Guest post by R. Gidon Rothstein
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein is the author of We’re Missing the Point: What’s Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It, Educating a People: An Haftarot Companion as a Source for a Theology of Judaism, and two works of Jewishly-themed fiction, Murderer in the Mikdash and Cassandra Misreads the Book of Samuel.
Avoiding idolatry has always been central to Jewish existence and–perhaps surprisingly–continues to be paramount today, centuries after monotheism conquered the Western world. Avraham Avinu got his start in life from realizing that there had to be one God that ran the world, made a name for himself by smashing his father’s idols (and being saved from a fiery furnace), and spent much of the rest of that life cultivating people, convincing them of the truth of monotheism, and being lauded by Scripture as having “made” their souls (Bereshit 12:5).
His descendants are warned against idolatry in the second of the Ten Commandments, and idolatry is a sin that, willfully committed, incurs the death penalty. Rambam notes, in Moreh Nevuchim (I:54), that idolatry is the only sin in reaction to which the Torah will describe Hashem as having charon af, righteous wrath (a claim disputed by Ramban and Malbim), and more convincingly notes that kinah, jealousy, is only used to describe Hashem’s reaction to idolatry.
More central to the discussion I hope to launch here, Bamidbar 15 codifies a slightly different chatat sacrifice for unwitting idolatry, both for the nation and for individuals. In 15:22, the Torah says, “should you err, and not perform all the mitzvot.” Rashi there notes the tradition that the verse refers to idolatry, since it is a sin by which a person “throws off the yoke [of mitzvot, or of service of Hashem], breaks the covenant, and acts arrogantly.” And this is for unwitting idolatry!
I write to suggest that many more of us than we would like to consider have fallen into the trap of unwitting idolatry. Before I lay out my argument, let me stress that I am not being hyperbolic; I don’t mean that we have taken mistaken positions. I mean that we have done something which qualifies as idolatry, although we don’t realize it as we do it.
Before I raise the technical halachic point, let me share two incidents that spurred my thinking on this issue. The first happened several summers ago, when I taught a course in a summer Kollel (for women, as it happens). These were, in other words, highly motivated students, whose devotion to Torah study led them to forego other opportunities.
At some point, I casually noted that Jews are required to believe in the real possibility of miracles, in our time, and not just those natural-looking events we define as a miracle, like the victory in the Six Day War. They asked what I meant.
I said, for example, that if someone was deathly ill, and the doctors had despaired of finding a cure (I was careful to include the importance of seeking ordinary medical care, an aspect of the problem to which I will return, below), that person still had to believe in the possibility—not the likelihood, but the possibility—that Hashem could decide to heal him or her. Or, as Chizkiyahu haMelech is reputed to have said to Yeshayahu haNavi after his life was extended (Berachot 10a-b), our tradition is that, even if the sword is already at our necks, we should never give up on Divine compassion. (In Chizkiyahu’s case, this was literal, since Yeshayahu had just told him Hashem had decreed he would die from his illness).
They looked at me like I was crazy. They couldn’t accept that I would insist that even in the last stages of a terminal illness, miraculous cure was possible. I told that story widely (and included it in my book We’re Missing the Point), because it made such a big impression on me, and then it happened again, with a friend who had read my book.
This friend is a working rabbi, and he brought to my attention an article in which scientists felt there was some significant chance of an asteroid hitting earth and wiping out humanity. Knowing my position on miracles, he was curious how I would deal with this scientific consensus, since the asteroid could well hit before Mashiach came.
I noted, first, that the scientists hadn’t said an asteroid would hit, only that there was whatever percentage chance. That left open many options: the asteroid could never appear, falling under the minority chances they had already laid out; the scientists could have miscalculated, either so that the asteroid would just miss the earth, or hit and kill many, but not all, people or Jews (still a sad situation, and worth working to avert, but not one that interferes with a belief in Mashiach).
Or, I suggested, the scientists could have it all right, but Hashem could change it, miraculously, in one of several ways. One possibility is that Hashem could make the asteroid miss (or kill fewer people than expected) in such a way that scientists experienced it as revealing a detail of the laws of physics they had never known before (in x situation, gravity responds differently, which we couldn’t have known until we saw this happen).
That could be in one of two ways: either, indeed, there had always been this detail of the laws of gravity (or planetary motion, or whatever) or Hashem might have changed the laws of gravity for this purpose, then making it look like it was a law of physics—and, indeed, it being such a law from then on.
Or, of course, Hashem might make an open miracle, moving the asteroid out of earth’s path, with no obvious or explainable physical law to justify how it occurred.
My friend was incredulous, so much so that he asked if we could turn to a referee to see if I was accurate about my claim as to what belief in Hashem and Mashiach required.
Idolatry in Its Recognized Forms
These two striking incidents, both involving well-educated and deeply committed Jews, is what makes me think we have lost sight of one crucial piece of the prohibition of idolatry. We all know classic idolatry, where people somehow believe that a statue is a god, or represents a god, and worship that statue as a way of securing that god’s good graces. That kind of idolatry has, in the West, mostly disappeared, which might be why many of us have stopped being alert to idolatry in general.
Although perhaps we have jumped the gun on that as well. There is much debate today about the nature of Eastern religions, such as Buddhism and Hinduism. Buddhists insist that bowing to an idol is not a form of worship (see here and here), and Hindus say they don’t believe in many gods (see here), but the halachic status of those claims is not nearly as clear—many rabbis assume that these religions constitue halachic idolatry, such as this one. R. Gil Student has noted in this space that those deeply acquainted with these religions—and, perhaps, as they evolve to attract Western followers—make clear how complicated the question is. I raise it not to rule on it, but only to note that even plain vanilla idolatry isn’t as far from modern experience as thousands of years of Abrahamic religion might lead us to believe.
What I want to raise here is an even clearer way to see the problem, by noticing another clause in the Mishnah in Sanhedrin 60b.
Accepting a god
The Mishnah says there are certain actions that are always taken as worship, even if that particular idolatry doesn’t include it. If, for example, no one offered incense to idol x, doing so would still be a capitally liable act of idolatry, since that is one of the avodot penim, one of the acts of worship done to Hashem in the Beit haMikdash.
In addition, the Mishnah says, accepting an idol as one’s god, or saying to it “you are my god” is a capital sin. Rashi thinks the second phrase is an example of how one accepts a god, but other commentators think the difference is whether one does it in front of the idol or not. Either way, the acceptance of a certain power or idol as a god is a full-fledged act of avodah zarah. I should note that Rambam rules, Shegagot 1:2, that this would not incur a chatat sacrifice if done unwittingly, since there is no action involved. But if someone said, “My god is x,” with witnesses and proper warning, the person would be stoned by a Jewish court or receive karet from Hashem.
The god of Nature
My two stories tell me this is relevant today, because many Jews, particularly those with a commitment to accepting the truths that science reveals (a commitment I share), have shaded over into accepting categorical statements some scientists make, without evidence or backing. That leads to a sense among many Jews that Nature (or, the Laws of Science) rules the world, and there’s no getting around it.
Note that I am not saying there is no such thing as nature or laws of science. Granted that Hashem created a world of regularity, where the sun rises and sets every day, where gravity operates, and so on, there is great value in noticing those regularities, learning from them, and using them to better our lives.
The crucial line is where we shade over into thinking of those laws as absolute, as immune to the Creator’s breaking them or, maybe, changing them. If we come to think that the Laws of Nature are immutable, then we’ve decided that those laws are what really run the world, not Hashem, and we’ve just—unwittingly—worshipped a power other than Hashem.
The way Ramban expresses it, in his Commentary on Chumash, is that Hashem delegates responsibility, as it were, to various mazalot, by which Ramban likely meant angels but easily translates into natural forces. Those mazalot, however, aren’t independent of Hashem, they simply generally work as they are supposed to, but are always susceptible to Divine intervention to change that.
Changing the Laws of Nature, or More Complex Laws of Nature Than We Realize?
Some might think that Rambam would disagree, because of a comment he made in the fifth chapter of his commentary on Avot. When the Mishnah lists the ten items created bein ha-shemashot, after sunset on the sixth day of Creation, Rambam asserts that Hashem doesn’t change the world after creating it. Rather, some natural laws appear frequently, others infrequently, but it’s all already programmed in.
This is a challenging Rambam in many ways (it implies, for example, that Hashem is no longer involved with the Earth, a claim specifically denied in Yechezkel 8:12 and 9:9).
I suspect it stems from Rambam’s absolute commitment to rejecting change in Hashem, but that is a discussion for another time. Even if we accept Rambam’s view, it would still mean we couldn’t accept the Laws of Nature as absolute, since Hashem might have embedded in them, from the start of Creation, aspects that we have never seen and cannot fathom (such as, for example, the possibility of miraculous cure if the patient finds the right way to importune Hashem).
Are People Really Treating Nature Like a god?
Two obvious objections to my claim are that people don’t worship Nature or the Laws of Science, they only believe in it as what runs the world. I note, therefore, that Ramban, in his glosses to Rambam’s Sefer haMitzvot, Prohibition 5, understands the second of the Ten Commandments to prohibit us from conceding the godliness of any power other than Hashem. True, that leads to a prohibition also against making and/or worshiping such powers, but the fundamental prohibition is recognizing any power as being as strong as Hashem in its impact on this world.
Two comments by R. Samson Raphael Hirsch support my point. First, in Bereshit 8:20, while explaining why the four letter name of Hashem is always used in connection with sacrifices, as opposed to the name “Elokim,” R. Hirsch (basing himself on a comment in Sifra) says that it is to be sure we not confuse a sacrifice to Hashem, who is communicative with us, reacts to our deeds, good and bad, with the sacrifices offered to the “blind forces of Nature.” R. Hirsch had no problem with the idea that an unresponsive god could still be an avodah zarah.
In Bamidbar 23:13, R. Hirsch defines Baal as the Canaanite god who signified the “ultimate power of Nature,” under whose influence all material flowering occurs. While the Canaanites gave a physical form to Baal, R. Hirsch’s comment implies that any of us who assume that Nature rules the world—even if it has no consciousness—are actually worshipping Baal, just like the Canaanites of long ago.
But We Believe in God, We Just Also Believe in Nature
Some readers might assume I am exaggerating, that of course the various Orthodox Jews believe in God, it’s just that they also recognize what science has shown, which is that there are absolute laws of Nature. (In his A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking said “An expanding universe does not preclude a Creator, but it does place limits on when he might have carried out his job!”).
This, too, is a problem if the laws of Nature are as powerful as Hashem, or beyond Hashem’s abilities to change (or, if we accept the most rationalistic reading of Rambam, if we claim that the laws we see are the limits of what Hashem might have embedded in the original Creation). It becomes an issue of shittuf, of believing in a power that co-exists with Hashem, and that, too, (Rambam says, in Yesodei haTorah 1:6) is heresy and a violation of the Second Commandment.
In fact, Sanhedrin 63a assumes that that is what the Jews were guilty of at the sin of the Golden Calf. While they called the Calf a god, they included a plural in the statement of who took the Jews out of Egypt (eleh elohecha Yisrael, this is your god, O Israel, asher he’elucha, that [plural] has taken you out of Egypt). It was their including Hashem at all that saved them from annihilation, but it was nonetheless idolatry.
Laws of Nature competitive with Hashem is a bit better than denying Hashem, but not much.
Modern Orthodoxy, Belief in Science, Avoidance of Idolatry
Some will take this too far, and declare there aren’t any laws of Nature, there is no point to studying science, it all leads to heresy. That would be an error, and doesn’t follow the example of the great scholars of our tradition. As Rambam noted regarding the mitzvot of the Torah, while Hashem could have given a Torah that made no rational sense, and required us to follow it, it is not in fact what Hashem did. So, too, Hashem could have created a world with no regularity, no ordinary ways of it proceeding, and dumped us here, but that’s not what Hashem did.
Instead, we were given a world that has ordinary patterns, and is open to our exploiting those patterns, in the general case, for the benefit of humanity and the world. All that is for the good, and I don’t mean anything I write here to change that.
But, as R. Uzziel wrote in Mishpetei Uzi’el 3, Orach Chaim 56, while trying to define a public Sabbath violator, “anyone who denies Creation ex nihilo…and all the more so acts in a way that contradicts a belief in Creation ex nihilo is an idolater: to the forces of Nature or to idols, and the matter is clear…” Would that it would be so clear to all of us in our time.