Idolatry and its Equivalents

When you find in your midst, in one of your gates that Hashem, your L-rd, gives to you, a man or women who does that which is evil in the eyes of Hashem, your L-rd, to violate His covenant.  And he goes to serve other gods and to bow to them – to the sun, or the moon, or to any of the heavenly host that you have not been commanded.  (Sefer Devarim 17:2-3)

I.  The history of idolatry

The above passages from Parshat Shoftim introduce the Torah’s discussion of the punishment for idolatry.  In the passages that follow, the Torah tells us that one who is guilty of idolatry is put to death, through stoning.

Rambam – Maimonides – opens his discussion of the laws of idolatry a with summary of its history.  Idolatry emerged in the generation of Enosh – a grandson of Adam.  The people of that generation believed that Hashem created the stars and constellations to control the events in our world.  Hashem honored these ministers by placing them in the heavens.  We honor a mortal king through respecting his ministers.  Enosh’s generation reasoned that these stars and constellations are His servants and worthy of praise and honor.  Building on this error, future generations created temples to the stars and constellations, sacrificed to them, praised them, and bowed to them.  They believed that this would secure Hashem’s goodwill.

Rambam characterizes the initial innovation as a “error”.  He adds that regardless of the innocence of the motives behind this innovation, it is the essence of idolatry.

Rambam continues his outline and explains that this initial error eventually led to more extreme forms of idolatry.  In its most extreme form, worship of Hashem is abandoned and worshippers serve only their idols.[1]

Idolatry was Forbidden to Adam

The Torah commands the Jewish people to observe six hundred thirteen commandments. The other nations are also obligated to observe a system of commandments.  These of the Seven Commandments of the Descendants of Noach.  According to Rambam, six of these commandments were given of Adam.  These prohibited idolatry, blaspheming Hashem, murder, sexual depravation, and robbery and required establishment of a system of justice.  Noach received a seventh commandment prohibiting consuming the flesh of a limb of an animal before its death.[2]

According to Rambam, the commandment against idolatry was given to Adam.  Apparently, the initial idolaters should have understood that their innovation was prohibited.  Nonetheless, they introduced it.  In other words, the generation disregarded the commandment given to Adam prohibiting idolatry.  Considering that this generation deliberately introduced practices that violated the prohibition against idolatry, it is amazing that Rambam characterizes their innovation as an “error”.

III.  Well-Intentioned Idolatry

Apparently, Rambam is addressing this issue through explaining the reasoning of Enosh’s generation.  These innovators did not intend to diminish humanity’s recognition of Hashem.  They did not plan to introduce deities who would compete with Hashem for humanity’s devotion. Certainly, they did not anticipate that the practices they introduced would lead to idols displacing Hashem as the object of humanity’s worship.  Their intention was to exalt Hashem. They believed that by extending to His ministers practices that honored and acknowledged them, they would intensify humanity’s reverence for Hashem.

In other words, Enosh’s generation understood that idolatry is prohibited. However, they interpreted the prohibition and attributed an incorrect rationale it.  They believed that idolatry is prohibited because the worship of other deities displaces Hashem as Creator and ruler of the universe.  According to their reasoning, worshiping His ministers is not idolatry; it is service to Hashem.

IV. Creating intermediaries

What was the error of the first idolaters?  Their interpretation of the prohibition against idolatry seems reasonable.  Was their error that they failed to perceive that their relatively harmless innovation would launch humanity upon a path ending in the wholesale embrace of outright idolatry and completely uproot recognition of Hashem?  Was their error more fundamental than failure to predict the future?

Rambam addresses this issue in his description of the prohibition against idolatry.

“The essence of the commandment [forbidding] the worship of false gods is not to serve any of the creations, not an angel, a sphere, or a star, none of the four fundamental elements, nor any entity created from them. Even if the person worshiping knows that Hashem is the [true] God and serves the creation in the manner in which Enosh and the people of his generation worshiped [the stars] originally, he is considered to be an idol worshiper…

This implies that the thoughts of your heart should not lead you astray to worship these and make them an intermediary between you and the Creator.”[3]

Much of this description is consistent with the description of idolatry Rambam provided in his outline of its history.  He reiterates that serving an angel or star, even in the manner of Enosh’s generation, is prohibited.  But Rambam adds that it is also prohibited to create an intermediary between oneself and Hashem.  Why is creating an intermediary between oneself and Hashem an expression of idolatry? 

And you shall watch yourselves very well, for you did not see any image on the day that Hashem spoke to you at Chorev from the midst of the fire.  Lest you become corrupt and make for yourselves a graven image, the representation of any form, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any beast that is on the earth…  And lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and see the sun, and the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, which the Hashem, your L-rd, assigned to all peoples under the entire heaven, and be drawn away to prostrate yourselves before them and worship them. (Sefer Devarim 4:15-19)

V. The Attraction of Idolatry

In the above passages, Moshe reminds the people they did not see an image of Hashem at Revelation.  They only heard His voice.  He cautions them against creating graven images or worshiping the sun, moon, or heavenly host.  Why did Moshe remind the people that they did not see an image of Hashem at Sinai; they only heard His voice?  Why did he immediately follow-up this review of Revelation with a warning against creating graven images or worshiping the bodies in the heavens?

Apparently, Moshe understood that we struggle to disassociate our concept of Hashem from material form.  We tend to imagine Hashem in physical form – sitting on His thrown and ruling His universe.  Moshe tells the people, that they must forsake this imagery.  They must not succumb to the temptation to attribute material form to Hashem.

Moshe’s warning to not engage in idolatry, addresses the same human weakness.  Idolatry is another attempt to satisfy the need to worship something that has material form.  In other words, we seek to worship that which we can imagine.  We struggle to serve Hashem, Who has no form and to Whom no form may be attributed.

VI. The attraction of intermediaries

Now, we can understand Rambam including a prohibition against creating intermediaries within his discussion of idolatry.  The problem with intermediaries is that they appeal to the same weakness as idolatry.  Hashem is non-material and our concept of Him is abstract.  This leads to an urge to replace Him with something more tangible and “present”.  Worshiping one of Hashem’s ministers or creating an intermediary are means of replacing the abstract Hashem with something material and more easily accessible to our imagination.

Enosh’s generation did not understand this.  They believed that idolatry is prohibited because we must direct our devotion solely to Hashem.  We may not detract from His glory.  They believed that their innovation increased His glory.  But they misunderstood the fundamental nature of the prohibition.  We may not retreat from the challenge of relating to Hashem as He truly exists.  He is non-material and cannot be grasped by imagination.

According to the law they instruct you and according to the judgment they say to you, you shall do; you shall not divert from the word they tell you, either right or left.  (Sefer Devarim 17:11)

I will set up a prophet for them from among their brothers like you, and I will put My words into his mouth, and he will speak to them all that I command him.  And it will be, that whoever does not hearken to My words that he speaks in My name, I will exact [it] of him.  (Sefer Devarim 18:18-19)

VII.  Applications

Rambam’s explanation has important applications.  One is reflected in the above passages.  The first passage describes the authority of our sages.[4]  We are obligated to adhere to their rulings even when they seem to us to be in error.  The second set of passages describes the authority of the prophet.  We are commanded to obey the prophet’s directives.  The authority of the sages and the prophets is virtually absolute.  However, this authority, in an important respect, is sharply limited.  The greatest sage or prophet cannot be an intermediary between the individual and Hashem.  In other words, one cannot allow one’s respect, admiration, and devotion of the sage or prophet to encroach upon one’s relationship with Hashem.  The sage or prophet cannot become a material substitute for Hashem.[5]

[1] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 1:1-2.

[2] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Melachim 7:1.

[3] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 2:1.

[4] The sages to which the passage refers are those whose authority derives from Moshe.  Their authority was conferred upon them through a chain of sages originating with Moshe.  This form and degree of rabbinic authority no longer exists.

[5] This material was developed out of a discussion with my rebbe, Rav Yisroel Chait.