As we read through the Torah as modern day Jews, we confront verse after verse about the evils of idolatry. This heavy focus on the intrinsic immorality of idol worship evokes the obvious question: what is so bad about this form of worship?
Idolatry is a form of worship that has virtually disappeared from the western world. No one I have ever met has ever expressed an overwhelming desire to worship idols. As we read through Tanakh, and see the Jews constantly resorting back to worshiping idols, we must sit there and wonder: what were they thinking?
It seems that Chazal were fully aware of the reality that no one actually desires idol worship. As a result they rationalize that in Biblical times the realty and desire of idol worship must have been fundamentally different; as they write in Tractate Yoma that the Men of Great Assembly prayed and removed the Evil Inclination for Idol worship. According to the story, God agreed, and changed the reality of man’s innate desire to no longer see value in Idolatry.
Continuing along this idea, elsewhere the Talmud tells over a story of Rav Ashi (4th century C.E.) and Menashe (a king notorious for worshiping idols, who lived in about 600 B.C.E) talking about idol worship. After Menashe answers a difficult halachic question, he is then asked by Rav Ashi why he was so steeped into idolatry? Menashe replies that the desire to worship idols in his time was so strong that had Rav Ashi been there, he was have been even worse!
In explaining this Talmudic myth, many of the later commentators explain that idols possessed power which gave them the ability to grant requests and answer people’s prayers. According to this view, it makes sense that people were so steeped in idolatry, as it was basically comparable to a magical genie which would grant any request. Accordingly, the reason why it is so bad is that it allows people to completely ignore God, since his powers are no longer needed.
While the above view may be the most common one, the Rambam, and other Rabbis in the rationalist camp, take a very different approach. In Hilchot Avodah Zara, the Rambam explains that at the dawn of time, people began to worship idols only as a representation of God. It was only after many generations, that people forgot the initial reason that they worshiped physical objects and began to worship the objects themselves:
They said God created stars and spheres with which to control the world. He placed them on high and treated them with honor, making them servants who minister before Him. Accordingly, it is fitting to praise and glorify them and to treat them with honor…..After many years passed, there arose people – false prophets – who told [their nations] that God had commanded them to say: Serve this star – or all the stars – sacrifice to it, offer libations to it, build a temple for it and make an image of it so that all people – including the women, the children, and the common people – could bow to it. (Hilchot Avodah Zara)
According to this view, it seems that the Jews were continuously resorting back to Idol worship because of the peer pressure of the other nations. Many times throughout the Torah, and the rest of Tanach. the Jews are commanded to wipe out the surrounding nations, the rational being that the Jews do not begin to copy the other nations by worshiping idols. Again the reason why this is so bad is that the Jews were “cheating on God” just to help themselves socially, politically, or economically.
Upon analysis of both of these opinions, I am hesitant to accept either of them as “correct”. I definitely do not think that Idols are, or used to be, some sort of magical object containing power to grant anyone anything. Furthermore, when the Rambam gives his opinion, it seems as if he is under the assumption that initially human civilization was completely monotheistic and only subsequently began to worship idols and multiple gods. However, the picture that the vast majority of religious historians (not all) create is that the idea of monotheism is only a few thousand years old.
In his book, Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Heschel develops a very interesting idea about the nature of Idolatry. He notes that man has always used his artistic power to create beautiful pictures, sculptures, and monuments. When man looks out in the universe, searching for a higher power, he is unable to find any physical being or beings. Man therefore becomes tempted to use his artistic talent to create symbols of the God, Gods, or higher power in which he believes in. Therefore, since the very beginning of human civilization, man has created images and sculptures to represent higher powers. These people never actually thought that the physical idol had any power, and they also obviously knew that they had made the idols with their own hands, but since they were symbolic of something greater they were worthy of worship.
What then is the problem of Idol worship?
The trouble with using art and other symbols to represent God is that it is impossible to capture something that is infinite within something finite. Or as Heschel puts it – God is not made out of the same material as the earth, and therefore all attempts to represent him physically are futile. If we limit God to a symbol then it misrepresents everything that God is supposed to be. The ultimate fear of Idolatry is that if we continue to limit God then we will lose sight of the true greatness of him. While other cultures or religions create monuments, shrines, or other places of worship to symbolize God, we understand that this attempt is wrong on many accounts. As Shlomo Hamelch puts it:
We are, however, still left with one question: namely, how can we connect to something that is infinite and non physical, without creating any sort of medium or symbols? I think that it is in response to this question that the Torah writes: “humans were created in the image of God”. Over and over again, the Torah talks about how humans are representative of God himself. This comparison is used in many different scenarios including the dignity of the human body and even how man should act.
In searching for God, we do not need symbols or man made representations. All we need to do to connect to God is to look at the beauty inside fellow human beings. The depth and uniqueness of every person is enough for us to see the genius of God’s inner workings of the universe. In my view of the world, connecting to our fellow human beings is the best way to see the ingenuity in the design of creation. The emotions that mankind has the potential to feel towards each other: love, kindness, and compassion – all nonphysical ideas, are a much better representation of God than any physical symbol can ever be. It seems to be for this reason that the Mitzvot are broken up into two different categories of between man and man and between man and God. In order to even begin to understand and serve God, we must start by connecting to and understanding our fellow human being. It is only through this type of understanding that we can truly connect to God.
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