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!”

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