Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Worshipping Idols

The laws by which Noahides are bound are quite distinct in nature from the laws of the Torah, and even when the same law exists in both codes, the applications of the laws are different. These not-so-slight variations are visibly seen in practical situations (especially concerning the forbidden relations and degrees of murder as they relate to a Jew and non-Jew). However, due to the secular nature of contemporary society, many are not aware of (or are aware, yet still deny) the existence of G-d (sometimes out of ignorance or a mere lack of proper education) and the implications that His presence in the world has in respect to the lives of everyone. The most fundamental of the positive Sinaitic commandments is the obligation to belief in the existence of HaShem, as it is written[1], “I am HaShem, your G-d.” The Sefer Minchas Chinuch does not explain the basis of this commandment as he does by all other commandments, because he states[2], “the root of this Mitzvah does not require an elucidation. It is widely known to all [people] that this belief [in G-d] is the foundation for religion and those who do not believe in this are denying the main creed and have no portion or merit in Israel.” The Rambam writes[3] that belief in G-d is such an important article as a foundation in life because all things are dependent on and directly influenced by one’s theistic belief (or lack thereof). The converse is also true; one of the most stringent negative commandments is the warning not to believe in any other gods except for HaShem, because it says unequivocally in the Bible[4], “Thou shalt not have other gods in addition to Me.” The Ramban[5] explains that this divine directive prohibits one from even believing in false gods in his heart without actually committing a physical act of idolatry.

Maimonides explains[6] the historical source for the foundation of idol worship. In the times of Enosh, humankind made a grave mistake in that they decided that they required the use of intermediaries to express they praise and thanks to G-d, and therefore they created physical idols to represent the His honor. However, eventually they began to think of these physical icons as the Creator Himself and forgot about the actual existence of a Higher Authority. Rabbi Elazar Segal-Landau (son of the Noda B’Yehuda (1713-1793), in Yad HaMelech) of Prague writes that this is what is meant when the Holy Scripture writes[7], “Then, calling in the name of HaShem became profane” because his generation profaned the name of HaShem by attaching it to physical statues. The Maharitz Chayos (Rabbi Zevi Hirsch Chajes, 1805-1855), in his glosses to Maimonides’ Yad[8], points out that this is what is meant by the Talmudic hyperbole of “committing idolatry like Enos”[9]. While the Rambam explains the historical background behind the birth of idolatry, he neglects to explain the wickedness and wrongness of its beginnings. The Rogatchover Gaon (Rabbi Yosef Rosen, 1858-1936) explains[10] that since the people in the generation of Enosh showed equal honor to a power in addition to G-d, while in the presence of G-d (for everything is within His realm), they were considered rebelling against the King (of the World) and were thus liable for punishment. The source for this assertion –that showing honor to someone else besides the King while in the King’s presence is considered revolting against the kingdom –is a passage in the Talmud[11]; however, there are those who argue with this assertion[12].

An alternate explanation as to why idolatry, since its very inception, has always been considered evil is because committing idolatry denies the Creator and His power. The instigators in the days of Enosh felt that G-d was too high, too distant, and too great for them to relate to, so they needed a liaison. Eventually, this situation begat false prophets, who professed to relate the will of G-d by establishing new forms of worship and various sanctuaries and temples. In declaring G-d as too inaccessible to them, the troublemakers “set limits” on G-d’s abilities, thereby denying His eternal infiniteness. Rabbi Yaakov Loeberbaum of Lisa (d. 1832), the author of Nesivos Hamishpat, says even without bowing down to idols or offering to them sacrifices, merely declaring certain things to be as a result of one’s own work or power is considered heretical idolatry. He explains that this is the understanding of the exegesis in the Talmud[13] which states that King David desired to commit idolatry until Chushai stopped him; in reality, David merely wanted to attribute his military victories to his own strength and not G-d’s help. This is the meaning behind the juxtaposition of Deuteronomy 8:17, “And you shall say in your heart, ‘my might and the strength of my hand, made me all this fortune’”, to the warning against committing idolatry and straying after false lords. Assuming that one’s success is a result of his or her own toil and perseverance is denying the power of G-d and (heaven forbid) declaring Him secondary in the natural flow of the world. Therefore, attempting to achieve as much wealth, honor, or pleasure as possible can also be classified as a type of idolatry for it implies that it is within an individual’s ability to accomplish such a task unaided by divine intervention.

To both Jews and non-Jews alike, committing idolatry is forbidden. Since Maimonistic Halakha axiomatically maintains[14] that G-d is one and only one, He, therefore, cannot be considered a unification of various forces and/or personalities, as that constitutes idolatry. A Jew’s prohibition of idolatry applies to an even greater degree than a non-Jew’s, because a Jew is even forbidden to believe in shutfus, “partnerships” between the Supreme G-d and other entities, while for a non-Jew, such a belief does not constitute idol worship. This can explain why the Tritheistic Catholicism and other such branches of Christianity (or perhaps even the rest of Christianity who do not believe that the “Holy Spirit” joined the pantheon of the “Father” and the “Son”) are not necessarily considered idolatry for a gentile, while for a Jew, according to Maimonides, it is. The ruling that gentiles are permitted to believe in “partners in creation” only reflects the simple understanding of Tosafos[15] and the Rema[16]. However, the responsa Me’il Tzedakah[17] and Pri Megadim[18] write that even according to Tosfos such a belief is forbidden to any person.

The Rema mi'Panu (Rabbi Menachem Azaria de Fano, 1548-1620) enumerates[19], based on the opinion of Ulla[20], the thirty laws which a Noachide must uphold each of which is included in one of seven main categories. Because of this, the title “Ben Noach”[21] can only be conferred upon a person who upholds all seven categories of Noahide Laws. A small group of people practices what is called “Judeo-Paganism”, which is a mixture of Jewish and polytheistic/pagan practices and theology. Some of those practices involve honoring (or remembering) divinities that were among those previously rejected by the prophets of the Tanach (e.g., Molech, Ba'al, Asherah, Ra’, Daggah, Tammuz, etc…). Such superstitious adherences and rituals are quite contrary to the Torah and Noachide laws. In fact, avodat elilim (vain worship) encompasses more than one prohibition in both the Torah and Noahide laws. Those prohibitions[22] are passing a child through a fire to worship Molech, stick divination, divining of auspicious times, interpreting of omens superstitiously, witchcraft and sorcery, charming with incantations (unless it is included in the mesorah/Oral tradition), consulting with mediums and oracles, and necromancy. (Even the 30 laws as enumerated by Rabbi Shmuel ben Chofni, Gaon of Sura/Baghdad, as discovered in the Cairo Genizah, include most of those pagan prohibitions.)

Furthermore, the Rambam (Rabbi Moses Ibn Maimon, 1135-1204) says[23] that one who conducts himself according to these Noahide principles merely because they appeal to his intellect, justice, or logic, is not fulfilling them properly and is thus not considered a kosher “ben Noach.” Rather, feels the Rambam, a non-Jew must believe that he is following the Noahide laws because G-d has commanded him to do so, just as G-d commanded the Jews to follow their own code of laws at the Sinaitic Revelation (and a Jew must have proper intentions, too). The Ohr Somayach (Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk, 1843-1926) explains[24] that the Rambam maintains the opinion that all commandments are followed because of their origin at Mount Sinai, and not because of any pre-Sinaitic prophecies, institutions, or practices. Indeed, this is what the Rambam wrote in his Pirush HaMishnayos (“Explanation of the Mishnah”)[25] concerning the prohibition for a Jew to consume to sciatic nerve (gid hanasheh): Although the prohibition dates back to the days of the forefather Jacob, it is presently extant only because it was repeated at Sinai.

However, the above opinion of the Rambam is not entirely accepted, for it can be implied from the Ritva (Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Alshevili, circa. 1300) that any gentile who merely fulfills his or her obligation as a moral monotheist can be called a son of Noach[26] despite whatever intentions the gentile has. This implies that one only needs to submit to his or her natural moral inclination, without believing in the giving of the Torah at Har Sinai, in order to be called a righteous gentile. Furthermore, the Rambam himself seemingly contradicts his own ruling because he stated elsewhere[27] that the Jews kept every mitzvah as it was given in its own historical context (i.e. circumcision from Abraham’s time, tithing from Issac, the sciatica from Jacob, etc...) and the rest are kept because of the revelation at Horeb. This implies that a gentile should keep his laws because of it’s acceptance into moral society eons ago in history, not because of the Sinaic Revelation.

Rabbi Jacob Aaron Ettlinger of Germany (1798-1871) understood[28] that the Noachides of present days are exempt from observing the Seven Noahite Laws. He understands this based on Rav Yosef[29] who expounds, based on Habakkuk 3:6, that because the gentiles did not conform to the rules that HaShem imposed upon them, He exempted them from keeping those laws. However, this understanding of the passage in the Talmud is not quite justified, because the Talmud goes on to explain that He only made it so that they receive reward for fulfilling the commandments as if they were not commanded to do so, but they were still commanded to follow the laws. This is considered a punishment because the reward one receives for carrying out a good act that he was commanded to do is far greater than the reward for a good act that one was not commanded to do.

In any case, the moral repercussions of a society that flatly disallows for belief in G-d are serious. In addition to implicating such a society for eventual punishments from G-d Himself, such a society will degrade into a unilaterally immoral state. In rejecting G-d and His Torah, one thereby removes the cause of morality from the world and thus people would be free to do as they please (and do what pleases them). This will eventually bring further punishment as such a society will adopt prohibited practices as the norm –or at least as tolerable. The lack of such a fundamental belief in a society will produce harmful results to its constituents, which will further criminalize them for not following the innate human tendency for morality (i.e. the Seven Noahite Laws) and will cause more evil sin to run amuck in the world. The Noahide Laws offer a solution: Everyone is required to contribute to the establishment of morally upstanding courts, which properly monitor and care for the moral standing of the local populace.


[1] Exodus 20:2
[2] §25
[3] Maimonides, Laws of Foundations of the Torah 1:6
[4] Exodus 20:3
[5] Ad loc.
[6] Maimonides, Laws of Idolatry 1:1
[7] Genesis 4:26
[8] Ad loc.
[9] See Shabbos 118b
[10] Tzafnas Paneach to Maimonides ad loc.
[11] Kiddushin 43a
[12] I.e. Tosafos in Yoma 66b
[13] Sanhedrin 107a
[14] Maimonides, Laws of Foundations of Torah, Chapter 1
[15] Bechoros 2b
[16] Orach Chaim §156:1
[17] §22
[18] Orach Chaim Ibid. Eshel Avraham §2 and Yoreh De’iah §65, Sifsei Da’as §11
[19] Asarah Ma'amaros, Ma'amar Chikur Din 3:21
[20] Chullin 92a
[21] “Son of Noah”, who was deemed righteous by G-d, See Genesis 6:9
[22] Many of which can be found in Leviticus 19 and 20 and are repeated numerous times through the Torah
[23] Maimonides, Laws of Kings 8:14
[24] Maimonides, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions 14:7
[25] In the end of the seventh chapter of Chullin
[26] See Chiddushei HaRitva to Makkos 9a
[27] Maimonides, Laws of Kings, 9:1
[28] Aruch L’ner to Makkos 9a
[29] Bava Kama 38, Avodah Zarah 2b

7 comments:

Rachel said...

Dear Rabbi,
Thank-you for your blog, I enjoy reading your essays.
I have a question concerning
idolatry and would appreciate your help.
My question is, would the use of marijuana be considered idolatry?
I understand that when one uses any form of drug that in turn "puts the soul to sleep."
I understand it is unethical (not to mention physically detrimental to ones health) to use drugs,and I would like your insight into what the Torah says concerning this.
Thank-you Rachel

Reb Chaim HaQoton said...

First of all, I'm not a Rabbi.

Thank you for your compliments. I'm glad that at least someone reads my essays. :)

Depending on what one's thoughts are as to his intention on his usage of marijuana, it could be considered idolatry or not.

Rachel said...

Thank-you for answering my post.
Could you expound on your answer please? I need more clarity.How can ones thoughts determine if something is idolatry? What if someone smokes marijauna all day every day but still observes Mitzvot, Davens, does acts of tzaddakah,reads psalms ect and they smoke alot of marijuana aren't they still giving their heart soul and mind to the drug rather than G-D?
Even if your not a rabbi, you write like one. (My opinion)
Kol Tova

Reb Chaim HaQoton said...

Why is this person smoking away his life? Is he doing it as a means of supressing a disease (like someone I know who has a bad case of Tourette's syndrome)? Is he doing it for fun? Is he trying to relax? Is he just trying to pleasure himself with it? Is he doing it because it looks cool? I can't really know the answer to your question unless I completely understand the nature of his addiction.

I can't really see how a person can properly observe the mitzvos and do acts of kindness while under the influence of "the bush," but then again, I do not really know the effects of Marijuana.

Rachel said...

Hi, Thank-you for answering my post.I am still searching for an answer to this question...here is the situation.
This woman likes to smoke weed. She is Jewish and middle aged. (43)
About 4 and a half years ago she was victimized in an unspeakable way. Her reason for smoking is that marijuana soothes her. She hasnt found any serenity through other aves such as therapy medication,ect...She is and has been attuned to helping others and healing the earth (Tikkun Olam) for many years...and observes Mitzvos...but the only way she can cope is through altering her perception with marijuana...I understand that when one has mental health issues we are to do what we can in order to help them do mitzvos but if one is altered mentally how can they do a true Mitzvos? Or do I just support the Mitzvos and turn my head to the drug use? (and pray for her illumination?)
Thank-you for your insight Rachel

Reb Chaim HaQoton said...

People like you and I cannot relate to the types of problems that your friend has unfortunately been through. I don't think any of us have a right to judge her for trying to forget about her problems.

Willow said...

An answer like that shows more compassion than I've seen in a long time. If this is an example of Judaism, I could seriously convert.

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