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False Idols

Talmudic rabbis disagree on whether the action or the intention of veneration or protest is more important. Plus: Is magic holy?

Adam Kirsch
September 26, 2017
Photo: Billie Weiss/Getty Images
Inset photo: Members of the New England Patriots kneel on the sidelines as the National Anthem is played before a game against the Houston Texans at Gillette Stadium on September 24, 2017 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.Photo: Billie Weiss/Getty Images

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Idol worship is a sin that is easy to avoid nowadays, when actual idols are few and far between. But 2,000 years ago in the Roman Empire, when the laws of the Mishna were written down, it was a different story. In Rome, idols—statues and images representing the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon, like Jupiter, Mercury, and Mars—were omnipresent. Nor was there any such thing as the separation of church and state. Sacrificing to the gods of Rome was a public expression of loyalty to the empire, required of every Roman subject. For most of the nations ruled by Rome, this presented no problem. As polytheists, they were happy to add the Roman gods, or the emperor himself, to their pantheon of local deities. Indeed, the traffic went both ways: Egyptian gods like Isis ended up becoming popular in Rome itself.

The refusal of the Jews to go along with this casual ecumenicism was a cause of amazement and resentment to the Romans. Flavius Josephus, the Jewish historian, explains that the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 CE was preceded by a series of clashes over religion and idol-worship. The emperor Caligula planned to erect an enormous golden statue of himself in Jerusalem; when the Jews learned of this, they promised to lay down and die en masse rather than allow an idol in the holy city. (The Roman governor of the province cleverly kept postponing the construction of the statue, claiming that he wanted to do the best possible job, until Caligula was assassinated.) On another occasion, the Jews of Jerusalem protested the raising of the Roman eagle, a military symbol, considering it to be a kind of idol.

How could Jews live surrounded by idols while remaining innocent of idol-worship? That question was the subtext of last week’s Daf Yomi reading, in Chapter Seven of Tractate Sanhedrin, which detailed the penalties for worshipping idols. According to Torah law, this is a crime punishable by stoning, which the rabbis consider the most severe form of capital punishment. But the Mishna in Sanhedrin 60b distinguishes between two kinds of interactions with idols, one more serious than the other. “One who worships idols” must be executed; this includes sacrificing an animal to the idol, pouring a libation of wine or blood to it, bowing down to it, or simply declaring to it, “You are my god.” But one who “hugs or kisses” an idol or tends to it by washing it or adorning it is guilty only of “transgressing a prohibition,” which carries the lesser punishment of flogging. What is the basis for this distinction? The Gemara explains that any action that is performed in the Temple in honor of God is punishable by death when performed to honor an idol. Other actions, such as washing or dressing, have no counterpart in the Temple service, so they are not as insulting to God.

But as the Gemara goes on to acknowledge, sacrificing to an idol does not necessarily mean believing that the idol is a true god. There were many reasons a Jew in ancient Roman or Persian society might bow down to an idol—out of politeness or civic obligation, or under compulsion or threat. This is what the Gemara calls, in Sanhedrin 61b, “one who worships idols due to love or due to fear.” Is this kind of idol-worship just as bad as sincerely praying to a false god? Here the rabbis disagree: Abaye says that one who worships out of love or fear is liable to receive capital punishment, while Rava says he is exempt. Their disagreement has to do with which element of idol-worship is offensive to God. According to Abaye, it is the act of worship itself that is a sin. According to Rava, on the other hand, what God cares about is not the gesture, but the belief that it expresses. Thus “if one accepted the idol upon himself as a god, yes, he is liable; but if not, not.” To perform an act of idol-worship out of “love or fear” is still a transgression, but it is not a capital crime because it doesn’t involve inner disloyalty to God.

A further question is whether merely mentioning the name of an idol constitutes a transgression. This would have been especially relevant in the ancient world, where many place names and even days of the week were named after pagan gods. Must a Jew refrain from using these common words? It would seem so, according to Exodus 33:13: “Make no mention of the name of the other gods, neither let it be heard out of your mouth,” the Torah instructs. But the Gemara wonders how this verse should be understood. Does the prohibition forbid mentioning the name of a foreign deity, or is it concerned with taking a vow in the name of a false god, or perhaps with encouraging Jews to worship an idol? For that matter, doesn’t the Torah itself name foreign gods like Baal and Moloch, so that reading the Torah involves transgressing the prohibition? The Gemara concludes that it is permitted to speak the name of any pagan god mentioned in the Torah itself, as well as to use place names derived from those gods. In addition, it is permitted to name idols in order to mock them: “All types of mockery are forbidden except for mockery of idol worship, which is permitted,” Rav Nachman says.

But what if a Jew performs what he thinks is an act of disrespect to an idol, only to discover that this action is precisely the way the idol likes to be worshipped? According to the rabbis, for instance, the Canaanite god Baal Peor was worshipped by defecating in front of his idol. (This sounds unlikely, an invention of rabbinic hostility, but who knows?) There was once a Jew who defecated in front of the idol and “wiped himself with its nostril,” which he intended as a gesture of contempt. But the priests of Baal Peor were delighted, saying that no one had ever thought of such a clever act of homage before. Was this Jew guilty of idol-worship? Likewise, what about a Jew who throws stones at a statue of Mercury, thinking to insult it, without realizing that stones were piled up as offerings to the god? Once again, the rabbis ask, is it the action or the intention that matters? The answer is that the action counts—someone who inadvertently worships an idol has sinned and must bring an offering—but evidently it is not a capital crime.

Throughout this discussion, there is a certain ambiguity in the Talmudic attitude toward pagan gods. Are Jews supposed to refrain from worshipping idols because they are not really gods, or precisely because they are? In other words, is the sin of idol-worship a sin of frivolity, taking a thing of wood and stone for a divine being? Or is it a sin of disloyalty, preferring another divine being to the Jewish God? Today, we are usually taught the first explanation: Judaism invented ethical monotheism, replacing belief in many gods with belief in the one Creator of the universe.

But in the Talmud, things are not so clear. In Sanhedrin 67a, for instance, we learn that sorcery is another crime punishable by death in Jewish law. But this is not because sorcery is a lie; on the contrary, it is a crime because it is a very real and powerful form of trafficking with demons. The Hebrew word for sorcery, keshafim, is read by the rabbis as an acronym for the phrase “contradicts the heavenly entourage”: In other words, it involves calling up infernal powers to challenge the power of heaven. The rabbis do recognize that some acts of sorcery are merely sleight of hand, and these are forbidden. For instance, Rav Ashi said he once saw a man “blow his nose and cast rolls of silk from his nostrils,” which is the kind of thing one might see at a Las Vegas floor show.

However, the rabbis distinguish such tricks from genuine magical feats, which are punishable by death. There is no doubt that such feats are possible because the rabbis themselves have witnessed them. Rav says he once saw a sorcerer kill a camel and then bring it back to life. Ze’eiri bought a donkey that then turned into the plank of a bridge, a transformation the local people said was commonplace in their region: “Is there anyone who buys an item here and does not examine it first?” Yannai actually turned a woman into a donkey, after she had tried to feed him a magic potion.

Not all magic is pagan, however. In Sanhedrin 67 we learn that every Shabbat, Rav Chanina and Rav Oshaya would employ “the halakhot of creation” to make a calf, which they would eat in honor of the holy day. Likewise, Rabbi Eliezer once used magic to fill a field with cucumbers. But why, the Gemara asks, are these acts of sorcery permitted, while other kinds are forbidden? Is there Jewish magic, as opposed to pagan magic? The rabbis give a very characteristic answer: It is forbidden to perform acts of sorcery, but it is permitted to learn the halakhot, the formulas and techniques, that make these acts possible. “You shall not learn to do, but you may learn to understand and teach,” the Gemara concludes. For the rabbis, clearly, magic is real; what is forbidden as practice is permitted as theory. The rabbinic desire for knowledge is so great that even this equivocal kind of knowing cannot be ruled out.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on the complete archive, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

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