The source of idolatry, among the gravest offenses a religious person can commit, lies atop a slippery slope. It comes not from a search for multiple deities and not even from an abandonment of the one true God. It’s origin lies in a deeper, more basic deviation.
Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhos Avodah Zarah 1:1) explains the historical origin of idolatry. If Adam and Eve interacted with God, at what point and why did their descendants spread their devotions to idols? Maimonides states that at a certain point, people decided to worship God’s celestial servants as a show of respect to God, and eventually worshipped them exclusively and neglected God entirely. This, however, is a historical recreation of humanity. The personal path may be much different.
The Gemara (Pesachim 116a) instructs us to begin our Pesach seder with an embarrassing, insulting tale from the time of Terach, Avraham’s father. “מתחילה עובדי עבודה זרה היו אבותינו – Our ancestors were initially idolators.” Rambam (Hilkhos Chametz U-Matzah 7:4) describes them as “כופרים וטועין אחר ההבל ורודפים אחר עבודה זרה – Deniers, mistakenly following nonsense, and idolators.” This triple language is unusual and instructive. It explains the process by which an individual becomes an idolator.
Elsewhere, Rambam (Hilkhos Teshuvah 3:7-8) divides non-believers into three categories — מינים (sectarians who deny God’s existence), אפיקורסים (epicureans who deny prophecy), and כופרים (heretics who deny the Torah). In describing the idolators we mention at the seder, Rambam invoked the third category — heretics. What Torah existed in Terach’s time for him to reject? It must be the prophetic tradition from Adam and Noach.
Terach and his predecessors took their first steps to idolatry by rejecting their tradition. Without such a guide to religious behavior, they had to invent their own. Their eventual creation was inevitably wrong — a religion of nonsense, which Rambam tersely describes. And idolatry became a central feature of this mistaken philosophy.
The Rambam’s brief lesson in idolatry teaches us that the first step toward religious tragedy is rejection of tradition. Even when facing new situations, without that trusted guide you risk the likelihood of creation a false ideology that leads you to idolatry. Once you step away from the path of the faithful generations of the past, the road to disaster is short and all but unavoidable.