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A Slippery Slope to Idolatry

The Torah scroll is taken out of the ark. The rabbi walks in a procession around the synagogue holding the Torah as congregants reach out with their tallises (prayer shawls) or siddurim (prayer books) to touch the scroll and then put the tallis or the siddur to their lips, thus giving the Torah a kiss. It’s the way I’ve always seen it done, and I never gave it much thought.

Until, that is, a couple of years ago when a non-Jewish congregant expressed confusion and distaste about the tradition. An avid student of Judaism who was committed to raising her children Jewish, she explained that she had always appreciated Judaism’s absolute refusal to worship objects, a check against idolatry.

But wasn’t kissing the Torah just that, an idolatrous act? I gave an answer about how kissing the Torah was simply a way of showing respect, but I wasn’t entirely convinced–and I still am not.

The fact is, kissing the Torah as it is carried through the congregation does look a lot like practices in other religions that seem idolatrous to Jewish eyes, such as placing food before statues or venerating icons. When do you cross the line from respect to honor to veneration to worship?

The fact is, many traditions have entered Judaism as folk practices, discouraged or denounced by rabbinic authorities–from lighting Hanukkah candles to the Kol Nidrei prayer. Perhaps kissing the Torah found its way into our practice as a folk tradition–a tradition of the people. It’s a physical way of showing reverence and awe, but one not necessarily based on the bedrock Jewish principle of rejecting idolatry. Interestingly, many traditional authorities are troubled by the same concerns and proscribe kissing the Torah, or wish to see the practice limited to young children.

Of course we want to honor the Torah for the sacred texts it contains, including God’s name. At the same time, it is vital to remember that the holiness we cherish lies in the content–the wisdom, the stories, the laws–and not in the vessel.

I still reach out my tallis to touch the Torah and kiss it but, thanks to my congregant, it is now accompanied by a conscious reminder to myself of just how easy it could be to slip into idolatry.



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pesele

posted October 9, 2006 at 10:40 pm


Reification happens–or doesn’t–in all religions. Of course it is possible to make the Torah an idol (see Frisco Kid for the best example). Any ritual object can become an idol–which is why we need to pay attention to why we do what we do, as what we do. However, there is another lesson for Jews: those practices that we believe are idolatrous in other religions may be symbolic, rather than idolatrous. So, if we expect others to understand that kissing the Torah does not mean that we worship the Torah, we should be prepared to give the same understanding.



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Nate

posted October 10, 2006 at 5:40 am


I’m a Hindu with many Jewish friends and I remember having a discussion on “what is idoltry”. I believe we concluded in agreement that idoltry must be when the object stops being a symbol and becomes something believed to actually have power on its own (a god). Thus a statue, by itself, is just a statue. It may be a symbol for something else and may mean something (consider the statue of liberty, for example). But when it is believed that the statue suddenly has power of its own, then it stops being a mere symbol for people to look towards and even perhaps show respect to and becomes a god because people then bestow upon it power that the thing doesn’t actually have. Hindus embrace the use of symbols like statues which are embedded with tons of symbols about the aspects of G-d that we should remember. It is when we forget about what the symbol, the statue, is trying to remind us of and start seeing the statue as a being itself with power on its own that we slip into idoltry because we shift what it is and grant power to something that doesn’t really have power. No wonder the temple priests will just toss the statues out of the temple and smash them in the streets when they chip or start to crack due to age….to remind us that it was only a statue, a symbol…G-d isn’t being smashed, G-d never was the statue. On Ganesh Chaturthi people make their own clay Ganesh images and then at the end of the celebration you have to let go, you have to submerge it in water and let it float down the river and dissolve away…again reminding us that it was just a symbol and we shouldn’t get too attached to symbols or give them power they don’t have or make them what they are not. I think Jewish people get this understanding because not only has the religion forbade the use of images, it still provides symbols that people can identify with that unite the Jewish people together and tell the story about the journey they’ve gone on..the journey the current generation joins. Kissing the Torah isn’t idoltry because you don’t think of the Torah as G-d, not even a child could make such a mistake. Just as Buddhists often get frustrated about the show of reverence they show by bowing to an image of Buddha (showing respect to a man, as they would any other man..as is eastern cultures tradition..for his teachings), or the reverence shown by Hindus by offering food and prayers to a picture or statue and reflecting on the deep meanings symbolized in the image meant to remind us of the qualities and aspects of G-d (like that G-d will always protect us, G-d blesses us, G-d removes obstacles that keep us from Him, G-d is the source of all knowledge, etc, etc, etc)…these acts get misunderstood by people outside the religion. I don’t think Jews have anything to worry about. So long as they don’t put anything before G-d as G-d then they aren’t going to fall into idoltry. (Christians often use the term to mean anything that you put before G-d…Hindus have another term for it altogether, but same principle). In the end if your heart and mind are sincerely focused on G-d, then G-d knows this and knows that it is He that you worship. Thus when you kiss the Torah, He knows that you aren’t kissing the Torah because you think its Him, he knows you are just showing respect. When you pray and sing songs and dance and meditate/contemplate on all that is said with the focus being on G-d, then He knows that you are worshipping Him. He knows your heart. Peace be with you.



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eastcoastlady

posted October 10, 2006 at 1:55 pm


Wow, Nate, your post was great. Well said. The Torah is G-d’s word; it is not G-d Himself. Showing respect and veneration for G-d’s law is what we do. The Torah tells us what G-d wants from us. Without G-d, there is no Torah. I’m with you. I don’t think we need worry.



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Penny

posted October 10, 2006 at 4:55 pm


Yes, very good post Nate. Normally I start flicking through very long posts but I felt compelled to read right through yours, as everything in it was so insightful. Thank you



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tokenblogger

posted October 10, 2006 at 5:57 pm


I don’t always “kiss” the Torah, but I do see it as a sign of respect. It may also have come about to get pholks to pay attention to the Torah procession (as some don’t seem to follow the Torah in procession at all) as we are already standing for respect for its passing by.



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Dan

posted October 10, 2006 at 6:41 pm


The act of touching a tallit to the sefer Torah and bringing it to one’s lips was described to me not as “kissing,” but something more like “tasting.” If it were kissing, after all, we’d be more likely to kiss the tallit or siddur first and then touch it to the scroll. It is in that spirit of tasting Torah – of wanting the words of Torah to be mine and therefore drinking them in – that I dab at the passing scroll with my tallit.



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Tova

posted October 10, 2006 at 7:10 pm


Nate, great post. It’s a shame that “rabbi” Waxman cannot convey this simple idea to his congregants. I guess Nate is more qualified to be rabbi than “rabbi” Waxman. the problem with all these conservative, reform & reconstructionist is that they don’t beleive in G-d to begin with. and when you yourself don’t have a strong faith it doesn’t take much to shake it. in “rabbi” Waxman’s place I would wonder about idolarty not because of kissing Torah scroll but rather because of what reconstructionism did to real Yiddishkeit.



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eastcoastlady

posted October 10, 2006 at 7:40 pm


Tova, That was nasty. I consider myself conservative and very much believe in G-d. It is attitudes like the one expressed in your post that cause so much dissension between Jews of all stripes. That is, if you even consider me a Jew. Can you say “baseless hatred”?



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Scott

posted October 11, 2006 at 2:04 am


Well, it’s always nice to find when our co-religionists hate us.



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Tzvi

posted October 11, 2006 at 2:57 am


Tova, me thinks you fail to understand basic concepts of Philosophy. then again, I find the Orthodox community looks at life with Blinders on. In Rabbi Waxman’s case, Reconstructionist Judaism, as founded by M. Kaplan is a “naturalistic” Judaism, where G-d ceases to be Anthropomorphic,and achieves the level of the “force that pushes us to do Good”. Reconstructionism did nothing “bad” to Yiddishkeit, but rather ecoconised that we can’t have the same relationship to G-d that say our parents had, or their Parents, or even the jews of the Time of Rambam. And yes I can understand where Rabbi Waxman comes from. In Jews Tradition there’s a concept whereby which even the appearance of something wrong is forbidden, even if the object as a substitution is permitted(ie at one time ppl didn’t serve Margerine, or Almond Milk at meat meals because someone might think it was Butter or cream, which would be forbidden).



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Penny

posted October 11, 2006 at 1:49 pm


“the problem with all these conservative, reform & reconstructionist is that they don’t beleive in G-d to begin with. and when you yourself don’t have a strong faith it doesn’t take much to shake it.” Hang on, nobody told me Conservative’s don’t believe in G-d!! If only I’d known, I’d stop wasting every weekend in shul davening!



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Tova

posted October 11, 2006 at 5:35 pm


Calm down everybody. I respect people that believe genuinly(especially when they don’t know any better). But here where I come from… When you beleive in G-d and that He gave us Torah (instead of some smart guys getting together and writing it) then why do you change it. As I see it, there are many things that may cause inconvenience for me, but who am I to change the word of G-d?! So when Torah says that man lying with man is an ABOMINATION to G-d (it’s not just unpleasant, better don’t do it; it’s abomination – pretty strong word), why would reconstructionism ignore it. You can argue with Rabbeim how they interpret kashrut, but re gay relationships I think Torah is pretty clear. But I guess nowdays we’re smarter than G-d himself and we get to vote on what we want and what we don’t want in Torah. And there are many more examples where Jews ignore even black letter law and make up their own religion to the point that when you come in to the “temple” you have no idea whether it’s sunagogue or church. So save your breath. I’d rather hear Jew say “I know that that’s the law, I’m just not ready yet to keep all of it”, than see Jews making up new laws that allow you to serve shrimp at the “jewish” wedding.



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Mitch

posted October 11, 2006 at 10:05 pm


“I respect people that believe genuinly [sic] (especially when they don’t know any better).” I’m not sure how sincere your “respect” for the nonorthodox is, Tova. What exactly do you mean by “black letter law” and who decides what is and what is not black letter law? I don’t think reform and other nonorthodox Jews “make up their own religion” and I don’t think your words convey much respect. I highly recommend you read Rabbi David Wolpe’s beliefnet column entitled Amazing Grace or Amazing Chutzpah. I offer you a sample from it: “Believing in one’s own faith , but accepting that God might allow others to follow a separate path, might be seen as part of the maturation of traditions.”



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Scott

posted October 12, 2006 at 1:05 am


Tova, You know dear: 1) Were we talking about homosexuality? Or is that be all to end all of all fundamentalists? 2) When you put “Jewish” and “rabbi” in quotes, you convey hatred and disrespect towards us. You don’t want us to be your fellow Jews, fine. I don’t want you as mine. And I’m a kohanim. so there.



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Karin

posted October 12, 2006 at 1:37 am


“It is in that spirit of tasting Torah – of wanting the words of Torah to be mine and therefore drinking them in – that I dab at the passing scroll with my tallit. Dan” In my case, it is the Siddur, but Dan expressed pretty much how it was explained to me as a child. When my “seat mate” was in his 90′s, he nodded off periodically, occasionally letting his Siddur drop to the floor; he always “kissed” it, after hastily retrieving it from the floor, and his explanation was that he was apologizing to G-d for his disrespect. (I should question one of two survivors from a Polish village during WWII?) Aaron said Kaddish every day for each person who was slaughtered from his village and he did this mitzvah for 81 years. Before he died, he painstakingly wrote down the names so another man could fulfill the remaining 39 years.



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Tova

posted October 12, 2006 at 4:08 am


Scott, homosexuality is only basic example of some Jews’ disregard for G-d’s law. and I don’t know much about you – the fact that you’re a kohen says nothing to me (I’ve seen kohanim eating shrimp and marrying non-jewish women). I come from non-religious family, and it’s so non-religious that my father is not even Jewish. So I didn’t grow up with blinders on. I became observant 5 years ago and I received good valid answers to my endless questions only from Orthodox Jews. The rest conveyed either lies or incompetence. Besides, with regard to your allegation in disrespect to non-orthodox Jews, 80% of guests at our Shabbos table know very little about their roots, or were reform, or conservative, and most of them when they saw real Judaism became orthodox, because they saw the real thing, they saw the truth. and i put “rabbi” and “jewish” in quotes because REAL Rabbis know Torah and know that kissing it is not an idolatry, and their faith would not be shaken by stupid comment like that. and I don’t care how much people want to keep and what laws they observe in the privacy of their homes, but to serve shrimp & pork at “Jewish” wedding is mockery of Judaism. And Mitch, open Torah and you’ll see what I refer to as “black letter law”. This Torah portion is read every Yom Kippur – it says black on white that man lying with man is an ABOMINATION to G-d; how much clearer can it be? Rabbeim didn’t invent it. You should’ve read it in any Torah edition unless in your “temple” you’re using new testement.



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Chana Silverman

posted October 12, 2006 at 4:22 am


Wow – what a lot of interesting comments!!!! Personally for me, as a Chabadnic, who believes all Jews regardless of affliation are my brethern and deserving of my love and respect, “kissing the Torah” is one way I can physically reach out to HaShem and cement that which is going on in my heart, which is awe and appreciation for THE WORD OF G-D. I learn so much from the Torah. I am always surprised when I think – I have read that or heard that before – and a new insight will jump out at me. When I see the Torah being marched around our shull, I see the history of our people and I know HaShem is still with us, no matter what is going on in me personally or in the world, and I have hope. Baroch HaShem!



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Julie Beth Boe

posted October 12, 2006 at 5:19 am


Exactly. Well put. We should all have hope in these times of conflict.



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Tzvi

posted October 12, 2006 at 5:39 am


Tova, In MY synagogue, Congregation Beit Tikvah (http://www.beittikvah.org ) we are reconstructionist, and we read a section from Deuteronomy(I forget which one) as the second torah reading. I’m sorry, but I was brought up conservative, spent time among each branch of judaism, took a Senior History Seminar in College on Modern jewish Thought(Philosophy/History joint class), Wrote an extensive thesis on Rav Kook, and I can say that MOST jews who are Orthodox live with Blinders on. Its not enough to know the letter of the law, it is the spirit too. As someone once said to me:”when is Justice as simple as a Rule book?”If I recall one of the 13 attributes is mercy. I beleieve that while law is important, there must be a counterbalance of Spirit of the law. Otherwise I can’t say for you, but as an Eldest Son who has spoken back to his Mom(bad person i know) she’d have had enough right to drag me to the center of town where she lives, declare me a son who has spoken back to his parents and then take me to edge of town and have me stoned to death(this is an example of a “black letter law” that is in Torah)…is it right? no, but the rabbis of the talmud and later added to the law so that it was all but impossible for a parent to do so. Torah can not be taken directly, it must be a “living document”, like the US constitution, that also has “questionable passages”(black slaves count as 2/3 of a man), but those passages have been blunted by later amendments, and interpretations, but it can never be ‘removed” from the Constitution. if you want to, I’d write to me privately off here, as this is getting WAAAY off topic.



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Nate

posted October 12, 2006 at 10:06 am


Thank you for your kind comments to my post, I am glad that you understood what I said (even if it was rather long). As for being a rabbi…I definately do not feel qualified! I’ve studied Hebrew and sadly the only thing I know how to say and write is “My name is Nathan” in Hebrew (Anee Nathan) and I still get some of the letters mixed up (don’t worry I’m not faring much better with Sanskrit yet either..but I studied Hebrew along with some of my Jewish friends…to encourage them mostly by having someone to share that was interested that wasn’t someone raised in the religion…people seem to glow when they get to share and teach someone else…and they tend to learn better about their own religious traditions). Thanks again. Great posts by everyone else, too. Lots of perspectives!!



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eastcoastlady

posted October 12, 2006 at 2:17 pm


I guess is I were to speak to Tova, I’d have to say “you’re a better Jew than I, Gunga Din”. Except she’s not. Chana, on the other hand, probably is a better Jew than I, because she is more observant, more schooled, yet not at all condescending or belittling. Tova’s comments about “black letter law” remind me of Isaiah’s comments for the fast on Yom Kippur, “Is this the fast that I desire?” It’s suppposed to be about spiritual growth, not just following the letter of the law. I have to go back to my earlier comment about baseless hatred. Try to mend fences, not build them.



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Mitch

posted October 12, 2006 at 2:20 pm


Tova, There is a proverb in the Koran, which states (approximately): “If the ignorant approach, just say ‘Peace be with you.’ ” Shalom Aleichem



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eastcoastlady

posted October 12, 2006 at 4:51 pm


Mitch, Does that mean that those of us in disagreement with Tova are ignorant? Peace be with you, too.



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Tova

posted October 12, 2006 at 6:11 pm


Tzvi is right, this discussion is getting way off the topic. i apologize if i hurt anybody’s feelings. i know that many want to beleive and belong sincerely. the sad part is when you look at the statistics of how many Jews “survive” and remain Jews among different “currents”. and in this respect you can’t beat orthodox. numbers of Jews leaving Judaism in cons., reform, & reconstr. send chills through my spine. in 2-3 generations most of them just have a vague idea of their greatgrandparents being Jewish or something. i grew up in the Soviet Union and found out that i’m Jewish only at the age of 16-17. and here in the US people have so many opportunities to LIVE what their greatgrandparents and grandparents were DYING for and they still shift farhter and farther away. people here are trying to not stand out too much among non-Jews; otherwise, how can you go out for lunches at work with everybody if you have to keep kosher. when we try to blend in, Hashem always one way or the other reminds us who we are. and i wish that all of us find our way to Hashem better sooner than later. all the best.



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shelly

posted October 12, 2006 at 8:32 pm


Tova, Here in the South, many people are discovering their jewish roots and converting back to Judaism. This is not a terrific comfort to those of us like you or me – most of my Galicia family was wiped out during the Holocaust, but it is a comfort. I try and help anyone who wants help – to the degree that I can and try and make sure that my own family is staying involved. BUT you get a lot further being a little less stringent. Once you get someone really upset with you, they stop listening.



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RHODA FRIEDMAN

posted October 12, 2006 at 9:54 pm


IT IS NOT IDOLTRY THAT CAUSES US TO LONG TO KISS THE TORAH, OR STUDY IT. IT IS THE HONOR OF KNOWING THE WORDS FROM G-D WRITTEN IN THE TORAH ARE 5767 YEARS OLD AND THAT FACT ALONE MAKES IT AN HONOR TO KISS/READ OR STUDY AND JUST TO KNOW WHAT HAS BEEN WRITTEN BY MANY PROPHETS/SCRIBES/RABBIS IS IN THAT BOOK. I GET A CHILL UP MY SPINE FROM THAT FACT ALONE. IDOLTRY,,,,,,,I THINK NOT,,,HONORING THE WRITTEN WORKS OF THE AUTHOR,,,,YES.



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Tova

posted October 13, 2006 at 4:03 am


You’ve been observant for 5 years and now you think you’re better than everyone else. Guess what? You’re a fundamentalist Xtian (without the JC) in Jewish garb. Not only do you deny the humanity of gay people, you essentially deny the humanity of every Jew who isn’t like you. With those words, you would not be welcome at our Shabbos table. No , I would never serve treif at a Jewish meal, but a non-Jewish woman is my bershert. She is the one who supported me when I had our adopted son converted and she is the one that supports my raising him as a Jew. You don’t know nothing.



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Penny

posted October 13, 2006 at 3:02 pm


“You don’t know nothing.” Neither do you. None of us do. No one on this planet is fit to judge another’s actions. Just because your answer is not the same as others doesn’t mean that theirs are “lies”, as you so charmingly said earlier.



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Tova

posted October 13, 2006 at 5:37 pm


As Mitch said ‘Peace be with you.’



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eastcoastlady

posted October 13, 2006 at 7:25 pm


As Mitch said ‘Peace be with you.’ And also with you.



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Mitch

posted October 13, 2006 at 9:58 pm


eastcoast, I’m not saying what you think I’m saying. If you go back and read my first post, I think you’ll see that there’s another interpretation.



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Daijinryuu

posted October 13, 2006 at 10:23 pm


I am a follower of Krishna, but when there is a Buddha statue in the room, I bow to it out of custom and respect, that this carving/sculpture represents the real Buddha, is not actually him. Yet we must also realise and remember that how one faith sees idolatry, another might not see the action that way.



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eastcoastlady

posted October 16, 2006 at 2:35 pm


Mitch, If I got it wrong, then I’m sorry.



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