Idolatry: The Ultimate Betrayal of God

From the worship of statues to--some would say--the absolute veneration of political movements, Judaism forbids idolatry in all its forms.

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Idolatry is one of Judaism's three "cardinal sins," regarding which an individual is required to give up their life rather than violate. Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The Hebrew prophets fought against the worship of Baal and the other foreign gods but nowhere in the Bible are the other nations condemned for worshipping their gods, only for the "abominations" attendant on that worship.

 

However, in the rabbinic doctrine of the Noahide laws [the seven laws Judaism expects non-Jews to follow]--the Torah for all mankind so to speak--idolatry is as serious an offense for Gentiles as it is for Jews, although, in the nature of the case, this was purely academic. It was unlikely in the extreme in rabbinic times that a Gentile would ask a Rabbi whether or not he was allowed by the Torah to worship his gods.

idolsA whole tractate of the Talmud, Tractate Avodah Zarah, is devoted to the laws against idolatry and idolatrous practices.

Hardly any attempt is made in the classical Jewish sources to distinguish between different kinds of pagan or primitive worship such as animism, fetishism, and polytheism. All forms of worship that are not purely monotheistic are treated together as idolatry and severely condemned. […]

Opposition to anything which savored of idolatry was very fierce during the Roman period. According to [ancient historian] Josephus (Antiquities 18:3.1), when Hadrian introduced the Roman ensigns into Jerusalem, the vehement protest was such that he was compelled to remove them.

Traditional Rabbinic Views

Some of the ways in which the Rabbis viewed idolatry can be gleaned from the Mishnah [of] Tractate Avodah Zarah.

For three days before pagan festivals it was forbidden to have any business dealings with pagans (1:1). It was forbidden to sell articles to pagans before their festivals which they might use in idolatrous worship, for example, fir‑cones, white figs, frankincense, or a white cock (1:5). It was strictly forbidden to cast a stone at a Merkolis (4:1), which appears to have been a pillar to Mercury, the Roman equivalent of Greek Hermes, who was the patron deity of travelers and at whose shrine the grateful passers‑by cast a stone.

It is stated (4:7) that the Jewish elders were asked in Rome why God does not destroy idols if he hates them so. To this the elders replied that men worship the sun, moon, and stars and God refuses to destroy the world He has created "because of fools." If, on the other hand, He were to destroy only those idols for which the world has no use, this would confirm the worshippers of the idols that were not destroyed that these alone had power.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.