Does Idolatry Work?


Moshe Ben-Chaim



If you were told that idolatry actually worked, would you believe the person? Let’s say that the person was a Jew? Perhaps the person was even a Rabbi? This is exactly what the Talmud takes up in its discussion on page 55a of Avoda Zara.


There are two incidents regarding which, two different Jews asked Rabbis what their opinions were, as both incidents seemed to imply that idolatry was in fact effectuating change in the world:



Case 1:

“Zunin (a Jew) asked Rabbi Akiva, ‘Both of our hearts know that there is no truth to idolatry, however, there was this cripple (dislocated joints acc. to Rashi) who entered into a church, and left in a recovered state.’

Rabbi Akiva responded: ‘I’ll give you an analogy, there was this trustworthy man by whom all residents of his town would deposit their goods without witnesses. There came a man who normally used witnesses, but didn’t on one occasion. The trusted man’s wife came and said, ‘let’s deny his goods, (as he has no witnesses to testify we received them). The trusted man responded to his wife, ‘shall we throw away our livelihood because of this one fool?’ So also is the way with disease, they are to visit man for a certain time, and they are to leave at a certain day, at a certain hour, through a certain means, and by a certain medicine. Now, should they abandon their oath (their natural course) and remain because at this moment this fool entered into a church?’


This case is the explained very simply by Rabbi Akiva as ‘coincidence’. It just so happened that when the cripple left the church, his ailment was expiring at that very moment. Such coincidences do happen. God’s perfect laws of nature therefore are not suspended in such circumstances to merely accommodate the fool and deter them from idolatry. Rather, nature continues to adhere to its laws as has been designed by God (adherence to their laws is euphemistically referred to as their ‘oath’). This teaches that God desires that man change himself to follow reality, and not the opposite, that God should change reality (nature) to follow man. Now, in this case we see a connection in “time” (the cripple entered a church, and was also healed) yet, the Rabbis do not ascribe powers to the church or its god. Certainly, we must follow the Rabbis, and not ascribe any power when NO change is seen. Thus, we must not assume Red Bendels for example to possess any power.





Case 2:

Rava the son of Rabbi Isaac asked Rabbi Judah, ‘There was a church in our town, and when the world needed rain, their god appeared in a dream and told them, ‘kill a man, and I will cause the rain to come.’ The people killed a man, and it rained.’

Rabbi Judah responded: ‘Had I already died, you would not have learned what I did from Rav. He taught, ‘why does the Torah teach (Deut. 4:19) ‘Lest you lift your eyes to the heavens and see the sun, moon and stars, all the hosts of heaven, and you turn aside and prostrate yourselves to them and worship them which God has smoothed them out for all nations under the entire heavens’. Rabbi Judah continued, ‘This teaches that God made their ways smooth so as to remove them from the world.”



A few questions present themselves when we contrast these two cases. We must keep in mind that this section of Talmud is bringing two cases which are dealing with the same area, but each must have a unique, new insight not taught by the other:

1) Why didn’t the first case answer this second question of Rava? Isn’t this Case 2 also coincidence?

2) How do we define ‘coincidence’?

3) In case 2, did their god actually appear?

4) How would a wise man interpret the Case 2, had he lived in that town at that moment when it rained? Would he say that their god is real and actually caused rain?

5) What is the meaning of ‘God made their ways smooth so as to remove them from the world’? What type of justice is this of God? Do we not also read that ‘God does not desire the death of the sinner, but rather, in his repentance’?

6) Who made their ways ‘smooth’? God? Was this teaching that God actively makes it ‘smooth’ for a idolater to keep to his path? Or is it referring to another party?




A distinction between the two cases must be made clear. The Talmud does not record two cases if they deal with the same phenomena.


This section of Talmud is discussing the phenomena of ‘relation’.

If we look at two extremes, we see that phenomena are either related or unrelated. There are no quantitative levels between these two. Just as an object is either in motion or at rest, there is no partial motion. A falling leaf is in motion just as much as a fired bullet. Only in speed do they differ, but they equally partake of motion. In ‘relation’ as well there are two poles, either something is or isn’t related to something else.

The assumption of relation is precisely where these two Jews questioned.


Before we answer, let us define what is and what isn’t ‘relating’. When someone throws a rock which hits glass, and simultaneously the glass breaks, we say the rock caused the glass to break. There is a relationship. As long as we can trace a cause and effect to natural laws of physics, and an effect follows a cause based on the laws operating at hand (glass breaking is immediate, while poison may take years) we then say there is a relationship. If however one throws a rock at glass but the glass does not break until 20 years later, we do not say the rock caused the glass to break. The time lapse divorces the rock from attaining the status of cause.


Let’s apply these rules to our cases: The first case is an example of what we call ‘coincidence’. We define coincidence as ‘the simultaneous occurrence of two or more unrelated events.’ For example, if someone throws a ball and simultaneously a shooting star appears in the sky, we say this is coincidence that both occurred at the same moment, as they are not related by any natural laws. If however one throws a ball and sprains their arm, we do not call that coincidence, as the relationship is clear.

This is Case 1. There is no physical relationship between one entering a church, and one’s body being healed. (We are barring psychological causes as we are elucidating this Talmud strictly according to the text.) Here, man creates a relationship in his mind which is not in line with physical law.


If the second case were strictly coincidence, it would not have been recorded, as the Talmud is not redundant in its teachings. One may then ask, ‘Am I to say there is some relationship between killing a man and rain falling?’ The answer is of course patently no. But it is also not a case of coincidence as the two events did not occur at the same moment. Here, two events happened in succession. Normally we would not assume a relationship between two events which happen, even close in time. However, the element of a ‘prediction’ fools man into believing a relationship exists.


So there are two mistakes man makes when interpreting phenomena: Case 1) He either associates two unrelated events based on the fact that he witnesses them occurring at once. Case 2) Man assumes relationships exist if their is close proximity in time to one another. Man assumes a link between the two events due to an element of forecast. In both cases however, man has erred, and there is in fact no relationship.


When the Rabbis began elucidating this area, they understood well that idolatry is false. There is only One Force in the universe, the Creator of heaven and earth and all forces in them. However, the Rabbis, as always, analyze an area and present categorical findings. They saw two distinct categories when it came to explaining away assumed effects of idolatry.

But we may now ask why a fool believes this?


This is what I believe the words, ‘God has smoothed out’ come to teach. God designed man’s psyche in a way where he always has the ability to freely select intelligence as a way of life. God does not desire that man is ‘forced’ into this selection. Say for example, man was always frustrated by his desires, i.e. he couldn’t overeat due to immediate stomach pain, he couldn’t oversleep due to sudden headaches, he couldn’t have intercourse more than once a week due to illness, etc. In this scenario, man would not be abstaining from desires and lusts based on an effort to curb his desires, but from adverse reactions. Internally, he would still be craving these desires. This is the central point.


God desires that man select a path in life based on intelligence, and without a choice, he is not selecting. If one cannot leave a lifestyle, he is not there by choice. He need not analyze the good of such a life, as he has no other option, so analysis is of no practical value. A true philosopher might analyze such an existence, but the Torah must be for all men, not just the rare philosophers.



Getting back to Case 2, the person did not create the relationship without external stimuli. Something beside himself contributed to the assumed relationship. In such a case, there is a choice;


1) The individual can believe what he sees on the surface, that is, he can follow what is ‘smooth’ in his own eyes. God is not smoothing it out, but God designed man that this ‘smoothness’ of explanation is available to mankind. Emotions have appeal, although they provide wrong conclusions, and false relationships.


2) He can follow wisdom. The wise man will see that someone had a dream - which was his own fantasy. There are no other gods. This wise man would try to stop them from killing an innocent man, as his mind tells him that there is no relationship between the murder and rain, regardless of the fact that it rained, wisdom dictates his thoughts and actions. The wise man knows idolatry is false, but the average man doesn’t. Succession removes this case from the definition of coincidence, enough so, that onlookers will follow their fantasies for idolatry.




Someone had asked, ‘Why would God want to ‘smooth out their ways to remove them from the world? This seems to imply that God purposely made idolatry work so as to remove man from following Torah ideals.’


God did not make the phenomena misleading and smooth, rather, He made man with the ability to project smooth and appealing interpretations. To ‘remove them from the world’ is not God’s goal, as we see from the quote, ‘God does not desire the death of the sinner, but rather, in his repentance’. To ‘remove them from the world’ refers to the numerous phenomena of desires which appeal to man as ‘smooth’, so as to act as the other choice for man. Without smooth, or attracting emotions, man has no choice. So God making them smooth to ‘remove them from the world’ is semi-allegorical for ‘God made the purpose of the emotions (not God’s goal) attractive to man’. God’s goal is that man chooses between what satisfies his emotions, and what is right according to his mind. This is the plan for mankind, that we have both emotional drives, and intellectual curiosity, (the yetzer hara, and yetzer hatove) and we must choose between them.



In summary, the Rabbis dismiss both cases, as they are examples of man drawing untrue relationships.

Man creates relationships in his mind, as this is where relationships truly exist. Relationships perceived accurately follow the laws of reality. A real relationship is one where there is perceivable, physical interaction. When there is no contact, can we say there is still a relationship? Our Talmud teaches that we cannot suggest so. These are the only two ways where man creates inaccurate relationships. I say ‘only’, as the Talmud exhausts all the possibilities. In Case 1, the relationship is baseless, as a simultaneous occurrence does not suffice to create a relationship between two events. All that is similar between these two phenomena is their timing. But there is no physical contact. As is seen from the shooting star example, Case 1 deals with coincidence in time. This relationship is drawn between two real phenomena, but they in fact have nothing to do with each other.


In Case 2, man draws a relationship based not on simultaneity, but on successive events linked together in man’s mind by the presence of a forecast which removes this second case from being categorized as coincidence.


One may also add that ‘dreams’ are not considered ‘events’ as they happen in one’s mind, not in reality.

Therefore, there isn’t even a second ‘event’ to talk about.