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Defining Idolatry In Today’s World

June 17, 2014

Maimonides, Laws of Idolatry, 2:1

The essence of the commandment [forbidding] the worship of false gods is not to serve any of the creations, not an angel, a sphere, or a star, none of the four fundamental elements, nor any entity created from them. Even if the person worshiping knows that the Lord is the [true] God and serves the creation in the manner in which Enosh [i.e., as deserving of reverence because they are God’s ministers -APG] and the people of his generation worshiped [the stars] originally, he is considered to be an idol worshiper.

The Torah warns us about this, saying [Deuteronomy 4:19]: “Lest you lift your eyes heavenward and see the sun, the moon, and the stars… [and bow down and worship them], the entities which God apportioned to all the nations.” This implies that you might inquire with “the eye of the heart” and it might appear to you that these entities control the world, having been apportioned by God to all the nations to be alive, to exist, and not to cease existence, as is the pattern of [the other creations with] the world. Therefore, you might say that it is worthy to bow down to them and worship them. For this reason, [Deuteronomy 11:16] commands: “Be very careful that your heart not be tempted [to go astray and worship other gods].” This implies that the thoughts of your heart should not lead you astray to worship these and make them an intermediary between you and the Creator.

In the Guide to the Perplexed and in other works, Maimonides makes it clear that it goes without saying that merely ascribing powers to imaginary entities, like mythical gods (as opposed to actual heavenly bodies) and demons, is also idolatry, and how much more so if one were actually to worship them in some manner.

Ibid., 2:6:

Whoever accepts a false god as true, even when he does not actually worship it, disgraces and blasphemes [God’s] glorious and awesome name. This applies both to one who worships false gods and to one who curses God’s name.

However, there is room for a practical halachic ramification. Let’s take the demons and witchcraft issue. According to Maimonides, there ain’t no such thing as either, and therefore even the very belief that there are such things is idolatrous, although that belief alone could not be punished by the courts. According to others, while there can be purely imaginary entities (like the Flying Spaghetti Monster or Baal Peor) that are worshipped (in sin), demons and witchcraft actually exist, and therefore it is permissible to believe that there are such things as demons or that there really is something to witchcraft, although it would be forbidden to worship demons or practice witchcraft.

The opinion that I favor is that long ago, when Maimonides first espoused his opinion on this issue (although he was by no means the first), one could be forgiven for maintaining his belief in the existence of demons and the occult, as back in the day, belief in such things was the conventional wisdom, as we have written previously. However, it is wrong to claim today that there might even be such things just because some of our greatest sages believed in such things. That position is making a mockery of our sages, and assumes that they would be as unreasonable as the one making the claim. The truly wise of yesteryear would of course acknowledge today that there are no such things, just like Maimonides would be the first to recant all that he wrote about the four elements and the heavenly spheres, and replace it with a basic chemistry and cosmology textbook.

The essential point is this: According to many Rishonim, believing that any entity other than God has any power is idolatrous. Of course one can choose to follow the other opinions, but if he is the type to try to satisfy as many opinions as possible, why would he not play it safe? He does that with every other set of halachoth…

A point on witchcraft: The Sages discuss two prohibitions. 1. Practicing witchcraft and 2. practicing sleight of hand and stage magic, like today’s performers. While there is no disagreement as to how to define the second type, as far as I have seen, only a few prominent rabbis, like Rabbi Aviner (She’elath Shlomo 3:11 and 4:22), have come out against, for example, hiring magicians to perform at children’s birthday parties. Those rabbis who permit it rely on the fact that everyone in the audience is aware that the clown or magician is just using sleight of hand  and makes no claim actually to have powers, whereas the prohibition is against one using such techniques to fool people into thinking he has supernatural abilities.

The definition of the first type of witchcraft is the subject of controversy, however. According to the school of thought that the occult is real, the prohibition is against practicing such dark arts. According to the school of thought that there is no such thing, the prohibition is against believing in such things and then attempting to practice them, e.g., some crystal ball or taro card reader and her clients who actually believe she has clairvoyance.

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