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.
A 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.
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.
In the Jewish tradition, even the Torah is to be seen as a means to God, never as an object of worship. Some authorities go so far as to forbid Jews to bow to the Torah since this might seem to treat the Torah as an object of worship. The custom is to bow to the Torah but only as one bows as a token of respect, to a human being. The Torah in Judaism [in that it is not viewed as itself divine] is more akin to Muhammad in Islam than to Jesus in Christianity.
A constant complaint of the Mitnaggedim [opponents of the Hasidim] against Hasidism was that the Hasidic veneration of the tzaddik [the righteous leader] bordered on idolatry–although, in fact, while the Hasidim revere the tzaddik, they never worship him.
The Hasidic master, Shneur Zalman of Liady [1745-1813] sees idolatry not as a denial of God but as an attempt at insubordination. Man desires to have a little corner of life apart from God’s all‑embracing power, and the idols he sets up are his means of effecting the separation between God and that part of life man wishes to call completely his own. Hence, for the Rabbis, pride is equivalent to idolatry because both commit the same offence of insubordination.
“Pride is truly equivalent to idolatry. For the main root principle of idolatry consists in man’s acknowledgement of something existing in its own right apart and separate from God’s holiness, and does not involve a complete denial of God” (Tanya, chapter 22).
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.
Pronounced: MISH-nuh, Origin: Hebrew, code of Jewish law compiled in the first centuries of the Common Era. Together with the Gemara, it makes up the Talmud.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.