Faith is rooted in man, thus he has always sought ways to express it * Idol worshippers created gods that identified with their base desires, preventing them from advancing morally and ethically * The Torah forbade any belief that restricts or limits God: only the One God who created everything is to be believed in, and He is above and beyond all * Today as well, people still put their trust in things that give them power, such as money and honor, or a variety of ideologies * An ideology that emphasizes one value while denying others, in the end, will cause destruction and be obliterated * Christianity and Islam can remain in the world, provided the pagan elements are removed
Man Seeks Expression of His Faith
All human beings possess the attribute of ‘emunah‘ (faith). The soul in its roots is connected to God, and draws its life from Him; consequently, man naturally believes his life is connected to eternity, and that it holds immense value – far beyond the ordinary routine of his earthly life. Therefore, everywhere humans ever existed, we find they had some type of religion.
In other words, on the basis of faith inherent in man, various human societies create a religion for themselves that provides a concrete framework for their faith, and gives meaning to their lives. Typically, the founders of these religions envisioned the gods in a relatively abstract way, but seeing as abstract ideas are difficult to grasp, they created statues and images that would express the higher forces in a tangible manner.
Since these gods were created from the consciousness of people who wished to give faith expression in their lives, they symbolized all the ideas that people valued, such as life, fertility, power, war, money, love, beauty, and others. As a result, a lethal combination of man’s selfish desires to achieve pleasures and honor and his heart’s sense of faith was created. Instead of faith elevating man, thereby changing his character for the better and improving his ways in order to add good and blessing in the world – ‘avodah zara’ (idol worship) came, attempting to give meaning to the world as it existed, thus blocking the way of true faith in the One God, the Source of all Life, whose purpose is the perfection of the world through the word of God. The faith of idol worshippers became a device designed to glorify man’s desires and pleasures in his existing state, and facilitate the fulfilment of his desires. An idol worshipper does not aspire to improve himself morally, rather, he wishes to satisfy his needs. To do so, he is ready to offer sacrifices, whisper incantations, and perform mystical actions that will help him become wealthy, defeat his enemies, or achieve other goals he desires.
Did People Really Believe Idols were Helpful?
Were the idols helpful? After all, they are merely wood and stone? How could people believe in them? Rather, these gods gave an answer to the question of faith. True, it was a false answer, but people did not have an alternative that gave expression to the faith that was so ingrained in their lives. And seeing as man expressed his faith in the gods, this faith gave him confidence and strengthened his powers to do as he wished – for he wasn’t acting only in his own name, but also in the name of larger and stronger forces than himself, who justified his aspirations and path.
The Mystical Power of Idolatry
Apart from that, many people interpret that just as forces of nature exist in the world that man can harness to his needs, likewise, beyond them exists spiritual forces called angels and demons that activate the forces of nature, and man can incline them to his needs by way of magical actions. In truth, all the spiritual forces that activate the forces of nature were created by God, and derive their existence from Him. However, the idol worshippers chose for themselves specific spiritual forces, connected with them, and were able to activate them for themselves, and thereby gain success. But since they related to the spiritual forces as being detached from their roots, they turned into forces of impurity which, in effect, gave them power for a certain period of time – but eventually, brought about their destruction, because they disconnected them from the Source of Life.
Negation of Defined Beliefs
When the sin of idolatry is committed, i.e., the Divine revelation is diminished into a particular statue or definition of a specific image both faith and consciousness remain limited, and consequently, it is impossible to truly rise above and beyond the finite realm of life, and faith cannot receive true expression. Since it is a narrowly defined idol, it arouses increasingly difficult questions, until the point where one is forced to disavow it. However, given that one is seeking faith, he will attempt to find a new idol to believe in. But because it is an idol as well, he will once again be disappointed, and reject it. Thus, humankind oscillates between faith and heresy, without finding rest for the soul.
Therefore, the Torah forbade making statues and pictures to describe faith. Additionally, it is also forbidden to define God with any intellectual or ethical-moral definitions, because each definition empowers one value over the others, and consequently, fails to express God’s limitlessness, which is above and beyond all restrictions and ethical definitions. A defined faith arouses questions about all the values that are not included in it, and consequently, man is placed once again in the grueling turmoil between belief in idols, and heresy.
Only by the total negation of all idolatry can one reach faith in the One God who created everything, but He himself is beyond definition. Such a pure faith does not raise questions leading to heresy, motivates man to constantly progress and ascend in the ways of God, and enables the Jewish nation to accept the Torah and mitzvot, through which they can adhere to God’s ways and add life, until the world is perfected in the kingdom of God.
Over time, in a gradual process, the Jewish nation’s struggle against idolatry bore fruit, and many people no longer believe in statues; however, belief in different forces still exists, and this is the idolatry of our times. There are two main types of idolatry:
1) People who believe in money, honor, and physical lust: they believe that if they attain money or honor, or satisfy their various desires, they will have a truly good life. These people worship the gods of money, lust, honor, and the like. Such idolatry possess great power, for in the short term, it provides its followers satisfaction and vitality to strive for the realization of their dream, but ultimately, it disappoints. Even if for years such people deceived themselves, thinking they had succeeded in fulfilling their dream, deep down in their hearts, they know that all the achievements they had attained in this transient world had no real value. None of the ordinary, material objects in this world gives real value to their lives, and therefore, cannot offer them real satisfaction either. ‘Kohelet‘ (the Book of Ecclesiastes), written by King Solomon, describes this.
2) Those who believe in a particular ideology: this a higher belief that can give a person greater meaning to life, for it is a belief in values or ideologies that will make the world better and more perfect, such as a belief in the value of love, truth, equality, nationalism, science, democracy, humanism, or feminism. Similar to idolatry, these beliefs also grant their followers vitality and help them succeed for a limited period of time, because they connect them to true values of importance, and acting on their behalf brings to light new forces in life. In the long term, however, such belief also disillusions.
Thus, for example, the believers of communism were sure that the rule of communism would redeem the world. Towards this end, they caused terrible suffering to countless people, until many of them became disillusioned with the agony their idolatry had brought to the world. Likewise, those who put their faith in democracy are certain that the rule of democracy will redeem the world, and to this end, are willing to offer innumerable human sacrifices, until in the end because of the great deal of agony, they come to understand that democracy on its own is also an idolatry that has failed.
The same hold true for all the various, different values: as long as they are not linked to the complete faith in God that includes all values, they are limited and idolatrous, and obstruct the path to complete faith, because they present an alternative that will take a long time until it turns out it will fail. It is important to note that belief in a particular religious leader or politician, even if he is a ‘tzadik’ (a righteous person), is liable to turn into idolatry in the heart of a believer.
Combining the First Two Commandments
Only through the combination of faith in the One God, and denial of all ‘avodah zara’ of a particular faith, ideology or personality, leads to the complete faith that connects man to the source of his life – a faith that includes all values as one, and accepts the Torah’s guidance on how to reveal and combine them harmoniously, in a manner that will bring ‘tikun‘ (perfection) and blessing to man, and the world.
Christianity and Islam
Following the giving of the Torah and the deeds of Israel in the world, two notable religions arose which were directly influenced by Israel’s faith: Christianity and Islam. In spite of this, they are still in a compromise agreement with idolatry, because the very definition of God as ‘chesed‘ (compassion) in Christianity, or as ‘din‘ (strict judgement) in Islam, is a type of idolatry. In addition, Christianity personified God in the form of man, thereby deviating from pure unity, into a material trinity that restricts the scope of Godly values. For example, it qualifies the value of love, expressing it towards partners to the path, but towards others, it will often turn into terrible cruelty. In Islam, a deep drawback exists, for it reduces Godliness to Divine leadership revealed to a man from above, whose rule must be accepted by its followers with respect and submission, and imposed by force on all mankind. It does not see the great Divine value in human creation in all its components, which is a Divine revelation constantly being revealed by man, who was created in God’s image for this purpose.
Judaism’s Attitude towards the Various Religions
In principle, according to halakha (Jewish law), non-Jews are permitted to establish a religion for themselves that will provide a framework suitable for their unique character – provided it is free of idolatry – by being connected to the pure faith in Hashem that is revealed through the nation of Israel, not to force itself on others, and not to invalidate other values. In other words, the vision of the ‘Geulah‘ (Redemption) does not demand the eradication of the various religions, but rather, the removal of the pagan evil in them, that obstructs the revelation of the complete good, and leads to murderous domination. As it is written: “I will take away their abominable religious practices; then those who survive will become a community of believers in our God” (Zechariah 9: 7).
This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting, informative, and thought-provoking articles by Rabbi Melamed can be found at: