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 limited exposure.
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.