“Having Thoughts About False Gods”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In parashat Kedoshim, the second of this week’s double parashiot, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, the Torah strictly prohibits Jews to turn to idols and false gods for any reason.

Parashat Kedoshim opens with a strong exhortation to all Jews to show proper respect to the “three partners” in the creation of every human life–G-d, father and mother. This is followed by the prohibition of introducing any false gods into this creative partnership. In Leviticus 19:4, the Torah declares,אַל תִּפְנוּ אֶל הָאֱלִילִם, וֵאלֹהֵי מַסֵּכָה לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם, אֲנִי השׁם אֱ-לֹקֵיכֶם, Do not turn to the idols, and molten gods shall you not make for yourselves–-I am the L-rd, your G-d!

In Rabbi Abraham Chill’s acclaimed compendium and explication of Judaism’s 613 Mitzvot, entitled The Mitzvot, Their Commandments and Their Rationale, Rabbi Chill offers many wonderful insights into all the mitzvot of the Torah. Of particular interest are his comments regarding the negative mitzvah that prohibits Jews to turn to idols and false gods.

Rabbi Chill notes that because of the human being’s “proclivity to transgress,” the Torah introduces 365 prohibitions intended to restrain people from doing wrong. It is widely acknowledged that the first principle of doing good, is to do no wrong. Consequently, the Torah contains more negative mitzvot (365 injunctions), than positive commandments (248). It must be remembered, that in order to do good, one needs to be proactive, while in order to do evil or harm, one need not do anything. One can be a collaborator to evil by merely standing by and watching as evil occurs.

Thus, we are forbidden to not only worship false gods, but to even consider that there is any validity to the claims that these false gods exist at all. While giving consideration to the existence of false gods is prohibited, it is not punishable, unless these thoughts lead to actions, which then, of course, are punishable. This injunction is reaffirmed by the well-known verse found in the second paragraph of the Shema, in Numbers 15:39, “And you shall not go after your own heart or your own eyes, which you are accustomed to follow.”

Rabbi Chill cites four well-known medieval commentators and their views on this subject.

The Ibn Ezra maintains that a person may not even consider the concept of idolatry as being legitimate, and must regard idols as non-entities, not worthy of being given even the slightest thought or regard.

Nachmanides notes that even if an oracle or “false god” predicts a future occurrence, and the prediction comes true, one must not give credence to the prediction or the occurrence. The same is true of a false prophet. The fact that a predicted prophecy comes true is no proof of the prophet’s authenticity, especially if the prophet also makes pronouncements that conflict with the precepts of the Torah. In both instances, the so-called “miraculous” occurrences must be attributed to G-d, and not to the idolatrous source or the false prophet. Nachmanides goes even further, strictly prohibiting even engaging in debate regarding the existence of pagan gods or the sanctity of their priests.

The The Alshich questions the need for the Torah to prohibit or even warn against pagan gods. After all, the prohibition should be superfluous for those who already believe in one G-d. The Alshich, therefore, suggests that the Torah issues this warning especially to those who believe that the entire world was created by G-d. Thus, one who worships the sun, the moon, the seas or the sky, may believe that he/she is truly worshiping G-d. Therefore, the Torah strongly declares that while G-d’s creations may be admired, they must not be worshiped.

The Sefer Hachinuch raises the specter of those who study forbidden subject matters for the sake of ‘intellectual inquiry.” While Judaism recognizes the importance of open-mindedness, the Chinuch warns that these intellectual pursuits tend to become addictive, often making it impossible for one to distinguish between honest academic exploration and false and misleading conclusions. Because of the powerful blandishments of the idolatrous subject matter, such inquiries often result in the inability of the student to separate from the dangerous subject matter. No longer able to identify what is beautiful and sanctified in life, the Torah recommends refraining altogether from having contact with that subject matter.

The proliferation of electronic media today (which itself is often addictive), allows the intellectually curious to inquire and learn about virtually everything, more than ever before. This, as well, underscores how easily it is to become addicted to the blandishments of modernity.

Addictions are common today and the objects of addiction are legion. The elements and range of addictions is endless. Many are addicted to things that we encounter frequently and often take for granted in our daily lives, such as: sports, gambling, drugs, cars, money, women, men, video games, movies, music, clothes, exercise, and many more. The advantage of media proliferation is that it often shows how intelligent people can be easily manipulated, become radicalized, and even be persuaded to commit acts of violence in the name of the new “deity.”

We see today more cult-like behavior than ever before. While the blandishments are becoming more powerful, the human being’s ability to resist the temptations seems to be growing increasingly weaker. Although the Torah’s strong derogation of idolatry seems inimical to Judaism’s openness and its strong predilection against stifling ideas and opinions, the growing inability to adequately fight the blandishments, perhaps justifies the rabbinic declaration that Jews must not give idolatrous practices any credence whatsoever. In fact, this out-of-character prohibition represents one of the earliest attempts in human history to stifle the flow of truly-dangerous ideas and prevent the terrible harm these ideas may wreak upon society.

It is always fascinating to see how forward-thinking Judaism truly is, especially in light of new developments and ideas that are emerging every day.

May you be blessed.