There is one thing I’ve always found quite puzzling about the world-view of the Torah and the Bible as a whole: the relentless emphasis on the eradication of idolatry. While it is understandable that the God of Israel would seek to promote his own worship, it is somewhat puzzling that he is so intolerant of other gods, for two reasons:
(1) These gods do not exist. According to the Torah’s world view, our God is the only one. Worship of other gods is thus simply a pointless error, not something to get upset about. There is no point in threatening people who think 2+2=5 with death and destruction; it is simply a shame that they are in error, and they should be educated to the truth.
(2) Doesn’t religion seek to make the world a harmonious place? What purpose is served by the Jewish insistence that our God is not the same as your god, and our God is the only one? Doesn’t that just lead to needless conflict, which persists to this day? One of the most basic features of ancient religious worship was syncretism: the tendency to find universal truth in all religion by associating features of one religion with another. In the ancient world this phenomenon promoted good will and led to peace among nations. Jezebel, the Phoenician queen of Israel, associated the God of Israel with Baal, and expected her subjects to do the same. Many of them did, but Elijah objected.
When Phoenicians learned of the Greek gods after Alexander the Great conquered the East, they immediately asked themselves which one corresponded to Baal, and enjoyed peace and prosperity. Second Temple Jews could have gotten along much better with the world powers that engulfed them if they had simply associated their own god with one of the Greek or Roman gods, such as Apollo or Dionysus or Jupiter/Jove, king of the gods, whose name is even similar to that of the God of Israel. That is not to say that there are no differences between our God and Apollo or Dionysus or Jove, but syncretism does not insist on complete identity of the features of the gods and the forms of worship. If the Jews had explained to the Romans that their God was Jove, it probably would not have bothered the Romans much if they then explained that they were forbidden to make an image of him or to worship lesser gods.
I’ve read countless discussions of the difference between the world view of paganism in the ancient world and that of the Torah, and I’ve heard many a sermon discussing the meaning of idolatry in our time, but the explanations I’ve heard have always been too sophisticated or contemporary to ring true. Three oft-repeated ideas stand out, and there is some truth in all of them:
(1) It is often argued that the sin of idolatry is imbuing anything – person or place, thing or idea – with paramount significance, and becoming emotionally invested in it at the expense of anything else. This is a beautiful contemporary application of the notion of idolatry, and fits in well with our use of the noun “idol” and the verb “to idolize”.
However, the pagan gods themselves were hardly objects of emotional fixation pulled arbitrarily from the surrounding world; they belonged to another realm, and their worship in each nation was part of a spiritual cultural heritage. The Greeks, for example, clearly distinguished between the gods and the athletes they admired, despite features they had in common.
(2) Israeli Bible scholar,Yehezkel Kaufmann, argued that the difference between the God of Israel and the pagan gods is that the God of Israel is above the cosmos, while pagan gods, like human beings, are part of the cosmos and subject to its patterns and laws. A pagan god, for example, is compelled to respond positively when an offering is made to him, and the cycle of worship and reward is automatic. The God of Israel, on the other hand, is truly transcendent: he is free to bestow prosperity on whomever he wishes, without regard for patterns of worship here on earth.
However, there are biblical passages – such as the second passage of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11) – in which the promise of reward and punishment seems automatic, and there are numerous pagan myths in which a god acts against both his own best interests and those of his worshippers or the harmony of nature.
(3) Finally, there are those who argue on the basis of passages such as Isaiah 2 that idolatry in the Bible actually means pride: when one worships a deity other than the one God, one is in effect challenging God’s greatness and setting oneself up as his rival.
This can explain certain passages in the Bible, but it hardly explains the wholesale reluctance to countenance idolatry in any form. There were pagan rites in which the individual was terribly self-effacing, giving life and limb for his god; these, too, are subjected to censure in the Bible.
This summer I spent four days in Delphi, the religious center of the ancient Greek world. Throughout most of the year Delphi, the navel of the earth, was the home of Apollo – god of light and the sun, of prophecy and inspiration, of poetry and music – and for a few months in winter it was given over to his flip-side Dionysus, the god of chaos and wine, ecstasy and theater.
Like many people, I have a deep emotional tie with both of those aspects of existence, and I wondered if I would feel the magic. I prepared for the trip by reading scholarship about Delphi, and while there I spent some time reading two novels set in ancient Delphi. I thought that since spiritual feeling is a universal phenomenon, I would be able to experience something of the awe and love of the divine that the site invoked. Between Shaharit and Minhah, between Minhah and Maariv, and between Maariv and Shaharit again, I tried to lose myself in the atmosphere.
I couldn’t. The physical setting was beautiful, but despite my romantic sensibilities, the notion of making a pilgrimage in order to worship Apollo seemed alien to me as I walked the hills and mountains surrounded the ancient ruins, and not only because I was inhibited by the Torah’s injunction against showing appreciation for idolatry, which in any case is said to no longer apply halakhically to gods such as Apollo, whom no one worships any more.
I spent a lot of time thinking about why, and I realized that all the sophisticated ideas mentioned above really boil down to one thing. We worship the Creator. Pagan gods are not, and do not claim to be, the creator. They are the objects of worship because they are perfectly beautiful or perfectly wise or perfectly powerful, but they are not the creator. In some mythologies the gods collectively created man, or one god created man in the course of a cosmic struggle with other gods, but that is different from saying that a single God determined all of existence.
Our God is the object of our worship because he sets the terms of existence. “Know that the Lord is God; he created us and we are his, his people and the flock that he shepherds” (Psalm 100:3). Meaning by definition is He. You can ask “why” about any phenomenon, and then ask “why” about the explanation given, in an endless chain. But the buck stops at God. There is no need and no point to asking “why” beyond the answer “God”. He made us. He gets to decide. He is the Will behind everything that unfolds in the Universe.
It’s not that we don’t understand his ways. It’s that there is no further explanation. His whim is our command. We can rebel against the fate he determined for us and for the world, and since we have free will, we can succeed in that rebellion. But even in rebellion, we are rebelling against Him. He defines the terms. Rebellion against Him is just another way of acknowledging his sovereignty.
Jove may be king of the gods, but it is only because he is the most powerful and power-hungry god in the pantheon. Worshipping him simply because of his power is self-serving at best and self-effacing at worst. Apollo may be beautiful and kind and healthful and inspiring and soothing, and as such love for him can be a source of inspiration if you believe in his existence. But why worship him? Why sacrifice to him? Why dwell on his perfection and compare it with your own lack thereof? Again, it is either self-serving or unhealthy to do so.
But worshipping the creator is a different matter entirely. He put us here. Whether he created the world literally as described in the first or second chapter of Genesis, or whether he guided the evolutionary process, he is the reason for our existence. If we want to live a meaningful life, if we want to do our duty and fulfill our role, we will reconcile ourselves to his mastery, try to determine what he wishes from us and for us, remember him constantly, relate to him emotionally with love and fear and everything in between, and devote our lives to him.
To worship God is to acknowledge his malkhut, his kingship or sovereignty. Rosh Hashanah, the day of God’s Coronation, the day on which we affirm his sovereignty, is thus the main day of worship in the Jewish calendar, and it is no coincidence that it is celebrated on the Day of Creation. It is God’s having created us and all of existence that makes him deserving of our worship. Worship of entities, however perfect, that did not create us, simply misses the point of life. That is why – I finally understood – the Bible is so strict about idolatry, and that is why Jews throughout the generations have given their lives in order to worship the Creator and none other.
When the Rabbis sought ten biblical verses that celebrate God as King or Sovereign for inclusion in the musaf service of Rosh Hashanah, they came up with nine that used the root malakh, “to be king”. But the ultimate, crowning verse does not use that word at all. It simply states: Shema Yisrael, Hashem E-lohenu, Hashem Ehad, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Worship is acknowledging the one God responsible for existence as our God. It is this affirmation that Jews make when they rise up and when they lie down; it is this affirmation that they carry with them on their deathbed, it is this affirmation with which they defy their persecutors when they sacrifice their lives for God, worshipping Him with all their soul. The ultimate formula of worship of the Supreme King of kings makes no mention of the word “king”, perhaps because “king” is ultimately too small a word for the be all and end all of existence. Ehad, One, is more appropriate. Ultimately, “the Lord will be king over the entire earth, and on that he day he shall be one and his name: One” (Zecharaiah 14:9).
Moshe Benovitz is a Professor of Jewish Law and Talmud at the Schechter Institute.
Moshe Benovitz is Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. He is the author of Kol Nidre: Studies in the Development of Rabbinic Votive Institutions (Atlanta 1998) and several volumes of comprehensive critical commentary on sections of the Talmud, as well as numerous scholarly articles on various aspects of Talmudic scholarship and rabbinic history, including oaths and vows, liturgy, and Jewish festivals.