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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Parashat Shemini 5774 – “For your sake and for the Sake of the Nation”: The Tension Between Particularism and Universalism in the Inaugural Sacrifices

פרשת שמיני – בעדך ובעד העם

Parashat Shemini opens with the eight day of the inauguration of the Mishkan, the point where the service of the Mishkan, until that point performed by Moshe, began to be performed by Aharon and his sons. This begins a process that would continue until the destruction of the second Beit HaMikdash, where the descendants of Aharon brought the korbanot of Bnei Yisrael before ‘א. However, that day was not merely the beginning of this process. Many of the services performed that day would not become part of the regular ritual of the Mishkan or Mikdash. An excellent example of this would be the two sin-offerings that Aharon and his sons bring.

In Vayikra 9:7 Aharon is told, “Come forward to the altar and sacrifice your sin offering and your burnt offering, making expiation for yourself and for the people; and sacrifice the people’s offering and make expiation for them, as the LoRD has commanded.”[1] The phrase “for yourself and for the people” would seem to be odd. Is Aharon not part of the people? Why would he need a separate atonement? Even stranger, this is not the only time such a formulation is found. In Vayikra 16 Moshe describes the service of Yom HaKippurim, and we find the same basic formulation, of Aharon atoning for himself and the greater unit that he is a part of, four times (verses 6, 11, 17, & 24), with the last mimicking 9:7 almost exactly. “He shall bathe his body in water in the holy precinct and put on his vestments; then he shall come out and offer his burnt offering and the burnt offering of the people, making expiation for himself and for the people.” Once again, the strangeness of the phrasing stands out. Is Aharon not a part of the people? Why isn’t their expiation enough?

The first step to understanding this separation is to appreciate its nature.  This isn’t just a matter of redundancy in speech, this is something that was effected in real life. The expiation of Aharon and the People occurs in two stages. Vayikra 9:8 says that “Aaron came forward to the altar and slaughtered his calf of sin offering.” Nothing in this verse, or the ensuing description of the offering process, says anything about the nature of this sin offering. Verse 15, in contrast, is quite clear: “Next he brought forward the people’s offering. He took the goat for the people’s sin offering, and slaughtered it, and presented it as a sin offering like the previous one.” The sin offering brought in verse 15 is that of the people, as opposed to the previous one. That one, therefore, must be a sin offering for Aharon himself. This answers the question of the sufficiency of the national expiation for the expiation of Aharon. Aharon is indeed part of the people and would have been covered by their offering. His offering comes before the national one, when he had still not received expiation.

The problem that remains is the question of why? Why does Aharon have to give a sin offering before that of the people can be given? Some hint of the answer lies in the nature of the occasions regarding which this “for himself and for the people” expression is found, the eight inaugural day of the Mishkan and Yom HaKippurim. Both of these days are about having a clean start for the beginning of a new process, about being spiritually fit to begin serving ‘א anew. This is something that occurs on both the individual and collective levels. However, an individual, as part of a unit, cannot focus on the whole  and the part simultaneously, and the question then would be which should be attended to first. The model of the Mishkan is clear, the individual must cleanse themselves first, before getting to work on the whole. However, it is also clear that Aharon’s expiation is meant to make him ready to being the sin offering of the people. The individual should make themselves ready first, but they should do so for the sake of better serving the whole. The Torah thus delineates a basic model that applies to all aspects of life. A person is always part of a people. A people is always part of the peoples of our world. And the first step to making it a better world is for all persons to be the best persons they can be, in order that all peoples will be the best peoples they can be, and our world will be the best that it can be.

[1] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.