayot 12a.

Whether or not kings were actually anointed only near a spring (which appears doubtful), this midrash shows how everything could be linked to a lesson, to a blessing.

A Curious Custom of Kurdish Jewry

I saw a very curious custom in practice among the Jews of Kurdistan. On Rosh ha-Shanah they all go to a river that flows at the foot of a hill, and say the prayer of the Casting [Tashlich].
Afterward they all jump into the water and swim around like the fish of the sea, instead of only shaking the hems of their clothing on the bank of the river, as our brothers the children of Israel do in Europe. And when I inquired of them the reason for this curious custom, they answered that by this act they were purified of all their sins, for the waters of the river wash away all the sins they have commited during all the past year.
-Israel ben Joseph Benjamin, Masae Yisrael, Lyck, 1859.

Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself

LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR AS THYSELF (Lev. 19:18). R. Akiva says, "This is the great principle of the Torah." Ben Azzai says, "THIS IS THE BOOK OF THE GENERATIONS OF ADAM (Gen. 5:1), an even greater principle!"
-Sifra Weiss 88b.

R. Akiva hardly needs any introduction. Calling him one of the most significant figures of early Judaism is no exaggeration. More on him in later posts.
Simeon ben Azzai (or simply Ben Azzai) was a younger contemporary of Akiva's, and at one point betrothed to his daughter. Though he died young before he could be formally ordained as a rabbi, ben Azzai enjoyed long-lasting fame as a preacher and expounder of scripture.
In the midrash quoted above, r. Akiva defines the principle behind all of the Torah, or law, as loving one's neighbour. The laws contained in the Torah are meant to encourage love one for another. That is their raison de etre.
At first glance, Ben Azzai's scripture seems to have little relevance.
Why, indeed, how, is a book listing Adam's descendants a greater principle than loving one's neighbour as one's self?
for Ben Azzai, this verse refers to the Torah being about all of Adam's descendants. If one bears that in mind, the question won't arise, who is my neighbour? Ben Azzai does not contradict r. Akiva, but makes sure that there is no room for narrowly interpreting 'thy neighbour' as meaning only the house of Israel.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Moses vs. Moses, or Two Medieval Jews on Idolatry

Towering over the history of Jewish thought in the medieval age are the two Moseses- the son of Maimon (Rambam), and the son of Nahman (Ramban). In the West they are known as Maimonides and Nahmanides, respectively.
I have introduced Maimonides in a previous post. Nahmanides was born in Girona, then part of Christian Spain. He was a mere child when Maimonides passed away, but in his adult years was embroiled in the controversies surrounding the supporters and detractors of Maimonides. He was heavily influenced by Maimonides' thought, but rejected his extreme rationalism and allegorisation of miracles. Here I'll let Josef Stern present one of the differences between their views.

We know what Maimonides thinks is wrong with idolatry. Even if the idolator does not believe that the idols themselves, the artificial icons, have power, he believes that they are images of gods or celestial beings who are worthy of worship because they have power over humans. In fact, however, Maimonides argues, these purported beings are powerless or unreal. Therefore, their worship is based on a false and empty presupposition. What is fundamentally wrong with idolatry, then, is that it is founded on a cognitive error of the highest magnitude (Guide of the Perplexed, I:36:82-83).

For Nahmanides, in contrast, what is wrong with idolatry is not that it is based on a false presupposition about its objects of worship.
Just the opposite: idolatry is forbidden (to Israel) precisely because its objects are real entities and powers.
In his Commentary on Exod. 20, 3, Nahmanides describes an elaborate metaphysical hierarchy, consisting of three classes of celestial beings each of which has dominion over certain peoples and places on earth, ranked in an order of power that also corresponds to the chronological order in which their representative kinds of idolatry historically emerged. The first, highest, and earliest objects of idolatry were the immaterial separate intellects, or angels. Some of these were originally believed to have power over specific nations and were therefore worshipped even when their respective nation recognized that there is a deity superior to them. Israel, however, was absolutely forbidden to worship any of these angels because it is the specially treasured people (segulah) of God who alone has power over them. Were the people of Israel to worship these “other gods” [‘elohim ‘aherim], it would be tantamount to a rejection of the one God for the others.

The second class of objects of idolatry were the visible heavenly bodies:
the sun, moon, stars, and constellations who were also known to have power over specific nations. Unlike the idolatry associated with the first class, this second kind was also theurgic: by worshipping their respective star or constellation, its worshippers believed that they could strengthen it and help it "victor" over its rivals, thereby improving their own fortune. These idolators were also the first to make physical shapes and idols whose timing was astrally significant. Through this elementary form of astrology, this brand of theurgic idolatry came to be associated with magic and to include the worship of certain humans whose power seemed closely linked to constellations.

The third species of idolatrous objects were the demons [sheidim], a class of spirits [ruhot] who, Nahmanides claims, are so-called because they dwell in destroyed or desolate [shadudim] places (C Lev. 17, 7).
These devils are material but invisible, compounded of fire and air, an ontologically intermediate kind of being with some angelic and some human properties. Thus they eat and drink, especially blood; decompose and die; fly and inhabit the sky; and know the near future (news of which they overhear from higher celestial beings). Like the higher powers, they are also assigned to specific peoples but with dominion only over ruined, wild places where they are empowered only to harm enemies and those who fall victim to them. Nahmanides treats these devils with some contempt, as nouveau deities who lack the power to benefit their worshippers, who were not worshipped by the ancients, and who were "discovered only by late Egyptian magicians. Yet he thinks that they are no less real than the others. Indeed the most important point about all three classes of objects of idolatrous worship is that they are all real beings with real power- which is precisely why they are forbidden to Israel who is commanded to worship only the one God.
--Josef Stern, Problems and Parables of Law: Maimonides and Nahmanides on Reasons for the Commandments (Ta'amei Ha-Mitzvot) (Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 1998), 144-145.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

On Jews and Oath-taking

When I served a mission in Russia, I lived for a few months in the city of Novorossiysk, along the shores of the Black Sea. Though the city itself was founded in 1840, the human history of the region stretches back far into antiquity.
Not far from Novorossiysk is the resort town of Anapa, built on the ruins of Gorgippia. This Greek city belonged to the kingdom of the Bosphorus which controlled most of the northern side of the Black Sea. Gorgippia, a wealthy city indeed, covered over 40 hecatres. Its wealth came mainly from the grain trade, but it also supplied Greece and Asia Minor with fish, fur and slaves.
Trade opportunities are what appear to have attracted the Jews to the Bosphoran Kingdom where, by Roman times, they had a substantial presence and influence.
Gorgippia's community was prosperous and seems to have had its own synagogue. Several decades ago, a rather intriguing inscription was found, which though brief, provides an unparalleled glimpse into ancient Jewish society.
I reproduce the translation given by Lee I. Levine in his book The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years.

To the Most High God, Almighty, blessed, in the reign of the king Mithridates, the friend of [?] and the friend of the fatherland, in the year 338 [= 41 C.E.], in the month Deios, Pothos, the son of Strabo, dedicated to the prayer-house, in accordance with the vow, his house-bred slave-woman, whose name is Chrysa, on condition that she should be unharmed and untroubled by any of his heirs under Zeus, Ge, Helios.

This inscription deals with manumission, or the freeing of a slave. It is a written testimony that Chrysa the slave-woman is now free and that Pothos' heirs have no claim on her.
The names of the two Jews mentioned in the text- Pothos and Strabo- indicate how Jews tended to adopt the names used by their neighbours, much like in 20th century North America, when a whole generation was named Irving and Ira.
While at first glance the typical Jewish formula of a threefold invocation of God's name might appear odd, nay, even shocking when combined with the blatantly pagan formula of an oath by Zeus, the earth and the sun, let us look at some other Jewish documents.

Maimonides, a staunch opponent of paganism and idoltary if there ever was one, in his Sefer Hamitzvot (the book of commandments) rules that swearing by astral bodies is acceptable if one has the Creator in mind.

In 1961, Yigael Yadin headed an archaeological expedition to the caves above the Dead Sea. The caves were the last refuge for some of Simeon bar Kosiva's (Bar-Kochba) rebels as they fled the Roman onslaught on Ein-Gedi. Among the astonishing finds in what became known as the "Cave of Letters" was an archive of documents belonging to Babatha, a wealthy widow and landowner in Ein-Gedi and Petra.
In the subscription to one document, we read, "I, Babtha, daughter of Simon, swear by the genius of our lord Caesar that I have in good faith registered as has been written above." Italics mine.

In page 215 of his Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, Saul Lieberman provides a translation of a responsum by a 9th century Babylonian, the Rab Hai ben Nahshon Gaon.
Heaven forbid that one should do so (i.e. to circumvent the law) in vow or oaths, for that is a serious matter. There came to us a pious, learned old man and taught in the school: It is written (Deut. 4:19), 'And lest thou lift up thine eyes unto heaven and behold the sun' - that means to make a vow by it - 'and the moon' - that means to swear by it. If you transgress or circumvent either of them, then, 'thou hast gone astray' (ibid.) and are required to do the most severe penance. For the Lord will wreak vengeance upon you, and you will on this account be considered on a par with those who worship the sun and the moon. That is why it says further on (ibid. 26): 'I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day that ye shall utterly perish.'

Lieberman logically surmises that ignorant or crooked Jews abused a loophole in these kinds of oaths by sun and moon, which their gentile neighbours considered binding, but they themselves did not.
In fact, the closing formula in the Gorgippia inscription was standard legal fare in the Bosphoran Kingdom, and as such, seems to have lost most of its pagan connotations.

A final source from the last decade of the first century AD, though not a Jewish one, which Lieberman provided.
Martial's Epigrams, book XI.

As for the fact that you are exceedingly envious and everywhere carping at my writings, I pardon you, circumcised poet; you have your reasons. Nor am I at all concerned that, while carping at my verses, you steal them; for this too, circumcised poet, you have your reasons. This however, circumcised poet, annoys me, that, though you were born in the heart of Jerusalem, you attempt to seduce the object of my affections You deny that such is the case, and swear by the temples of Jupiter. I do not believe you; swear, circumcised poet, by Anchialus.

Martial seems aware of a Jewish prediliction for not taking gentile oaths seriously, and demands a stronger one, one that Jews would find binding.

For those interested in further reading on the subject, I highly recommend Saul Liberman and Lee I. Levine's books, mentioned above.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Maimonides on the Trinity

It is not rare that a person aims to expound the intent of some conclusions clearly and explicitly, makes an effort to reject doubts and eliminate far-fetched interpretations, and yet the unbalanced will draw the reverse judgment of the conclusion he sought to clarify. Some such thing occured even to one of God's declarations. When the chief of the prophets wished by order of God to teach us that He is One, without associates, and to remove from our hearts those wrong doctrines that the Dualists propound, he proclaimed this fundamental: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone [Deut. 6:4]. But the Christians utilized this verse to prove that God is one of three, teaching that Lord, our God, the Lord makes three names, all followed by one, which indicates that they are three and that the three are one. Far be God from what they say in their ignorance. If this is what happened to God's proclamation, it is much more likely and to be expected to happen to statements by humans.
-Moshe ben Maimon, the Rambam or Maimonides, in his The Essay on Resurrection, trans. Abraham Halkin in The Epistles of Maimonides: crisis and leadership.

It is no exaggeration to state that the Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), or Maimonides as he is commonly reffered to in English, is one of the major figures in Jewish history, culture and thought. One of the foremost physicians and philosophers of his day, his fame spread worldwide, and he was held in great esteem even by Christians and Muslims. When facing severe tribulations, Jewish communities as distant as Morocco and Yemen sought his help and advice. As he was court physician to the Ayyubids in Cairo, with his strong political connections the Rambam could also play a vital role in his community's life, and did.
The Rambam wrote many commentaries on the Torah and the Mishnah, that codification of the Halacha, or Jewish oral law, and explained the reasons (or ta'amei hamitzvot) for the 613 commandments of the Torah on rational, philosophical grounds. His thirteen articles of faith were adopted by all Jewish communities, indeed, the 12th of them- professing complete faith in the coming of the Messiah, even were he to tarry- has become a symbol of the unbreakable Jewish spirit, being on the lips of many Treblinka inmates marching to the gas chambers.
The Rambam's lifelong work, however was that of an educator. He seeks to draw the people away from ignorance and idolatry (the two, for him, are inseparably linked) and towards the true intent of the law- knowing God.
This for him is love, an exalted, all-consuming intellectual love, as is made clear from the following two selections.

For we live in a material world and the only pleasure we can comprehend must be material. But the delights of the spirit are everlasting and uninterrupted, and there is no resemblance in any possible way between spiritual and bodily enjoyments.
We are not sanctioned either by the Torah or by the divine philosophers to assert that the angels, the stars, and the spheres enjoy no delights. In truth they have exceeding great delight in respect of what they comprehend of the Creator (glorified be He!). This to them is an everlasting felicity without a break. They have no bodily pleasures, neither do they comprehend them, because they have no senses like ours, enabling them to have our sense experiences.
And likewise it will be with us too. When after death the worthy from among us will reach that exalted stage he will experience no bodily pleasures neither will he have any wish for them, any more than would a king of sovereign power wish to divest himself of his imperial sway and return to his boyhood's games with a ball in the street, although at one time he would without doubt have set a higher worth upon a game with a ball than on kingly dominion, such being the case only when his years were few and he was totally ignorant of of the real significance of either pursuit, just as we today rank the delights of the body above those of the soul.
-Introduction to Perek Helek, trans. Joshua Abelson, in "Maimonides on the Jewish Creed," Jewish Quarterly Revie 19(1906-07):38.

This chapter discusses serving God out of love and fear, how to teach Torah to children and ignoramuses, and those who study Torah solely for the sake of it.

1) One should not think to oneself that one will fulfil the commandments of the Torah and occupy oneself in its wisdom in order to receive the blessings mentioned therein, or to merit life in the World To Come, and to avoid the transgressions against which the Torah warns in order to be saved from the curses mentioned therein, or in order not to be cut off from life in the World To Come, for it is not fitting to serve God in this manner. Anyone who does serve in this manner is doing so out of fear. This was not the [spiritual] level of the Prophets and Sages. Only ignoramuses, women and children serve in this manner, for they are educated to do so until their knowledge has increased sufficiently so that they will serve out of love.

2) Anyone who serves out of love and occupies himself with Torah and mitzvot and follows the ways of wisdom should not do so for any earthly reason[s] or out of fear of the curses or to receive the blessings, but should fulfil the truth because it is the truth. Out of this he will receive goodness. This level is a very high one, and not every wise person attains it. This is the level of Abraham the Patriarch, whom God called His `friend', for the reason that he served God solely out of love. This is a level which God commanded, via Moses, us [to attain], as it is written, "And you shall love the Lord your God". Once a person loves God appropriately, he will fulfil the commandments out of love.

3) What is appropriate love? This is an extremely strong and profound love of God, so that one's soul is committed to the love of God and that one will be so preoccupied with it that one will appear to be lovesick, in which one's mind is perpetually occupied at all times with a particular woman. Apart from this, one's love of God has to be absolute and continuous, as we have been commanded: "...with all your heart and with all your soul"2. Solomon said by way of example, "For I am sick with love". The entire Song Of Songs is exemplary of this concept [of the love of God].

4) The first Sages said that to prevent us from [falling into the trap of] learning Torah in order to become rich or to be called a Rabbi or to be rewarded in the World To Come, the Torah says, " love the Lord your God", i.e. all that one does should be done purely out of love. The Sages said further that the verse, "Happy is the man who fears the Lord, who delights greatly in His commandments" refers to the commandments, and not to the reward. In this vein, the greater Sages commanded just their wiser students and told them not to be like a servant who serves his master solely for payment, but to be like a servant whose attitude is that because his master is the master it is fitting to serve him, i.e. to serve purely out of love.

5) Anyone who occupies himself with Torah in order to receive reward or to prevent any troubles is not doing so for the sake of it, whereas anyone who does so out of love for the Master of this world, and not with any ulterior motives, is doing so for the sake of it. The Sages said that one should always occupy oneself with Torah even if not for the sake of it, for out of doing so not for the sake of it one will come to doing so for the sake of it. Therefore, when one is teaching children, women and ignoramuses one should teach them to serve God out of fear and inn order to be rewarded. As their knowledge increases and they become more wise, we reveal this `secret' to them bit by bit and accustom them to this concept in repose until they totally understand it, and will serve out of love.
- Sefer Hamada', Hilchot Teshuva 10:1-5
(This translation is copyright (c) Immanuel M. O'Lvey, 1993. This translation may be distributed in any form (on disk, printed, etc.) provided that it is done so on a non-profit basis and that this copyright and conditions message is left attached. The text used for this translation was the Rambam Le'Am, published by Mossad Ha'Rav Kook, Jerusalem. Words in the text that are in square brackets do not appear in the Rambam's writings. British spelling has been used, and Sephardit pronunciation has been used for words and phrases that have been transliterated. Comments are welcome by email -

In chapter 1 of Maimonides' Empire of Light, Ralph Lerner describes the situation of the various Jewish communities in the Rambam's day. "Theirs is a time of physical and psychic distress, doctrinal and institutional controversy, and general perplexity. Repeatedly, the leaders or disputants in those far-flung communities turn to Maimonides. His writings that they have read and the reputation of works that they haven't seen convince them that he has the power to resolve their misgivings or confusion. They appeal to his learning, or rather to the authority he derives from his learning."
Indeed, there is hardly a more fitting description of the Rambam than the title of his most famous work, the Guide of the Perxplexed.
This philosophical treatise par excellence is directed towards those torn between the conflicting worlds of traditional Judaism as passed down by Moses through the sages on the one hand, and modern philosophy and science on the other. While one may seem incomprehensible as opposed to the logic of the other, the Rambam attempts to bridge the two. He showed that they were not implacable enemies to each other, but went hand-in-hand.
This work, written in Arabic, was translated by others into Hebrew and Latin, both during the Rambam's own lifetime. Its influence was huge, even on the development of Jewish mysticism, which seems at odds with much of the Rambam's own approach.
Rambam's style was terse. "If I could squeeze the entire Law of the Torah into one chapter, I would not write two for it." (from the essay on Resurrection).
This habit landed him in the midst of controversy.
Many had misinterpreted the statements in the Rambam's writings, and the rumours spread that he denied the reality of bodily resurrection. He paid them no heed, never being unduly perturbed by mere babblers, but when the Gaon, head of the Baghdad religious academy, and one the most significant figures of the Jewish diaspora, denounced him in writing for denying the resurrection, this could no longer be ignored. He had to respond, and respond he did through his Essay on the Resurrection.
The tone is perosnal. It is bitter, it is frustrated.
As David Hartman surmised in "Epistles of Maimonides", the "pettiness of the joy of resurrection relative to the joy of the world-to-come, i.e., the joy of intellectual love of God, was a major reason behind Maimonides' anger. Whereas his whole philosophy of Judaism centered around the lovesickness of one who strives after knowledge of God, he was now compelled to write a defense of the belief that God will miraculously restore our bodily existence so that we can enjoy the material pleasures of this world! ...The lover feels degraded when he is asked to discuss his relationship to his beloved in gross utalitarian terms.
The community's disproportionate interest in resurrection relative to more important aspects of his teachings on Judaism must have pained Maimonides deeply, for it was a sign that all that he had attempted to accomplish as a Jewish leader and educator might have failed."
The Rambam opens his essay by showing that if the very words of God, delivered by Moses, the greatest of all prophets, could have been misinterprated by the Christians, then it is no wonder that it happened to his own words by his fellow Jews.
I don't know what exactly the source for this argument using the Shema Israel was, whether maimonides encountered it directly through Christians, or idirectly via Muslim source, but Augustine, the source indicated by Halkin in his notes to this essay, is not making the same argument at all.

The divine generation, therefore, of our Lord, and his human dispensation, having both been thus systematically disposed and commended to faith, there is added to our Confession, with a view to the perfecting of the faith which we have regarding God, [the doctrine of] The Holy Spirit, who is not of a nature inferior to the Father and the Son, but, so to say, consubstantial and co-eternal: for this Trinity is one God, not to the effect that the Father is the same [Person] as the Son and the Holy Spirit, but to the effect that the Father is the Father, and the Son is the Son, and the Holy Spirit is the Holy Spirit; and this Trinity is one God, according as it is written, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one God.” At the same time, if we be interrogated on the subject of each separately, and if the question be put to us, “Is the Father God?” we shall reply, “He is God.” If it be asked whether the Son is God, we shall answer to the same effect. Nor, if this kind of inquiry be addressed to us with respect to the Holy Spirit, ought we to affirm in reply that He is anything else than God; being earnestly on our guard, [however], against an acceptance of this merely in the sense in which it is applied to men, when it is said, “You are gods.” For of all those who have been made and fashioned of the Father, through the Son, by the gift of the Holy Spirit, none are gods according to nature. For it is this same Trinity that is signified when an apostle says, “For of Him, and in Him, and through Him, are all things.” Consequently, although, when we are interrogated on the subject of each [of these Persons] severally, we reply that that particular one regarding whom the question is asked, whether it be the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Spirit, is God, no one, notwithstanding this, should suppose that three Gods are worshipped by us.
-St. Augustine, Of Faith and the Creed, chp. IX.

Be that as it may, the opening paragraph to the Essay on Resurrection is a fascinating look at the reaction of a fierce montheist and gifted philosopher to the doctrine of the Trinity.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Ye are Gods

And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand.
My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand.
I and my Father are one.
Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him.
Jesus answered them, Many good works have I shewed you from my Father; for which of those works do ye stone me?
The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God.
Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?
If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken;
Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?

John 10:28-36.

For years Christ's dramatic defence as recorded in the Gospel of St. John has been interpreteted as refering to human judges. I could provide many examples, but this, from the NASB, should suffice.
Observe here, 1. The power and honour of magistrates; they are the mighty. They are so in authority, for the public good (it is a great power that they are entrusted with), and they ought to be so in wisdom and courage. They are, in the Hebrew dialect, called gods; the same word is used for these subordinate governors that is used for the sovereign ruler of the world. They are elohim.

Christians interpretators have followed medieval Jewish exeggets such as Rashi and Abrhaam ibn Ezra in this.

The judges were called Elohim due to the fact that they enact God's laws on earth.

Ibn Ezra on the Torah, Mishpatim (Exodus 21:6).

I do not intend to deal in depth right now with the meaning of the biblical passage, or with how interpretation developed, that will have to wait for a future post. In the meantime, I highly recommend Daniel O. McLellan's insightful blog posts on Psalm 82.

From a study of ancient Jewish literature, it becomes apparent that Jesus was not refering to human judges, but to a different tradition entirely. An early Amoraic work, the Midrash Numbers Rabba (or Bamidbar Rabbah) 16:24, relates the tradition that the Lord made the Children of Israel immortal, warning death not to touch them, but since they feared and would not accept the gift offered them the Lord made Israel as mere men again.
In John Jesus says "unto whom the word of the Lord came". Word, or davar, quite frequently meant a commandment, which commandment can be seen in this midrash.

They saw the counsel which the Lord decreed for them and straightaways ruined the counsel 40 days, for it is said (Proverbs 1): ye have set at nought all my counsel.
The Holy One, Blessed is He said unto them: I said that ye are not sinning and ye shall live and be as I am, as I liveth and am for Eternity and for Eternity of Eternities, for I decreed (Ps 82) gods are ye and sons of the Most High (Elyon) are ye all, and are as the ministering angels, which die not and yet after this great thing ye request to die, then die as man ye shall, even as the First Man (Adam) whom I commanded one commandment for to do and he should live and be for Eternity, as it is said (Gen 3): for the man was as one of us. And also: and created God the man in his own image, to live and be as he [God] is, but he [Adam] transgressed and nullified my decree, and ate from the tree, and I said unto him: for dust thou art.
So too are ye, as I said: gods are ye, yet have injured yourselves as man, so verily as man shall ye die.
ראו עצה, שיעץ עליהם הקדוש ברוך הוא ומיד קלקלו העצה מ' יום, לכך נאמר (משלי א): ותפרעו כל עצתי.
אמר להם הקב"ה: אני אמרתי, שאין אתם חוטאים ותהיו חיים וקיימים כמותי, כמו שאני חי וקיים לעולם ולעולמי עולמים.
(תהלים פב) אני אמרתי אלהים אתם ובני עליון כולכם, כמלאכי השרת, שאין מתים ובקשתם אחר הגדולה הזאת למות, אכן כאדם תמותון כאדם הראשון שצויתי אותו מצוה אחת, שיעשה אותה ויהיה חי וקיים לעולם, שנאמר (בראשית ג): הן האדם היה כאחד ממנו.
וכן: ויברא אלהים את האדם בצלמו, שיהיה חי וקיים כמותו, והוא חבל מעשיו ויבטל גזירתי, ואכל מן האילן, ואמרתי לו: כי עפר אתה.
אף אתם, אני אמרתי: אלהים אתם חבלתם עצמכם כאדם, אכן כאדם תמותון.

Bamidbar Rabbah, Parashat Hameraglim (16:24).

This tradition appears in the middle of a discussion on the misconduct of the 10 spies sent out by Moses, and how god's children frequently overturn God's counsel.