Project Genesis

Judaism and Non-Jews

Idolatry and Non-Jewish Practices

Understanding Idol Worship

Question: What was so attractive about idol worship that our ancestors occasionally engaged in it? From the descriptions of it, child sacrifice, etc. it seems reprehensible. Without a Temple today we are faithful to G-D so why in those days when there was a Temple were our ancestors so attracted to idol worship?

Many Jews are going to India and China for Hinduism and Buddhism to get what they describe as a “spiritual high”. Is this same as idolatry?

Answer: The Rambam (Maimonides) at the beginning of his Laws of Idolatry describes how the concept of worshipping stars and other creations evolved from the reasonable assertion that G-d directs his influence on this world by way of stars. It was felt that some recognition should be offered to these intermediaries and, over time, the realization that these intermediaries were nothing but passive conduits (maybe like electrical power lines) was lost. Idolatry, then, in its “purist” form was an erroneous reaction to the wonders and power of G-d’s world.Some commentators felt that this form of worship actually produced positive results (albeit in open rebellion against G-d’s will). Rambam sharply disagreed.

Interestingly, Rabbi E.E. Dessler wrote (in a rather involved essay whose subject goes beyond the scope of this letter) that the human impulse to worship idols comes from the same “place” as the aspiration for prophecy. A generation whose sensitivity to holiness is great enough to merit prophets among them is also far more prone to slipping into idolatry. It is for this reason that the loss of prophecy (some 2300 years ago) coincided directly with the reduction in our burning desire for idolatry.

There is no question that many of the practices observed by Buddhists and Hindus (and other groups besides) are idolatrous and therefore forbidden by our Torah. The sadly misguided Israelis and others who journey to the east for such experiences are indeed following in the footsteps of Biblical-age idolaters.

With regards,
Rabbi Boruch Clinton

3 Follow-ups »

  1. Hindus don’t worship figures of metal; they see it that God can take form as a statue, and why couldn’t God do that? Is then this still idolatry?

    If their intention is as you say, then it is not the most hard-core idolatry, which would be where they think of the statue as a power separate from God; however, it is a form of idolatry to relate to God as anything less than the Infinite almighty creator of the universe who is fully involved in every detail of the universe and not confined to any space or time.

    Hope that’s helpful,
    Rabbi Seinfeld

    Comment by ATR — June 5, 2007 @ 1:20 pm

We respond to every follow-up question submitted, but only publish selected ones. In order to be considered for publication, questions must be on-topic, polite, and address ideas rather than personalities.


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