Letters Dec. 2006 II



Idolatry I

Reader: Dear Rabbi, I wish to thank you again for your work on Mesora.org.  As you can see, I’ve written to you before, and though it’s taken me some years, I believe I’ve assimilated the ideas that I rationally knew to be true, but emotionally somehow fought.  I think you described the phenomenon perfectly in one reply to a reader, when you wrote that what matters is an objective search of the truth, rather than proving yourself to have been right. Would that everyone could debate this way, and would that I could act in this spirit all the time.

Now, I have a further question, or questions: Is Christianity idolatry?  In two different issues of Jewish Times (numbers 114 and 196), two different answers are given.  In the former, Christianity is described as being “undoubtedly idolatry”, while in the latter, Rav Chajes’ view that neither Christianity nor Islam is strictly speaking idolatry.  I understand that Christianity is not a unitary concept, that there are significant divergences in how Christians define their faith.  Could it be that depending on how one believes in Christianity, that it may or may not be idolatry? 


Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: You asked if one’s “belief” would define what is idolatry. However, it is not a subjective “belief”, but the “objective position” which define a phenomenon in a certain manner. As such, Christianity’s position of God becoming man could not be further from the truth, and there could not be a worse, or more heretical opinion, that God shares anything with His creations. I do not know what Rav Chajes’ understanding was regarding Christianity, nor did I quote him. I believe that was Rabbi Fox, but again, this does not reflect Rabbi Fox’s view.

The Hebrew word for idolatry is “avodah zarah” or “strange worship”. Now, since idolatry is defined as “the belief in any power other than God”, or “alien” or “strange worship”, Christianity is then certainly idolatry. Therefore, any belief in God worship, which deviates from the Torah, must fall under the heading of foreign worship, or idolatry. It matters little whether I believe God to be a rock, a tree, or if His worship is through séances or burning children in fire. An error concerning “what” God is, or “how” He is to be worshipped can render one as an idolater, once he performs worship in these strange manners.

It is or course far worse to have a false notion of “what” God is, than “how” He is to be worshipped. However, when someone believes that God is to be worshipped by praying to Jesus, then his view of God must be equally corrupt.




Idolatry II

Reader: I have several questions concerning (in one way or another) the Rambam’s views on idolatry:
1) How is it possible that one transgresses this prohibition if he considers the possibility, saying, “Perhaps the Torah is not from Heaven” (Laws of Idolatry’ 2:3)?

Aren’t we obligated to establish the principles of the Torah based on proof, and intellectual investigation? And doesn’t all intellectual investigation of the validity of a certain idea, by necessity, involve leaving that idea in doubt until it is verified? And if you say that prior to intellectual verification, we must not leave that idea in doubt, but rather, believe in it until we prove it -- isn’t that considered faith? Basically: if one is to live his life by not fully accepting the beliefs of the Torah until he verifies them with his intellect, isn’t it inevitable that he’ll violate this transgression?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: You are quoting a law written by Maimonides’ (Idolatry, 2:3) which says the following: “...And not idolatry alone is it that we are forbidden to turn afterwards in thought, but all thoughts which cause a man to uproot a fundamental of the Torah’s fundamentals, we are warned not to entertain on our hearts, and remove our knowledge towards it, and consider, and be drawn after the imaginations of the heart....” Maimonides continues, “And if all men were drawn after the thoughts of their hearts, we would find the world would be destroyed, because of his (man’s) weakness of knowledge.”  

“Imaginations of the heart” and “thoughts of the heart” are what Maimonides rightfully classifies under idolatrous prohibitions. He does not say we must not study rationally. Of course man must hold false notions until his rational studies eventuate in true knowledge, stripping him of erroneous opinions. This must happen to each member of mankind. There is no escaping this, as you stated. But the prohibition here is to follow “imaginations”, not rational study. Our minds were given for the very purpose of rational study. We must involve ourselves in analytical thinking as much as possible: this is Torah. What we must not do is follow idle speculation, which, without Torah guidance towards truth, will lead us to believe the baseless, emotional inclinations of our hearts. That is the prohibition Maimonides cites.

It is for this reason that Maimonides subsumes this prohibition under his Laws of Idolatry. Idolatry is the very result of man’s subjective, emotional imaginations. Both idolatry and imagination are two points along the same path. Idolatry is just a few steps down that path, after man allows himself to sinfully entertain his fantasies as truths.  

Maimonides also teaches us that not only are the formalized ‘actions’ of idolatry prohibited, but even the very thought processes leading to idolatry are equally prohibited.

Man’s thoughts and fantasies take on myriads of innumerable forms. Sometimes Jewish law prohibits a discreet form, like eating specific animal species for example. Those acts are prohibited, and eating other animals is not. But sometimes, Jewish law prohibits not the action for itself, but due to its inevitable result of philosophical corruption, as in our case. What is being averted in this case is the result of a philosophically crippled individual who denies fundamentals necessary for the appreciation of God and His Torah. Since there are many paths, which lead to such corruption, and it is impossible to formally numerate and prohibit each man’s fantasies, therefore, the category of “idle speculation” is prohibited, not specified thoughts.

So as you say, man must possess doubts until his studies culminate in proofs. For this, man is not considered idolatrous. That blame is only for those who use imagination in place of critical thought.




Chanukah & Insecurity

Chaim: Is there a problem with the lighting of Channukah menorahs in public venues?

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim: There are a number of problems. Although this commandment concerns the publication of the miracles, we are commanded by God not to add or subtract from His Torah, or from the Rabbi’s commands. As such, the rabbinic command of lighting Channukah lights is restricted to one’s home, and this is based on a concept. Therefore, lighting in a public forum is not the command, and further, it distorts the objective in the clearly defined mitzvah of lighting in our doorways. Additionally, I have heard observant Jews recite the blessing of th4ese lights using God’s name, which violates the third of the Ten Commandments: “no to take His name in vain”.

I understand the need for Jews to take pride in their religious practice, but not at the cost of distorting the very command. The Prophet Micha states (6:8) “And humbly walk with God”. One need not wonder why with the advent of Rockefeller Christmas Trees, that Channukah menorahs took their stand along side them. It is a transparent attempt to literally share the limelight. But as Torah Jews, our actions are to be determined by God’s principles, and not by human jealousy. We need not feel second-rate if electronics, towering evergreens, and gift giving beautify Christmas. Our place is not to copy the idolatrous customs, but to educate all mankind away from such deviant practices. Insecurity coupled with ego forces man to seek public displays of his piety, when Micha instructed us in exactly the opposite.

The menorah is restricted to “Nare: Ish u’Bayso”, “A light: [for] man and his household”. This is the proper, and only format of Channukah lights. Once disconnected from the house, the menorah is no longer a mitzvah. What is the concept behind “A light for man and his household”? Why was this the rabbinic formulation?

Perhaps, as Channukah commemorates the reinstitution of Jewish life, which the enemy wished us to abandon, the family, which is the primary unit of Jewish tradition, was chosen as the vehicle. In other words, with the family lighting at their home, we demonstrate how God protected the Torah’s transmission – the vehicle of transmission. Lights were selected as the form of this mitzvah, since the Temple’s Menorah formed the rededication of Temple worship. Inasmuch as we were desirous of remaining firm in God’s worship, the celebration is forged around Temple worship, the center of Jewish life.

Displaying a menorah in public arenas distorts the humble life we are commanded by Micha to uphold. It indicates the fallacy of needing societal approval. It lies to all mankind, that private perfection is insufficient. We must protect authentic Torah fundamentals, and not portray Torah as a lifestyle where we are concerned with social approval, or recognition. Perfection is internal. Religious displays arouse the need in others to also fall prey to these insecurities.

What was Micha’s lesson? Initially, God reprimanded the Jews; he accused them of being “wearied” by Torah life (ibid 6:3). But weariness does not operate in a vacuum: it is relative. For example, you would not be wearied if your life was at stake, and another person saved your life in exchange for a week’s labor. You would be overjoyed in that labor. But if someone were to pay you one dollar for the same work, you would be wearied. Similarly, God tells the Jews that their weariness is unjustified, “I took you up from Egypt, and from the house of slaves I redeemed you” (ibid 6:4). In response, the Jew should feel overjoyed at the relatively simple tasks required by Torah, as Rashi states. But those Jews were haughty, assuming their time was more precious, than to be spent fulfilling God’s commands. Their weariness was generated from a sense of haughtiness. Therefore, the perfect response God delivers is that we must be subservient, and “walk humbly with God”. Each rebuke of the prophet targets a precise flaw in the Jew. We are to learn from Micha that we must not seek glory, even if obtained through the ‘semblance’ of a command. 

As Jews, our God-ordained mission is to present His Torah, not our feelings. As Jews, we are to follow His commands exactly. As Jews, we are to teach the world that perfection is arrived at, not through satisfying invented, social displays, but through refining our thoughts and action, aligning them with only Torah ideals without distortion.

Light the menorah privately, in your homes, as is the law. Through this display, the nations will respect the idea that our actions are not to please them, but God. They will then learn that social approval has no place in true, Torah life. But if we do seek public displays of religiosity, we teach the world that we value their ways, and their approval. We thereby cancel any lesson we might teach them, and our own nation.



For those who wish to educate others on Channukah, a viable alternative would be an outreach activity where educators may demonstrate how to light the menorah, without reciting the blessings with God’s name. In this venue, the educator is not suggesting in any form that the menorah may be lit away from peoples’ homes. The educator should not make the lighting celebrative, but it should form part of an educational lesson.