What is idolatry?

Parshat Va’etchanan, part of Moses’ long farewell speech to the People of Israel, deals extensively with the topic of idolatry. The command to keep far away from any trace of idolatry and paganism is presented together with all the central events of the Parshah, from the historic spectacle of G‑d’s revelation at Sinai to the pronouncement of the Ten Commandments, to the warnings about the future – the entry into the Land and the process of acclimation that goes with it.

But what is idolatry? Why is the Torah so concerned about it, why does the Torah caution so much against it, and what is the source of its attraction?

Apparently, the Torah’s preoccupation with idolatry is rooted in the fact that it is not defined as a collection of forbidden objects but, rather, depends on man’s intention. Moreover, idolatry can manifest itself in many different ways, some of which do not necessarily resemble the traditional image of an idol. Anyone can take an object and cause it to become an idol; it does not have to be a pre-existing idol like Dagon or the Moabite Chemosh.

When one worships an object, he makes it an idol, whether it is the image of a man or the image of a donkey, the image of a louse or the image of a fish. When the Torah says, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image nor any manner of likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth,”1 this means that we should not think that something has to be important or unique to be an idol; anything can be an idol.

What is the halachic definition of idolatry? “If one slaughters [an animal] as a sacrifice to the sun, the moon, the stars, the planets, Michael the Archangel, or a tiny worm, it is regarded as an idolatrous sacrifice.”2 The inclusion of Michael the Archangel in this list may seem strange: What could be the problem with sacrificing to Michael, “the Archangel who stands beside Israel”?3 Nevertheless, one who worships anything other than G‑d, even an archangel, turns that object into an idol.

Separating the Master

The essence of the matter is that anything that is removed from the framework that the Torah established and set up independently becomes idolatry, even if this entity seems like something inherently holy or positive.

The piyut “El Mistater,” a hymn that is often recited on Shabbat at seuda shelishit, states, “The strong one unites the ten sefirot as one; he who separates the Master will not see lights.” The ten sefirot are one whole, and this whole must remain unified. When one removes one of its components, it becomes impossible to see the light.

An expression of this idea appears in the Midrash in connection with the sin of the Golden Calf. G‑d says, “I go forth in My chariot so as to give them the Torah…and they unhitch one of the animals of My chariot.”4 That is to say, at the revelation at Sinai, Israel beheld the divine chariot with its four Chayot, and they took one of the Chayot and began to worship it. The ox’s face in the divine chariot is an angel, but when it was worshiped at Mount Sinai it became the exact opposite of an angel. If Israel had taken the divine chariot in its entirety, that would have been perfectly acceptable. But when they removed one of its parts, that constituted the sin of the Golden Calf, for which we are paying a price to this very day. As our sages say, every affliction that falls upon the Jewish people is part of the interest paid for the sin of the Golden Calf.5

This point becomes all the more pronounced when we consider Solomon’s “sea” – the copper basin in the Temple that stood atop twelve oxen.6 When twelve oxen are placed in their designated positions in the Temple, not only is this unproblematic, but the oxen even add to the sanctity of the Temple. But to take one small calf and place it in the Temple by itself would be a grave sin. When one separates something from the whole, one holds on to a mere fragment of the pure form. The moment one removes it, no matter how holy it was, it turns into an idol.

On the verse, “G‑ds of silver and G‑ds of gold, you shall not make for yourselves,”7 Rashi expounds:

“G‑ds of silver” serves to lay down a prohibition regarding the cherubim…If you make any change in them by making them of silver and not of gold, they will be regarded by Me as idols; “and G‑ds of gold” serves to lay down a prohibition against adding to the number of cherubim. For if instead of the prescribed two you make four, they will be regarded by Me as G‑ds of gold.

If one adds a cherub, it becomes idolatry; if one removes a cherub, it becomes idolatry as well. Even though it comes from the Holy of Holies, it becomes idolatry. Once one breaks it off, it loses its holiness, as it has been severed from the whole.

This difficulty exists in many places and areas within the Jewish world. Just as half a Torah scroll is invalid and does not have the sanctity of a Torah scroll that is intact, so, too, when a piece is removed from the Torah, the piece has no sanctity but, rather, has the tumah of idolatry. It makes no difference whether that piece contains text concerning the mitzvah of Torah study or love of the Land. Thus, the Talmud declares that “whoever says that he has only Torah [but not its observance] does not even have Torah.”8 If a person takes the Torah itself and empties it of all its content, then he is left with nothing – not even Torah – because he neglects the connection to the living G‑d.

Our sages say that if one wishes to convert to Judaism and accepts upon himself the entire Torah “except for one thing,” he is not accepted.9 The reason for this is that acceptance of the Torah requires acceptance of the entire package, down to the last word. This is certainly true regarding the omission of verses like “Shema Yisrael,” but it is also true regarding verses that are seemingly less critical for one’s faith, like, “Timna was a concubine.”10 As Maimonides puts it, “There is no distinction between ‘The descendants of Ham: Cush and Mizraim,’11 ‘and his wife’s name was Mehetabel,’12 and ‘I am G‑d your Lord’13 and ‘Hear, O Israel,’14 for it all is from the mouth of the Almighty, and it all is G‑d’s perfect Torah, pure, holy, and true.”15

One can be totally committed to some matter; but when it is a commitment to one thing only, it is liable to become what psychologists call monomania: an obsession with one thing.

For example, a man once wrote an entire five hundred-page book about lice. The problem with lice is that they can live only on human beings; if put on mice or on monkeys, they die. So in order to research the lice, the author grew them on his own flesh. Here we see that, for the sake of research, one can sometimes go to incredible lengths. And if a person can have such commitment for louse eggs, it is no wonder that there can also be commitment to Torah study or to the Land of Israel. But so long as a person is crazy about one thing – he is crazy, regardless of what that thing is. This is not to say that raising lice is equal in value to the love of the Land or to Torah study, but it is essentially the same phenomenon. The test of the legitimacy of such devotion is whether the object of one’s obsession is an element within a greater system, or whether it has assumed supreme importance in itself.

The allure of oversimplification

The urge to worship idols contains within it a very religious aspect – the desire to wholly devote oneself to something. In truth, however, this desire has the potential to uproot the world of Judaism from its place. What draws people to do this?

A person is liable to be drawn to such complete devotion when he is faced with many elements within his spiritual life, each one of which points in a different direction, like the fingers of the hand. This is disturbing and confusing, and so as not to remain in a state of confusion, one is liable to choose one element and give it a separate status, thus clarifying and simplifying one’s world. This element is not necessarily forbidden, contemptible, or vile; it can even be something profound, important, and even holy. But it has been uprooted from its context, and so it loses its connection to true holiness.

In 1977, the BBC produced a documentary television series called The Long Search, whose purpose was to cover all religions. To introduce the show, representatives from each religion were invited to speak for three or four minutes about their religion. I was asked to speak about Judaism, and through this experience I discovered how difficult that task is.

When one speaks about Christianity, one can effectively and accurately summarize the essence of the religion in two or three sentences. Even Islam and Buddhism can be summarized in a few sentences. But how can one summarize Judaism? To be sure, we believe in one G‑d, but that does not set us apart from the other monotheistic religions. We of course believe that people must fulfill mitzvot, but that, too, does not truly set us apart. We believe in all sorts of things – the problem is that there seems to be no one element that fundamentally defines our belief system. One can say that Judaism is belief in G‑d, belief that He chose the Jewish people and gave them the Torah and the obligation to fulfill it – but this, too, is merely a superficial definition.

It would be convenient if it /were possible to find one simple slogan of three or four words, and to say that this is the entire Torah. But the truth is that there is no slogan that encapsulates the entire Torah. I once met a Jew who wanted to declare publicly that all the religions basically aspire to the same thing – love. It would not be correct to say that we are against love; we are clearly for it – both love of G‑d and love of man. It is just that the Torah contains many other things as well.

Moreover, the Torah contains many things that appear contradictory. One can make a whole collection of seemingly oppositional verses: On the one hand, we have, “Love your neighbor as yourself,”16 while on the other, “he shall be put to death;”17 one verse says, “Love the stranger,”18 and another says, “do not let a soul stay alive,”19 and there are many other examples of this.

For each of these pairs of contradictory verses, which is correct? The answer is that both are correct. The Talmud says, “Great is knowledge, since it is placed between two names, as it is written, ‘For a Lord of knowledge is G‑d’”20 21 That is to say, the verse’s placement of the word “knowledge” between two holy names shows that it is a great thing. The Talmud continues, asking: But then this applies to vengeance as well, as it is written, “Lord of vengeance, O G‑d!”22 The Talmud answers that this is correct: Vengeance, too, in its proper sphere, is a great thing. Thus, knowledge is important, love is important, and vengeance is important. Likewise, “Do not let a soul stay alive” is important, “Love the stranger” is important, “You shall love G‑d your Lord,” and “You shall fear G‑d your Lord” – everything is important. This can be very confusing: How can one live one’s life constantly jumping from one important thing to its equally important opposite?

Such a requirement creates a high level of stress that for a normal person is almost impossible to bear, and that is what makes people want to separate one element from this confusing tangle of ideas. For them, this element will be the most important one, the true essence. Whether they choose an important element or not, this choice is always based on the difficulty in coping with the complicated aggregate of elements that make up our belief system. People want one flag, one direction, and for that they try to uproot a single isolated element from the Torah, in order to simplify their world. They feel that they know what is ­important – and the rest is commentary.

Even one whose connection to Judaism began with one particular element, and who understandably fixates on this element as a result, must bear in mind that this is only a part of the whole. One cannot hold on to a mere tatter. If one is holding on to the corner of G‑d’s garment, it does not matter which tassel one is clutching: The moment one grasps part, one must also grasp the whole. If not, one assumes the aspect of Saul, who was left only with tatters – “G‑d has torn the Kingdom of Israel away from you.”23

The necessity of complexity

The concern about idolatry is constant because it is a gradual process. It begins with small offerings like flowers and songs. These lead to animal sacrifices, and eventually to human sacrifice as well. The problem is not just the distorted proportions but the fact that ultimately everything drains into one place and all the rest is forgotten.

Because of this, religious experience requires great wariness. One must take great care to avoid removing parts from the holy chariot, as it were, setting them up as independent objects of devotion. Hence, whenever one enters into a spiritual attachment or connection, even when it is for an important purpose, one must take care not to become involved in idolatry. When engaged in these spiritual areas, one must remain in a constant state of awe and fear, always questioning whether one has exceeded the limits. One must not lose a sense of proportion, going out of bounds and – consciously or unconsciously – rejecting the essence of man’s relationship with G‑d.

Sometimes there are urgent matters that one must carry out with devotion. But whenever this happens, one must be wary and remain aware of where the limits are. For the moment that one exceeds these limits, one breaks the Tablets.

There is an old joke that after the Tablets were broken, some people came and snatched up individual fragments, each person with his own “Thou shalt not.” Some snatched for themselves “adultery,” some took “murder,” and some took “stealing” – everyone took a fragment. The truth is that it does not matter what one took from there, because once the Tablets were broken, they were no longer the Tablets; they became mere stone fragments. The Tablets were holy objects only when they contained all Ten Commandments. To be sure, they were kept as a remembrance even after they were shattered, but they no longer possessed holiness, despite having been inscribed with the finger of G‑d Himself.

On the whole, to be a Jew is difficult because it requires one to adapt to opposites. One can feel that Purim is an enjoyable holiday, or, on the contrary, he can feel that Purim is unpleasant, while Tisha B’Av is enjoyable. But the Torah that commands us to drink and rejoice on Purim is the same Torah that tells us to weep and fast six months later, and we are required to adhere to both, each one in its proper time. G‑d wants us to love Him “with all your heart” – the whole range of what is in the heart, the entire spectrum: the joy and the sorrow, the uplift and the letdown, the descent and the ascent – where we give everything and receive everything at the same time.

There was once a large fire that broke out in a town. A Jew stood beside the fire, crying, dancing, clapping his hands, and declaring with great fervor, “Blessed are You, O G‑d…who has not made me a heathen.” The other townsfolk asked the man, “What does this blessing have to do with your dancing beside the fire?” He answers, “If I were a heathen, my G‑d would be consumed in the fire as well. So I am thankful that my G‑d remains alive and well.” The man was right: When one reduces one’s entire faith to one pillar, what happens when that pillar suddenly falls apart and collapses under him? What does one do when his whole world falls apart?

It is hard to be a Jew, because Judaism requires of me to be at once extreme and moderate, calm and wild, to dance and to crawl. This is the complex nature of life that we must accept, even though the evil urge constantly knocks on the door, tempting us to reduce it all to one thing.

The Talmud relates that R. Ashi asked King Menasheh, “Since you were so wise, why did you worship idols?” Menasheh answered him, “Had you been there [in those times], you would have lifted up the edge of your garment and run after me.”24 There are times when one must guard oneself against such tendencies vigorously. This is rarely simple, because when one lives in such an environment and such an atmosphere, it is hard not to be infected by it. Everyone is saying the same thing, so it is easy to be swept along and shout it together with the crowd.

We must combat this tendency, proclaiming, “This is your G‑d, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt”25 – this time addressing the true G‑d and not any Golden Calf that may come along. We must repeat, a thousand times if necessary, “This is your G‑d; there is none else!”