Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Qoton Qlassic: Worshipping Idols

Here is the revised edition of a Qoton Qlassic entitled 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 readily discernable 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, under the guise of atheism, chose to ignore) the existence of G-d and the implications of His presence in respect to the daily lifestyle of humanity. The most fundamental of the positive Sinaitic commandments is the obligation to believe in the existence of G-d, as it is written[1], “I am HaShem, your G-d.” Rabbi Yosef Babad (1801-1874)[2] does not explain the basis of this commandment as he does by all other commandments, rather he merely asserts[3], “the root of this commandment 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 rejecting the principle creed and have no portion or merit within Israel.” Maimonides writes[4] that belief in G-d is so fundamentally important in life because all things are dependent on and are directly influenced by one’s theistic belief (or lack thereof). The converse is also true; the most severe negative commandments is the prohibition against believing in any other foreign gods besides the One and Only G-d as the Bible unequivocally warns[5], “You shall not have other gods in addition to Me.” Nachmanides explains[6] that this divine edict prohibits one from merely believing in false gods in his heart without even actually committing a physical act of idolatry.

In explaining the historical precedent for idol worship, Maimonides describes[7] that in the times of Enosh, humankind made a grave mistake in that they decided that they required the use of intermediaries to express their praise and thanks to G-d; they therefore created physical idols to represent the His honor and conveyed their appreciation to them. Eventually, however, 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 of Prague[8] explains[9] that this is alluded to in the Holy Scripture which, about the times of Enosh, states[10], “Then, calling in the name of HaShem became profane” because the contemporaries of Enosh profaned the name of HaShem by attaching it to physical statues. Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Chajes (1805-1855), in his glosses to Maimonides’ magnum opus[11], points out that this is referenced in the Talmudic hyperbole of “committing idolatry like Enos”[12]. While Maimonides explains the historical background behind the birth of idolatry, he seemingly neglects to explain the wickedness and wrongness of its beginnings and why its performance warrants a death sentence. In lieu of an explanation directly from Maimonides, Rabbi Yosef Rosen (1858-1936) explains[13] this omission 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 like any constituent who commits treason against his royal sovereign. Rabbi Rosen, The Rogatchover Gaon, proves this assumption that showing honor to someone else besides the King while in the King’s presence is considered revolting against the kingdom from a Talmudic passage[14] which asserts that Uriah the Hittite was liable for a punishment of death because he referred to Joab as his “master” [15] in the presence of King David[16]. Idolatry, since its very inception, has always been considered especially heinous is because by committing idolatry one denies the Creator and His powers. The heretical instigators of Enosh’s day 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.

To both Jews and non-Jews alike, committing idolatry is forbidden. Since Maimonistic Law axiomatically maintains[17] 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[18]. 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 “partnerships” between the Supreme G-d and other entities, while for a non-Jew, such a belief—although certainly heretical—does not constitute idol worship. According this, Catholicism, which is essentially Tritheistic, and other such branches of Christianity, who believe in a combination of deities (represented variously by a “Father”, “Son”, and “Holy Ghost”) may not necessarily be considered idolatry for a gentile; while for a Jew, according to Maimonides, they are[19].

Rabbi Menachem Azaria de Fano (1548-1620) enumerates[20], the thirty laws that a Noachide must uphold (based on the opinion of Ulla[21]), each of which is included in one of seven main categories. Because of this, the title “Ben Noah”[22] can only be conferred upon one who upholds all seven categories of Noahide Laws. A small sect practices what is deemed “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 actually 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[23] preclude 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, consulting with mediums and oracles, and necromancy.[24]

Additionally, Maimonides rules[25] that one who conducts himself according to these Noahide principles merely because they appeal to his intellect, logic, or sense of justice, is not fulfilling them properly, and is thus not considered a “ben Noach.” Rather, Maimonides writes, 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 these proper motives, as well). Rabbi Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk (1843-1926) explains[26] 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, Maimonides wrote exactly this in his commentary to the Mishnah[27] concerning the prohibition for a Jew to consume the sciatic nerve (gid hanasheh) that although the prohibition dates back to the days of the forefather Jacob[28], it is presently extant only because it was repeated at Mount Sinai. However, the above opinion of Maimonides is not universally accepted, for it can be implied from the Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avrohom Asevilli, a thirteenth century Talmudist, that any gentile who merely fulfills his or her obligation as a moral monotheist can be called a “son of Noah” despite whatever intentions the gentile has[29]. This implies that one needs only to submit to his or her natural moral inclination, without believing in the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, in order to be called a righteous gentile. Furthermore, the Maimonides himself seemingly contradicts his own ruling because he stated elsewhere[30] that the Jews kept every commandment as it was given in its own historical context, for he explains that circumcision was instituted from Abraham’s time, tithing from Isaac, refraining from eating an animal’s sciatica from Jacob… and the rest of the Torah from the time of Moses. This implies that a gentile is not necessarily required to keep his laws because of the Sinai Revelation, rather it suffices to follow the letter of the law merely because of its acceptance into moral society eons ago in history.

Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger of Germany (1798-1871) understood[31] that the Noahides of present days are exempt from observing the Seven Noahide Laws. He understands this based on Rav Yosef[32] 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 in the very same passage continues 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[33]. 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] Sefer Minchas Chinuch #25

[3] §25

[4] Maimonides, Laws of Foundations of the Torah 1:6

[5] Exodus 20:3

[6] Ad loc.

[7] Maimonides, Laws of Idolatry 1:1

[8] Grandson of the Noda B’Yehuda, Rabbi Yechezkel Landau (1713-1793), Chief Rabbi of Prague

[9] Yad HaMelech to Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah

[10] Genesis 4:26

[11] Hagahos Maharitz Chayos Ad loc., (Frankel ed.)

[12] E.g., see Shabbos 118b

[13] Tzafnas Paneach to Maimonides ad loc.

[14] Kiddushin 43a

[15] Samuel II 11:11

[16] However, the Gaon points out that there are those who argue with this assertion (see Tosafos in Yoma 66b) and in this argument, which has halachik ramifications regarding showing honor to a student in the presecence of his teacher, Maimonides remains consistent with the above-cited assertion.

[17] Maimonides, Laws of Foundations of Torah, Chapter 1

[18] Much has been written to reconcile this idea with the Kabalistic concepts of the Ten Sefiroth and of the Thirteen Attributes of G-d’s Mercy. Those writings are beyond the scope of this essay.

[19] The ruling that gentiles are permitted to believe in “partners in creation” only reflects the simple understanding of Tosafos (Brachos 2b) and the Rema (Orach Chaim §156:1), however, responsa Me’il Tzedakah §22and Pri Megadim (Orach Chaim ibid. Eshel Avrohom §2 and Yoreh De’iah §65, Sifsei Da’as §11) write that even according to Tosafos such a belief is forbidden to any person.

[20] Asarah Ma'amaros, Ma'amar Chikur Din 3:21

[21] Chullin 92a

[22] “Son of Noah”, who was deemed righteous by G-d, See Genesis 6:9

[23] Many of which can be found in Leviticus 19 and 20 and are repeated numerous times through the Torah

[24] 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 (see A. Greenbaum, “Thirty Commandments According to Rabbi Shmuel ben Chofni” Published in Hebrew, Sinai, 1973).

[25] Maimonides, Laws of Kings 8:14

[26] Ohr Somayach to Maimonides, Laws of Sexual Prohibitions 14:7

[27]Pirush HaMishnayos (end of Chullin, chapter 7)

[28] Genesis 32:33

[29] See Chiddushei HaRitva to Makkos 9a

[30] Maimonides, Laws of Kings, 9:1

[31] Aruch L’ner to Makkos 9a

[32] Bava Kamma 38a, Avodah Zarah 2b

[33] The difference is because reward for fulfilling a commandment is based on the effort which one exerted in performing the commandment, and only when one is commanded to fulfill a certain commandment does its fulfillment require special exertion in order to battle the Evil Inclination who only tempts one to sin and/or refrain from fulfilling commandments when one is bound by that law.

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