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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Among further numerous details of rabbinic abhorrence of idolatry, the following can be given as illustrations.

The early third‑century teacher Menahem ben Simai was given the appellation "the son of the holy" because he refused to gaze even at the image of a pagan god or a deified emperor on a coin (Pesahim 104a). Not only idolatry itself was treated with the greatest severity by the Rabbis, but anything appertaining to it was strictly prohibited. It was forbidden to use the leaves of an idolatrous grove, even for their medicinal properties because leaves from another place could serve the same purpose (Pesahim 25a).

No use might be had of an idol, but if it had been desecrated by its worshipper, by being defaced, for example, it was permitted to have use of it. This only applied to an idol belonging to a non‑Jewish idolater. An idol worshipped by a Jew was permanently forbidden even after its defacement by the owner (Avodah Zarah 52a). If a person saw a place in the land of Israel from which idolatry has been uprooted he should say: "Blessed is He who uprooted idolatry from our land, and as it has been uprooted from this place, so might it be uprooted from all places belonging to Israel; and do Thou turn the heart of those that serve them [the pagan gods] to serve Thee" (Berakhot 57b).

Although the mere intention to commit a sin is not counted as a sin, this does not apply to idolatry, where even the mere intention to worship idols is sinful (Kiddushin 40a). The Rabbis were not unaware, however, that the older pagan cults had lost much of their force, hence the saying of the third‑century Rabbi Yohanan that Gentiles outside the land of Israel are not true idolaters but simply continue in the ways of their ancestors (Hullin13b).

Are Christianity and Islam Idolatrous Religions?

In the post‑talmudic period, there was no longer any threat to Judaism from the pagan religions, and a certain relaxation was granted of some of the stricter rules against relations with idolaters. The discussion among the Jewish teachers then centered on whether Islam and Christianity, the two daughter religions of Judaism (as they were called) and the new rivals to the Jewish religion, were to be treated as idolatrous religions.

[According to most authorities] Islam was seen as a purely monotheistic religion, but opinions differed with regard to Christianity. Eventually, the consensus emerged that while Christianity did not constitute idolatry "for them," that is, a Gentile Christian did not offend against the Noahide laws, it did constitute idolatry "for us." Many Jews suffered martyrdom rather than embrace the Christian faith. To worship the gods of the Far Eastern religions is, of course, held to be idolatrous by all Jewish authorities.

New Forms of Idolatry

In modern times, when very few Jews are tempted to worship idols in the older sense, Jewish thinkers have called attention to different forms of idolatry‑-the worship of the State, for instance, as in totalitarian regimes, or the worship of causes, persons, and "isms" of various kinds. For Jews to substitute Jewish nationhood for the Jewish religion would be a species of idolatry in this wider sense.

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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.