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.