Parashat Va’Et’hanan – The Dual Aspects of Idolatry

אֲשֶׁר חָלַק יְ׳הוָה אֱ׳לֹהֶיךָ אֹתָם לְכֹל הָעַמִּים


Parashat VaEt’hanan finishes Moshe’s first great speech of Sefer Devarim and begins his second. In the course of this ending and beginning the Revelation at Sinai is brought up three times, each in order to convey a specific message. The first appears in Devarim 4:9-13, and would seem at first to be simply an explanation of why Idolatry is forbidden, as expounded in verses 14-24. Verse 11 makes it clear that the Revelation at Sinai was not a visual experience, “And the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the voice of words, but you saw no form; only a voice,” and then the subsequent section goes through all the forms found in Heaven and on Earth, which by definition of being visible, could not represent ‘א. However, one verse in particular is striking. After rejecting the animals and the birds and the bugs, the Torah rejects the possibility of making idols in the images of the cosmos.

And lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and you see the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the host of heaven, and you are drawn away and worship them, and serve them, which the Lord your god has allotted to all the nations under the whole heaven. (4:19)

The verse seems bizarre, to say the least, but a deeper look at the verse not only teaches us much about the importance of the Revelation at Sinai, but also a great deal about the nature of the prohibition regarding Idolatry[1].

This verse was explained in a variety of ways by the rishonim. Several suggested[2], based on the gemara, that “the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the host of heaven” were allotted to the nations in order to provide them with light. This fits with the end of the verse which describes the nations as “under the whole heaven,” which is the area where the light of the stars falls. However, this fails to make sense in context in two ways. Firstly, the larger section is discussing Idolatry, not the providing of light, and second, Israel also receives light from the heavenly bodies, and while this can be fit with the phrase “ all the nations under the whole heaven,” the verse seems to be making a contrast between the nations and Israel, not lumping them together. A second idea is found in the comments of Ibn Ezra and Ramban, who state that all the nations are subject to management by the constellations, in contrast to Bnei Yisrael who are directly managed by ‘א. While not quite as out of context as the first idea, this still fails to fit into the discussion of Idolatry. Sensing the importance of the context, Rashi suggests that this verse is saying that while ‘א will stop the Israelites from worshiping “the host of heaven,” He will not stop the nations of the world from doing so, despite the fact that such actions are a transgression. This fits almost perfectly with the verse. However, the verse itself lacks the implication that the nations are “allowed but not intended” to worship the stars. Rather, as suggested by Rashbam, this verse seems to be stating that the nations are in fact allowed to worship the stars.

This pasuk, then, provides a fascinating model for Idolatry, wherein while it is forbidden for the Nation of Israel, it is permitted for the nations of the world. This is in fact stated explicitly in Shemot Rabbah 15:23[3], which says, “The Holy One, blessed it he, said: I did not warn the idolaters (lit: “star-worshippers”) against idolatry (lit: “worshipping the stars”), [I warned] only you, as it says, ‘do not make for you idols’ (Vayikra 26:1).” The midrash is pretty clear that idolatry is only a problem for Bnei Yisrael. However, this is problematic in terms of the fact that other sources would seem to indicate that the nations of the world are also forbidden to worship idols. Only a few chapters after our verse, the Torah instructs Bnei Yisrael to destroy the objects of idolatry that they find in the Land of Israel (7:5). One of the purposes of the plagues in Egypt was to teach the Egyptians that only ‘א is God[4]. Moreover, the gemara says that there are seven laws incumbent on all descendants of Noah[5], and that the prohibition against Idolatry is amongst them[6]. One method to resolve this difficulty could be saying that the verse says one thing but in practice we don’t follow it[7]. However, instead of simply choosing to reject one source in favor of the other, it is possible to create a synthesis of the two contradictory ideas.

The discussion of Idolatry in the 4th chapter of Devarim is put specifically in context of the fact that ‘א took Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt (4:20) and made a covenant with them at Sinai (4:23). They are forbidden to worship idols, b/c those idols could not possibly represent ‘א, who took them out of Egypt in order to be their god (Bamidbar 15:41), and who is a jealous god (Devarim 4:24). The covenant at Sinai is the concretization of a relationship between ‘א and Israel that was started at the Exodus, and Idolatry violates this relationship. Since the nations of the world, on the other hand, do not possess this special relationship[8], this cannot prohibit them from performing Idolatry. However, Idolatry may be forbidden for other reasons. The most obvious reason is that it is false, but it may also be forbidden due to the fact that it not only involves immoral practices, it also encourages a very self-serving mindset[9]. From this perspective Idolatry would be forbidden for all people, not just Bnei Yisrael. It is possible to view these not as two contradictory ideas, but as two aspects of the larger prohibition of Idolatry, a view which has the benefit of enabling us to understand some approaches to Idolatry that have been taken throughout history.

Throughout history, Bnei Yisrael have encountered other nations, requiring a delicate balance of pushing away idolaters, and living in society. This has resulted in unique statements attempting to demonstrate that a certain religion isn’t really Idolatry. The most famous instance of this in the encounter with Christianity. Perhaps the strangest answer to the question of whether or not Christianity is Idolatry is, “It is not Idolatry for them, but it is for us.” This approach essentially says that the Trinity is the splitting of ‘א’s power to multiple entities, known in Hebrew as “שיתוף,” meaning “partnership,” and that this is only considered Idolatry for jews, but not for the nations of the world[10]. While at first it seems odd that one idea could be both idolatrous and non-idolatrous, it makes perfect sense in light of our 2-aspect paradigm of Idolatry. From the perspective of the relationship between ‘א and the Nation of Israel, introducing a second or third divine entity into that relationship would certainly not be ok, but since the nations of the world do not have that relationship it would be fine. Similarly, the Meiri held that Christianity is not Idolatry because he believed that Idolatry is essentially a moral issue, not a theological one[11]. He said that basic issue with Idolatry is that idolatrous societies are barbaric and uncivilized, and thus any religion that creates a moral society instead of encouraging immorality would not be considered Idolatry[12]. While this certainly applies to Christianity, no one would suggest that a Jew could then go and join Christian worship. Once again, this makes perfect sense in light of the two differing aspects of Idolatry as we have outline them.

Judaism never believed that all peoples should be walking the same path. This can be readily seen from the fact that it was never a missionary religion, in fact going so far as to discourage strangers from converting. Not only do the nations of the world not have to follow in the path of Judaism, the Torah even allows them their own religions. In fact some thinkers have even suggested that all religions have something unique to offer the world[13. Not only should Bnei Yisrael not be denigrating other religions for not being “the true path,” Rav Kook even suggests that it is Judaism’s job to bring out the best in all the other religions[14]. Bnei Yisrael are meant to be a “Kingdom of Priests” (Shemot 19:6), and just as the special access of the Kohanim to the Mikdash was only for the purpose of enabling the relationship of ‘א and the people, so too the Nation of Israel’s special relationship with ‘א brings with it the responsibility to value and uplift the Nations of the World.

[1] I am indebted for many of the sources in this essay to Marc Shapiro’s essay, “Of Books and Bans.”

[2] See Rav Saadiah Gaon, Rashi, Rashbam ad loc. However, Rashi and Rashbam seem unsatisfied with this answer, as they each then offer alternatives.

[3] The Hebrew text of the midrash can be found here.

[4] Rav Yoel Bin Nun, of Yeshivat Har Etzion, has an approach to the Exodus narrative wherein the entirety of it is about the negation of Egypt’s gods, to the point that any appearance of the word “רע,” normally translated as evil, is instead considered a reference to the major Egyptian sun-god, Ra.

[5] However, Masekhet Baba Kama 38a and Vayikra Rabbah 13:2 both state that ‘א repealed the Seven Noahide Laws from upon the nations.

[6] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Sanhedrin, 56a.

[7] This is in fact the general approach taken by Rashbam and the GRA, which originates in Masekhet Sotah, 16a.

[8] While Amos 9:7 states that other nations may have a relationship with ‘א like that of the Exodus, they still lack the covenant of Sinai.

[9] See the beginning of Rambam’s Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim, where he argues that idol worship is purely a function of what a person can get back from the god, a sort of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” arrangement.

[10] ( פתחי תשובה, יורה דעה, קמז ג (ב

[11] Moshe Halbertal, “Bein Torah le-Hokhmah: Rabbi Menahem ha-Meiri u-Va`alei ha-Halakhah ha-Maimonim be-Provence” (Jerusalem, 2000), ch. 3.

[12] Beit HaBehira, Masekhet Avodah Zarah, p. 39.

[13] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, “The Dignity of Difference,” Chapter 3. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Orot, Orot Yisrael, 5:2.

[14]  Op cit.


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