Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests


What Idolatry Isn’t

posted by David Klinghoffer
450px-UtrechtIconoclasm.jpg

Everyone thinks they know what idolatry is. Do they? Something I came across in the Talmud this morning prompts me to ask.

As my friend Rabbi Daniel Lapin puts it, the Talmud is best understood as a spiritual-intellectual laboratory where instead of putting molecules together in various configurations to see what they can do and thus derive ideas about nature, the rabbis did the same thing with ideas about the spiritual realm. There isn’t always an obvious practical upshot.
So in one Talmudic discussion about the anointed high priest (different from a regular high priest), a role that hasn’t existed since the First Temple in Jerusalem, the issue comes up whether, if such a person, in mistakenly bowing to a house of idolatry, thinking it to be a synagogue, has inadvertently committed an act of idolatry. Now, synagogues are an innovation long postdating the First Temple, so this is obviously a theoretical discussion. 
It emerges that he has not committed idolatry even inadvertently, for “in fact his heart was [loyal] to [the One in] in Heaven” (Sanhedrin 61b). Rashi there explains that this is because:

He did not bow down to the idol at all — neither intentionally nor inadvertently — for one who bows down towards a synagogue is not bowing to the building itself, but rather to the One in Heaven Whose Name rests upon it. Even if the anointed priest had known that the building housed an idol and he had entered it and bowed while inside to the One in Heaven, he would not be liable.

The same discussion in the Talmud includes permission to bow down to another person out of respect. Even bowing to a statue of a king, again out of respect not in an act of worship, is not treated as idolatry.
Now I’m neither a rabbi nor a Talmud scholar. I peruse these texts in the invaluable Artscroll edition, from which I’ve just quoted. But I find this very interesting. 
The idea of relating to God through statues — as in a Catholic church — is controversial with many Christians, as with all Jews and all Muslims. The Western world has gone through periodic convulsions of iconoclasm, as during the Protestant Reformation when statues in churches across Europe were beheaded or destroyed. 
The Bible is very clear on not serving idols: “You shall not bow down to them and you shall not worship them” (Exodus 20:5). But the question is, Is an idol really an idol if the person creating it and the person bowing before it have in mind not a representation of God, or a god, but rather a visual reminder of “the One in Heaven Whose Name rests upon it”? 
Why would thinking of a building that way not count as idolatry while a statue of a person does? The problem seems especially knotty when you consider that bowing to a statue or a live person is exempted from the category of idolatry if the object of your bowing is simply a show of respect? 
I don’t know the answer. Just asking.


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Kathleen

posted July 6, 2009 at 8:46 pm


David, You wrote some very strong statements about women and gay marriage. You used words and ideas that have been used for a long time to justify the mistreatment of gay citizens. My son is not looking for your blessing, merely that you get out of his way.
Yet your only comment in the threads was a rather angry and rambling post containing your own speculation as to why people speculate about your sexuality (by the way, your theory is wrong. here’s the simply truth; if you write about gay sex enough and rail against gay marriage enough, people will wonder. see: Larry Craigh, et al.)
I am going to repost what I wrote to you and I hope that rather than defensiveness, you might open your heart:
I came here as a reader to share with you how your words were insulting to women, insulting to me as a mother of a gay son.
I am speaking to you parent to parent. I am speaking to you as one of the woman you so comfortably dismiss as “foolish.”
You are speaking of keeping the language free from things vulgar and obscene.
How can you not understand how vulgar and obscene I find your language about my son?



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kernestm

posted July 7, 2009 at 4:52 am


Kathleen
I read the article the other day, and I can’t see why you are so upset.
If your son wants to be that way, that’s OK, its his decision, but don’t expect everyone to agree, because I could find your attitude insulting to me, and our married son. Just accept that people have a variety of views and beliefs.



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Heretic_for_Christ

posted July 7, 2009 at 9:35 am


What am I missing? This is a commentary on the meaning of idolatry, and the 2 postings I see are on a completely different topic (presumably, Mr. Klinghofer’s earlier essay about same-sex unions).
If the topic at hand is idolatry, my comment is that all of these questions–the appropriateness of bowing down here versus there, to this person versus that object, at this versus that time–are ritualistic and therefore unimportant. Rituals do not enliven us (well, they don’t enliven me) and they certainly don’t make any direct contribution to the overall level of justice and compassion in the world. I really don’t see God as a decadent monarch who is obsessed with elaborate rituals that must be followed with absolute accuracy.
Idolatry has a vastly more important and sinister meaning in the world, and that should be our concern–the assumption that God is contained within the pages of a book. Virtually every religious person I have met has been unable to separate belief in God from belief in whatever scriptures their faith holds sacred. Virtually every religious argument I have heard or participated in has focused not on God but on what is or is not in sacred scripture. To assume that God can be known by studying a book demonstrates that one’s primary faith is in the accuracy of the book, and faith in God becomes a secondary result, dependent on what the book says.
This is bibliolatry–the truly deadly form of idolatry in the world today. To me, it bespeaks not strengh but weakness of faith–faith that depends on a tangible object as proof or validation is weak faith, indeed. And the danger is self-evident: human history has been hideously stained by the blood that has been shed by crusaders and conquerors who read their own sacred scriptures and found that–YES!–God wants them to make war, killing and conquering as needed, in his holy name.
To hold ANY scripture as sacred is to flirt with bibliolatry. I am not calling for the wholesale abandonment of scripture, but for a greater willingness on the part of religious people to interpret it with critical rationality rather than dogmatic literalism. We CAN learn from sacred scripture; but then, intelligent people can learn from any source of ideas and information.



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R

posted July 7, 2009 at 10:19 am


Let’s give God some credit. I believe that God is capable of knowing what is in our hearts. He is able to distinguish between paying mere respect and worship of idols and false gods.



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Your Name

posted July 7, 2009 at 1:15 pm


kernestn, It is of no matter to me if people agree or disagree with my attitude.
But I’m going to challenge you on the idea that my attitude is insulting to you and your married son (I assume he is married to a woman based on the context.) My attitude is that your son should be free to marry the consenting adult of his choice, whether I agree with the match or not. I simply want the same for my son.
When men like David chose to engage in this sort of rhetoric, there has to be responsibility as well. Imagine being raising to belive that marriage and children are a blessing but finding out that your desire for a spouse and a family is not only wrong but a danger to others. It is any wonder that gay and lesbian youth have a higher suicide rate?
I hope that David will read the material at the nation’s gay and lesbian suicide hotline, The Trevor Project, and truly consider the impact of his words. These are not nameless, faceless “gays” that he is speaking of, they are human beings. http://www.thetrevorproject.org/home1.aspx
Sincerely,
Kathleen



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Gabriel Hanna

posted July 7, 2009 at 1:54 pm


My attitude is that your son should be free to marry the consenting adult of his choice, whether I agree with the match or not. I simply want the same for my son.
What if he wanted to marry his consenting adult sister? There are all kinds of restrictions on marriage-are they all about civil rights?



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kernestm

posted July 8, 2009 at 8:07 pm


Kathleen
If your child keeps wandering out onto the road without looking for traffic, would you be concerned?
You said “It is any wonder that gay and lesbian youth have a higher suicide rate? ”
Isn’t that a good reason to be concerned for your son’s life, and life style?
Gays often have several partners at the same time, or have casual relations as well as the “steady” one. This brings greater risks of infection, which the other partner cannot control. Also greater stress if there is a break-up, which is common as such relations are usually for only a few years.
Keep in close contact with your son, so you can support him and steer away from disaster.
Get him to promise that he will come to you if depressed.
regards,
kernestm



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freelunch

posted July 8, 2009 at 8:34 pm


kernestm -
Don’t you think that intolerance from much of the religious community and others who do not understand those who are attracted to the same sex is a major cause of the problems that they have?



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Your Name

posted July 9, 2009 at 10:24 am


Forgive me did I miss something here? I read this article and it was about idolatry not homosexuality. Thanks for the insight as to the matter as I think many have maybe misunderstood it. I for one. As for the young man I pray that he will seek deliverance from the spirit of perversion. We have so watered down the Gospel, and I think we are in great danger if we do not confront the problems we see plaguing our world. I did not say it Jesus was clear about it. Deliverance is real and it too has not been discussed in most mainstream churches. I am not passing a cruel judgment on this young man. As I have been there, and done that. I am only saying there is hope and he can get turned around. It is unnatural and it is a spirit.



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freelunch

posted July 9, 2009 at 11:21 am


Forgive me did I miss something here?
Not really. Someone asked a question of David that he had not answered when it had been asked previously.
As for the young man I pray that he will seek deliverance from the spirit of perversion.
So, you don’t accept the general scientific consensus that same sex attraction is primarily innate. What evidence do you have to support your claim?
We have so watered down the Gospel, and I think we are in great danger if we do not confront the problems we see plaguing our world. I did not say it Jesus was clear about it.
The Gospel is about redemption. Watering it down would imply that you are making exceptions about redemption for those sins that you don’t want God to forgive.



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kernestm

posted July 9, 2009 at 8:17 pm


To freelunch,
“So, you don’t accept the general scientific consensus that same sex attraction is primarily innate. What evidence do you have to support your claim?”
Knowing the accuracy of Gods warnings, it is clear that if a people or nation turn from Him, He eventually gives them over to the lifestyle they want. In Romans Ch.1, verses 18 onwards it is clear that certain lifestyles are the punishment. We are to hate the sin but care about the person.
As Kathleen said “is any wonder that gay and lesbian youth have a higher suicide rate?” We do care for their safety and prosperity, and many have changed their ways, and even married and raised a family, isn’t that what life is about?
“The Gospel is about redemption. Watering it down would imply that you are making exceptions about redemption for those sins that you don’t want God to forgive.”
God states what He will not accept or accept, the rest are “thrown in the rubbish” to put it mildly. We don’t want that for anyone.
“Don’t you think that intolerance from much of the religious community and others who do not understand those who are attracted to the same sex is a major cause of the problems that they have? ”
I think the lack of good guidance is the problem, often boys brought up without a fathers guidance, or left to find their own standards.



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freelunch

posted July 9, 2009 at 9:41 pm


“Knowing the accuracy of Gods warnings, …”
As far as I am aware, there is no evidence that God ever warned anyone about anything.
“God states what He will not accept or accept, the rest are “thrown in the rubbish” to put it mildly.”
No, He doesn’t, but that isn’t the Gospel, anyway. When you substitute Law for Gospel, you’ve pretty well gutted Christianity.
“I think the lack of good guidance is the problem, often boys brought up without a fathers guidance, or left to find their own standards.”
Are you saying that the lack of good guidance from fathers causes children to become intolerant and willing to beat up people who are different? I agree that those who do not treat everyone as equals are betraying some of what is taught in the Bible.



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Turmarion

posted July 11, 2009 at 1:37 am


And now for something actually on topic: Interesting post. As a Catholic, I have no problem with the traditional Catholic/Eastern Orthodox view that icons, statues, etc. serve the purpose of helping direct one’s devotion towards God or through the saints to God. This tendency can be overdone to the point of superstition or true idolatry, of course, but in principal it is not in itself idolatrous. The general Catholic/Orthodox teaching is that the prohibition on images in the Old Testament was necessary in order to get people to understand that God is transcendent and not anthropomorphic. Then, when God indeed became man in Christ, joining the divine to the human, it was possible to reinstitute images on a higher plane of understanding.
What is fascinating about it from the Jewish perspective is the seeming contradiction. The Ten Commandments clearly forbid the making of “an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below” (Exodus 20:4, NIV), and the Israelites are directed to smash the idols of the Canaanites when they enter the Promised Land. However, the Ark of the Covenant, above which the Presence of God Himself dwells, is capped with images of cherubim (which probably looked much like Assyro-Babylonian shedus, that is, human-headed winged bulls). Moreover, when the Temple is constructed, it is chock full of images: the bulls holding the brazen sea, the cherubim in the inner sanctum where the Ark rested, and the motifs of cherubim and flowers all around the interior. No wonder the protomartyr Stephen, in his speech before being stoned, implies that the Temple itself was indeed (or had become) an idol (Acts 44-53)!
I think it depends on the situation. The Romans and Greeks had pretty much the same idea towards images as Catholics and Orthodox do today. They never believed that the statues were actually “gods”; they merely served as a focus for devotion to humans who think in terms of the senses. The philosophers, as far back as Xenophanes (about the 5th century BC or so) were clear that God has no physical form and that the multiplicity of gods, goddesses, and images was for the benefit of the less intellectual and philosophical. All the philosophers were more or less monotheistic. However, they had no problem with devotions before images to the extent that it focused the devotion of the worshipers. Likewise, in a modern context, praying before an icon, showing reverence (such as crossing oneself), lighting candles before it, or having a May crowning of a statue of Mary are all harmless and even beneficial to the extent that such devotions increase ones faith, focus one’s prayers, and help one to come closer to God through reverence of His saints.
I think that in principle the placing of prayers in the Kotel or visiting or sending written prayers to an ohel (tomb of a tzaddik), such as that of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, are similar practices. Ditto the veneration of saints’ tombs in some forms of Islam, particularly Shi’ite.
On the other hand, the Ancient Egyptians (at some times, anyway) and some branches of Hinduism have statues of the gods which are “awakened” at the beginning of the day, washed and dressed, attended by priests, “fed” by offerings of food, sung to, and “put to bed” at night. This, to me, is an example of symbolism gone way too far, and would be something I’d consider to be true idolatry.
Thus, I think it’s a matter of motivation and balance. If a practice deepens one’s faith and brings one closer to God, then it is doing what it should. If God gets crowded out and the practice becomes a quasi-magical or superstitious end in itself, then you’re sliding into idolatry. Even normative parts of faith, in this sense, can be idolatrous. A too-literal reading of Scripture can be idolatrous (or bibliolatrous); viewing sacraments or specific prayers in a magical or superstitious manner can be idolatrous; focusing too much on observance to the exclusion of content and meaning can be idolatrous. One always has to be aware of one’s motivations. I think this is the point of such passages as this in Psalm 51:16-17: “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (NIV)
Heretic_for_Christ: To hold ANY scripture as sacred is to flirt with bibliolatry.
To some extent, I agree, as I’ve pointed out.
We CAN learn from sacred scripture; but then, intelligent people can learn from any source of ideas and information.
Of course, we can make an idol of any source of information. Yes, scriptures can become idols; but so can human understanding, personal opinion, “revelation” that individuals may claim to receive, etc. My take is that any scared scripture is something that has stood the test of time in speaking to many, many people over the centuries, and that this puts some corrective mechanisms in place, if done right; but that’s me. In any case, any mode in which we may claim to know God or His will can potentially be an idol. Rejecting pat or facile interpretations of texts or organized religion in general doesn’t get one off the hook.



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zinto

posted December 1, 2009 at 3:02 pm


In many ways its interesting – bowing to a man made thing like a statue is no go. We see Shadrach, Abnego & Meshach refusing to bow to a column/statue in the OT against the order of the king. So while we can bow in honour of kings ( which is shown in the Bible ), bowing before a man made statue is no go. Also, we see instances where Cornelius in the NT woshipped Peter, and Peter stope dhim saying it was idolatry. Likewise, when an angel appeared and John fell at his feet, the angel rebuiked him and said not to worship him.
Likewise, art is not idoltrous. Bowing before an artwork of a person or thing is however idoltrous as we are required to show exclusive worship to God.
While in spots it appears tricky, idolatry is clearly laid out in Ex 20:2-17.



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