One of the remarkable things about the Talmud is the way it can jump, without a pause, from the most technical, legalistic arguments to the largest philosophical questions. For the rabbis, the how of the law is not separate from the why; both are ways of asking about God’s will, and so both belong in the same discussion. A good example of this came in last week’s Daf Yomi reading, in chapter four of Tractate Avoda Zara. Most of the chapter has to do with whether Jews may drink (or derive other kinds of benefit from) wine that has been handled by gentiles. To answer this question, the rabbis spend many pages considering real and hypothetical cases and parsing the differences among different kinds of handling—stirring with the hand versus treading with the feet, for instance.
And then, in the Mishna in Avoda Zara 54b, we suddenly find ourselves confronted with the most basic questions about God and sin. “The gentiles asked the Sages in Rome: If it is not God’s will that people should engage in idol worship, why does He not eliminate it?” It is a very good question, whose subversive implications are obvious. For the same logic applies to every kind of crime and transgression. If God doesn’t like murder, why does he allow people to murder? If adultery is illegal, why does he allow children to be born from adulterous unions? Follow this road far enough and you might come to the conclusion that God either doesn’t care what we do or that he is powerless to stop it.
The rabbis, of course, would never countenance that kind of answer. If God allows people to continue worshipping idols, even though idol-worship is a grievous insult to him, then the rabbis are certain that he has a good reason for it. In the Mishna, the Sages offer a logical reply to the gentiles’ challenge, which they interpret as being less about the people who worship idols than about the idols themselves. There is a good reason, they say, why God does not simply destroy the objects that pagans treat like gods: “Were people worshipping only objects for which the world has no need, He would eliminate it. But they worship the sun and the moon and the stars and the constellations. Should he destroy His world because of the fools?”
But this argument invites a rebuttal, which the gentiles duly offer: “If so, let Him destroy objects for which the world has no need.” Granted, God shouldn’t destroy the sun and moon just because people bow down to them because that would wreak havoc on the universe. But if pagans make an idol out of a particular tree or build a statue of Apollo, why can’t God destroy those small, unnecessary objects? Here the rabbis offer a clever reply. Of course, God could do this; but if he destroyed small idols while leaving big ones like the sun and moon intact, wouldn’t people believe that the sun and moon must be real gods because they seemingly had the power to stand up to God? Rather than create such a false impression, God leaves all idols alone.
In the Gemara, the Sages use this case to draw a general conclusion about God, sin, and the universe: “The world follows its course, and the fools who sinned will be held to judgment in the future.” As much as God hates sin, he does not interfere in the world in order to prevent it. In other words, human beings have free will: We can choose to do what is wrong, and nothing will happen to stop us. The Gemara gives further examples: A thief can steal wheat, plant it in the ground, and it will grow as usual; God will not intervene to stop the thief from benefiting from his crime. Likewise, a man can have sex with another man’s wife and she will get pregnant and give birth, just as if it were a lawful union. But the rabbis are certain that this does not mean God is indifferent; rather, he is simply waiting to punish the wrongdoer in the next world. This is a convenient answer to the question of why God allows evil to exist: Evil is always punished, the rabbis believe, even though we can’t see it happening.
The challenges from gentiles continue in the Gemara. (Or perhaps these gentiles are a rhetorical device, a way for the rabbis to safely voice the questions and doubts that might occur to Jews themselves.) The rabbis’ argument suggests that God punishes idol-worshippers, but why doesn’t he punish the idols themselves? A certain philosopher knows enough Torah to quote Deuteronomy: “For the Lord your God is a devouring fire, a jealous God.” So why doesn’t he devour the idols that compete with him for honor?
The rabbis’ answers reveal the basic difference between the way polytheists and monotheists think about the world. The philosopher’s question assumes that the idol is a kind of rival to God, which God might feel the need to triumph over. But for Jews, the idol is simply nothing, a piece of stone or wood, and so it has no personal existence. As Rabban Gamliel goes on to say a little later in the Gemara, “A wise man might be jealous of another wise man, and a mighty man of another mighty man, and a rich man of another rich man.” People are only jealous of rivals, of people like themselves. But idols are not like God because they are not gods; God has no need to be jealous of them.
That is the moral of the parable the rabbis offer, involving a king who had a son who had a dog. Perversely, the son named the dog after his own father: “When the son would take an oath, he would say, I swear by the life of the dog, my father.” In this case, who should the king be angry at, his son or the dog? Clearly, it is the son who is at fault; the dog is just a stupid animal and doesn’t deserve punishment. Just so with idol-worshippers and their idols: It is only human beings whose motives and actions can be judged by God.
This leaves the gentiles with one argument. In Avoda Zara 55a, we hear about a Greek named Zunin (the Aramaic equivalent of the original Zenon), who sounds like one of those philosophical rationalists who were happy to scorn popular religion. “Both my heart and your heart know that there is no substance to idol worship,” he confides to Rabbi Akiva. But what are we to say about the occasions when idols do seem to answer prayers and perform miracles? Haven’t there been times when pagans pray to their gods for rain and rain comes, or pray for healing and walk away healed? Isn’t this proof that the idols do indeed have power?
A modern skeptic would have a range of possible answers to such questions. He might say that these miracles never really happened, but were only the invention of pious rumor; or that the healings were a matter of psychosomatic suggestion. (As an old atheist joke has it, Christians sometimes claim to be healed at Lourdes, but while they may cast away their crutches there, no one ever seems to get rid of an artificial leg.)
The rabbis choose a different explanation: that healings performed by idols are just coincidences. The rabbis envision illnesses as conscious agents that take an oath before God to afflict a person for set length of time. It may be that at the moment the illness is due to leave him, a pagan my offer an idolatrous prayer for healing. The illness knows that this will create an impression that idol worship is effective: “By right we should not leave him. But then they say: Should we lose the fulfillment of our oath just because this fool is acting improperly?” Why should an idol-worshipper have the power to annul God’s plans?
Finally, it is Rav Yehuda who offers the simplest and most problematic explanation for why God allows idol-worship to exist. It is part of his plan to allow the nations of the world to sin in this way, “in order to expel them from the world.” According to this logic, God so favors the Jews that he wants to have a reason to punish everyone else. That is why he allows idol-worshipers to be misled by mistaken proofs of the effectiveness of their worship. This strikes me as a pretty desperate argument, and an ethically unacceptable one; but to a small and persecuted minority in the ancient world, it must have sounded reassuring.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.