Not Believing In or Worshipping Powers Other Than Gd

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Yitro: Not Believing in or Worshipping Other Powers Than Gd

Parshat Yitro of course hosts the Aseret Ha-Dibberot, the Ten Pronouncements Gd made to the entire Jewish people, one of which is the prohibition against “having” other gods. When Sefer ha-Hinuch records a mitzvah, I don’t intend to consult She’iltot, but his formulation here seemed particularly apposite. He says Jews may not serve nor acknowledge anything in the world other than Gd.

I am drawn to the topic because I fear too many of us dismiss “idolatry” as of the past, and/or limit it to other formal religions or explicit pagan practices. Rambam, Sefer Ha-Hinuch et al, show it is more current and prevalent than that.

Rambam and Worship of Other Powers

Rambam counts more than thirty mitzvot related to worshipping powers other than Gd (I don’t have an exact number, because he thinks of sorcery and the like as extensions of avodah zarah, worshipping powers other than Gd), showing how much of our Torah observance focuses on training us away from any such involvements. His first prohibition records the Torah’s ban le-ha-amin any power other than Gd, citing a verse in the Aseret Ha-Dibberotlo yihyeh lecha, you shall not “have” other gods.

We commonly translate emunah and related words (like le-ha-amin) as faith; while Rambam wrote Sefer Ha-Mitzvot in Arabic so I cannot tell you what word he used, I think emunah in Hebrew really means asserting as true (such as when we answer amen to blessings or recitations). We are saying “true,” that is fact, are proclaiming our certainty of what others might not take that way. In my understanding, Rambam reads the prohibition against “having” another god as banning Jews from seeing truth in claims about that power’s independent abilities.

Prohibition 6 rules out any act treated as worship by those who follow a specific power. Previous prohibitions forbade acting towards another power in any one of the four ways Jews specifically served Gd in the Temple, bowing, offering incense, slaughtering an animal, libating. Here, the Torah includes whatever others define as worship, no matter how seemingly silly or derogatory, the classic examples being throwing stones at Markolis and defecating before Pe’or.

We find much the same in Mishneh Torah, where Yesodei ha-Torah 1;6 records the obligation to know there is only Gd and no other powers, with failure to do so counted as a violation of lo yihyeh lecha and a denial of central tenets of Judaism. In Laws of Worship of Other Powers 3;1, Rambam points out this is a karet prohibition, a Jew who does so incurs the punishment of being cut off from the Jewish people (in this world or the next, depending how Gd chooses to effect it).

Minhat Hinuch Fleshes Out Some Points

Minhat Hinuch assumes these acts count as idolatry even if the person did not intend the act as any sort of declaration of in the power. It is a gezerat ha-katuv, a rule set up by the Torah, the act stands on its own, but only if the Jew worships an already established avodah zarah. Should a Jew bow to a rock no one else worships, and as s/he does so make clear s/he has no thought this is some actual power, Minhat Hinuch holds that will not be an act of avodah zarah.

On the other hand, if someone says the words of accepting another power, even untruthfully, the declaration counts as full idolatry, says Minhat Hinuch, because halachah broadly says devarim she-ba-lev einam devarim, unspoken thoughts and feelings do not count. There is room to argue this last point, I believe, but that’s what he holds.

He also points out there are different standards in the avodah zarah context for the four types of worship taken from what Jews are obligated to do in the Beit Ha-Mikdash. For example, if someone slaughters in worship of an idol, the animal must be eligible for sacrifice. In the Beit Ha-Mikdash, that excludes mumin, physical disfigurements. For non-Jews (who may also serve Gd with sacrifice, outside the Beit Ha-Mikdash), only more significant blemishes, such as loss of a limb, invalidate the offering. Only were a Jew to slaughter such a thoroughly disfigured animal would s/he be saved from having violated avodah zarah,

I leave for now the fuller definition of each of these four.

Accepting Even Subordinate Powers

In his comments to Yesodei ha-Torah, R. Isser Zalman Meltzer (Even Ha-Azel) wondered about an issue Ramban had raised. Rambam made his list of mitzvot in reaction to flaws he saw in the Geonic counts he knew, especially that of Behag (Ba’al Halachot Gedolot, the author of the ninth century halachic work, Halachot Gedolot).

[Here’s an interesting tidbit. The English Wikipedia article on Halachot Gedolot says the probable author, Shimon Kayyara, lived a century after R. Yehudai Gaon, who was credited with the work many times. The Hebrew Wikipedia article agrees, says he lived around 840CE, where R. Yehudai was the head of the academy in the mid-700s. But the English Wikipedia article on Simeon Kayyara says he lived in the first half of the eighth century. Oops.]

Behag did not count belief in Gd as an obligation, a choice Ramban said made sense, because the concept of commandment assumes prior acknowledgement of the Commander. R. Isser Zalman Meltzer suggested the answer lies in Menahot 110 [which Meshech Hochmah referenced in comments on this week’s parsha, crossing my two streams], that many non-Jews accepted Gd as elaha de-elaha, the Gd of gods, the most important but not the sole One. If that was the state of affairs at the time of the giving of the Torah, Gd was already recognized as Commander, and was commanding us to be sure to know only One power matters.

In Rambam’s list of prohibited forms of worship, 3;4, (in addition to what we’ve already noted, however that worship is worshipped, plus the four acts of worship in the Mikdash) he repeats the Gemara’s formulation of anyone who accepts an eloha, as a ruling power over one’s life. Just saying those words makes one liable for death, even if the person retracts it immediately. Sefer ha-Hinuch, Mitzvah 26, stresses this can be even a Jew who is sure Gd is the superior Power. Kiryat Sefer fleshes out the implication, just saying words of acceptance qualify as a full death-penalty violation.

The two points remind us these prohibitions go beyond belief in Gd or not, they extend to always asserting that Gd is the sole power to whom we turn for impact on our lives. Yad ha-Melech, a commentary on Rambam by one of R. Eleazar Landau, one of Noda bi-Yehuda’s grandsons, made a similar point, any sin of belief leads to doubts about Gd. Agreeing some other power has any independent power will eventually take a person far from proper perspective of the world.

Worship As Recognition and Acceptance

Rambam does share a significant exception, the idea of oved me-ahavah u-me-yir’ah, if one worships another power out of love or fear. If such worship comes with no acceptance, the person is not liable for punishment (but not permitted to act that way). There is debate about the meaning of those terms, something a future Sanhedrin can handle.

For Rambam, ahavah means the beauty of it (he doesn’t give a specific example, but imagine if worshipping at the Church of Beethoven meant listening to all his music throughout the year, on a specific cycle. Someone who loved Beethoven’s music, without any belief in its metaphysical power, might join in the listening, without any idolatrous intent).

His definition of “out of fear” is more surprising: he says the person fears the power will hurt him, then adds, as those idolaters believe. He does not explain, but he seems to distinguish between believing in a power as one’s god, and believing it has the ability to hurt or help. Which is all the more remarkable since Rambam generally thinks there is no validity to those kinds of beliefs.

Sefer Ha-Hinuch says the person fears the power will damage him/her but does not accept it as an eloha, which I think means the person assumes this power has power, but has no intent to therefore worship it and accept it as a governing force to acknowledge and serve.

If I am right, he means that if someone came to believe there was really a Devil, let’s say, who had real powers, even though Gd could trump them, and acted in certain ways just so the Devil wouldn’t hurt him, but never became a Devil-follower, that would not be avodah zarah.

Showing how complicated this can get, especially if we adopt the view of Ramban, Gd did entrust certain aspects of world’s running to subordinate beings, even as Gd controls the whole. [In our times, we can imagine people who worship the gods of health or science, think we literally must act in certain ways to properly do what Nature wants of us—I worry they would count as idolaters.

At the opposite extreme, we can think of people who say Gd created a world with regular patterns, which we must notice and follow because Gd told us to, and that can be in either Rambam or Ramban versions. In the middle, Sefer ha-Hinuch seems to refer to someone who envisions Nature as a power of its own, separate from Gd, but has no interest in worshipping Nature, just not being hurt by it.]

Some Blank Spaces of the Prohibition

Sefer Ha-Hinuch points to definitional issues we will not take on, such as what aspects of avodah zarah become banned for benefit, whether the object of worship itself, its support items and appurtenances, and/or what is offered to it; the difference between movable property and real estate in becoming implicated as an avodah zarah (worshipping land generally does not change the land’s status, making it also important to know what counts as land); at what point an item becomes considered an avodah zarah (such as whether building a structure to be used for worship already makes it that way, or it must be worshipped once); and ways for it to exit that status (such as by a non-Jewish idolater nullifying that status by treating it as mundane).

[That last halachah is close to my heart because I once referenced it in a Shabbat morning talk, to explain why an halachic State of Israel would not need to destroy all the avodah zarah they controlled, as long as non-Jews were willing to nullify it before it came under Jewish control. Unfortunately, I put it in the context of comparing it to what the Taliban had done to the Buddhas of Bamyan, and my listeners all decided I meant an halachic State would have to do the same.]

Not Much Aruch Ha-Shulhan This Time

To my surprise, Shulhan Aruch and Aruch Ha-Shulhan focus their attention on specific rules of what is prohibited in benefit, as if the act of worship itself was no longer an issue for Jews. I am not sure why, but we are at our space limits anyway, so we can leave it here, having reminded ourselves of the centrality and stringency of the obligation on Jews to adhere to Gd alone. Depending on one’s views of metaphysics, there may be room to believe Gd gives room to some powers to operate parts of the world, with Gd superior to all of them. There is no room to turn to those powers, to accept them as valid ruling forces in one’s life, and certainly not to worship them in any way.

For Jews, it must be Gd and Gd alone.

About Gidon Rothstein

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