“How Far Must We Go to Avoid Evil?”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Re’eh, we learn of the Biblical command that the People of Israel must destroy all vestiges of pagan and polytheistic worship, whenever they are found.

The Torah, in Deuteronomy 12:2 reads, ” Ah’bayd t’ah’b’doon eht kohl ha’m’koh’moht ah’sher ah’v’doo shahm ha’goyim, ah’sher ah’tehm yohr’sheem oh’tahm et eh’lo’hay’hem, ahl heh’hah’reem hah’rah’meem, v’ahl ha’g’vah’oht, v’tah’chaht kohl aytz rah’ah’nahn,” You shall utterly destroy all the places where the nations that you shall possess worshiped their gods: on the high mountains and on the hills, and under every leafy tree. The Torah, in Deuteronomy 12:3, follows with specific demands that the Israelites break apart all the pagan altars, smash their pillars, and burn their sacred trees in fire. The idolatrous carved images must be cut down, and the Israelites shall obliterate their names from that place.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch asserts that the first task of the Israelites when they reach the land of Israel is to clear the land of all traces of polytheism. “The land is to be the land of the One G-d and His Torah. It may bear no reminder of any contrary way of looking at the world and life.”

The Talmud in Avodah Zarah 45b, cited by Rashi, notes that the double language of “Ah’bayd t’ahb’doon, ” You shall surely destroy, underscores that every trace must be eradicated. It is not sufficient to chop down an idolatrous tree, even its roots must be removed from the ground. Hence, Jewish law instructs the Jews to destroy every vestige of idols in their homeland, by burning or grinding them down, and dispersing their remains in the wind.

Although the command to destroy idols applies wherever Jews reside, its application is far more stringent in the land of Israel. Outside of Israel, Jews are only required to demolish idols when they happen upon their worship. In the land of Israel, however, the Jews are required to track down and uncover every trace of idolatry in order to destroy it.

The Sefer Ha’Chinuch notes that the worship of pagan idols could not be tolerated alongside the worship of the Al-mighty G-d in the Promised Land, and that the requirement to completely eradicate idol worship is meant to make their coexistence impossible.

One might assume, then, that converting a place of idolatry into a place of monotheistic worship would be encouraged. The Abarbanel, however, states that this is not the case. Buildings that were used for pagan worship need to be completely destroyed, lest they continually call to mind pagan worship. All remnants of idolatry must be entirely eradicated.

The requirement to destroy any trace of pagan or polytheistic worship raises fundamental questions and issues with which traditional Jews grapple even in contemporary times, even in the absence of actual pagan gods and idolatry.

Looking back upon the more than three thousand year old mission of the Jewish people to enlighten the world with their good and noble deeds and to perfect the world under the rule of the Al-mighty, it seems that remarkable progress has been made. After all, much of Western society has adopted the values of the Torah. The classical authorities even look upon the rise of Christianity and Islam as a way of bringing Jewish values to the world. Many of the barbaric practices of ancient times have been eliminated, primarily because of the influence of the Torah, as filtered through these Christian and Muslim “vehicles.”

In light of these remarkable achievements, Jews could very well pat themselves on their backs and announce, “Mission accomplished!” That, however, would be too facile. Although we see that monotheism has taken root in much of the Western world, and that the moral and ethical values of the Torah have been widely adopted through the broad acceptance of “Judeo-Christian values,” we encounter the rise of new types of “paganism,” resulting in equally disastrous consequences in modern times.

Despite the great advances of the modern era, modern technology has transformed killing into an efficient and pernicious “art form,” one that can destroy many times the numbers of lives that were terminated by the use of ancient conventional weapons such as swords, bows and arrows. The breakdown of the human family is becoming more and more evident in contemporary times. Sexual profligacy and the increasingly common abuse of adults and children has become epidemic. The values that are transmitted through contemporary media are far from Torah values. And, we see, in many respects, the crumbling of the moral and ethical fabric of society, from both a social and economic perspective.

The question then remains, based on the Biblical injunction to destroy idols, how far must contemporary Jews go to separate from the new paganism, from this new evil–-an evil that not only confronts us, but seems bent on consuming us?

Do those who wish to avoid the destructive powers of the contemporary idols need to separate themselves totally, or can there be compromise?

Perhaps, to those who view the intensity of the moral and ethical breakdown as a pernicious “epidemic,” their conclusion has been that it is necessary, as in all medical epidemics, to avoid all contamination. For this reason, they have chosen to, as much as possible, close themselves off hermetically, to protect themselves, so that “survivors” will be in the position to treat the victims who have not separated themselves.

The danger, however, in closing oneself off completely from the outside world, is the possible loss of balance, and the likelihood of becoming radicalized. The hermetically-sealed life may result in the loss of much of the goodness that may be gained by living a more balanced lifestyle. Exposure to the good things that have not been corrupted in the secular society, will be impossible.

Although this issue cannot be resolved in a brief discussion such as this, we must all take note, that it is necessary to protect ourselves from the blandishments of society and contemporary idolatries that surround us. Jews must make every effort to maintain their high ethical and moral standards, guarantee for their children an intensive Jewish education, and strive assiduously to avoid being “contaminated.”

For those who are not currently protected, it may very well be time to seek protection.

May you be blessed.