Aug 7, 2021, 29 Av 5781
Torah: Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17; Triennial 12:29-14:29
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11-55:5
Of Idols and Ideals
Throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moshe issues repeated injunctions to the people to avoid idolatrous practices. When they enter the land of Canaan, a land populated by nations who worship other gods, the Israelites are commanded to destroy their places of worship, as we read in our parashah: “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are about to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods” (12:2-3). In the Talmud, this injunction is interpreted both literally and metaphorically, raising questions about the persistence of idolatrous worship in our own day as well.
The Talmudic rabbis refer to idolatry as “avodah zarah,” alien worship, a term which hearkens back to the “alien fire” that Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu brought to the altar against God’s wishes. Avodah zarah is any kind of worship that is not about the worship of the one God. In the third and fourth chapters of the eponymous tractate, the rabbis explore the ramifications of Moshe’s command to destroy all sites of idolatrous worship, questioning what to do when the object of worship is part of the natural world. What if the idolators worship the sun or the stars or the mountains? To answer this question, Rabbi Yossi, the son of Rabbi Yehuda, offers a close literal reading of Moshe’s words in our parashah: Since the Torah says “whether on lofty mountains,” the sages derive “not the mountains themselves if they are their gods” (Avodah Zarah 45a). If it is a part of the natural world that the idolators worship, then we are not commanded to destroy God’s creation.
The rabbis further explore the commandment to destroy idolatrous sites in explaining the persistence of idolatry in their own day. They relate a conversation in which the pagan Romans ask the rabbis, “If it is not God’s will that people engage in idolatry, why does He not eliminate it?” (Avodah Zarah 54b). The rabbis respond that many of the objects worshipped by idolators serve an important purpose in our world, like the sun and stars. “Should God destroy His world because of fools?” they ask the Romans. The Romans argue that if so, God should at least destroy those objects which the world does not need, such as pillars and posts. Why does God allow these objects to continue to exist? The rabbis respond that if God were to destroy only the pillars and posts while allowing the continued worship of the sun and stars, then the idolators would mistakenly conclude that while the pillars and posts may not have been true gods, the sun and stars surely are. It is for this reason, the rabbis explain, that “the world goes along following its course” and God does not intervene to destroy idolatry.
As this discussion suggests, the objects of idolatrous worship need not necessarily be inherently bad. There is nothing wrong with the sun and the stars, but there is something very wrong about worshipping them as ends in and of themselves.
In our own day, too, we sometimes find that the objects and ideals we enshrine may have tremendous positive value, and yet they become problematic when we place them on pedestals or make inordinate sacrifices on their behalf. We may find ourselves worshipping wealth and status, devoting all our time and energy to advancing professionally while losing sight of the people we are trampling or ignoring in so doing. We may find ourselves worshipping thinness and fitness to an extent that actually harms our bodies and prevents us from appreciating the ways in which food can bring us closer to others and to God. Paradoxically, we may even find ourselves worshipping God in an idolatrous manner, privileging our relationship with the divine over our relationship with other people and ignoring the needs of others because of a single-minded fixation on our own piety. No one would tell us to do away with these ideals entirely, but we need to find ways to incorporate material gain and fitness and spirituality into our lives so that we do not worship them as ultimate ends.
The Talmudic rabbis recognized that idolatry is not just about what we worship, but about the way we worship. They argue that just as an idolator is enslaved to evil desires, so too anyone who becomes controlled by his or her evil inclination is engaging in a kind of idolatry. In tractate Shabbat (105b), amidst a discussion of types of constructive and destructive labor prohibited on Shabbat, the sages argue that “one who rends his garments in anger, or who breaks his vessels in anger… should be like an idol worshipper in your own eyes.” Any time we lose control of our tempers, it is as if we are engaging in idolatry. The rabbis explain this analogy by means of a close reading of a verse from Psalms (81:10), “There shall be no alien god inside you, and you shall not bow down to a foreign god.” They argue that the evil inclination is like an alien god inside each and every person that competes to become the object of our worship; any time we allow it to control us, we are no longer able to worship the one God. And so we engage in idolatry not only when an external object displaces God, but also when our internal passions supplant God.
The biblical prohibition on worshipping other gods and the command to destroy the sites of idolatrous worship serve, for the Talmudic sages, as a way of exploring various forms of alien or deviant worship. Not all of our “idols,” whether external objects or internal passions, are inherently bad. To avoid engaging in idolatry, we must be aware of what we idolize and how we conduct ourselves, ensuring that our values and emotions do not govern or possess us. In a world in which God does not intervene to destroy the objects and obsessions of alien worship, the line between our ideals are our idols is not always clear; we pray for the wisdom and discernment to know the difference.
Torah Sparks is courtesy of