|Knowledge and False Beliefs
Avraham B. Shimon
Many people today feel that there is nothing wrong with different religions and ways of life that people lead. This opinion assumes that everyone is correct and living according to truth as long as it doesn't physically harm anyone. There is no such thing as a false belief or a wrong opinion. If a person wants to worship a certain god or live an instinctual lifestyle, then he should do it. If it feels good then it must be good (again, as long as it doesn't physically harm anyone). What position does the Torah take regarding this notion? Can a person have a false belief? Are there many different ways to reach G-d? Should a person live his life according to the way he sees fit?
The Torah records the lives of many different personalities. We learn about personalities such as Jacob and Moses. Alongside them we learn about Lavan and Pharaoh. Upon study of these various personalities we see that the Torah considers some as righteous and some as evil. If the opinion of today's society is correct, how could certain people be considered evil? Weren't they living according to the way which made them feel good? Perhaps you will argue that these people harmed others. However, if we look carefully at the Torah, we see that many of them did not harm anyone. Esau, for example, was considered evil yet the Torah does not say anywhere that he actually harmed anyone. He merely desired to kill Jacob. A person is not evil by simply desiring to do something. He must act it out. How, then, could some people be considered evil if they did not cause others harm? The answer is their way of life was corrupt. They were living according to principles, which are false. The personalities that the Torah depicts as evil led their lives guided by their emotions. The greatness of their evil is that they used their minds to accomplish their emotional desires instead of using their minds as their guide in perceiving reality and letting their emotions fall in line with that reality. A person does not have to harm others to be considered evil. He becomes evil by living an instinctual lifestyle.
If, then, we accept the fact that there are certain ways of life that are evil, why did the Torah record them? Why didn't the Torah just record the lives of those which it considers righteous so that we may learn how to live according to their ideals? Why do we have to know about Lavan, Esau and Pharaoh? The answer is obvious. In order to live lives according to true principles we must understand what the false principles are. G-d wants us to study Esau's purely instinctual life, which precluded him from being a partner in the Nation of Israel. We must learn about Bilaam's great desire for fame and fortune, Lavan's deceitful ways and Haman's megalomania. We must understand that these lifestyles are based on false ideas and they are harmful to a person. If we do not gain this insight, we are bound to follow them. Many people today are no different than Esau, Lavan or Bilaam. They are steeped in lifestyles of greed and ego. Granted, the emotions that lead a person after these things are powerful and we all slip on occasion, however, G-d has given us the tools to overcome them. Through careful study of the various personalities of the Torah, both righteous and wicked, we gain deep insights as to the correct way to live. We can learn how many of our emotions are false and should not be followed just because it feels good.
Most people will acknowledge that a person living a life of greed and egotism is not living according to Torah ideals. Yet, the Torah considers idolatry as the greatest evil. We are constantly commanded not to be involved in its practices. Throughout the ages our prophets risked their lives warning us to abandon its various forms. It involves the greatest falsehood; corrupt notions of G-d. Very often idol worshipers don't harm anyone. They simply perform their rituals, say their prayers and go home. Yet, the Torah commands us again and again to obliterate all traces of idolatry from our midst. It is the cause of our exile as it says, "And all the nations will say, 'For what reason did G-d do so to this land And they will say 'Because they forsook the covenant of G-d and they went and served the gods of others gods that they knew not and He did not apportion to them. So G-d's anger flared against the land, to bring upon it the entire curse that is written in this Book. And G-d removed them from upon their soil and He cast them to another land, as this very day' (Deuteronomy 29; 23-27)." Those who worshiped the Golden Calf didn't harm anyone, yet we see what happened to them. The Jews upon entering Israel for the first time were instructed to wipe out the seven nations that were occupying the land as it states, "You shall not allow any person to live (Deut. 20; 16)." These nations were involved in every form of idolatry. Why were they commanded to kill everyone? The Rambam comments on this verse in the Moreh Nevuchim (Part 1, Chapter 36), "The object of this commandment, as is distinctly stated, is to extirpate that false opinion, in order that other men should not be corrupted by it any more; in the words of the Torah 'that they teach you not' (Deut. 20; 18)." They did not have to physically harm anyone to deserve annihilation. The Torah is telling us if a person does not have correct ideas about G-d, he has no right to exist. He is not living in line with his purpose of existence, which is to gain true knowledge of his Creator. He does not use his mind, which is the essence of Man, to live his life. He lives purely according to his instinctual emotions. Not only has he forfeited his right to exist, he will undoubtedly corrupt others thereby causing them to forfeit their existence.
Today, we are surrounded with a variety of idolatrous ideas. Christianity, which is undoubtedly idolatry, is the most prevalent. It is based on the distorted notion that G-d can be physical, as well as the notion that we need to pray to intermediaries. The Rambam mentions this last notion, in the Moreh Nevuchim (Part 1, Chapter 36), as the foundation of idolatry, "Idolatry is founded on the idea that a particular form represents the agent between G-d and His creatures." Throughout the Torah we only see people praying directly to G-d, never to an intermediary. Eventually the intermediary becomes a god itself as the Rambam shows in the Mishneh Torah (Hil. Avodah Zara 1; 1). Hindus, Native Indians and many African tribes today have fallen to this level. They believe that certain physical objects have the power to do good and evil. Unfortunately, some of their practices have infiltrated Judaism. Many Jews walk around with objects they feel will protect them from evil. There are those that go to the graves of ancestors and pray to them so that they will take their prayers to G-d. These customs have no source in the Torah. Of course, there are many legitimate customs in Judaism which are not mentioned in the Torah. How, then, are we supposed to know which practices are idolatrous and which are not? The Torah provides the solution. It says in Deut. 18; 9, "When you come to the land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you, you shall not learn to act according to the abominations of those nations." Rashi explains, "But you should learn to understand and to teach. In other words, to understand their actions, how corrupt they are, and to teach your children: Don't do this and that because it is the statute of the idolaters." We are obligated to learn what their practices are, understand that they are false and teach our children not to follow them. When we learn how Native Indians or African tribes wore certain clothes or charms to ward off evil spirits, and the Torah did not endorse it, we must teach our children not to do it. When we see Christians praying to icons and saints, we must tell our children it is wrong. These are not methods that bring a person close to G-d. On the contrary, they further a person from Him. The more a person involves himself in false practices, the more he removes himself from the Ultimate Source of Truth.
The Torah explicitly tells us there is only one method of reaching G-d,
"See, I have placed before you today the life and the good, the death
and the evil, that which I command you today, to love Hashem, your G-d, to
walk in his ways, to observe His commandments, His statutes, and His
judgments; then you will live But if your heart will stray and you will
not listen I tell you today that you will surely be lost(Deut. 30;
15-18)." The Torah lifestyle, of knowledge, truth and good character,
is the only way a person can reach G-d. Any other lifestyle will cause a
person to become lost.