- Reader's Questions on Maimonides' Laws of Idolatry
- Moshe Ben-Chaim
- 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 consider's the possibility that "perhaps the Torah
is not from Heaven" (as stated in '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?
- Mesora: 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.
- 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, even though man's
thoughts and fantasies can take on myriads of forms. Sometimes
Jewish law prohibits a discreet form, like eating specific animal
species for example. Those acts are prohibited, and eating other
animals are 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 isolate and prohibit man's thought
patterns, therefore, the category of "idle speculation"
is prohibited, not specified thoughts.
- Reader: 2) The Rambam states (2:4) that "idolatry
opposed all commands" If that is the case, I assume that
by studying the practices of idolatry, we will gain a greater
understanding of the primitive emotions which the Torah seeks
to help us remove -- but how can we accomplish this if we are
prohibited from looking at, or even thinking about the accessories
and philosophy of idolatry?
Mesora: Rashi (Deut. 18:9)
openly states that man should study the idolatrous practices
to teach his son how harmful they are. Again, Maimonides says
that the prohibition is for man to simply follow the thoughts
or imaginations of his heart. But rational analytic study is
obligatory, more than any other activity, "Study of Torah
is equal to all other commands" (Mishnayos Payah, 1:1) And
part of Torah study is the study of human psychology, including
idolatrous tendencies and their roots of origin in man.
- Reader: 3) In 2:5, the Rambam (according to my understanding)
says that we must treat all heretics like non-Jews. But how are
we to know if a person is truly a heretic. Don't we also say
that Jews who were raised with incorrect ideas are like a "an
infant born to ignoramuses" - and therefore not culpable?
Does this mean that the Rambam himself would consider other Rishonim
who didn't agree with his view of the "13 Fundamentals"
as heretics (for example, the fact that the Ramban holds that
the ultimate reward of the Future World is physical)? And furthermore,
what practical implications does this have? For example, I attend
a shul with many people who are new to Judaism, and as such,
might not have sufficient knowledge of the Torah's Fundamentals
-- does this mean, for example, that I shouldn't count them in
a minyan, or that I shouldn't say amen to their blessings? That
seems like an awfully severe judgment to make on innocent Jews
with proper intentions, who merely lack information due to their
Mesora: Maimonides would
not say that a difference of opinion about the future world -
Olam Haba - makes Ramban a heretic. Only the denial of what Maimonides
classified as "fundamentals" earns one a status as
a heretic. But Ramban certainly agreed with the future world,
he merely had a different conception of its parameters.
- Regarding your estimation of others, we don't accuse anyone
of being a heretic, or any other insulting label, if we are simply
ignorant of their beliefs. Only once a heretical opinion is pronounced
does the person attain that status of heretic.