Idolatry in Judaism

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Judaism strongly prohibits any form of idolatry. Judaism holds that idolatry is not limited to the worship of an idol itself, but also worship involving any artistic representations of God. In addition it is forbidden to derive benefit (hana'ah) from anything dedicated to idolatry. However, aniconism in Judaism has not prevented traditions of Jewish art at various periods.

In the Torah (Hebrew Bible)[edit]

Main article: idolatry

The first of the Ten Commandments prohibits the Israelites from holding any other god before God, nor to make any "graven image". (Exodus 20:2-3, Deut 5:6-7) Some scholars[who?] have argued that the commandment should be viewed in the context of pagan practices and beliefs at the time that the commandment was given. Specifically, the prohibition should be viewed as a rejection of the religious practices of ancient Egypt from where the Israelites were coming, as well as the Canaanites to where the Isralites were heading.[citation needed]

In classical rabbinic literature[edit]

Avodah Zarah is a tractate of the Talmud which discusses idolatry as well as relations with gentiles. The subject is also raised in many other passages of the Talmud.

In ancient times, there were many practices of the pagan Greeks and Romans which the Jews considered idolatry. For example, they objected to Roman troops entering their territory with flags, or the stamping of portraits of the Caesars on coins,[citation needed] or the Roman worship of their emperors as divine. To reduce exposure to idolatry, intimate association with non-Jews was strongly disapproved.[citation needed]

On the other hand, many pagans labeled Jews as atheists and anti-social because of their refusal to worship other gods. "Whosoever denies idols is called a Jew" (Talmud Megilah 13). To statements such as this the Jew responded: "Whosoever recognizes idols has denied the entire Torah; and whosoever denies idols has recognized the entire Torah" (Midrash Sifre, Deut. 54 and parallel passages). "As soon as one departs from the words of the Torah, it is as though he attached himself to the worship of idols" (Midrash Sifri, Deut 43).

Although Jews were forbidden to mock anything deemed holy by Judaism, it was a merit to deride idols (Talmud Meg. 25b). It was forbidden to look upon images (Tosefta to Talmud Shabbat (Talmud) 17.1), and even thinking of idolatrous worship was prohibited (Talmud Berakhot 12b); if one saw a place where an idol had once stood, he was commanded to utter a special prayer (Talmud Ber. 61a). Sacrifice to an idol or anything which in any way might be associated with idolatry was forbidden. It was even insufficient to reduce an idol to powder and scatter it to the winds, since it would fall to earth and become a fertilizer; but the image must be sunk in the Dead Sea, whence it could never emerge (Talmud Avodah Zarah 3.3); nor might the wood of the "asherah" be used for purposes of healing (Talmud Pesachim 25a). Among the three cardinal sins for which the penalty was death, idolatry stood first (Talmud Pes. 25a and parallels).

Worship of humans[edit]

Worship of humans is considered idolatry in Judaism. See Sanhedrin 93a: "Daniel said: Let me go away from here, so that he shall not perform on me [the ruling] 'You shall burn in fire the images of their idols' (Deuteronomy 7:25)". Rashi explains that Nebuchadnezzar worshiped Daniel, as in Daniel 2:46.

According to the Midrash, a few people made themselves deities: Pharaoh Kings of Egypt (see Ezekiel 29:3: "The Nile is mine and I have made myself", understood by the Midrash as a claim that he created himself); Hiram King of Tyre (see Ezekiel 28:2); Haman the Aggagite (see Esther 3:2).

Maimonides's view of idolatry[edit]

In his The Guide to the Perplexed, I:36, Maimonides holds that in the original form of idolatry, no one actually believed that their idols were gods; he states that idol-worshippers understood that their idols were only representations of a god, or God. Idols are "worshipped in respect of its being an image of a thing that is an intermediary between ourselves and God."

Maimonides, however, goes further in defining idolatry than other Jewish thinkers before or since; he states that it is idolatry to hold that God is subject to any affections at all. Not only believing that God has a body, but merely believing "that one of the states of the body belong to Him, you provoke His jealousy and anger, kindle the fire of his wrath, and are a hater, an enemy and an adversary of God, much more so than an idolator."

Maimonides spends the first one-third of the Guide attempting to show that a literalist understanding of the metaphores, idoms, and homonyms in the Hebrew Bible are idolatrous in this regard. For Maimonides, and other philosophers in the neo-Aristotelian mold, it is idolatry to believe that God has positive attributes. Maimonides' negation of positive attributes to God reaches its epitomes in the Guide I:56, where he states that "the relation between us and God, may He be exalted, is considered to be non-existent."

"Know that likeness is a certain relation between two things and that in cases where no relation can be supposed to exist between two things, no likeness between them can be represented to oneself. Similarly in all cases in which there is no likeness between two things, there is no relation between them. An example of this is that one does not say that this heat is like color, or that this voice is like this sweetness. This is a matter that is clear in itself. Accordingly, in view of the fact that the relation between us and Him, may He be exalted, is considered to be non-existent - I mean the relation between Him and that which is other than He - it follows necessarily that likeness between Him and us should also be considered nonexistent." (Translation by Shlomo Pines)

This is one of a number of reasons why Maimonides' writings sparked protest from the wider Jewish community for the next two centuries, a phenomenon sometimes known as The Maimonidean Controversy. Both Maimonides' supporters and opponents agreed that by his definition, many religious Jews (as well as non-Jews) were effectively (although unintentionally) idolaters. Maimonides' supporters held that the proper response was to spread Maimonides' teachings, to bring people away from idolatry and towards pure monotheism. Maimonides' opponents understood him the identical fashion, but believed him to be incorrect, and thus held that his philosophical teachings were not to be taught. In many places his works were banned.

Modern Jewish views[edit]

"Real" idolatry is not commonly found in Judaism. The Talmud states [Yoma 69b] that the Men of the Great Assembly, a group of 120 Sages that directed Israel after the return of Ezra from Babylonia and the end of the period of prophecy, managed to remove the idolatry component of the "Evil Inclination" from Jewish life, and it ceased to be a problem. The Talmud also records [Sanhedrin 102b] that Rav Ashi, the 4th-century Talmudic scholar, had a debate on Jewish law with idolatrous King Menashe of Judah (7th century BCE), and lost. "Since you are so learned, why did you worship idols?", he said. Menashe replied: "The drive for idolatry was so strong in my time that, had you been there, you yourself would have run after me and done the same!"

Several have expressed the view[citation needed] that any beliefs or practices which significantly interferes with a Jew's relationship with God may, in some way, be termed "idolatry". Examples might include:

  • a very strong desire to gain money and wealth; greed could be considered a form of idolatry;
  • a very strong desire to gain fame or recognition; egocentrism could be considered a form of idolatry (a view expressed by the Vilna Gaon).

Some theologically moderated Jews argue that most modern-day religions which appear idolatrous should not be considered idolatry as defined by Jewish law.[citation needed] They argue that modern day Buddhists, Hindus and others:

  • do not literally worship "sticks and stones", as the idolaters in the Tanakh were described doing;
  • hold beliefs with more theological depth than ancient pagans, and are well aware that their icons are only symbols of a deeper level of reality;
  • do not practice child sacrifice, or sex rites, as did some pagans in the ancient Near East;
  • are of high moral character;
  • are not anti-Semitic.

As such, some Jews argue that not only does God have a relationship with all gentile monotheists, but that God also maintains a relationship with Hindus, Buddhists and polytheists.[citation needed] Some notable figures with these views include Elliot N. Dorff, Michael Strassfeld and David Novak. However, Orthodox Judaism is in stark contrast to their views.

There are a few people who practice Judeo-Paganism, which is a mixture of Jewish and polytheistic/pagan practices. Some of those practices involve honoring (or remembering) divinities that were among those rejected by the prophets of the Tanakh (for example, Ba'al and Asherah). These practices are seen as non-Jewish by all the Jewish denominations.[citation needed]

Images in Christianity[edit]

Christianity shows great variety in the importance of physical objects. Although there has been a considerable history of aniconism in Christianity, there is an equally long history of active tradition of making and venerating images of God and other religious figures.

Images in Islam[edit]

The third of these three related religions, Islam, which is related to Judaism as it considers itself the monotheistic faith of Adam, Abraham, Moses, and other prophets, has a comparable prohibition which takes the form of banning representations of God, and in some cases of Muhammad, humans and, in some interpretations, any living creature.

See also[edit]


  • "Idolatry", article in "The Encyclopedia Judaica", Keter Publishing
  • "The Worship of the Golden Calf: A Literary Analysis of a Fable on Idolatry" Herbert Chanan Brichto in Hebrew Union College Annual, Volume 54, 1983.
  • "Viewing the Sculptural Environment; Shaping the Second Commandment" by Yaron Eliav, pages 411-33 in Talmud Yerushalmi and Graeco-Roman Culture vol. 3, Tübingen, Mohr Siebeck, 2003.
  • "The Religion of Israel: From its Beginnings to the Babylonin Exile" Yehezkel Kaufman, translated by Moshe Greenberg, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960
  • "Judaism and the Varieties of Idolatrous Experience" by Bary S. Kogan in "Proceedings of the Academy for Jewish Philosophy" Ed. David Novak and Norbert M. Samuelson, University Press of America, 1992
  • "Judaism and Idolatry: In Defense of Images" by Elliot N. Dorff in "Proceedings of the Academy for Jewish Philosophy" Ed. David Novak and Norbert M. Samuelson, University Press of America, 1992
  • David Novak "Jewish-Christian Dialogue: A Jewish Justification" 1989, New York, Oxford University Press

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