Idolatry’s Progression


Moshe Ben-Chaim



Reading Jack Saunders’ article from last week’s issue of the JewishTimes, I realized the importance of, and need to address his, “Developing of a Correct Concept of the Creator”. This endeavor requires a denial of idolatry.


Mr. Saunders quoted Maimonides’ introductory remarks to his “Laws of Star Worship” (“Avodah Zara”, “strange worship”), or idolatry. (Idolatry commenced with star worship, as Maimonides teaches.)


Maimonides states, the error of that generation was the assumption that G-d’s will was that man glorify those stars and planets that minister before G-d. Those people - Adam’s grandson Enosh included - assumed erroneously, that the stars occupy some special proximity with G-d. Error number one: G-d does not exist in space. G-d created the universe, and does not exist ‘within it’. The proof: G-d existed prior to the universe. King Solomon said this too, “the heavens cannot hold You.” (Kings I, 8:27)  Maimonides underlines their error as “assuming star worship is G-d’s will.” Herein is their essential sin: “assuming G-d’s will”.  To suggest something is G-d’s will is the haughtiest of all thoughts. How can man know what the Creator of the universe desires? Nonetheless, these foolish people did so.


We learn that idolatry is the act of “approaching G-d through worship that is different, or strange from what G-d declares we do.” Therefore, if one attempts to reach G-d through star worship, he commits idolatry. However, if one does not attempt to reach G-d, and bows to the stars for other reasons, then we cannot define this as idolatry. Such an act, when not trying to fulfill G-d’s will, is simply stupid. However, it is not defined as idolatry. In this case, one is not trying to approach G-d. This is an important theoretical and philosophical distinction.


Maimonides continues to describe the downward spiral of civilization in its progressively, deviant idolatry. First, man accepted that G-d exists, but suggested that His worship demanded star worship. Next, false prophets arose, lied to the people, claiming that G-d spoke to them, and instructed them in the construction of statues. They made up these forms in their fantasies, instructing them in G-d’s name that all people should worship them. The incentive offered by the false prophets to the people was that they would meet with success if they heeded his words, or failure if they didn’t.


Eventually, other, lying false prophets said the stars themselves appeared to them with instructions to do such and such worship. Soon, G-d was completely forgotten, and the worship of these statues remained as the only worship. Their priests assumed there was no such thing as G-d…only these idols. It appears from Maimonides’ words, that this final state remained unchanged. I say unchanged, as we see there was a progression, until this final stage.


Why did idolatry progressively deteriorate, until it reached the final state of worshipping stone and metal gods? We must understand why there was this phenomenon of “progressive deterioration”, and also, why idolatry finds itself not progressing, after this final practice was reached.


To gain some insight into idolatry, let us look to the famous case of the Golden Calf. Moses told the people he would ascend Sinai, and return forty days later. The people miscounted, including his ascension date as day one. Therefore, when they thought it was day 40, it was really only day 39. Moses’ absence caused some great concern. Why? These were their words: “And the people saw that Moses delayed to descend from the mountain, and the nation assembled on Aaron and they said too him, ‘get up and make for us gods that will go before us, for this man Moses that took us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (Exod. 32:1)


We immediately notice the use of the extra word “man”, in “the man Moses.” Of course Moses is a man! What is this extra word indicating? It teaches us the precise cause of idolatry: man’s need for tangible leaders. But not just tangible, the “man” Moses means that mankind is predisposed to needing an authority figure, which is “man”.


From youth, we view parents as incomparable. The lift us, feed us, care for us, and direct us. They become a force not to be reckoned with. Psychologically, many adults do not ever mature pass the need for the parent. G-d created the institution of parents by design. He could have made mankind as He made Adam, with no parent. But G-d’s wisdom demanded that mankind endure the stages of childhood and adolescent development for good reason: G-d wishes man to acquire a respect for authority, to be ultimately transferred onto Him. With no parent, we cannot obtain any semblance of respecting authority. We will never arrive at viewing G-d as an “authority”.


Now, when one matures, he can choose one of two paths; acceptance of his parents as mere mortals where he abandons his previous infantile “awe” of them, or he can succumb to his infantile emotions. In this latter scenario, he cannot abandon the need for parents, but simultaneously he realizes his parents are no better than he is. He is stuck. He seeks parental direction, as he remains an infant in his mind, so his only recourse is the invention of gods. This is where idolatry finds is roots: in man’s infantile psyche.  This is why the Jews said to Aaron, the “man” Moses is gone. The Jews returned to the infantile, at the moment this “physical” leader was gone. They could not tolerate Moses’ absence, and demanded that Aaron create something physical to relate to. As Ramban says, no fool thinks the gold in his ear took him out of Egypt. They desired the Gold Calf as something physical. They were as children who lost their parents.


We may now answer our first two questions. The reason idolatry finds no further progression once it reached the practice of statue worship, is because this is the raw, infantile expression of relying on the parent. Once these idolaters mentioned by Maimonides had deteriorated to pure statue worship, with no realization of G-d, there was no further to go. This is the infantile state of a child who finds his total comfort when his parents are in the room – as long as a form of a person is around, the infantile mind feels secure; he has his “parent”. He feels protected, and his fears are gone. There is nothing more the child needs. So too, there is nothing more an adult needs in idolatry, for idolatry is the complete reversion to this infantile state of seeking the parent. For this reason, many idols are formed after the likeness of man. And for this reason, G-d warns against making the forms of man, “And guard your souls greatly, for you did not see any form on the day that G-d spoke to you in Horeb from amidst flames. Lest you act destructively, and make for yourself a statue, the form of any design, the form of male or female.” (Deut., 4:15,16)


Why was there a progression of varying states of deteriorating idolatry? Because until the primary emotion was satisfied (i.e., statues) man was not yet completely satisfied with his current state of star worship. One may ask, “Why didn’t the first idolaters go straight to statue worship, and ignore G-d right off the bat?” The answer is that the emotions of man cannot make large steps. This would be a shock to the system. In general, man finds it difficult to make any sudden changes. Idolatry is the same.


We now understand why idolatry had a progression, and why it then came to a halt: it was seeking to completely mimic the infantile attachment to the parent, and when it found it, it was satisfied, so no further deviation was needed.


Parenthetically, the reason why false prophets became part of the progression, is not to be found in idolatry’s dynamics, but in a very commonly found human expression: ego. Man’s ego, if not tempered by the realization of the true G-d, and His authority, will always seek to express itself. So, many false prophets lied, claiming they were selected by G-d for communication. It is not surprising that in the drive towards denying G-d with idolatry, the “self” steals the spotlight, and many liars claimed to have been contacted by G-d.


We see that times have not changed at all since Adam’s grandson. This week, Sun Myung Moon just proclaimed himself the messiah.