Where Have the Idolators Gone?
We've all met them. We just don't know the right word.
Rabbi Saadia Gaon completed the first systematic dogma of Judaism, The Book of Beliefs and Opinions (Emunot v’De’ot) in the year 933, as long after the Giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai as we today live after the birth of Plato. This means that long before Judaism possessed any systematic theology that a philosopher could appreciate, any dogma spun out from the holistic fabric of our faith, we already possessed an obsession with idolatry.
Judaism’s ban on idol worship is immortalized in the second of the Ten Commandments, second only to the belief in G-d itself:
You shall not have the gods of others in My presence. You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth. You shall neither prostrate yourself before them nor worship them, for I, the Lord, your God, am a zealous God, Who visits the iniquity of the fathers upon the sons, upon the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me.
In fact, I would argue that idol worship is one of the very few beliefs that could be called outright antithetical to Judaism according to all opinions. All told, I think a thorough tally would find Judaism’s scriptures, prophets, and rabbis through the ages have been far more interested in the negation of idol worship than any other belief or philosophy, including outright atheism.1
It is axiomatic (and stands to reason) that the Torah of the One G-d is eternal and applicable to all times and places. Which immediately raises the question: Where are the idolators today?
One approach takes the easiest way out and says that there is no idolatry any longer. According to the Talmud, the sages captured and dominated the urge to worship idols. This temptation repeatedly mentioned in the ancient teachings is no longer a concern for humanity at large.2 As implied by the end of the 19th chapter of Tanya, the core of idol worship is the true belief of the worshipper. Some Torah sages of recent generations have thus argued that the ritual described in the Talmud, in combination with a general decline in humankind’s spiritual wisdom, has rendered true, sincere idolatry basically impossible today. Those idolatries that do remain, this opinion would have it, remain only as vestiges G-d has allowed to persist in our reality, but in no way present the same universal challenge to Judaism that their predecessors once did, as will be explained presently.
Another approach says that, like the many laws of the Torah that are not practiced today because we lack a High Court or Sanhedrin, etc., there is eternal ethical, spiritual, or mystical content to the ancient ban on idolatry even when the object of the commandment is no longer common. Thus, idolatry would not be so different from the animal sacrifices in the Temple—what once we fulfilled “literally” we now can fulfill through prayer or charity or other means that capture the spiritual essence and root of the commandment.
Regarding idolatry, I would like to propose a middle road between these approaches. I believe that there are no idolators today, not in the ancient sense of someone who we could bring for the crime before the court. But I also believe that idolatry is not just an internal spiritual/mystical concern.
Instead, I propose that there are actual idolatries all around us in contemporary American society, even if no adherent is wise enough to serve them with true intent and technically render them so in the eyes of the law. I also propose that it is part of the Jew’s mission on earth to stand against these enemies and that these enemies will stand against us, whether we like it or not.
This proposition about contemporary idolatry demands more demonstration than this short essay can provide. With the rest of this post, I hope to show what it would look like, should it exist, and where we can expect to find it.
The Jew’s relationship with idolatry is not merely legal/halachic but existential. The word “Jew” itself, as a name applying to the entire Jewish people rather than descendants of Judah, the son of Jacob, is first found in the book of Esther. Even though Mordechai was a Benjaminite (descendant of the biblical Benjamin and not of the biblical Judah), he is named “Yehudi,” or Jew. The Talmud explains this discrepancy:
Rabbi Yoḥanan said a different explanation of the verse: Actually, Mordecai came from the tribe of Benjamin. Why, then, was he referred to as Yehudi? On account of the fact that he repudiated idol worship, for anyone who repudiates idolatry is called Yehudi.
The Talmud here unites two seemingly unrelated focal points of Jewish life, the genocidal antisemitism of the wicked Haman and the essential repudiation of idolatry defining Haman’s arch-enemy Mordechai. That is, the first gentile who sought the destruction of the Jewish people—man, woman, and child—was in the eyes of the Talmud seeking the destruction of the repudiation of idolatry.
Idolatry’s synonymity with Anti-Judaism, the essential opposition of these two forces in the world, goes a long way toward explaining a somewhat politically incorrect law in Maimonides’s Laws of Murder and Self-Preservation:
Similarly, it is forbidden for a Jew to enter into privacy with a gentile, for they are suspected of bloodshed. Nor should one accompany gentiles on a journey. If a Jew encounters a gentile on a journey, he should make sure the gentile is at his right.
Though this translation says “gentile,” the original text actually reads Aku”m, the Hebrew acronym for “worshippers of stars and constellations,” that is, idolators. It is the idol worshipper whom the Law suspects of bloodshed.3 This suspicion of immorality (or amorality) in idolators is easier to understand, considering the Talmud’s assessment of the Jew as “one who repudiates idolatry.”4 The idolator is the Jew’s natural enemy.
This only brings us to greater confusion, however. Haman was an idolator who demanded others bow down to his gods. If we look around the world at the most obvious of the Jews’ collective enemies today, however, we do not obviously find idol worshippers among them. Certainly, the Nazis had strains of pagan or neo-pagan thought in their twisted ideology, but one could just as easily call the movement a godless child of the enlightenment. The bans of Stalin and his ilk were famously in defense of atheism, whereas Hamas and its friends are famous for their commitment to what they believe is a form of Abrahamic monotheism!
Turning on the other hand to what we might consider “classical idolatries” that persist in our times, we hardly discover any blood enemies of the Jews—Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintoism, and the native African religions are hardly infamous for their opposition to Judaism.5 This is not to say that these religions are necessarily any less idolatrous or any less fundamentally opposed to Judaism than the Prophets of Baal were in the times of Elijah. However, as opponents to the Jewish people and the Jewish mission, they do not seem to fit the bill.
We are looking for something else. We are looking for something that unites all the greatest enemies of the Jews, that could be defined as idolatry.
Let’s read the Second Commandment of the Ten Commandments more closely. After we read,
You shall not have the gods of others in My presence.
which is the core of the commandment, we get to a fascinating definition of terms:
You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth. You shall neither prostrate yourself before them nor worship them…
The Torah’s most explicit, well-known ban on idolatry involves the “making of an image or a likeness” before which one prostrates oneself or worships. If we seek sneaky idolatry, the idolatry that has made it into our monotheistic world, this seems like a good place to start.
Consider: The atheist often wonders whether man makes G-d in his image, rather than vice versa. That is, he wonders whether humankind has not projected G-d outward upon reality based on his own consciousness and agency. The Abrahamic monotheist sees a grain of truth in this but would like clarification. When we say the image of man, what do we mean? Can everything man is be conveyed by words or drawn in a picture? Does man reduce to the describable, or does he possess an irreducible private “self-defined self” ultimately unconveyable through any piecemeal words except perhaps a name?6
The One G-d, the monotheist would argue, is not like any object of our common experience, except perhaps the unknowable point of selfhood (call it a soul?) uniting the various human faculties like the intellect, the senses, and the emotions. Just as the self is no one of these things but lays beneath them and unites them into one living being, so, too, does the One G-d differ from all other beings yet lay beneath them and bring them into existence. G-d is the formless thing that must necessarily exist to allow all forms to exist. To associate G-d with any particular image or likeness in the heavens above or the earth below is to take the unknowable and declare it knowable, the indescribable and describe it. This is idolatry.
It is more accurate to say that if man makes G-d, then in Abrahamic monotheism He is made in man’s non-image. The gods made in an image or a likeness, man’s or otherwise, were those that Abraham smashed in his father’s shop. Idol worship is to deify a known or knowable image or take the unknowable and draw or carve it.
(There is a reason Jews are the People of the Book and not the People of the Image.7 While G-d cannot be described by any word but may only be named, the mode of the word is at least metaphorical, with the sound or shape of each word possessing only a distant relationship with what the word describes if any. The image, on the other hand, like the map to a territory, possesses the form and contours of what it depicts within itself.8)
The idolator, in depicting the unknown, can only use images from the known. In worshipping the known image, the idolator places that image above himself; in his mind, the image becomes the cause, and the worshipper the effect. Combining these two relational dynamics, the idol worshipper must place into his idol all the images he finds in himself. If they do not exist in the idol, the effect possesses something the cause does not, which is impossible. This is why pagan deities go from abstraction to humanization in the high paganisms like the Greek or Roman pantheons without ever breaking free from idolatry. People are recreated as gods, and gods as people, but in exchange, as one of Judaism’s great modern sages writes, man becomes a mere caricature of himself.
Rabbi Moshe Sofer (d. 1839), known as the Chasam Sofer, addresses the meaning of the Jewish commandment to not cut the “Peyot” or sidelock hair in front of the ears. He relates the well-known reason given by Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed, namely, that we leave hair uncut at the “corners of the head” because priests of idolatry used to shave the entire cranium regularly.9
Never mind the reasoning behind the commandment, writes the Chasam Sofer, since Jews keep commandments whether we understand the reasoning behind them or not. But what explanation can we find for this strange idolatrous practice of shaving the entire head?
Observe the astonishing idea: Those who worshipped graven images concocted all manner of methods by which their idols could appear as human beings. They were successful in many ways, but they were utterly unable to recreate the true appearance of hair on their idols. They were only able to attach shorn human hair to their idols, never to actually grow new hair.
Therefore, in order to honor their idols, the idolatrous priests took the opposite approach. They shaved their own heads entirely, including the “corner of the head,” so that they looked the same as their idols.
Drashos Chasam Sofer, Part II, p.319
The problem with worshipping images and making a form into a god is that the human being themselves, in being alive, transcends any form. If they are to remain convinced that a fixed form is their cause, what must eventually happen is that they must lose their vitality, their uniquely human traits. The idolators must make themselves as fixed and dead as their gods. In the immortal words of the Psalmist:
Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have mouths, but they speak not; Eyes have they, but they see not…They that make them shall be like unto them; Yea, every one that trusteth in them.
To sum up:
In the search for the modern idolator, the existential opposite of the Jew, we seek someone that spiritually mutilates themselves, denying their inner unknowable, mysterious individual self to conform to a mere image. This image is what the idolator views as their cause, something “bigger” or more prior by which they define themselves. This process of ceasing to be an irreducible soul and enslaving oneself to an image deeply damages the conscience. Images do not have a conscience. In the extreme case, one loses all sense of moral accountability and might kill one’s fellow man. The murdered would be just another human sacrifice in the name of that great cause, which is more important and more eternal in the eyes of the idolator than any soul or any person.
The final common denominator among the idolators would be their initial or eventual opposition to Jews, Judaism and the Jewish mission, like the Nazis, Bolsheviks, and Hamas all did or do. To be a Jew, after all, as Mordechai was a Jew before Haman, is to repudiate idolatry.10 To be a Jew is to inevitably find oneself betrayed when one does not fit into the image or form.
Once upon a time, we may have called a person with all these traits a follower of Baal, a pagan, or the like. Today, I think we have a different word for them, a word supplied by simple English.
We call them “activists.”
Idolatry in Judaism has always been consonant with the ultimate belief in the existence of the One G-d. In fact, in Maimonides’s famous codification of the ancient history of idolatry in his halakhic work Mishne Torah, he attributes the original development of idolatry to a philosophical misunderstanding of the function of G-d’s appointed intermediaries, such as the sun and moon. The idolator’s outright denial of G-d, if it comes at all, comes only much later.
How to understand this story in the broader context of humanity’s spiritual development, such as the concomitant decline in prophesy, and how we are likely today seeing the other end of this long pendulum swing, is unfortunately beyond the scope of this essay.
In light of this connection, it is interesting to consider the story of the Baal Shem Tov, who would refuse to ride with any gentile wagon driver who did not cross himself upon passing a church for fear of being robbed (or perhaps worse). The role of Christianity vis-a-vis idolatry and as an existential negation of Judaism is beyond the scope of this essay. However, I have written a little about it previously.
We should note that not all forms of these religions are necessarily idolatrous in the fullest sense of the term; we must take care not to fall into the superficial assessment that everything calling itself a “polytheism” is indistinguishable from idolatry to the Law. The question is not how many beings exist in the pantheon (Judaism acknowledges an infinite number of beings, in some sense) but what is meant by the “pantheon,” what the criteria are for admission to it, the nature of its members, etc.
A name is a word that applies to one unique thing and so does not limit or define that to which it applies in the same sense a dictionary definition does. Most words operate by metaphor, relating a thing to other things, and could only lie about the inner, private, self-defined self.
More recently, after taking a break en masse from the strictures of our traditional religion, the Jews have become the People of the Comic Book, a fact that is neither here nor there. It is interesting to note that another of planet earth’s great comic book cultures is found in Japan, a country that has always valued the image over the word and was animistic and pantheistic in its religion for many centuries.
The only place I can think of in Torah Judaism where something like this ever existed in the work of human hands was in the Temple itself, whose dimensions were dictated by G-d to reflect the dimensions of the Divine presence (though of course, not of G-d Himself, who possesses no form). Even then, this connection was only tenuous and in the way of the metaphor, with the true form-fitting depiction of the Divine only really entering our reality in the future Messianic Age that we all await. In this sense, the idolator “immanentizes the eschaton,” as the old men say; by making the unknown known, he tries to force the Messianic state by manipulating technicalities in the Exilic or non-Messianic reality. The implications of this idea are beyond the scope of this essay.
This explanation is the Guide’s cure-all and is used to explain (some would more cynically say, “explain away”) many of the Torah’s more unusual commandments. Whatever we make of it, it is yet another piece of evidence that the entire Judaism can be viewed as opposition to idol worship.
It goes without saying that just as the Hebrews in their very closeness to G-dliness and prophetic splendor felt a powerful temptation to describe G-dliness and make idols, so does the contemporary Jew feel a powerful temptation to become his opposite, and would be disproportionately represented in their ranks or supporters.