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Idolatry in Judaism

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Judaism strongly prohibits any form of idolatry. Judaism holds that idolatry is not limited to the worship of an idol itself, but also worship involving any artistic representations of God. In addition it is forbidden to derive benefit (hana'ah) from anything dedicated to idolatry.

In the Hebrew Bible

See the main article: idolatry

The Ten Commandments prohibit belief in, or worship of, any deities, gods, or spirits, other than the God of the Bible, the God of the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).

In classical rabbinic literature

The Talmud has a treatise on idolatry, Avodah Zarah, and discusses the subject elsewhere in many passages.

A passage in the midrash literature states that "If one wished to write all the names of idols, all the parchment scrolls in the world would be insufficient" (Sifre on Deuteronomy 43).

When Jewish monotheism was threatened by conquering Syrians and Romans, the Jews revolted, refusing to permit Roman troops to enter their territory with flags. Jews even detected idols in the portraits of the Caesars stamped on coins, and this was understandable, in view of the divine worship paid the emperors. Despite this fear of idols and images, the danger of inroads among the Jews by idolatrous customs and usages, which permeated the whole ancient world around them, was so great that the scholars could not invent too many "fences" against idolatry. They accordingly aimed at making intimate association with gentiles very difficult.

The ancient world regarded the Jews as atheists because of their refusal to worship visible gods. "Whosoever denies idols is called a Jew" (Talmud Megilah 13). To statements such as this the Jew responded: "Whosoever recognizes idols has denied the entire Torah; and whosoever denies idols has recognized the entire Torah" (Midrash Sifre, Deut. 54 and parallel passages). "As soon as one departs from the words of the Torah, it is as though he attached himself to the worship of idols" (Midrash Sifre, Numbers 43).

Although the Jews were forbidden in general to mock at anything holy, it was a merit to deride idols (Talmud Meg. 25b). It was forbidden to look upon images (Tosefta to Talmud Shabbat (Talmud) 17.1), and even thinking of idolatrous worship was prohibited (Talmud Berakhot 12b); if one saw a place where an idol had once stood, he was commanded to utter a special prayer (Talmud Ber. 61a). Sacrifice to an idol or anything which in any way might be associated with idolatry was forbidden. It was even insufficient to reduce an idol to powder and scatter it to the winds, since it would fall to earth and become a fertilizer; but the image must be sunk in the Dead Sea, whence it could never emerge (Talmud Avodah Zarah 3.3); nor might the wood of the "asherah" be used for purposes of healing (Talmud Pesachim 25a). Among the three cardinal sins for which the penalty was death, idolatry stood first (Talmud Pes. 25a and parallels).

Worship of humans

Worship of humans is considered idolatry in Judaism. See Sanhedrin 93a: "Daniel said: Let me go away from here, so that he shall not perform on me [the ruling] 'You shall burn in fire the images of their idols' (Deuteronomy 7:25)". Rashi explains that Nebuchadnezzar worshiped Daniel, as in Daniel 2:46.

According to the Midrash, a few people made themselves deities: Pharaoh King of Egypt (see Ezekiel 29:3: "The Nile is mine and I have made myself", understood by the Midrash as a claim that he created himself); Hiram King of Tyre (see Ezekiel 28:2); Haman the Aggagite (see Esther 3:2).

Maimonides's view of idolatry

In his The Guide to the Perplexed, I:36, Maimonides holds that in the original form of idolatry, no one actually believed that their idols were gods; he states that idol-worshippers understood that their idols were only representations of a god, or God. Idols are "worshipped in respect of its being an image of a thing that is an intermediary between ourselves and God."

Maimonides, however, goes further in defining idolatry than other Jewish thinkers before or since; he states that it is idolatry to hold that God is subject to any affections at all. Not only believing that God has a body, but merely believing "that one of the states of the body belong to Him, you provoke His jealousy and anger, kindle the fire of his wrath, and are a hater, an enemy and an adversary of God, much more so than an idolator."

Maimonides spends the first one-third of the Guide attempting to show that a literalist understanding of the metaphores, idoms, and homonyms in the Hebrew Bible are idolatrous in this regard. For Maimonides, and other philosophers in the neo-Aristotelian mold, it is idolatry to believe that God has positive attributes. Maimonides' negation of positive attributes to God reaches its epitomes in the Guide I:56, where he states that "the relation between us and God, may He be exalted, is considered as non-existent."

"Know that likeness is a certain relation between two things and that in cases where no relation can be supposed to exist between two things, no likeness between them can be represented to oneself. Similarly in all cases in which there is no likeness between two things, there is no relation between them. An example of this is that one does not say that this heat is like color, or that this voice is like this sweetness. This is a matter that is clear in itself. Accordingly, in view of the fact that the relation between us and Him, may He be exalted, is considered as non-existent - I mean the relation between Him and that which is other than He - it follows necessarily that likeness between Him and us should also be considered nonexistent." (Translation by Shlomo Pines)

This is one of a number of reasons why Maimonides' writings sparked protest from the wider Jewish community for the next two centuries, a phenomenon sometimes known as The Maimonidean Controversy. Both Maimonides' supporters and opponents agreed that by his definition, many religious Jews (as well as non-Jews) were effectively (although unintentionally) idolaters. Maimonides' supporters held that the proper response was to spread Maimonides' teachings, to bring people away from idolatry and towards pure monotheism. Maimonides' opponents understood him the identical fashion, but believed him to be incorrect, and thus held that his philosophical teachings were not to be taught. In many places his works were banned.

Modern Jewish views

Many Jewish thinkers generally agree that the spirit of idolatry has diminished, and that "real" idolatry is not commonly found.

Several have expressed the view that any beliefs or practices which significantly interferes with a Jew's relationship with God may, in some way, be termed "idolatry". Examples might include:

  • A very strong desire to gain money and wealth; greed could be considered a form of idolatry.
  • A very strong desire to gain fame or recognition; egocentrism could be considered a form of idolatry (a view expressed by the Vilna Gaon).

A small number of theologically liberal Jews argue that most modern-day religions which appear idolatrous should not be considered idolatry as defined by Jewish law. They argue that modern day Buddhists, Hindus and others:

  • Do not literally worship "sticks and stones", as the idolaters in the Tanakh were described doing.
  • Their beliefs have more theological depth than ancient pagans, and they are well aware their icons are only symbols of a deeper level of reality.
  • They do not practice child sacrifice, or sex rites, as did some pagans in the ancient near-east.
  • They are of high moral character
  • They are not anti-Semitic.

As such, some Jews argue that not only does God have a relationship with all gentile monotheists, but that God also maintains a relationship with Hindus, Buddhists and polytheists. Some notable figures with these views include Elliot N. Dorff, Michael Strassfeld and David Novak. However, mainstream Judaism is in stark contrast to their views.

There are a few people who practice Judeo-Paganism, which is a mixture of Jewish and polytheistic/pagan practices. Some of those practices involve honoring (or remembering) divinities that were among those rejected by the prophets of the Tanakh (for example, Ba'al and Asherah). These practices are seen as non-Jewish by all the Jewish denominations.

See also

References

  • "Idolatry", article in "The Encyclopedia Judaica", Keter Publishing
  • "The Worship of the Golden Calf: A Literary Analysis of a Fable on Idolatry" Herbert Chanan Brichto in Hebrew Union College Annual, Volume 54, 1983.
  • "Viewing the Sculptural Environment; Shaping the Second Commandment" by Yaron Eliav, pages 411-33 in Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture vol. 3, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2003.
  • "The Religion of Israel: From its Beginnings to the Babylonin Exile" Yehezkel Kaufman, translated by Moshe Greenberg, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960
  • "Judaism and the Varieties of Idolatrous Experience" by Bary S. Kogan in "Proceedings of the Academy for Jewish Philosophy" Ed. David Novak and Norbert M. Samuelson, University Press of America, 1992
  • "Judaism and Idolatry: In Defense of Images" by Elliot N. Dorff in "Proceedings of the Academy for Jewish Philosophy" Ed. David Novak and Norbert M. Samuelson, University Press of America, 1992
  • David Novak "Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification" 1989, New York, Oxford University Press

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