Gentile Idolatry

Gentile Idolatry
Parshat Re’eh – פרשת ראה September 3, 2016 – ל אב תשע"ו This essay is sponsored by Tatyana & Eugeny Rubashevsky in memory of Leib Rubashevsky ז"ל. Gentile Idolatry Upon crossing the Jordan River and dispossessing the inhabitants of the Promised Land, the Israelites were bidden to destroy all vestiges of Canaanite idolatry.  “Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site (Deuteronomy 12:3).”  These violent Scriptural demands call to mind recent episodes of archaeologically and historically destructive religious intolerance, such as the Taliban’s 2001 demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan and ISIS’ 2015 devastation of the pagan temples at Palmyra.   The sages understood the obligation to eradicate pagan worship to be exclusively applicable at “that site,” meaning only in the Land of Israel (Sifrei 61).  Yet if the God of Israel is so offended by human worship of other claimed deities, why should the demand for zealous action against heathens stop at the Jewish border?  Like one of the rationales for the Islamic conquest of North Africa or the spread of the Inquisition to the New World, the extirpation of false worship should know no bounds.   The simplest answer is that while God might appreciate His loyal believers’ taking aggressive action against the cultic paraphernalia of false religions anywhere, it would be unreasonable for Him to demand that the Israelites – a national group, not a universal church – embark upon a worldwide mission having that as its purpose.   Alternatively, though theological error is lamentable in all places, only in the Holy Land is it completely intolerable.  The exalted spiritual character of the Land is incompatible with sin (see Leviticus 18:25).  The Midrash compares Eretz Yisrael to a prince with a weak stomach.  If he is fed the wrong food, he will vomit.  So, too, the Land of Israel vomits out its iniquitous inhabitants (Sifra Kedoshim 10).  According to the Bible’s version of how the Samaritans originated, these newly-imported residents of Samaria were attacked by lions for failing properly to worship the God of Israel (II Kings 17:26).  Their traditional manner of worship was equally illegitimate when it was practiced in their native land.  But only in Eretz Yisrael were they held accountable for those practices.  They then elected to chart a new religious course.   The most compelling point is that the religious practices of gentiles are of no concern to Israel, other than the extent to which its immediate neighbors deleteriously influence Hebrew faith and practice.  Moreover, the Pentateuch never expressly prohibits gentile idolatry.  The worship by gentiles of other supposed deities is, at a minimum, tolerated by Scripture, if not expected or outright encouraged.   While instructing the Israelites not to worship graven images, Moses warned: “When you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them.  These the Lord your God allotted to other peoples under heaven.  But you the Lord took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace, to be His very own people (Deuteronomy 4:19-20).”   Since the earliest days of Scriptural interpretation, there have been people discomfited by the plain meaning of these verses.  The Septuagint, Talmud (Megillah 9b), Saadia Gaon, Rashi, and Rashbam all suggested that the celestial beings were assigned to provide illumination for the nations, not to be objects of veneration or deification.  Putting aside that that interpretation lacks grounding in the text, its weakness is that, plainly, the heavenly bodies provide light for Israel also.  All countries on earth exist on the same planet.  Aware that his prime explanation did not withstand scrutiny, Rashi also brought to bear a Talmudic teaching (Avoda Zara 55a) that the heavenly bodies were allotted to the gentiles so that they might stumble in theological error.  Yet the text nowhere says that the heathens are erring.  [The rabbis borrowed the second explanation from the Apocrypha.  “He placed spirits in authority to lead them astray from Him (Jubilees 15:32).”  It seems that the sages were troubled by Deuteronomy 4:19, but could do no better than recycle unimpressive answers from the pre-rabbinic period.]   The plain meaning of Deuteronomy 4:19-20, as explained by Ibn Ezra, is that the Israelites are special insofar as they are enabled to worship God the Creator.  The heathens do not have a close -- or indeed any -- covenantal relationship with God.  Hence, they must make do by worshipping inanimate objects like the sun, moon, and stars.  Ramban elaborated upon this concept.  Each nation is associated with a star or astrological symbol.  These lesser divine beings are part of the heavenly council headed by Almighty God.  Scripture identifies several members of this council, including the angelic ministers for Persia and Greece, respectively (Daniel 10:13, 20).  Since these heavenly beings were believed to control the destinies of the various nations, it was quite natural, in Ramban’s view, for heathens to elevate them to the status of deities.   One can infer from Deuteronomy 32:8-9 that gentiles are expected to worship lesser divine beings.  “When the Most High gave the nations their homes and set the divisions of man, He fixed the boundaries of people in relation to Israel’s numbers.  For the Lord’s portion is His people, Jacob His own allotment.”  The Masoretic Text (MT) is here nearly unintelligible.  The Torah tells us that God divided mankind into distinct national groups after the Flood and the demise of the Tower of Babel.  While it is true that there are seventy nations according to Biblical reckoning and that there were seventy Israelites who descended to Egypt, these two are unrelated.  The Septuagint and Qumran texts, instead of reading “in relation to Israel’s numbers,” have the recension “according to the sons of El.”  In other words, under that reading, each nation is allotted a minor deity of its own.  In contrast, Israel has a much higher spiritual standing, because it is the allotment of the Most High God.  Critical scholars argue that MT here is a scribal emendation made out of concern that the original text bordered on polytheism.  Several passages in rabbinic literature confirm that the intent of Scripture was in line with the reading preserved in LXX and at Qumran.  Pseudo-Jonathan mentions both the seventy angels of the heavenly council and the seventy Israelites who went to Egypt.  In the Midrash, Rabbi Simon connects Deuteronomy 32:8 with the seventy angels who surround God’s throne and who played a role in causing the demise of the Tower of the Babel project (Pirke d’Rabbi Eliezer 24).   Deuteronomy 10:17 speaks of the Israelite Deity as “the God of the gods and the Lord of the lords,” implying the existence of lesser divine beings.  Moses warned the Israelites not to shift their religious allegiances.  He predicted that future apologists would seek to explain the misfortune befalling Israel by claiming that: “They turned to the service of other gods and worshipped them, gods whom they had not experienced and whom He had not allotted them (29:25).”   This certainly seems to suggest that the Bible contemplated that God had not allotted those other divine beings to Israel, but had allotted them to the heathens.   An awareness that the Jewish God is associated with Israel, while the lower-ranking members of the heavenly council are associated with the heathen nations, is key to understanding the aftermath of the Golden Calf episode.  God refused to lead the Israelites on their journey away from Sinai.  Instead, He said: “My angel shall go before you (Exodus 32:34).”  Moses was dissatisfied.  He asked: “For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth? (33:16).”  Moses was keen to preserve Israel’s status as the only nation directly tied to God.  If only a mere angel led the Israelites on their desert sojourn, they would be no different from, and no longer exalted above, the rest of humanity.   The Pentateuch repeatedly warns that gruesome capital punishment awaits the Israelite guilty of idolatry.  Notably, however, no Torah verse even hints at punishment for gentile idolatry.  The Egyptians were punished for their cruel enslavement of the Hebrews.  The Canaanites were punished for sacrificing their children as fire-offerings (Deuteronomy 12:31), soothsaying, necromancy, augury, spell casting, and sorcery (18:11).  The absence of any punishment for theological error, whether willful or inadvertent, seems to indicate that God gave the gentiles wide latitude in fashioning religious life for themselves.   Astral cults, dedicated to the worship of the heavenly bodies, were quite popular in the Ancient Near East.  Scripture demands that the remnants of Canaanite astral worship be destroyed lest the Israelites be lured into what was, for them only, a forbidden practice.  The temptation to worship the large celestial bodies must not be underestimated.  The sages, interpreting Genesis 4:26, claimed that idolatry began in the days of Enosh (Sifrei 43).  Maimonides famously elaborated: Early men knew that there was only one God, the Creator.  But they theorized that since God conferred great honor and power upon the heavenly lights, it would be appropriate to sing praises to, and to glorify, the celestial bodies as part of worshipping God (Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 1:1).  In other words, idolatry began as a well-intentioned mistake.  The possibility of that mistake’s being repeated, even by the Israelites who should know better, was quite likely.  One need only read the first chapter of the Bible potentially to be led astray by verses stating that God conferred authority over the day and night to the sun and moon, respectively (Genesis 1:16, 18).  Job acknowledged the great lure of astral worship and congratulated himself for withstanding that temptation:  “If I ever saw the light shining, the moon on its course in full glory, and I secretly succumbed, and my hand touched my mouth in a kiss, that too would have been a criminal offense, for I would have denied God above (Job 31:26-28).”   In seventh century CE Judah, worship of the heavenly host became quite popular.  Under the sponsorship of King Manasseh, false worship was introduced in the Jerusalem Temple, including altars dedicated to the celestial bodies (II Kings 21:5).  Presumably, the king was somehow able to convince the masses that his cultic innovations were not a betrayal of the Hebrew religious tradition.  Manasseh’s grandson, King Josiah, implemented the Deuteronomic reform, destroying all manifestations of the astral cult and eliminating its clergy (23:4-5).  The prophets railed against the people of Judah for indulging in foreign forms of worship, especially for Judah’s obsession with the heavenly host צבא השמים (Jeremiah 7:18, 8:2, 19:13).  Ezekiel had a vision of Jews standing in the Temple Courtyard and tragically turning their backs to the Sanctuary and bowing eastward, towards the sun (Ezekiel 8:16).   This historical record shows why the Pentateuch needed forcefully to reiterate that Israel must stay away from astral worship and militantly oppose such idolatry from taking hold in the land.   The notion that the Bible itself takes a soft position on gentile idolatry will probably surprise even relatively learned Jews.  That is because Rabbinic Judaism developed a much stiffer opposition to all forms of idolatrous worship.  Theologically, the Rabbis moved from the monolatry and quasi-polytheism of the Bible to their own notions of pristine monotheism.  The Talmud asserts that part of the Seven Noahide Laws is that gentile idolatry is a capital crime (Sanhedrin 56b).  Maimonides codified this position (Hilkhot Melakhim 9:2).   One observes that this view theoretically condemns to death much of the world’s population.   In comparing Biblical religion with Rabbinic Judaism, one may tend to think that, most of the time, the former was, relatively, barbaric, primitive, and unforgiving, and the latter was, relatively, benign, livable, and averse to violence.  At least with respect to the notion of gentile idolatry, the opposite is true.   However, it should also be kept in mind that the Noahide Laws were never implemented as a living code; they were first propounded at a time when Jews no longer controlled their own affairs, let alone those of foreign nations or heathen religions.   A careful look at Scripture reveals that the later Biblical authors moved away from the primitive theology of the ancient world and toward a more conventionally “Jewish” understanding of the Divine realm.  Psalm 82 is recited towards the end of the Tuesday morning liturgy.  This Psalm depicts the process by which the divine beings of the heavenly assembly are stripped of their divinity and immortality because of their corruption and failure to dispense justice to the oppressed classes.  The older view, that each nation is assigned a lesser ranking deity and that Israel alone is assigned to God, is utterly rejected.  The Psalm concludes:  “Arise, O God, judge the earth, for all the nations are Your possession (82:8).”  The Psalmist’s words stand in stark contrast to Deuteronomy 32:9, in which “the Lord’s portion is His people,” meaning only Israel.   In rejecting the primitive theology of a Supreme God surrounded by a Divine Council, the Psalmist is compelled to adopt a religiously universalistic tone.  The one, true God has a relationship with every human being regardless of nationality or creed.  The crescendo of the High Holiday liturgy is the unambiguous proclamation of this same belief: “All mankind passes before Thee like a flock of sheep.”       If you would like to sponsor an upcoming edition of “Thoughts on the Parashah” on the occasion of a simchah or in observance of a yahrzeit, please contact me via email. Donations are made to Congregation Anshe Sholom (50 North Ave, New Rochelle, NY 10805).