Thoughts to Ponder, Number 10
8 Elul, 5759; 20 August, 1999

Idol Worship

As it well known, Judaism considers Avodah Zarah (idol worship) as its main enemy. According to the view of many thinkers, all evil is rooted in idol worship, and therefore the Torah goes out of its way to condemn this practice. Jewish law has taken extreme steps to root out any affiliation with this kind of worship. It is therefore most surprising that the commentators seem to have a major difference of opinion what idol worship is all about and why it is forbidden.

After discussing the prohibition to construct several forms of images, the Torah in Devarim (4.19) continues: "And lest you lift up your eyes to the heavens and see the sun and the moon, and the stars, the whole host of the heavens and you allow yourself to be overcome and you throw yourself down to them and serve them, which God, your God has apportioned unto all the nations under the whole of Heaven." The last part of this verse is most problematic: What does it mean that the sun, the moon and the stars "are apportioned by God your God, unto the nations under the whole of Heaven?" Rashi maintains that this phrase is telling us nothing more than that these constellations "give them light," so that they are able to continue with their lives and ambitions. Since this is true about the Jews as well, we must presume that Rashi means to say that the gentile world will be able to use these lights for their scientific investigations which is their main purpose of existence. (See R.S.R. Hirsch's commentary.)

Ibn Ezra and Ramban however have a very different opinion. According to their view, every nation has its own constellation and every city its own star which influence their destiny. This is a most remarkable point of view. While most commentaries are of the opinion that idol worship does not have any basis since these constellations have no effect on human destiny, and worshipping them is therefore a waste of time, Ibn Ezra and Ramban seem to tell us that there is much more to the constellations than just their astronomic value: They are actually influencing human behavior. Such influence is, however, only true as far as the nations of the world are concerned, but of no effect on the people of Israel, since "Israel has no star." (Ein mazal leYisrael) This is the reason why it is written "which God your God has apportioned unto all the nations under the whole of Heaven." According to this view, the reason why some people may start to worship these constellations is not because they are just powerful astronomical items giving man light and other fundamental and great benefits, but because they seem to have "personality" as if they are conscious beings, able to influence the destiny of men.

Such a fact could easily lead human beings to believe that such forces need to be appeased so as to act favorably towards men. It is even more surprising to read that, according to the view of Rabbi Yacov Kamenetsky, z.l., (Emeth LeYaacov ad loc) prayer towards these constellations would indeed be effective and change the destiny of the nations for good. In that case, we should ask ourselves how such an opinion would be acceptable within an uncompromising monotheistic world-view such as the one of Judaism. The explanation must be that God created the world is such a fashion that prayer towards any of the constellations would be effective as part of the natural order of things.

The Talmud (Avoda Zarah 55a) relates cases where idol worship was indeed effective so as to challenge idol worshippers: "If one comes to defile himself he is granted facilities for so doing, and if he comes to purify himself support is given to him." This is obviously related to the fundamental principle of freedom of will. It is for this reason that gentiles are also forbidden to worship idols. It is not because worshipping them would have no effect, but because it is God who made them into His agents and gave them this power.

Redistribution of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

Go to the top of the page.

Home I Rav Cardozo I Music I Books I Cassettes I Dutch I Archives I Contact Us

Contact Us Dutch Page Music Books Cassettes Thoughts & Lectures Rav Cardozo Homepage