Touring the Talmud: Aboda Zara 41-46 (Shabbat Ki Tisa) – The gods, Delusion and the God Solution
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The Talmud turns its focus from relationships with idolators and focuses now on the very objects and paraphernalia of idol worship. We are not to gain benefit from any such items and we are to eradicate them from our midst. There are, however, ways that items of idolatry can have their idolatrous status nullified and become permitted for use. We also discuss questions of items or objects that may be used for idolatry but could be merely ornamental. In all of this lies the issue of our tendency to attribute theistic significance to mundane elements and how we deal with our connections, ideas, involvements and interactions with the divine. Through much of it we get in our own way. This essay looks at an aspect of the place of God in our lives.
The gods, Delusion and the God Solution
‘But life is short, and things do matter, often more than the human heart can bear.’
— Mark Helprin
THE FORMIDABLE DRIVE FOR WORSHIP
Passion is integral to our humanity. There are times and circumstances which bring out in us such intense drive and feeling that we are overcome and overwhelmed with it.
One such drive of great passion in us has long been the desire to worship a deity. It was so powerful a drive that it took the nation of Israel over one thousand years to find some level of peace with it in their struggles. From the earliest days, our people fought to focus their religious ardour towards God alone. It instead found outlet in all manner of expression and action.
God said to Ya’acob, “Arise, go up to Bet’el and remain there; and build an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esav.” So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Rid yourselves of the alien gods in your midst.… (Gen. 35:1-2)
Perhaps the most famous is the episode that we read this week of the Golden Calf:
God said to Moshe: Go down! for your people whom you brought up from the land of Egypt has wrought ruin! They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them, they have made themselves a molten calf, they have bowed to it, they have slaughtered offerings to it, and they have said: ‘This is your god, Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt! (Ex. 32:7-8)
After we entered the Promised Land and spent close to two and a half decades conquering it under the leadership of Yehoshua, Moshe’s disciple, he used his last words to implore us to finally make a choice as to whom we would serve.
So-now [said Yehoshua],
hold God in awe and serve Him in integrity and trust;
remove the gods whom your fathers had served across the River and in Egypt
and serve God! But if it be evil in your eyes to serve God,
choose yourselves today whom you wish to serve—
…But as for me and my household, we will serve God!
The people answered and said:
[Heaven] forbid for us, from abandoning God
to serve other gods! (Joshua, 24:14-16)
And while in front of their leader they seemed quite certain of their allegiance to God, throughout the first 380 years in the land they experimented with a myriad of deities. So dualistic were they in their religious devotions that the prophet Eliyahu (Elija) again demands that they choose a side and stick with it!
Eliyahu came close to all the people and said:
How long will you hop on two branches?
If God is Lord, walk after him,
and if Baal, walk after him!
But the people did not answer him a word…
‘Then Eliyahu said to all the people:
Come close to me!
And all the people came close to him.
He mended the wrecked altar of God; then Eliyahu took twelve stones, like the number of tribes of the Children of Ya’acob,
to whom the word of God had [come], saying:
Israel shall be your name!
And he built the stones [into] an altar, to the name of God…
And fire of God fell and consumed the offering-up and the wood
and the stones and the dust,
and the water that was in the channel it licked up.
All the people saw,
and they fell upon their faces, and said:
God, He is Lord! God, He is Lord!’
This drive is so much a part of the human condition that Maimonides understood the Torah’s entire treatment of korbanot (animal offerings) to be a safe and acceptable way, provided by God, for us to channel and sublimate the primal drive.
We found it to be a perilous and arduous struggle and throughout the first thousand years of our nationhood it was a constant and seemingly unshakable iniquity that ultimately led to our national exile.
So it was,
because the Children of Israel had sinned against God their Lord…and the Children of Israel had…built themselves temples throughout all their towns…and had set up standing-pillars and Ashera-trees for themselves, on every lofty hill and beneath every luxuriant tree, and had sent-up-smoke there, at all the temples, like the nations whom God had exiled before them…
And God had warned Israel and Judah by the hand of every prophet, every seer, saying:
‘Turn back from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my regulations,
according to all the Instruction that I commanded your fathers
and which I sent to them by the hand of my servants the prophets’.
But they had not hearkened;
they had hardened their neck, like the neck of their fathers,
who had not trusted in God their Lord,
and they had rejected his rules and his covenant which he had cut with their fathers,
and his warnings by which he had warned them;
and they had walked after futility and became futile [themselves]…they had abandoned all the commandments of God their Lord
and had made for themselves something molten—two calves,
and had made an Ashera-tree and bowed down to all the Forces of the Heavens and served Baal;
and they had made their sons and their daughters cross through the fire,
and they had augured augury and practiced divination,
and had sold themselves to do what was evil in the eyes of God, provoking him—”
so God became exceedingly angry at Israel, and he removed them from His presence;
none remained, save the tribe of Judah alone.
But even Judah did not keep the commandments of God their Lord;
they walked in the customs of Israel which they had observed. (II Kings 17:7-19)
KILLING THE DRIVE AND ITS SLOW BUT STEADY DEATH
It ultimately drove the Sages at the time of the second temple to fast and pray for the eradication of the drive for worship from humanity altogether. They reasoned that it was utterly unmanageable and only getting us into trouble. The challenge of directing it appropriately proved too great for us and they believed it was best to shut it down.Indeed, they tried and we believe that they succeeded.
Rab said, and some say it was Rabbi Yoḥanan who said: Woe, woe. It is this, (the evil inclination for idol worship), that destroyed the Temple, and burned its Sanctuary, and murdered all the righteous ones, and caused the Jewish people to be exiled from their land. And it still dances among us!
Didn’t You give it to us for solely for the purpose of our receiving reward for overcoming it? We do not want it, and we do not want its reward. We are prepared to forgo the potential rewards for overcoming the evil inclination as long as it departs from us. In response to their prayer a note fell to them from the heavens upon which was written: ‘Truth’, (indicating that God accepted their request)…In response to the indication of divine acceptance, they observed a fast for three days and three nights, and He delivered the evil inclination to them. A form of a fiery lion cub came forth from the chamber of the Holy of Holies. Zekhariah the prophet said to the Jewish people: This is the evil inclination for idol worship, as it is stated in the verse that refers to this event: “And he said: This is the evil one” (Zekharia 5:8). (Yoma 69b)
While they had only wished to get rid of the drive for foreign worship, they found that there was no such thing. Their search brought them to none other than the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place of our worship of God! It would seem that what they found was not the drive for idol worship per se, but for worship itself. It proved for many centuries to be too powerful a passion to direct and aim appropriately.
They killed the drive, but there were consequences. We cannot eradicate the drive for worship and find the same vivacity for devotion to God that we once had. There seems to be no doubt that when we lost the drive for worship to keep us from aiming it towards the wrong gods, we lost the powerful urge to worship altogether.
It was clearly not what it used to be.
One day Rav Ashei ended his lecture just before reaching the matter of three [heretical] kings. He said to his students: Tomorrow we will begin the lecture with our friends the three kings. Menashe, king of Judea, came and appeared to him in his dream. Menashe said to him angrily: ‘You called us your colleague and the colleagues of your father?! How dare you characterise yourself as our equal?!’
… Rav Ashei responded: ‘If you understood so much Torah, how could you have worshiped idols?’ ‘Why, had you been alive in our time,’ answered Menashe, ‘you would have hiked up your robe so your little feet could run fast enough to keep up with me!’ (due to the fierce desire to engage in idol worship).
The next day Rav Ashei said to the Sages as a prelude to his lecture: We will begin with the treatment of our teachers….’ (Sanhedrin 102b)
The world was filled once with theism — gods that we created filled our everyday life. Our Talmudic discussions this week reveal just how much.
(Daf 40b) Mishna: All statues are forbidden, i.e., it is prohibited to derive benefit from them, because they are worshipped at least once a year; this is the statement of Rabbi Meir. And the Rabbis say: The only type of statue that is forbidden is any statue that has in its hand a staff, or a bird, or an orb, as these are indications that this statue is designated for idolatry. Gemara:…The Sages taught in the Tosefta (6:1) that they added the following to the list of items that, when added to a statue, indicate that it is worshipped as an idol: A sword in its hand, a crown on its head, and a ring on its finger.
(Daf 41a) Mishna: If one found an object in the figure of a hand or in the figure of a foot, these are forbidden, as objects similar to those are worshipped.
(Daf 42b) Mishna: One who finds vessels, and upon them is a figure of the sun, a figure of the moon, or a figure of a dragon, he must take them and cast them into the Dead Sea and not derive any benefit from them, as they are assumed to be objects of idol worship.
The most unassuming objects became religious. But these were not the stuff of meticulously explored, wisely cultivated faith systems, honed and refined over generations of thought and discipline. These were glorified institutionalised superstitions. They filled the gaps of human ignorance about our world and the uneasiness and insecurity that we harboured because of its random nature as all superstitions do. Superstition is at the base of idolatry.
The deepest drive for idolatry is not glory and awe, but fear. It is because of our fears and uneasiness about life that we find all manner of ideas and beliefs to comfort us. We will do almost anything if we believe it will bring us security and protection. The very stuff that Torah warns us to keep away from.
The graven images of their gods shall you burn with fire; you shall not covet the silver or gold that is on them, nor take it to you, lest you be snared by it; for it is rejected by God your Lord….(Deut. 7:25-26)
But we feared life and the world so we chose to psychologically protect ourselves (perhaps unconsciously) by making gods to guard us. They were everywhere.
We must remember though, that pagan religions did not seek to discover the nature of reality; instead they provided superficial answers aimed at filling our doubts about reality. These devotions were not driven by a desire to connect to God but rather to be protected by the gods. Because these ideas and beliefs are attributed on an ad hoc basis and thus bear little substance in broad, fundamental terms, the Talmud asserts that they can be nullified from such status by those who believe them or live within the belief system in which they were created.
A gentile can revoke the idolatrous status of his own object of idol worship or that of another gentile, but a Jew cannot revoke the status of a gentile’s object of idol worship. (Daf 42a)
AND THEN…THERE WEREN’T
As humanity has deepened and broadened its understanding of the world and moved towards what we confidently call ‘enlightenment’ we may have gained more illumination than ever before about how our world works, and indeed, come closer to certain truths, but we have also lost much of our sense of awe and passion for devoting ourselves to worship. It has been brought from a rolling boil to a light simmer.
Science’s victory has cost every one of us. And it has cost us deeply. Science may have alleviated the miseries of disease and drudgery and provided an array of gadgetry for our entertainment and convenience, but is has left us in a world without wonder. Our sunsets have been reduced to wavelengths and frequencies. The complexities of the universe have been shredded into mathematical equations. Even our self-worth as human beings has been destroyed. Science proclaims that Planet Earth and its inhabitants are a meaningless speck in the grand scheme. A cosmic accident.
Even the technology that promises to unite us, divides us. Each of us is now electronically connected to the globe, and yet we feel utterly alone…Skepticism has become a virtue. Cynicism and demand for proof has become enlightened thought. Is it any wonder that humans now feel more depressed and defeated than they have at any point in human history? Does science hold anything sacred?…It shatters God’s world into smaller and smaller pieces in quest of meaning… and all it finds is more questions…We cry out for meaning…the desperate cry of the modern soul, lonely and tormented, crippled by its own enlightenment….
(Dan Brown, Angels & Demons)
FROM THEISM TO ATHEISM
We have moved from theism to atheism and we assuaged our ancient fears not with gods of our making but with the clarity and certainty of reason. Yet, reason is limited and it will never explain things like creation, consciousness, art and love. We foolishly believe that with our relentless dedication to science and rational thought, mystery will soon cease to exist.
There is no question that humanity’s fire for exaltation has steadily cooled over the last two-thousand years. It has taken its time but we have finally come to a world that one could confidently call post-religious. And the day will still come, sooner than many of us anticipate, when the world’s religions will be relegated to the same class of mythology as the ancient pantheons.
Theistic fervour and numinous aspirations have given way to reductionism and the exaltation of the mundane. Scents of nihilism and contempt lace the modern air we breathe. All one needs is to read one Tweet from Richard Dawkins or five minutes of a Sam Harris podcast and his passion is left gutted and the light of his soul is all but extinguished.
As Mark Helprin writes: ‘The dominant narrative of modernism that replaces faith is the grey and bloodless portrait that must raise from a conviction that everything is a themeless accident and to believe otherwise is merely self-deception.’ We have grown embarrassed to love and serve God because we are embarrassed by our historical misplacement of our love and service to gods that were not God.
We (the enlightened West) have, in our conscious recognition of the inappropriateness of our history of idol worship and misplaced religious zeal (the wars, the thousands burned alive, the suffering, mutilation, flagellation, prejudice, control, abuse and more) rightfully thrown out the proverbial dirty bathwater of our idolatrous past. But in disregarding the fact that it was a process of maturity and coming-of-age we’ve also thrown the baby out with it.
We have lost God. Not the gods of our making, but God — the source of life, the creator of the universe, the power of being and we have curled up into our own little heads and sufficed with personal supplements of spirituality.
Has any nation changed its gods even though they are no-gods? But My people has exchanged its glory for what can do no good…For My people have done a twofold wrong: They have forsaken Me, the Fount of living waters, And hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, Which cannot even hold water. (Jer. 2:11,13)
Our scorn of our own misplaced adoration has yielded a world built only on reason and cold hard facts. We are uncomfortable with the numinous because we have been burned by our passions. But passion, like fire, is essential to life; it is only when it is mishandled and used carelessly that it destroys.
WHERE HAS THE PASSION GONE?
We cannot live a whole, healthy human life without passion, but we must be able to properly channel and care for its fire. For us, the Jews, the highest of all passions was meant to be reserved for God.
What is the proper [degree] of love? That a person should love God with a very great and exceeding love until his soul is bound up in the love of God. Thus, he will always be obsessed with this love as if he is lovesick. [A lovesick person’s] thoughts are never diverted from the love of that woman. He is always obsessed with her; when he sits down, when he gets up, when he eats and drinks. With an even greater [love], the love for God should be in the hearts of those who love Him and are obsessed with Him at all times as we are commanded: ‘Love God…with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might (Deut. 6:5).
(Rambam, Teshuba, 10:3)
But we have, as Jews, and as a human society, cooled the blaze. The flames of true devotion to God have been reduced to a flicker which, because of its minimal energy, is always at risk of being snuffed out completely.
We are emerging from generations in which we called too many things ‘sacred’ that in reality were nothing more than amulets and charms, and we have swung the pendulum in the opposite direction shunning all hints of the sacred and divine. God has been asked (in not so polite terms) to take a seat far behind the curtains of the world. And, as Rav Abraham Isaac Kook wrote, while there is merit even to this situation, in that, by witnessing society engage in the destruction of its past idols, we gain an added bravery that helps us destroy our own false gods, it is a slippery slope.
TAKING GOD’S PLACE
Without God we are left to take up His station — which we neither deserve nor can truly manage. In the past we filled it with ourselves in the form of idols and today we fill it with ourselves in worshipping our own capacity for reason.
We make the mistake of thinking that this is a world in which God must assert His presence, and when He doesn’t we fill it with out own. But we are mistaken in thinking so. This is a world in which man must provide the conditions for God’s presence. We must care for God’s existence, not just believe in it.
The pendulum never stops at the ends of its swing. Slowly but surely it will come to a steady stillness and it will stand straight and sure. There and then in the stillness we will have learned care and God will emerge
[God] said to [Eliyahu]:
Go out and stand on the mountain, in the presence of God.
And here, God was crossing by:
now a great and strong wind was crushing mountains and smashing boulders in the presence of God—
God was not in the wind;
and after the wind, an earthquake—
God was not in the earthquake;
and after the earthquake, fire—
God was not in the fire;
but after the fire,
a still, small voice.
It was, when Eliyahu heard,
that he wrapped his face in his mantle
and went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.
(I Kings, 19:11-13)
We will learn to declare ‘holy’ only that which truly is so.
I beheld my Lord seated on a high and lofty throne; and the skirts of His robe filled the Temple. Seraphs stood in attendance on Him…And one would call to the other, “Holy, holy, holy! God of Hosts! His presence fills all the earth!” (Isaiah, 6:2-3)
It will take even more time. Still, contrary to the belief of many, we continue steadily on the path that will take us there. Sadly, there may be many casualties of faith along the way, but the day will come in which ‘The earth will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the seas’ (Isaiah, 11:9) And we will learn to balance our fears with our fervour and our reason with our love. That prophecy too will come true like those before it and we will find a place of shalom – peace. There, in the stillness, we will find our truest selves and finally, our God.
Rabbi Joseph Dweck
Touring the Talmud: Aboda Zara 40b-46
Chapter #1: Teaches us the proper mannerisms for business with idol worshipers.
Chapter #2: Deals with some more personal interactions (which includes eating their food).
Chapter #3: Begins to deal with prohibitions regarding actual items of worship.
Chapter #4: Speaks of how items can be regarded or disregarded as items of worship, and how wine can become ‘wine used for sacrificial libation’.
Chapter #5: Deals with the prohibition of having any sort of benefit from ‘libation’ wine.
An argument regarding foreign items of worship:
R”Meir – All sculptures are prohibited as they are worshipped at least once a year.
Hakhamim – We only assume that those sculptures holding certain important objects (a sphere a bird etc.) are worshipped.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel – We assume that a sculpture holding any object is worshipped.
The argument between R”Meir and Hakhamim is clarified.
Additional ‘important objects’ that would render a sculptures default to be idolatrous are added to Hakhamim’s list from the Tosefta.
Broken pieces of a sculpture are not prohibited for use.
An intact piece of a sculpture (a full arm or leg) is still prohibited.
A ‘full arm or leg’ of a sculpture is only prohibited if it was initially made that way, not if it was originally part of a larger sculpture and broken off.
The Gemara discusses the status of sculptures that broke on their own:
• R”Yohanan – Prohibited as they were not intentionally disregarded.
• Reish Lakish – They are no longer prohibited as their worshippers no longer perceive them to be potent.
• The Gemara discuses whether or not the status of an item (idolatrous, holy etc.) is able to be uprooted by a single uncertainty.
One who finds utensils with the image of:
The sun, the moon or a dragon – they should be destroyed and no gain should be had from them.
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel holds that only images on jewellery are considered idolatrous.
The Gemara discusses whether the prohibition mentioned in the Mishna is forcreating such images or even if one were just to find them.
A story is recorded from which the following is learned:
1) An idolator may revoke the idolatrous status of an idol even if it is not his.
2) Only someone with an understanding of the workings of idol worship can desecrate an idol.
3) If an idolator is forced to desecrate an idol it is still a valid desecration.
The Gemara discusses Rabban Gamliel’s possession of images of the moon for the sake of identifying and declaring the New Moon.
R”Yossei – One may grind up an idol and throw it to the wind.
Hakhamim – Even this is prohibited as it will fertilise the fields and the verse starts “Not a morsel from that (idol worship) which is prohibited shall stick to your hands” (Devarim 13,18) — meaning absolutely nothing from it may be used by you for benefit.
Verses throughout scripture are clear according to both the opinions of R”Yossei and Hakhamim.
Discussion about King David’s crown (as it was taken from an idolatrous city).
Rabban Gamliel explains to an idol worshipper why it is permitted to use a (specific) bathhouse in which stood a statue of Aphrodite.
It is forbidden to speak about things of a sacred nature while in the bathhouse.
Attempts to clarify Rabban Gamliel’s exact circumstance are made.
Hakhamim: Mountains and hills that are worshipped do not become prohibited to benefit from, however, any sort of ornaments on them are prohibited, as it is stated “Do not desire gold and silver that is upon them” (Devarim 7, 25).
R”Yossei HaGelili asserts an identical ruling to that of Hakhamim but quotes a different verse – “Their gods that are upon the tall mountains and on the hills… (Devarim 12,2) – their gods that are upon the mountains, not the mountains themselves.
R”Akiva understands the verse “Their gods that are upon the tall mountains and on the hills…” to be an indication that wherever the People of Israel (upon entering the Land of Israel) are to find a tall mountain etc, they should know that they will find there idols as well.
The difference in opinion between Hakhamim and R”Yossei HaGelili is debated, and the subsequent manner that each opinion would understand various verses is presented.
After establishing that things that are naturally connected to the ground (save for trees) cannot be made prohibited even they are worshipped, the Gemara poses a few questions:
• Can things not attached to the ground but have not been tampered with by man, like a boulder, be prohibited if they are worshipped?
ּ Both ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are entertained as possible rulings and the logic behind each answer is presented.
• While the mountain itself may not be prohibited for mundane purposes would it be allowed to build an alter from its stone (for the purpose of the Temple)?
• The Gemara proves this to be prohibited.
• If such items have gone through a process of change, say, a stalk of wheat that was worshipped while in the ground was cut and made into flour, can it now be used for Holy purposes?
• Would water from a stream also be prohibited if it were worshipped (as the water moves)?
• Can the item attached to the ground be used for a mitzvah (seen as less holy than for the purpose of the Temple)?
 Moreh Nebukhim, III:46.
 The story continues there saying that they imprisoned and maimed the sexual drive and while it was imprisoned there was no desire for procreation and thus not even a fresh egg to be found! Showing that the inclination does not differentiate between good and evil uses — we do.
 The Literary Tenor of Our Times, Claremont Review of Books, January 26, 2007 Vol. VII, Number 1 – Winter 2006/07
 Orot, Zer’onim, p.126