Understanding the Nature of “Idolatry”

The following is informative only. It is not intended to damn the practitioners of any faith, nor to prove that any practices are correct or are incorrect. Please read objectively, and do not read into what is written, read only what is written and take it at face value. What I DO encourage, is you to do your own, independent research into the matter. Learn as much as you can, and draw a well informed, logical and intelligent conclusion.

Idolatry in our day and age is completely misrepresented and misunderstood. Those who “worship” idols of stone and of wood and of metal and of gems no more believe that the representation of a god fashioned by their hands is a god than you believe a picture of a person is an actual person. From the most developed society to the most primitive, it is understood that these creations are representatives of the divine.  What the God of the Judeo-Christian books says seems confusing, and indicates that people are in fact, worshiping statues.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them…”

“Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves any gods of cast metal…”

“The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths. Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them!”

“A tree from the forest is cut down and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. They decorate it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk.”

“Cursed be the man who makes a carved or cast metal image, an abomination to the Lord, a thing made by the hands of a craftsman, and sets it up in secret.”

“And you have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know…”

“Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it.”

Many people, reading such things in the sacred books of the Jews and of the Christians are left with the idea that the people actually believed that their creations WERE gods, and that the people were in fact serving the hand-crafted idols themselves. This simply isn’t true, and never has been. Even the ancient story of Abraham, (Midrash Bereishit 38:13) the father of the Jewish faith, makes clear that the idols were nothing more than statues.

“One time a woman came with a basket of bread. She said to Abraham, “Take this and offer it to the gods”. Abraham got up, took a hammer in his hand, broke all the idols to pieces, and then put the hammer in the hand of the biggest idol among them. When his father came back and saw the broken idols, he was appalled. “Who did this?” he cried. “How can I hide anything from you?” replied Abraham calmly. “A woman came with a basket of bread and told me to offer it to them. I brought it in front of them, and each one said, “I’m going to eat first.” Then the biggest one got up, took the hammer and broke all the others to pieces.” “What are you trying to pull on me?” asked Terach, “Do they have minds?” Said Abraham: “Listen to what your own mouth is saying? They have no power at all! Why worship idols?”

Now then… This story makes clear that Terach, the maker of the idols, and Abraham, the one who took offerings to the idols were both aware that the idols themselves were not gods. So we are again left baffled at why the Divine would be so upset about these little statues. Clearly the Jews were extremely concerned with the practice of idolatry to they point where they exclaimed:

“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 Sifri, Deut 43)

It was forbidden to look upon images (Tosefta to Shabbat 17.1), and even thinking of idolatrous worship was prohibited (Berakhot 12b); if one saw a place where an idol had once stood, he was commanded to utter a special prayer (Berakhot 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 (Avodah Zarah 3.3); nor might the wood of the “asherah” be used for purposes of healing (Pesachim 25a).

Indeed, even in his The Guide to the Perplexed, I:36, the RaMBaM (Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon / Maimonides) holds the view that in the original form of idolatry, no one actually believed that their idols were gods; he states that idol-worshipers understood that their idols were only representations of a god, or G-d Himself. Idols are “worshiped in respect of its being an image of a thing that is an intermediary between ourselves and God.”. The RaMBaM, however, goes further in defining idolatry than other Jewish thinkers before or since; he states that it is idolatry to believe that G-d 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 idolater.” The RaMBaM spends the first one-third of the Guide attempting to show that a literalist understanding of the metaphors, idioms, and homonyms in the Torah are idolatrous in this regard. For the RaMBaM, and other philosophers in the neo-Aristotelian mold, it is idolatry to believe that God has positive attributes. The RaMBaM’s 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 to be 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 to be 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.”

Now, we find ourselves even more confused than before. We see the RaMBaM explaining that no one ever believed they were serving a created object, rather they were using it only as a representation of a god or as an attribute of the One True G-d, and yet he goes further than any Jew prior and indeed further than our modern sensibilities and equates even believing that the Divine actually possesses an arm with idolatry. So we are left with the understanding that idols were never worshiped, people never believed in them, and that they were merely “windows to the Divine”.

Let’s look at modern examples of this very same (in explanation) practice which exist within the oldest existing Christian faiths: Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Catholics erect statues of saints, and decorate them with flowers, lighting candles in front of them. The Orthodox adorn their churches with icons of saints, and pray before them, bowing before the icon and kissing it. “You shall not bow down to them or serve them…”. So, how do they explain their creating of statues and writing of icons, as well as their bowing to, kissing, lighting candles and incense before and veneration of these items of wood, stone, metal and jewels? The same exact way that the Hindus and the Buddhists and the tribesmen and any other conceivable faith inclusive of statues, and indeed the same way the RaMBaM described the ancients whom G-d Himself in the Torah accuses, describe their act of creating statues/paintings.

They create these items as a focal point. A focal point of worship. A window into heaven. The created object places their mind onto the Divine or the ascended god/being/human being represented by the manufactured item. The item becomes a representation of the Divine, much as a photograph reminds us of our loved ones dead and gone, or separated by miles. How many people believe that they are engaging in idolatry by printing a photo of their mother to hang on their wall? The same is true of idols. No one in their right mind believes that a shaped and created object, embellished with gold and with jewels, is a god. It is merely a reminder of things divine. A focal point – comparable to a telephone receiver by which they may contact the divine. Ask an Orthodox child about an icon, and he will tell you that he talks to the saint pictured therein, while gazing at the icon. Ask a Catholic who prays while gazing at a crucifix, and they will tell you that they are praying to Christ Himself, while gazing at a reminder of His suffering.

It is no different in any faith. All of these images, statues and shapes made, are representative of a divine being. They are conduits by which the divine may be reached through focus and prayer. But they, themselves, are not gods, nor are they being worshiped. So the question is still not answered… If the assumptions we have made about the ancients, and the explanation given by those engaged in the same or similar practices in the modern world are true, why is the Divine so upset about these little statues and paintings? Are stained glass windows, paintings, statues, even carvings of animals – idols? Are the modern Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists, Aboriginals and others all guilty of idolatry?

Interestingly enough, the Talmud states (Yoma 69b) that the Men of the Great Assembly managed to remove the idolatry component of the Satan (Evil Inclination) from Jewish life, and it ceased to be a problem. The Talmud also records (Sanhedrin 102b) that Rav Ashi had a debate on Jewish law with idolatrous King Menashe of Judah, and lost. When asked by King Menashe in a dream what the halacha is when eating bread, Rav Ashi responded that he did not know. When Menashe responded with the well-done part first, Rav Ashi, surprised at his knowledge, responded: “As you are so learned, why then did you worship idols?”. Menashe replied: “The drive for idolatry was so strong in my time that, had you been there, you would have lifted your robe to run after me and do the same!”

What Makes a Person?

I want to share with you, what made me who I am today. I was speaking about it with a friend, and realized that I had never bothered to inform anyone. In truth, it never seemed important to me. It’s just who I am, and I never gave it a second thought.

I started a company several (it seems like a lifetime) years ago which created advertisements and menu boards using flat screen televisions. Now everywhere you go, you see menus at fast food that have the television screens that change, or Old Navy with its screens that advertise their products, in malls.. all over the place really. I did that. I made buckets full of money, but wanted more and more. I lost everything, including my own sanity. It was a dark time. I was young and stupid, and only cared about money. I wore $5,000.00 suits, drove a Mercedes and thought I was better than everyone. I was an a**hole, and I deserved worse than what I got, in the end. I should still be suffering for the way I treated people. I destroyed relationships without a care, drank like a sailor, and my whole life spiraled out of control.

What changed it all? What made me who I am today? Simple! I died (don’t ask how, that’s a different story), and saw nothing. There was nothing at all. I was clinically dead for more than ten minutes. I should have had severe brain damage from lack of oxygen. From what I understand, I just spontaneously started coughing and began breathing on my own. I don’t remember much from the time, only that I was absolutely terrified upon my… resurrection, because I had been dead, but there was no light, no family to greet me… no heaven, no hell, no nothing.

For a few weeks, nothing mattered. What was the point? But then I got a wake up call. I was told that I should still be dead, and that at very least, my brain should be damaged to the point where I should be bedridden and under the care of others until I die. I was told to stop being pathetic and to start being grateful. I was sent to a cleric, and confided my experience, my feelings of it all being pointless, a waste, and my desire to just die and be done with it all. The cleric said “I don’t have answers, but I can tell you this. G-d didn’t show you anything at all, because that would have destroyed your free choice. But he preserved your mind and raised you from the dead. Isn’t that enough to thank him by serving him at least an hour every week?”

I started out slow, examined my life and my deeds, and began to go on the Sabbath. It became natural. I started going weekday mornings. I felt happy for the first time. Started praying regularly. It was relaxing and refreshing. I wanted more and more. For a while, I won’t lie… I just went through the actions. Then the more I learned, I served because I was terrified. Eventually, however; I served because I was grateful. For each and every breath. Now I am grateful because of my children who would have never been here, and who I would never have gotten to meet and to see grow.

But to be perfectly honest… the thought of dying still terrifies me. The separation from the body is the most painful thing ever. And I’m scared that when I die for good, there may be nothing like before, but this time it will be forever. Don’t get me wrong, I am by no means a religious freak, but I do believe, and I do attend services because of that belief. I do try to live my life according to the teachings and tenants of my faith, and when I fail, I get up and try again. It isn’t so much faith that drives me, as hope. I have hope. I don’t just “trust” that God exists and that heaven is real. I am not to that level yet. I just “hope that it is so” and try to live accordingly.

Rambam on Truth

Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.

Rambam, The Guide for the Perplexed

Pirkei Avot: Vilna Gaon – Because You Will Die Against Your Will

The Mishna in Pirkei Avot (4:22) says that a person is created against his will, he is born against his will, he lives against his will, and he will die against his will. The Vilna Gaon asks, if a person’s entire existence is against his will, how can he be held accountable. It is like hiring a person to do your bookkeeping who says he doesn’t know anything about bookkeeping. At the end of the year when the books are a mess, can he blame the bookkeeper? Similarly if we never accepted the challenge of life this world willfully, can we be held accountable?

The Vilna Gaon’s answer is explained with a Mashal from the Dubno Magid. There was a ranting women who was not able to find someone willing to marry. She was also blind. They finally found her the perfect shidduch, a deaf man who never got married because he was deformed beyond belief. They got married and lived in perfect harmony. He couldn’t hear her curses and rantings and she couldn’t see how ugly he was.

One day a famous doctor came to town who had a special potion to restore vision and hearing. The couple excitedly went to the doctor who charged them a fortune of money and gave each one special drops. Miraculously they were both cured, but what tzorus it caused! He couldn’t believe the cursing coming from his sweet wife and she couldn’t stand the site of her deformed husband.

They took the Doctor to Din Torah demanding their money back and then some, for the trouble he caused and the marriage he ruined. The Rov asked the Doctor if he’d like to defend himself. He said there was no need to. He has special drops that can return them to their original state, and he will give it to them for free. At this point they started to scream, no! no! If so said the Doctor, they were satisfied with his treatment and he deserved his pay.

It’s true that we we were put on earth against our will. However when it is time to leave the world none of us are happy to go and we fight death with all our might. If so we are happy here and must pay the price of the damage we caused while we are here. The Mishna tells us that we were born against our will but we also are dragged to our grave against our will and that is what does us in.

A bit of humour…

For those that are religiously overzealous and criticize others for spending so much time on Facebook, I would like to point out that G-d has been writing on walls since “Mene Mene Tekel Uparshin”. He obviously had Belshazzar “friended”…

Where does the ego come from?

In all of the places that I have been, I have not experienced self-centredness and egocentrism quite to the extreme that infects the American (as in the United States of America) conscience anywhere else. So I got to thinking… where does it come from? What about America (as in the United States of America) is it that breeds this mentality? Are Americans (as in the United States of America) raised to believe that they are better than people inhabiting the rest of the world? I guess it is true, if 110 persons incarcerated per 100,000 people is a cause for bragging. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that Americans aren’t awesome people, or that, for the most part, they aren’t worthy of esteem. In fact, this wasn’t supposed to be about Americans at all. I am merely questioning the origins of this narcissistic mentality. I don’t remember my mother ever telling me “Now honey, you are better than everybody else. Don’t ever forget that.”. Perhaps my upbringing was merely lacking in ego coaching.Freud declares that “The Ego and the Id are built upon the presupposed existence of conscious and unconscious thoughts.”.  The question that remains, is, aren’t we taught how to think by our parents? Where exactly do these thoughts come from? Isn’t our unconscious thought predicated upon our learning and experiences? What are your thoughts, and even more importantly, do you believe that religion has played a role in the formation of the self importance that you see exemplified by others, or does a pre-existing feeling of superiority merely spill over into their religious life?