What Is Idolatry?

Rejection of "foreign worship" is a primary commandment and central to the Jewish worldview.

Idolatry is among the most serious sins in Judaism and its rejection is core to the Jewish worldview. Idolatry is the subject of the first three of the Ten Commandments and its practice is one of three cardinal sins which one is supposed to die rather transgress (along with murder and illicit sex). A ban on idolatry is also one of the Noahide commandments, the seven laws that Judaism teaches are incumbent on all of humanity.

While Judaism has never been a proselytizing faith, the elimination of idolatry from the world was traditionally a central Jewish objective. In the seventh chapter of Deuteronomy, God declares that the idol worshipping nations resident in the land of Israel should be wiped out, no treaties should be signed with them and no Israelite sons or daughters offered up to them in marriage: “Instead, this is what you shall do to them: you shall tear down their altars, smash their pillars, cut down their sacred posts, and consign their images to the fire.” According to Maimomindes, embracing idolatry amounts to a denial of the whole of Torah and its proscription is “the outstanding commandment of them all.”

In its simplest formulation, idolatry is the worship of gods (or natural phenomena) in place of the one God who created the world, redeemed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, and revealed the Torah on Mount Sinai. The prohibition includes the worship of celestial bodies or other natural phenomena, people, inanimate objects or foreign gods, as well as worshipping God in the manner in which idols were worshipped, which according to some biblical passages featured child sacrifice and prostitution. It is likewise forbidden to make any object of divine worship, even if it’s merely for decoration. 

According to some sources, it was the patriarch Abraham’s rejection of the idolatry widespread in his time that merited his selection by God to become the father of the Jewish nation. According to a famous Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 38), Abraham once smashed all the idols belonging to his father, who had a shop selling them. When his father returned and inquired what had happened, Abraham pointed to the largest idol in the shop, the one he had left standing, and said that idol had destroyed all the others. 

In rabbinic sources, idolatry is referred to as avodah zarah (literally “foreign worship”) or avodat kochavim (“worship of stars”). These terms do not appear in the Bible, which refers to elohim acheirim — literally “other gods.” The Torah also prohibits the construction of any “sculpted image” or the worship of it. The epitome of idolatry in the Bible is the Golden Calf, the idol constructed by the Israelites after Moses was delayed in returning from atop Mount Sinai.

While depicting God visually in any manner is prohibited, the Bible is actually full of anthropomorphic language. God is often portrayed in the Bible as having physical form — a finger, for example, or an outstretched arm. Rabbinic sources even imagine God as praying like one of them — laying on tefillin, wrapping in a tallit, and saying words of prayer (see Berakhot 6 and Berakhot 7).

In biblical times, the term idolatry was applied to any religion other than the faith practiced by Abraham and his family. And indeed, the Mishnah uses the term goyim, a generic term for non-Jews, in place of the seemingly more specific “star worshippers” used later in the Talmud. In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides offers a brief history of how idol worship came to envelop the world, beginning with veneration of the celestial bodies and proceeding to images of them until such time as the images became objects of worship in and of themselves. This changed only with Abraham’s recognition that an underlying unity lay beneath the various forces of the natural world.

During Temple times, idolatrous practices were an ever-present temptation to which many ancient kings of Israel succumbed, including King Solomon. An entire tractate of the Talmud — named, appropriately enough, Avodah Zarah — deals with the laws of idolatry, which mainly focus on limiting interactions between Jews and idolaters and proscribing any benefit from idolatrous practices. Among the prohibitions are having any dealings with idolaters prior to their festivals or selling them any items that might be used in idol worship. According to one opinion recorded in the Mishnah, anyone who encounters an idol should grind it to dust and cast it to the sea. But the rabbis disagree, saying that dust would then become fertilizer and run afoul of the prohibition on deriving benefit.

By the rabbinic era, the scourge of idolatry seems to have receded, and with it the automatic linkage between non-Jews and the worship of celestial bodies. A story recorded in the Talmud describes how this happened. 

In response to the indication of divine acceptance, they observed a fast for three days and three nights, and He delivered the evil inclination to them. A form of a fiery lion cub came forth from the chamber of the Holy of Holies. Zechariah the prophet said to the Jewish people: This is the evil inclination for idol worship, as it is stated in the verse that refers to this event: “And he said: This is the evil one” (Zechariah 5:8).

When they caught hold of it one of its hairs fell, and it let out a shriek of pain that was heard for four hundred parasangs. They said: What should we do to kill it? Perhaps, Heaven forfend, they will have mercy upon him from Heaven, since it cries out so much. The prophet said to them: Throw it into a container made of lead and seal the opening with lead, since lead absorbs sound. As it is stated: “And he said: This is the evil one. And he cast it down into the midst of the measure, and he cast a stone of lead upon its opening” (Zechariah 5:8). They followed this advice and were freed of the evil inclination for idol worship.

With the decline of actual idol worship, the question arose for the first time whether other early medieval religions — specifically the other monotheistic ones — were idolatrous. The consensus was that Islam was not, but Christianity — with its rich iconography, doctrine of the trinity, and elevation of Jesus as a divine being — was a thornier question. Many Jewish thinkers, both ancient and modern, regarded the worship of Jesus as divine as a clear case of idolatry, while others employed the notion of shittuf — the proposition that it’s not forbidden for non-Jews to worship the one God in in a way that deviates from unvarnished monotheism — to allow a more liberal attitude toward Christianity. The latter view became something of a necessity as the majority of the world’s Jews came to live in Christian lands, where talmudic limits on socializing and doing business with idolaters would have had catastrophic implications. Eastern religions, with their pantheons of various gods and liberal use of divine images, are more straightforward instances of idolatry. 

Even so, in contemporary times, it’s rare to hear Jewish leaders inveigh against other faith traditions, either Western or Eastern, as idolatrous. To the extent that idolatry is much discussed anymore at all, it is largely modern forms of worship that draw condemnation under the idolatry rubric: worship of the state, money, power and the like. As some contemporary Jewish thinkers have pointed out, the ancient rabbis didn’t regard the sun and the moon as intrinsically unholy; it was the worship of them they considered idolatrous. Likewise money and power — these are not evil in of themselves, but their elevation above all else is said to be a manifestation of idolatrous behavior. 

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