What Is Idolatry?

by Rivon Krygier Copyright 2016

Translated from the French by Martin S. Cohen


What is idolatry? If it refers only to the act of prostrating oneself in front of physical statues, as the concept is generally presented in the Bible and Talmud, then we may ask ourselves what exactly makes this so offensive that it is presented in Jewish sources as the archetype of all perverse behavior. From a modern perspective, the notion of a religious cult revolving around objects in which the essence of some god is imagined to inhere seems more like antique childishness or superstition than a crime serious enough to humiliate God.[1] And if we argue that the evil in idolatry is not mainly its form (i.e., the worship of statues and images), but its outcome (i.e., that it leads to a “degenerate lifestyle”), we must ask how and why the belief and the worship of different gods can be said to necessarily foster a pernicious way of life.

My belief is that the most common conception of idolatry today is one that sees improper belief as an evil in itself, an image heavily influenced by the world of medieval scholasticism. It posits an almost Manichean difference between an Israel devoted piously and wisely to the service of the one God and the fundamentally corrupt nations of the world given over to idolatrous worship. Thus the Jewish conception of God is so purely spiritual that the very idea of corporeal divinity is by definition abominable, and the Bible (and, in its wake, rabbinic Judaism) could never tolerate belief in anything but one single divine power, wholly “celestial” (i.e. transcendent), which exists to the exclusion of all those others deemed real by the benighted. Divine corporeality, belief in a multiplicity of gods (including ones subservient to the one God), and even mere anthropomorphism are thus all branded as idolatrous and must be fought against at all costs. Maimonides (1138-1204) was surely the rabbinic authority the most responsible for focusing on these conceptual aspects that he deemed at the root of the idolatrous enterprise. Indeed, he personally forged the dogma with respect to idolatry that even today underlies almost all Jewish thought on the matter.

Nevertheless, moderns err both in condemning idolatry by focusing mainly on the worship of statues as divine figures and also in understanding idolatry solely in terms of the arcane beliefs or occult practices of any specific religion. In doing so, moderns risk mistaking the symptom for the disease by focusing on the observable phenomenon instead of seeking to identify the underlying malignancy, something in the manner of the lazy physician choosing to treat the easily visible symptom rather than taking the time necessary correctly to identify the actual disease plaguing the patient. And, indeed, it is for this very reason that people generally come to understand idolatry as something that it more or less is not, or at least that it is not any longer, while missing the point that the worst of idolatry is alive and well in the warp and woof of any number of versions of monotheistic practice and belief, and particularly when those practices and beliefs lead to what, following our interpretation, both Bible and Talmud consider as the ultimate human perversion: dehumanization. The “de-divinization” of God, which is idolatry, I would submit, is merely the ideological expression of the dehumanization of the human being.

The God of Maimonides

Maimonides declares that “the entire Torah is oriented towards the struggle against idolatry”[2] and it would be hard to argue against that assertion. Is not the prohibition of idol worship placed at the very beginning of the Ten Commandments? Yet, by placing that specific prohibition in the lead-off position, the Torah appears to be suggesting that the obligation to eschew idolatrous worship is formally and essentially connected to the so-called ethical commandments even though the activity it outlaws is basically ritual in nature. Moreover when the Talmud designates idolatry as a capital crime so heinous that the pious should be prepared to pay with their lives rather than transgress, it is including idolatry in the same class of outrageous wrongdoing as murder or rape. Why would idolatry belong on such a short short-list of truly egregious crimes?

For Maimonides, the root of the problem of idolatry is an intellectual distortion. To insist that God can exist other than as pure spirit or as the higher “Intellect” of the universe is heresy—heresy being the doctrinal version of idolatry[3]—and this specific error of belief actually constitutes the source of all earthly evil. Moreover, belief in a corporeal Deity subject to passion and desire, who is affected by things or events that are external to the eternal divine mind, fosters secondarily a perverse attachment to carnal desires. Maimonides believed that falsely-held beliefs regarding God inevitably lead people to falsely-justifiable acts, from sexual impropriety to magic and astrology.

But why should this be so? I believe that Maimonides’ answer would be that idolaters fall prey to a deformed and distorted understanding of God, one that frees them to follow illusory, even harmful, desires related to mundane materiality, hedonism, violence, and lust.[4] Since the advent of idolatry, therefore, maintaining spiritual health for most people is primarily a matter of keeping free from idolatry in order to be able to move towards an appreciation of divine transcendence. The idolatrous impulse is a universal menace that threatens all. The intellect alone can direct an individual forward along the correct, if narrow, path because it is the sole aspect of the human being that can maintain a “true” image of God. To reach this requires an effort of intellectual self-purification in the course of which one supposedly learns to stop projecting onto God anthropomorphic imagery rooted in the material nature of the world.

Despite his immense influence, Maimonides was criticized very early on and from almost every direction, even occasionally being accused of deviance from accepted Jewish beliefs! He was attacked for doubting the literal meaning of the biblical anthropomorphisms, and for rejecting  rabbinic belief in astrology, demons, and magic, all of which he associated with the fantasizing of idolaters. The sharpest criticism of all came from kabbalists who defended the validity of theosophical speculation the divine emanations known as s’firot, an entirely different conception of God from Maimonides’ and one that, for all that it was dynamic and interactive, was also proudly suffused with corporeal imagery and unambiguously possessed of an organic and anthropomorphic approach to the unity of the divine.

For moderns, Maimonides’ advocacy of a religion not based on childish superstition and irrational fear can be seen as a victory for rationalism, and his personal “crusade” against a gross anthropomorphic conception of God as a major contribution to the refinement of the Jewish spirit. In his critical estimation, faith must be reasonable and honest, and wholly divested of delusion and excess.  But in place of that kind of degraded religion, Maimonides himself suggested a highly rigid—and intensely dogmatic and authoritarian—version of Judaism that did not hesitate to condemn to hell (or at least to perdition) not solely the idolatrous peoples, but also all Jews who failed to adopt his own iron-clad principles. And in his outsized influence on later Jewish thought, he, despite the objections of most of his contemporaries, made abstract theology the defining feature of Jewish belief for centuries to come.

Consider the late Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz (1903-1994), who wrote:

The question “what is God?” is the kind of question that only idolaters ask…. God is neither a concept belonging to the category of thought nor an object belonging to the category of imagination.  The way by which the believer can approach God is not through any kind of knowledge about God but only by accepting the obligation to serve God.[5]

By denying that the human imagination can serve as a legitimate context for apprehending God, Leibowitz is undeniably walking in Maimonides’ footsteps. If anything, he is going further than his spiritual forebear: Maimonides did not go so far as to deny the possibility of justifying faith or of acquiring a clear idea of the relevant qualities of God that humankind is called upon to imitate. Leibowitz goes further and denies outright the possibility of saying anything at all regarding God. Every statement made about God is thus either devoid of meaning entirely or must be condemned as idolatrous by virtue of being conceptualized in human terms. But in its place Leibowitz suggests a “volunteerism” which sees all statements about God as essentially arbitrary, an approach that is no more defensible and certainly less meaningful.[6]

Can one seriously conceive of the idea of God in a consistent manner, even along the via negativa, without relying at all on the imagination or on reason itself? Is it even possible to think of the world and even its relationship to God other than through the prism of human categories of perception? And if nothing meaningful can ever be said about God, should religion not thereby be unavoidably reduced to the humble level of pure agnosticism to the point at which it becomes impossible meaningfully to serve God at all?

In any event, there are many biblical, talmudic and post-talmudic sources that simply do not lend themselves to be crushed beneath the Maimonidean or Leibowitzian steamrollers. As I shall show, the traditional sources never hold back from depicting what we might best call the diversification of God’s manifest presence in the world. Nor do they seem especially bothered by the fear of inadvertent heresy. Just the opposite seems to be true, in fact: neither corporeality nor multiplicity of aspect appear ever to be deemed perverse in themselves. Understanding this preliminary stage of Jewish thinking about God can allow us to see Idolatry in a new light, as a compelling and reasonable concern that is deeply relevant to the present moment.

God’s Self-embodiment

It has become commonplace to designate the concept of divine incarnation as Judaism’s great “unthinkable” idea, the dogmatic principle that by its nature forms the line of absolute demarcation between Jewish belief and the religious systems of others (most notably Christians). But the biblical and talmudic sources are far less clear on this point. Contemporary scholars such as Benjamin Sommer and Yair Lorberbaum have recently revisited texts long dismissed as mere metaphor, largely under Maimonides’ influence. They show that neither the Bible nor the Talmud ever claim categorically that God cannot take a physical form. Indeed, exactly the opposite fact is often made explicit.[7]  Does the fact that Moses hears God saying that no one may see the face of God and survive[8] mean that God’s face is not perceptible? On the contrary, that verse teaches almost explicitly that the divine face is indeed perceptible, but that its direct contemplation can be fatal. There are, indeed, innumerable instances in which God is said to take physical form.

God’s presence certainly dwells in certain altars or monuments that serve as embassies of the divine. But God also self-manifests as a human figure, for example as one of the three visitors who visit Abraham in his tent. And God’s physical presence is even suggested by the constant presence during the Israelites’ journey of mediating filters such as a translucent cloud, the consuming fire that settled atop the mountain and shielded those camped below from seeing God directly, or the “appearance” of God in the cloud over the ark’s cover.[9] Divine embodiment is in fact a regular feature of the biblical narrative.

Some of these manifestations of divine presence take the form of extensions or expressions of God, such as the angel who wrestled with Jacob throughout the night.[10] These instances of divine incarnation depicted in the Bible are best understood as divine incursions into the world, as the limited manifestations of a sacred entity that is simply too vast, or perhaps whose origin comes from too far outside the physical or temporal realm, to exist at all in one specific place or anchored to a specific moment in time. Surely, then, the belief in divine embodiment is not the idolatry to which our tradition devotes such sustained attention, and which generates the prohibition on erecting a statue or image said to “be” God.

The Only God

Does the Bible clearly assert that no other gods exist? How then to understand statements like “Exalt the Eternal God, all you gods (b’nai eilim), exalt God’s glory and God’s omnipotence;”[11]  or “Who is like unto You among the gods (eilim), O Eternal One?”?[12] Who are the gods or sons of God, the b’nei elohim, who descended to earth to take wives and beget “heroes” on earth?[13] Rationalist exegetes from earliest times were quick to banish these “gods” to the realm of metaphor and thus to demote them to mere figures of speech. But we now know that in fact, monotheism as reflected in the Bible is generally not characterized by the sort of radical monism championed by Maimonides that systematically denies the existence of any other heavenly power. Rather, it is characterized by the obligation exclusively to worship the supreme God (who, despite a certain distance, maintains hegemony over the world), a God who, being the historical Creator of nature and certainly not its after-the-fact slave, is fully transcendent.

The monotheistic idea in the Bible is not so much a matter of how many gods do or do not exist. And, indeed—and as strange as it may sound—biblical monotheism may well be compatible with the belief in the existence of other gods or divine beings, claiming only that the Jewish God is the “supreme God, the Creator of heaven and earth”, while other gods are subordinate powers not worthy of formal worship. These “other” gods in the Bible could be understood as “emanations” or projections of God. Yet the Bible’s image of divine beings acting independently of God (which survives into a rabbinical worldview featuring celestial princes, archangels, angels and even demons) suggests that the biblical authors saw some sort of inherent tension between the supreme Deity and those secondary divinities who compete for some role in the governance of the world. This unholy competition may explain why so much injustice exists in a God-governed world. However, this earthly and celestial disorder is always seen as something temporary and localized (and thus resolvable sooner or later), indirectly suggesting that humankind can and must play a role in the fulfillment of divine will.

Psalm 82 can be read to support this approach to monotheism by taking it to constitute a break with the stereotypical view of how things are on high, a way of reading the text often obscured in translations stripped of the poem’s heterodox elements:

A psalm of Assaf. God stands in the divine assembly among the gods and declaims judgment: “How long will you judge with iniquity and favor the malicious, selah? Bring justice better to the weak and to the orphaned! Restore the rights of the poor and the needy! Protect the destitute and the indigent, thus saving them from the hands of oppressors! [And recall that] they neither know nor understand that, when they fall prey to the [forces of] darkness, the world itself is undermined. I once said: You are divine beings, all of you heavenly powers! But no! [I know see that] you shall die like mortals, like mere earthly princes shall you fall!”  Arise, O God, and judge the earth, for it is You who rule over all the [world’s] peoples!

It seems undeniable that the existence of subordinate deities is here taken for granted. Yet, the text qualifies as monotheistic because God is depicted as a supreme judge who ridicules and mocks the poor moral qualities the sub-gods bring to their work in governing the world. What is more, God is the guarantor of ultimate justice, a superior Deity whose job is to impose moral rectitude on the wayward minions of the divine realm.

The Bible itself not only does not deny the existence of other gods but specifically notes that the God of Israel “assigned” them to manage other peoples, while directing the prohibition against their worship solely to Israel:

…and lest you lift up your eyes to the heavens and upon seeing the sun, the moon, the stars, and all the host of the skies, you should feel prompted to worship [the gods they represent] and serve them, whereas the Eternal your God has allotted [those gods solely] to all [the other] nations that exist under the entire sky.[14]

The comments of the three most widely esteemed medieval exegetes affirm this reading. For Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, called Rashbam (c. 1085-c.1158), “God lets other people serve their gods because God has nothing to fear from them. But God has taken Israel as an inheritance for God’s own divine service.” For Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167), “it is well known that every people has its own star and constellation, just as has every city, whereas God gave Israel the privilege of God alone being their referent power.” For his part, Nachmanides (1194-1270) wrote that “every people has a star or constellation in which prevail the higher angels, as seen in the book of Daniel which speaks of the princes of the royal houses of Persia and Greece whom those peoples deified and whom they worship,” adding that “the God of Israel, upon taking Israel out of Egypt, smote that [specific] nation’s gods, without which gesture those gods may well have prevented Israel from escaping.”

But why then should that worship that God imposed on the nations of the world be considered perverse at all rather than simply as part of God’s plan for the world? That is what I would like to consider next.

The Idolatry of the Gentile Nations

As shown by Rabbi David Novak in a brilliant study of the Noahide laws, the notion that the prohibition of idolatry should apply to non-Jews as well as Jews was only introduced well after the biblical era.[15] In the Torah, the people Israel receives the categorical order to uproot idolatry in its territory for fear of polluting its own relationship with God. But nowhere in the Pentateuch or, for that matter, in the rest of the Bible, do we find a command to eradicate idolatry elsewhere, nor does Scripture blame the nations outside the sovereign borders of Israel for their idolatrous beliefs.[16]

Idolatry is certainly understood as capable of inducing profoundly immoral behavior. The results of idolatrous worship vary widely, however, and idolatry per se does not ipso facto lead to dissolute morality or violent corruption. How else can we explain Abraham’s confession to King Avimelekh of Gerar that he erroneously had supposed that there was no “fear of God” (meaning morality) in Gerar or that Jacob agreed to participate in an oath-taking ceremony with Laban, who openly swore by his own god?[17] For that matter, how are we to explain that Joseph married an Egyptian woman, if Egypt, known for its predilection for polytheism and magic, necessarily and always embodied the idolatrous perversion par excellence?

Moreover, the prophets never harangue other people for their beliefs or worship practices, but only for their moral corruption.[18] It was, in fact, only when the tanna’im (early Rabbis) were called upon to determine the status of the geir toshav (as non-Jewish residents of Israel under Jewish jurisdiction were called) in light of the Noahide laws that they determined that idolatry was henceforth to be seen as a capital crime for non-Jews as well as Jews. Novak gives a convincing argument that this was something new in the annals of Jewish law and that it was the schism between Jews and the early Christians that led to the inclusion of idolatry among the Noahide prohibitions.

Even the later talmudic texts which supposed all non-Jews to be idolaters (and thus suspected of other kinds of misconduct as well) tended to consider the idolatry of non-Jews as a function either of intellectual immaturity or naïve atavism rather than as a capital crime in and of itself—as long as it did not threaten to draw actual Jews away from their Jewish faith. Thus the third-century Rabbi Yohanan’s dictum that “non-Jews outside the land of Israel are not idolaters by conviction, but rather as a way of embracing the custom of their ancestors (minhag avoteihem bideihem).”[19]

All of which brings us back, full circle, to Maimonides. Despite his wariness with respect to Islam, Maimonides takes the definite view, later encoded in the Shulchan Arukh, that “the Ishmaelites [i.e., Muslims] do not practice idolatry in any way. It has long been eradicated from their mouths and their hearts, and theirs is a concept of divine unity that is absolutely consistent and without any flaw.” On the other hand, he had no difficulty defining Christian doctrine as idolatry. “Christians,” he wrote, “who claim, whatever their [specific theological] school of thought, that [Jesus] was the messiah are all idolaters. It is forbidden to trade with them on Sunday, as the Talmudic rule so ordered about doing business with idolaters on their festival days.” His approach is clearly presented in theological terms.

But many of his contemporaries took a far more nuanced view. Rabbi Tuvia Friedman explains:

Since the Middle Ages, two important considerations come to the fore [in Jewish efforts to evaluate Christianity]: the fact that idolatrous worship had long since disappeared in Europe and that Christians rituals differed significantly from those of the idolaters of yesteryear. The Tosafists were among the first to embrace these principles. And the opinion of Rabbenu Tam is specifically cited regarding the ban on mentioning names of pagan deities that the Sages elicited from the verse, “Never mention the name of strange gods; may they never be heard in your mouth” (Exodus 23:13) as follows: “The comment of Rabbenu Tam [remains valid] to the effect that [Christians] in [his] time took oaths in their saints’ names without [meaning to deify] them and that even when they do mean to evoke the name of God but actually reference another [i.e., Jesus], this [name] is not the name of an idol and, moreover, their intention is [not to embrace idolatry at all but] to address the Creator of heaven and earth. And even if God’s name is associated with [that other name], they can nevertheless not be regarded as transgressing the prohibition [mentioned above]. As a result, [by doubting the sincerity of such oaths] we ourselves are risking to contravene the scriptural prohibition of putting a stumbling block in the path of the blind. Indeed, there is no prohibition among the Noahide commandments on this point.” On the same issue, nineteenth-century Rabbi Tzvi Hayyot wrote: “Christians believe in the existence of God and even if their faith [is best described as] “associative,” [i.e., in that they “associate” other elements with God], there is no doubt that they accept the seven commandments of Noah and thus have similar status to that of geir toshav including in our own day.[20]

The most radical and the most significant paradigm shift was undoubtedly the one undertaken by the great thirteenth-century Provençal commentator on the Talmud, Rabbi Menahem Ha-me’iri (1249-c. 1310), who forged a new halakhic category to accommodate Christians and, at that, one that gave them an eminently positive status:

Regarding nations guided by religious codes of conduct who serve God in any way [as, for example, Muslims or Christians], although their faith may be judged wholly unlike our own, they do not fall under this status [of idolaters], which is why it is necessary to consider them to bear the same halakhic status, and without restriction, as Jews in all applicable issues, e.g., the return of lost objects or making good errors in payment after the fact.[21] This applies to all other issues as well; [indeed,] moral obligations of every sort should apply equally to Jews and to gentiles.[22]

Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook (1865-1935), the chief rabbi of the yishuv in pre-state British Palestine explicitly endorsed the position of the Meiri in the light of prevailing societal reality: “All peoples [today] that have a code of conduct advocating fairness between people must be regarded as having the status of geir toshav with respect to all legal obligations.”[23] This position was followed by the majority of halakhic decisors and has since been adopted by many leading Israeli rabbis such Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi.[24] On the other hand, many other figures, following Maimonides, continue to regard Christianity as a form of idolatry.[25] In the end, the more important truth is that many Jews of the Middle Ages, including those who suffered a great deal from Christian triumphalism and the Church’s oft-expressed visceral contempt for Judaism, lived among Christians intimately enough to understand that the Church itself rejected idolatry and subscribed wholeheartedly to monotheism, even if the overt form of that monotheism was elastic enough to permit religious statuary or painted icons. Many Jews, of course, endured ferocious persecutions in the name of Christianity. But it never became reasonable to conclude that every Christian, qua Christian, was divested by his or her faith of virtue or humanity, and the fact was that that many Christians did behave in a civilized manner with respect to their Jewish neighbors.

The Meiri’s opinion is not only practical with respect to learning how to live in harmony and fairness with others, however, but is in a sense also a return to thinking deployed throughout the Bible, where we find the notion that idolatry was not about theology concepts or material representation per se, but about the way in which the use of plastic imagery to depict particular gods could easily reflect an ideology of dehumanization, thus one that denied the dignity that inheres by its very nature in the only real “image of God” in the world truly worthy of respect, the one stamped on all God’s human creatures.[26] Why, therefore, did idolatry need to be considered dangerous for Israel to the point of endorsing as reasonable its total and absolute eradication from the land? This is the crucial point with which I shall now turn.

Idolatry as Dehumanization

In the Bible, there is no specific term for “idolatry.” Instead, the notion lurks just behind the phrases la·avod elohim aheirim and la-lekhet aharei elohim aheirim, meaning respectively “to serve/worship other gods” or “to follow other gods.” The notion seems to be that such worship is essentially a betrayal of the covenant forged between God and Israel. Moreover, such worship is often mocked as involving not even the “gods” themselves but merely plastic representations of them damned as elilim (“godlets”), atzabbim (“statues”), tz’lamim (“figurines”), and more rarely p’silim (“sculptures”).[27]  This fetishism Scripture condemns as essentially illusory and, indeed, biblical authors seem never to have grown weary of stressing the impotence of manufactured idols.[28] The talmudic terms denoting what we call idolatry are avodah zarah (“profane worship”), avodat elilim (“the worship of godlets”), avodat kokhavim (“the worship of the stars”), avodat mazzalot (“the worship of the constellations”), or avodat tz’lamim (“the worship of statues”) and it is clear that what is specifically wrong with these cults is that they essentially alienate God, the supreme One, from the worshiper.[29] Moreover, this alienation can result even if the plastic representation is intended to portray the Eternal rather than some unreal pagan deity.[30] In short, idolatry—when practiced by Israelites bound in covenant to God—amounts to a kind of adultery.[31] This is the key to understanding the essence of the issue.

The covenant that God establishes with the Israelite people is not a walk in the park. God grants to the chosen people fertility and prosperity (and eventually even salvation and happiness, or at least equanimity in the face of death), but requires in return that the faithful remain obedient to the divine commandments as presented in Scripture. These commandments, however, do not solely constitute a code of civil conduct. They require a kind of human self-sanctification through an ongoing program of sublimation of natural behavior, thus through internally-generated discipline occasionally bordering on asceticism. Indeed, many laws require the faithful to sacrifice or to dedicate a significant part of their time, their property, and their wealth, and to sublimate their strongest desires and most naturally-felt impulses, and to devote themselves to the worship of a God who makes demands on all aspects of societal life and who imposes rules on the relationships between people, including of the most intimate variety, not to mention diet, weekly rest, and many other things. The Torah undertakes, in fact, to sublimate human nature in its natural relation to the secular world, a spiritual undertaking that requires consistent and constant effort. The exodus from Egypt and the trials endured in the wilderness—trials including privation and uncertainty apparently intended to build the character of the people, even despite the people’s endemic backsliding—are the archetypal expression of the tension that lurks just beneath the surface of a people’s yearning to bring maturity and self-control to bear in the service of God.

Idolatry is the exact antithesis of this whole program, which is why Israel must reject idolatry at all costs. The prophets imagined the gentile nations one day too rejecting idolatrous worship, of course. But, at least for now, the task facing Israel is to focus on what is crucial as it strives to endure as a living civilization, namely that it strive to guarantee that worship make human behavior more like God’s ideal instead of pathetically attempting to use the rituals of worship somehow to justify the most base human behavior, a grotesque effort that can bring only degradation, desecration, and sacrilege in its sorry wake. Idolatry is what ensues when one tries to enshrine a person (or even an idea of ​​the world) in absolute terms or, conversely, when divinity is imagined as restricted in function or partisan in orientation, thus in either event forcing the divine to serve the needs or desires of those who purport to be God’s worshipers. In either case, idolatry is a kind of domestication of the divine.

Under the guise of divine service, it is God whom the worshiper is intending to control in the idolatrous context. Idolatry is thus an effort to tailor-make God in humankind’s own image or, to say the same thing from the other direction, to make of humankind the archetype of all things including God. The statue or image is built so that the deity may reside locally and thus be customized to meet the needs of that specific god’s worshipers. Idolatry intends to capture the power of the divine, holding it tightly under house arrest and granting some smidgen of its might to the worthy among its worshipers.

Within the idolatrous context, therefore, no mortal can rise to transcendence because transcendence itself is reduced to level of human domesticity. The point of idolatry thus becomes specifically to stimulate the protection of the gods, thus also to avert whatever fate one might be destined to encounter without having to pay for one’s salvation by embracing ethical behavior and submitting to the requirements of holiness. If idolatry often masquerades as reverence and engenders a kind of adoration of the divine that seems exorbitant to the point of infatuation, this is because idolatry celebrates and ideologically endorses the status quo…and because it promotes the satisfaction of desire even when such desire involves negative, perverse passions and addiction to the most cynical kind of hedonism.[32]

This, in fact, is precisely where idolatry becomes the most inimical to human dignity. Because idolatry rests more on the alleged power of things and the possibility of self-servingly exploiting that power than on the commitment to make reality conform to the will of God, it promotes incantation instead of prayer, and divination instead of prophecy. Indeed, it is precisely the desire to circumvent the ultimate authority of God—and God’s plan to humanize humanity—which moves the idolater to embrace witchcraft, necromancy, augury, and magic. Even in the Bible, where the sacrificial cult endorsed by Scripture may give the impression of a quid pro quo transaction between worshiper and Worshiped, the prophets never tire of noting that only obedience to God, respect for the dignity of human beings, and what the Hebrew idiom references as “circumcision of the heart” grant validity and effectiveness in worship, because only then can the worshiper hope to meet with divine approval.[33]

If this is the gist of idolatry, then surely pagan religiosity should not be damned as idolatrous merely because of the number of gods it proposes to worship or the degree to which it permits the plastic representation of those gods. Nor should the specific type of offerings it demands matter much. Instead, idolatry may be defined as a worship-system that by its nature opposes the duty of humankind to seek sanctity and morality in the world, just as was first stated to Abraham, whose spiritual vocation was defined with these words: “For I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him that they keep the way of the Eternal, doing justice and seeking [just] judgment so that the Eternal may bring to Abraham all that God promised him.”[34]

It is necessary, therefore, not to confuse form and substance! On the one hand, it is surely true that, in many cases, the form worship takes suggests its inmost ideational content.  But sometimes the “suspected” form of worship is in fact too complex and too subtle, or even too simplistically atavistic, to be judged quickly and severely. Still, it bears saying too that the absence of any specific form of worship directed towards a god will not be a guarantee of legitimacy, since we know that many fascist ideologies in history surreptitiously transferred the worship of the gods to the worship of national leaders or nationalistic ideology in total disregard for the humanity of the people trapped in those leaders’ nets.  And the same could well be said of any number of versions of postmodernist nihilism. Indeed, under the guise of tolerance, idolatry today promotes a kind of neo-polytheism rooted in the valorized neglect of the minimum level of human dignity necessary for a society to function justly. Nor would it be unreasonable to include on our list of modern forms of idolatry the version of contemporary consumerism that is rooted in unjustifiable hedonism that in turn stands for the complete negation of human dignity.

All this being the case, as I believe it to be, moderns should take very seriously the willingness of the prophets of Israel to denounce the idolatrous impulse in the sacral worship of God that lies at the very heart of Hebrew civilization. “Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, and swear falsely…and [also] burn incense to Baal and follow other gods whom you [previously] have not known?” the prophet asks rhetorically. “And will you [then dare to] come and stand before me in this house called by My name and say, ‘We are saved!’ solely so that you may [feel free to repeat] all these abominations? Has this house, [this temple] called by My name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, I myself have seen it, says the Eternal!”[35]

I have left the most sensitive point for last: the very real possibility of monotheism surreptitiously degenerating into idolatry while simultaneously rationalizing its actions as having been undertaken in the defense of its own pristine ideal. Let us begin by considering the destruction by the Taliban of the Buddhas of the Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan in 2001. Surely, the Taliban would self-define as monotheists! Shall we in a reflex manner compare their actions to the bravery of Abraham who, according to legend, demolished the idols of his father?[36] Should we adopt the notion that any statue is by definition an abomination regardless of context and regardless of the meaning attributed to it by its venerators? When a god, even the transcendent one, is that of a specific group of human beings who venerate it by promoting the exclusion and denegation of other groups, the result is a kind of monolatry, not monotheism, and this is so regardless of the details that attend its worship or the theological justification for its existence. The God of the Bible is, first of all, the “God of all flesh” (as in Jeremiah 32:27), which is to say that all humankind, genetically conjoined in and by the divine image, are all called to gather around God, as the prophet Micah famously (and audaciously) declared:

In the final days it shall come to pass that the mountain of the house of the Eternal shall be established atop the mountains, thus exalted too above the hills, and people shall flow to it. And, indeed, many nations shall come and say, “Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Eternal and to the house of the God of Jacob so that God may teach us of God’s ways and we may walk in God’s paths, for Torah shall go forth from Zion and the word of the Eternal One from Jerusalem. And God shall judge between many peoples and shall rebuke even distant mighty nations so that they beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. [As a result,] nation shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall [their citizenry] any longer learn [the art of] war. Instead, they shall sit, each under his own vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the Eternal One of Hosts has spoken. For let all people walk forward, each in the name of his god, and we shall walk forever forward in the name of the Eternal our God.[37]

Micah appears to see no fundamental or unsolvable problem with the nations of the world marching forward under the banners of their own gods, while Israel does similarly with respect to the God of Israel! Taking this passage literally leads directly to the conclusion that the worship of foreign gods specifically does not ipso facto imply moral or spiritual corruption on the part of that god’s gentile adherents. Just the opposite is the case, actually: various biblical and talmudic texts, supported in this by archeological and epigraphical evidence, show that some tribes addressed or worshiped local gods, while simultaneously recognizing that the existence of a sole universal God.[38] And it is precisely in this light that we should consider the striking “programmatic” definition that Rashi gives to monotheism in his commentary on the famous verse: “Hear O Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One”[39]:

For the moment, the Eternal is our God, but not the God of the nations. But one day God will indeed be the Eternal One [of all peoples, as should be clear from] the words of [the prophet] Zephaniah (3:9): “For then I will make the languages of the nations into clear speech in which they shall all call upon the name of the  Eternal” and [similarly do we find recorded] in the words of Zachariah (14:9): “In that day shall the Eternal be One and God’s name [thus also] One.”[40]

Israel has long served humanity as the sole witness to monotheism. This great project, born of the covenant itself, does not however have to lead us into prejudicial arrogance with respect to the other nations of God’s world. Indeed, the concept of remaining fully monotheistic implies setting the proper example for the nations, not browbeating them into theological submission. And this idea derives not from the commentators but from Scripture itself:

Behold, I have taught you statutes and judgments, as the Eternal my God commanded me, so that you may know how to behave in the land of which you are about to take possession. Obey them therefore and keep them, for they constitute your wisdom and your intelligence in the view of the nations who, when they shall hear all these statutes, shall declare, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”[41]

The disaster of monotheism is its use by any nation to impose its hegemony on other peoples, which misuse easily mutates into monolatry, and from thence into virulent prejudice. The monolater, awash in self-congratulation—the worshiped god thus serving merely as a reflection of the worshiper’s own toxic narcissism—thus denies the possibility that other human beings could forge an authentic relationship with the one God once they have added this or that thing to the purity of “true” monotheism.  Indeed, monolatry denies monotheism because it denies humankind its diversity and is thus not much more than theological totalitarianism.

For the soul awash in monolatry, the world of God is irreducibly a binary one in which one is either a son of light or a son of darkness.  But that, in turn, is little more than paranoia: finding tolerance sinful, the monolater reacts to the slightest eccentricity, perceived offense, or unfamiliar doctrine to justify a violent reaction and to proclaim the kind of state of emergency necessary to justify repression or, in the extreme case, an all-out holy war. The fanatic, in his frenzy, is always dehumanizing himself.  The irony is that fanaticism always self-justifies by undertaking to demonize infidels, and by dehumanizing then precisely in order to justify their destruction as an act of piety.  Idolatry is barbarism, and it is by this specific aspect that moderns should identify it.

To remove inhumanity from the worship of God is the only truly worthy via negativa ad Deum towards spiritual fulfillment! A beautiful talmudic aphorism has it that “whoever rejects idolatry is called a Jew.”[42] There, the discussion centers (among other things) on the particular issue of Pharaoh’s daughter, who, by saving and raising Moses, defied her father’s genocidal command to annihilate the baby boys of Israel. But the issue is much wider than that. Fanaticism and nihilism are the two poles of contemporary idolatry. The challenge for moderns, therefore is simultaneously to oppose both fanaticism and nihilism by embracing the truth that the opposite of idolatrous faith is neither religion “purified” of anthropomorphic representations nor blanket tolerance extended willy-nilly in every direction, but the construction of a humanist civilization built on the divine values of respect for persons, justice, kindness, and the love of peace.


rabbi-rivon-krygierRivon Krygier, the first French-speaking rabbi graduated from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, has served as the rabbi of the Adath Shalom community in Paris, the first Massorti (conservative) community in France since 1991. His research and publications being often devoted to questions of ethics and theology, as well as to interreligious dialogue, Krygier holds a doctorate from the Sorbonne University in the sciences of religions (1996) and has lectured or published through the Institut Sèvres, the Collège des Bernards, the Jewish Studies College of the Alliance Israelite Universelle and the Jewish Community Center in Paris. Krygier received the Prix de l’Amitie Judéo-Chrétienne de France in 2013.

[1] For a midrash that expresses amazement that anyone would take offense regarding a cult of entities that do not exist at all, see Sh’mot Rabbah 43:6.

[2] Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed 3:29, ed. and trans. Shlomo Pines (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1963), p. 521. For a more details exposition of Maimonides’ thinking on the issue of idolatry, see the second chapter of MT Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim U-mazzalot and the first chapter of MT Hilkhot Y’sodei Ha-torah.

[3] Cf. Maimonides’ bald definition of heretics as “Jewish idolaters” at MT Hilkhot Rotzei·ah U-sh’mirat Nefesh 4:10.

[4] Cf. MT Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim U-mazalot 2:3 (“…following the desires of their hearts”) and cf. also ibid. 2:1.

[5] Seven Years of Discourses on the Weekly Torah Reading, p. 782.

[6] In the language of epistemologist Karl Popper, such an idea is “non-falsifiable,” that is, irrelevant, unable ever to be substantiated because it constitutes a tautological assertion that by definition cannot be argued other than with reference to itself. Volunteerism is based on the idea that all belief is the result of pure decision-making that rests on no foundation at all other than its own expression (“I believe because I decide to believe and solely because I have made that decision.”)

[7] Cf., e.g., Alon Goshen Gottstein, “The Body as Image of God in Rabbinic Literature,” Harvard Theological Review 87(1994), pp. 171-195; Yair Lorberbaum, Tzelem Elohim: Halakhah Ve’aggadah (Jerusalem: Schocken, 2004); and Benjamin Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[8] Exodus 33:20.

[9] Cf. Exodus 24:15-18 and Leviticus 16:2. Other texts, for example Leviticus 24:10, also attest to God’s apparent ability to show some part of the divine body.

[10] The story is told in Genesis 32. See also the story of the angel of God, misperceived as a “man” (Hebrew: ish) in the thirteenth chapter of Judges.eH

[11] Psalm 29:1.

[12] Exodus 15:11.

[13] Genesis 6:2.

[14] Deuteronomy 4:19, cf. 29:25.

[15] David Novak, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism: An Historical and Constructive Study of the Noahide Laws (Toronto: Edwin Mellen Press, 1993).  The phrase “Noahide laws” references the seven commandments that the Talmud sees the Torah imposing on non-Jews and the observance of which guarantees their salvation; cf. T Avodah Zarah 8:4 and BT Sanhedrin 56a.

[16] Among the medieval commentators who underscore this aspect of things, cf. the comment of Rabbi Shlomo ibn Aderet, called Rashba (1235-1310), in his Responsa, vol. 4, no. 334 (ed. Bnai Brak and Tel Aviv, 1958-1973) or Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher ibn Halawa (d. 1340) in his comment to Deuteronomy 31:16, and cf. also his comment to Deuteronomy 4:19-20 and  2 Kings 17:26.

[17] Abraham: Genesis 20:9-11; Jacob: Genesis 31:53.

[18] Cf. Novak, pp. 108-115, where the author offers numerous examples, including many gleaned from the long harangue of Amos against the gentile nations and city states of Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab (Amos 1:3ff.).

[19] BT Hullin 13b. See Tosafot on BT Avodah Zarah 2a, s.v. asur.

[20] Tuvia Friedman, “Is Judaism Endemically Racist?”, which essay appeared in Hebrew (as “Ha·im Ha-yahadut Hi Gizanit al pi Tivah?”) in the second volume of responsa published by the Rabbinical Assembly of Israel Law Committee (Jerusalem: The Rabbinical Assembly of Israel and The Movement of Masorti Judaism in Israel, 1987), pp. 43-51.
[21] Consider this similar text from the same era:

A non-Jew who is zealous in his performance of the seven Noahide commandments deserves that one behave scrupulously in his regard with respect to the return of lost coins…because it becomes forbidden to take advantage of such a person. And similarly must one scruple to return to such an individual any lost object at all. Indeed, one should show such an individual more honor than a Jew who willfully chooses to remain ignorant of the Torah. (Sefer Hasidim §358, ed. R. Margoliot [Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1973], pp. 366-367, and cf. §357, ed. cit., p. 266.)

[22] Menahem Ha-me’iri, Beit Ha-b’hirah to BT Bava Kamma 113b.

[23] Rabbi A. Y. Kook, Igg’rot Ha-re’ayah (Jerusalem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1962), vol. 1, no. 89, p. 99.

[24] Cf. his well-researched and detailed Hebrew-language essay, “Darkhei Shalom…The Ways of Peace in Relationships between Jews and Non-Jews,” in: Tehumin 9(1988), pp. 71-81.

[25] Cf., e.g., the opinions of Ovadiah Yosef (as expressed in his Yehaveh Daat (Jerusalem: Hazon Ovadiah, 1977), vol. 4, responsum 45, regarding the question of whether a Jew may visit a church Visiting Churches and Eliezer Waldenberg (as expressed in his Tzitz Eliezer, vol. 14, responsum 91 [Jerusalem: Otzot Hatorah, 1981], pp. 166-168)  on the topic of Jews visiting churches and mosques.  See the radical view of Zvi Yehudah Ha-kohen Kook (and his disciple Shlomo Aviner), in his Hebrew-language Judaism and Christianity, ed. Shlomo Aviner (Beit-El [Israel]: Sifriyyat Havah, 2001).

[26] Cf. in this regard the comments of Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit in their fine book, Idolatry (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 209-213.

[27] Elilim: Isaiah 2:8; atzabbim: Psalms 115:4; tz’lamim: Daniel 3:10; p’silim: Isaiah 42:8.

[28] Cf., for example, Psalm 115 or Isaiah 40:19-20 among many other examples.

[29] The expression avodah zarah can be compared interestingly with the phrases eish zarah (“profane fire”) at Leviticus 10:1 and k’toret zarah (“strange incense”) at Exodus 30:9, in both of which expressions the word zarah (“strange”) denotes something inappropriate, undesirable, and uncommanded by God.

[30] Cf. the way Exodus 20:10 (“Do not make of Me [instead of “with Me”] gods of silver or gold”) is interpreted at BT Avodah Zarah 43b, and cf. the opinion of Judah Halevi, who wrote in the Kuzari (1:97) that the sin of the golden calf was specifically the association of the Eternal with a medium of plastic imagery. In the passage from Sh’mot Rabbah quoted above in footnote 1, the golden calf was an “auxiliary” to God.

[31] Cf. Hosea 1 or Ezekiel 16:6-30, where this idea is made almost explicit.

[32] Cf. the famous talmudic passage at BT Sanhedrin 63b in which Rabbi Judah teaches in the name of Rav that the Israelites were fully aware that the worship of idols was nonsense but were nonetheless drawn to it because it legitimized public debauchery.

[33] Circumcision of the heart: Deuteronomy 10:16, cf. 30:6, and cf. this same idea absent the circumcision metaphor at Psalm 51:18-19.

[34] Genesis 18:19.

[35] Jeremiah7:9-11, cf. Isaiah 58:2-8, a truly astounding passage in which the prophet basically condenses our entire argument regarding idolatry into a few verses.

[36] Cf. Jubilees 12:12-15, B’reishit Rabbah 38:13, and Koran 21:51-70. In fact, we do not know the supposed ideology of the idolatry in that literature exactly. But it is worth noting that the Bible itself never qualifies the act of destroying such statues outside of Israel as heroic, not before the conquest of the Canaan or after it.

[37] Micah 4:1-5.

[38] Cf. BT M’nahot 110a, where it is mentioned in passing that there are nations who worship the “God of gods” even though their theological orientation is basically idolatrous. In this regard, cf. also Mircea Eliade’s comments regarding the “father of the gods” in various civilizations in his book The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1959), pp. 121-124.

[39] Deuteronomy 6:4.

[40] Rashi to Deuteronomy 6:4.

[41] Deuteronomy 4:5-6.

[42] BT, Megillah 13a.