Idolatry: A Sin of Mind

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Maimonides’ Laws of Star Worship 1:1

In the days of a Enosh[1] the children of man made a great error and the council of the wise men of that generation was foolish, and Enosh himself was of those who erred. And this was their error…they said, “Since God created these stars and the planets to guide the world, and He placed them in the heights [heaven] and He apportioned to them honor, and they are servants that minister before Him, they are fitting to praise and to glorify, and to apportion to them honor. And this is the will of God, blessed be He: to make great and to honor those who He makes great and that He honors, just like a king wills those who stand before him to be honored and this is the honor of the king. Since they entertained this thing on their hearts, they started to build temples to the stars and to offer sacrifices to them and to praise them and glorify them with the words and prostration in front of them in order to attain the will of the Creator, as they corruptly thought. And this is the essence of star worship. And similarly spoke the worshippers who knew the core ways of idolatry. It is not that they said that there is no God except for this star…it is as Jeremiah said, “Who would not fear You, O king of the nations? For it befits You; forasmuch as among all the wise men of the nations, and in all their royalty, there is none like You. But they are altogether brutish and foolish: the vanities by which they are instructed are but wood.”[2]  This is to say that all knew that You are the one God, but their error and their foolishness was that they imagined that this futility [star worship] is Your will.

Maimonides opens his treatment of idolatry with history, describing the very inception of idolatrous practice committed by Enosh, the grandson of Adam the First. How is history appropriate for a book that formulates practical laws? 

Citing the initial case of idolatry, we thereby learn that idolatrous practice is not a cultural phenomenon alone: at its core, is a belief generated from man’s psyche. Enosh and his generation had no prior idolatry to adopt; they invented it. Perhaps to emphasize this sin as internally-generated, Maimonides refers to mankind as “the “children of man.” Meaning, it is the human condition of life starting with childhood, that generates idolatrous tendencies. That is, man starts life as a helpless, needy infant, depending on his parents 100%. The infant is completely insecure, and runs to the parents to keep him safe, feed him, carry him, and simply be there in plain sight, which offers psychological comfort. The infant views his parents as super beings.     

As man matures, he learns that his parents in fact are not superior. A healthy individual will then abandon his infantile view of his parents as superior. But many people have difficulty releasing their attachment to the infantile parent image. Such individuals seek a replacement in the form of other physical images, onto whom they can project a pristine and powerful aura, just as they viewed their parents during their infancy. Jesus, Rebbes, amulets, idols, the Gold Calf and even stars are deified in an attempt to replace the very physical parental role. (It is no wonder why celebrities are called “stars.”) Human insecurity and the dependence on superior figures is so predominant, numerous Torah commands exist to address this very problem. During the Gold Calf sin, God records the people saying, “Moses the man who took us out of Egypt, we know not what happened to him.”[3]  Of course Moses is a “man!” But God recorded the Jews’ phrase as a lesson of their of their fear: their loss of the “image” of a leader. Relating to the abstract non-physical God was too difficult. Their creation of a Gold Calf intended to replace the physical Moses.  

Citing this historical record of man’s faulty thinking defines the very violation: this is a sin of mind.[4] The mental acceptance of anything other than God deserving praise, is the core violation. The Rabbis teach that the first and second commands in the 10 Commandments are relegated to the mind: they are accepting God and rejecting idolatry. Thus, the very belief in anything other than God is the crime. But there is more to the writings of a brilliant thinker like Maimonides than history and law. Maimonides uses a code of repetition to highlight his message. What matters did he repeat? Look over that law again before continuing, so you might detect this. 

God’s Will

Maimonides mentioned the words “will,” “error” and that “man said” about 4 times each. He does this to highlight the core issue: man imagined what was God’s will. Man did not seek evidence in reality. Herein lies the error. Maimonides states a few times that man misconstrued what God “desires.” But man can only determine this based either on God’s expressed communication (which they did not receive about stars) or what man witnesses in the universe. And there is no evidence in the universe that God desires man to worship the stars. This was a faulty conclusion: assuming what is in God’s mind, without evidence. This, Maimonides teaches, is the “essence” of star worship. To highlight that the error was one of thought, Maimonides also repeats that man “said” something: speaking occurs once man arrives at a conclusion. Man did not follow reality, but instead, he followed his fantasy. Man’s fantasy creates things that are not real, luring man to believe in those imaginations. God’s will is in direct opposition: man follows his internal fantasies, but God formed man with eyes and ears precisely so we use them to determine what exists, and what does not. When rejecting astrology in his Letter to Marseilles, Maimonides makes this so clear:

It is not proper for a man to accept as trustworthy anything other than one of these three things. The first is a thing for which there is a clear proof deriving from man’s reasoning—such as arithmetic’ geometry, and astronomy. The second is a thing that a man perceives through one of the five senses—such as when he knows with certainty that this is red and this is black and the like through the sight of his eye; or as when he tastes that this is bitter and this is sweet; or as when he feels that this is hot and this is cold; or as when he hears that this sound is clear and this sound is indistinct; or as when he smells that this is a pleasing smell and this is a displeasing smell and the like. The third is a thing that a man receives from the prophets or from the righteous. Every reasonable man ought to distinguish in his mind and thought all the things that he accepts as trustworthy, and say, “This I accept as trustworthy because of tradition, and this because of sense-perception, and this on grounds of reason.” Anyone who accepts as trustworthy anything that is not of these three species, of him it is said, “The simple believes everything (Prov. 14:15).”

Maimonides makes it clear that the star worshippers did not reject God, but they erred about God’s will. How much more sinful is it to make an error about God Himself? Yet, today, many believe that God became a man (Christianity), that God permeates all matter (pantheism) and other fantasy. Recently, a Rabbi of a large orthodox shul made this very pantheistic claim. We call this “nonsense” since there is “no sense” that validates such erroneous and heretical thoughts. Worse, is that such beliefs contradict God’s words. For He taught us through His prophets that He is not similar to anything: “To what shall you equate Me that I should be similar, says God (Isaiah, 40:25).” Thus, He cannot become a man, and He cannot exist in space, so as to be “everywhere” or “in everything.” Becoming man or occupying space would render God similar to other things, whereas God said He is unlike anything. 

Understanding Maimonides’ opening remarks, we appreciate the origin of Christianity and pantheism is in man’s psyche. Christianity satisfies man with the infantile father image in a tangible form. And pantheism caters to those limited minds who cannot accept an existence outside of the familiar time-space universe. So they force a definition of God into a spatial fantasy, claiming “God is everywhere.” And those who feel God literally permeates all matter, reject that God created the world from nothing as Torah teaches, for they suggest God and matter are one, and therefore, matter is eternal. Others feel God is degraded if something exists “outside” of Him. 

We must be thankful to God for keeping His promise[5] that the Torah would never cease to be with us. God’s words offer us absolute truth, and His words reject Christianity, pantheism, star worship and all forms of alien beliefs and worship. We are thankful that Maimonides toiled to safeguard for us great truths. He engages our minds with his formulations, borrowed from the Torah’s coded methods, such as repetition, which leads us to the essential lesson that idolatry is a sin of the mind. This is why he commenced with “children of man made a great error and the council of the wise men of that generation was foolish.” Maimonides immediately conveys the core issue in idolatry to be an “error” and “foolishness;” matters of the mind. Following Maimonides, let us use our intelligence, our senses and our Torah to determine and accept only what is real and true.

[1] Adam the First’s grandson

[2] Jeremiah 10:7,8

[3] Exod. 32:1

[4] Active worship is needed only to enable courts to mete out punishments.

[5] Isaiah 59:21