Judaism strongly prohibits any form of idolatry, and holds that idolatry is not limited to the worship of a statue or picture itself, but also includes worship of the Almighty Himself with the use of mediators and/or any artistic representations of God such as "Jesus on the Cross". According to this understanding, even if one directs his worship to the Almighty Himself and not to a statue, picture, or some other created thing, but yet he uses a created thing as a representation of the Almighty in order to assist in his worship of the Almighty, this is also considered a form of idolatry. In fact, Maimonides explains in chapter 1 of Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim (Avoda Zarah) in the Mishneh Torah that this is one of the ways that idolatry began.
While such scholars as Rabbi Saadia Gaon, Rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda, and Rabbi Yehuda Halevi elaborated on proper monotheism and the issues of idolatry, without a doubt Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) was the most thorough in his elucidation of monotheism and the problems of idolatry. This is seen in his work known as the Mishnah Torah, in the Guide for the Perplexed, and in the various shorter writings he composed. In the Mishnah Torah, intended to be a complete compilation of Talmudic law, the theme of proclaiming the Unity of the Creator and eradication of idolatry is not limited to the sections specified for these topics. Rather, it permeates every section of the work as the purpose and foundation of the entire Torah. In the Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides so clarifies his understanding of monotheism and idolatry that in its light even certain Jewish communities of his time, and today, become suspect of idolatry. This was the core reason for his controversy, even more so than the issue of philosophy.
In short, the proper Jewish definition of idolatry is to do an act of worship toward any created thing, to believe that a particular created thing is an independent power, or to make something a mediator between ourselves and the Almighty. These laws are codified in the Mishneh Torah, mainly in the section called Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim (Avodah Zarah) - The Laws of Strange Worship (Idolatry). It is considered a great insult to God to worship one of His creations instead of Him or together with Him. According to the Noahide Laws, the 7 laws which Jews believe to be binding on the non-Jewish world, the non-Israelite nations are also Forbidden to worship anything other than the Absolute Creator. One can find this in Hilkhot Melakhim u'Milhhamotehem (Laws of Kings and their Wars) chapter 9 in the Mishneh Torah. Judaism holds that any beliefs or practices which significantly interferes with a Jew's relationship with God may, at some point, be deemed idolatry.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Is Hinduism Avodah Zarah?
Avodah Zarah is loosely translated as idolatry or polytheism. I don't know much about Hinduism but as I read Dr. Nathan Katz's memoirs of his journey from studying Hinduism to becoming an Orthodox Jew, I was surprised by some of his comments. He suggests a few times that perhaps Hinduism is not avodah zarah. He is not an authority on Judaism but most Jewish scholars do not know about Hinduism with the same depth that he, a professor of the subject, does.
Click here to read moreHe writes in his book, Spiritual Journey Home: Eastern Mysticism to the Western Wall:
The question of one God versus many gods confounds every westerner who approaches Hinduism. On the apparent level, Hinduism has many gods who are depicted by murtis, statues or idols. Idolatry, of course, is not only condemned in the Biblical second commandment, it even contradicts the much less doctrinaire seven Noahide commandments that are said to be obligatory for all descendants of Noah, which is to say everyone.
Yet when the swami speaks of God as the Light, beyond all form and distinctions, this apparent level of understanding is put into question. And the more one delves into the philosophies underlying Hindu practice, the more the apparent level is exposed as a mere comic book version of a profound and serious theology. At the same time, some of the practices of Hinduism cannot be affirmed from a Jewish standpoint. (p. 42)Most of us think of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as the three western monotheisms, as though monotheism never existed in India. Some politely refer to them as the three Abrahamic faiths, as Abraham is taken to be their father, either in a literal or a spiritualized sense. These western religions are assumed to be distinct from "eastern religions," which are characterized by a cyclic view of history and multiple deities. Indeed, that is one way to make a general distinction. But it is not the only way, as I tell my students... (p. 46)For an observant Jew, participation in this sort of dialogue raises issues of avodah zarah, a derogatory term meaning "other people's worship," something to be avoided at all costs by observant Jews. Is Tibetan Buddhism avodah zarah, or is it another name of God?... Yet, the question is not simple. Ample halakhic authorities, from Sa'adia Gaon to Maimonides, sometimes held accommodating views regarding other religions. Somehow this liberal thread has receded into the background, and more rigid views have come to the fore. The texts do not hold a monolithic view... (pp. 114-115)
There are opinions that polytheism is not considered avodah zarah for Gentiles if they worship God at the top of their pantheon. This is not the position of R. Sa'adia Gaon or the Rambam, contrary to what Dr. Katz suggests, but that of many Ashkenazic authorities. If Hinduism has the same God as we do then perhaps it qualifies as shituf.
However, Dr. Katz suggests that Hindu practice might qualify as avodah zarah even if its theology does not. Meaning, if Hinduism allows or requires certain acts that qualify as idolatrous, then the concept of shituf does not help. This is, indeed, the view of the Avnei Nezer (Yoreh De'ah 123:9-10), but only if the worship is solely to a statue and not to a statue and God together. If Hindu worship is to one of their gods and also to the supreme God together, then it is permissible as shituf. I don't know enough about their theology and practice to reach any solid conclusion.
Note that this post is not an invitation to speak in-depth about Hindu beliefs and practice. Rather, it is to raise the awareness that an expert in Hinduism (who is now an Orthodox Jew) considers it to be less of an avodah zarah than I had previously thought.
Introduction to the Laws of Avodah Zarah
In addition to the cardinal prohibition against worshipping idols, the Torah distanced us from any involvement with or benefit from Avodah Zarah. Furthermore, the money received in payment for the Avodah Zarah is also tainted with the stigma of Avodah Zarah and may not be used. As will be described later, this money must be destroyed in a way that no one will ever be able to use it.
Chazal prohibited benefit even from the wages earned for transporting an item used in idol worship. Thus, the wages of a person who hired himself to transport wine used in idol worship are prohibited (Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 62a). He is required to destroy whatever he received as a payment, and he must destroy it in a way that no one else can use it. The Gemara rules that if he received coins as payment, he must grind up the coins and then scatter the dust to the wind to guarantee that no one benefit from idolatry.
In this context, the Gemara recounts the following story: A man who had rented his boat to transport wine owned by idolaters was paid with a quantity of wheat. Since the wheat may not be used, the question was asked from Rav Chisda what to do with it. He ruled that the wheat should be burnt and then the ashes should be buried. The Gemara asks why not scatter the ashes, rather than burning them? The Gemara responds that we do not permit this out of concern that the ashes will fertilize the ground where they fall. Thus we see how concerned chazal were that we should not gain any benefit from idols, even so indirectly.
There are several mitzvohs of the Torah pertaining to Avodah Zarah, all of them to convey the Torah’s concerns that we be extensively distanced from Avodah Zarah. For example, the Torah forbids having an Avodah Zarah in one’s house (Avodah Zarah 15a). This is based on the verse Vilo sovie so’aivah el bisecha, You shall not bring an abomination into your house (Devarim 7:26). In addition, we may not benefit from that which decorates an Avodah Zarah. Furthermore, we are prohibited from providing benefit to the Avodah Zarah (Gemara Avodah Zarah 13a). Thus, it is prohibited to make a donation if a neighbor or business contact solicits a contribution for his Avodah Zarah.
There is also a positive mitzvah to destroy avodah zarah. This is mentioned in the verse, Abeid ti-abdun es kol hamekomos asher ovdu shom hagoyim … es eloheihem, You shall completely destroy all the places where the nations worshipped their gods (Devarim 12:2). According to Rambam, the mitzvah min hatorah applies only to destroy the Avodah Zarah itself and that which decorates and serves it. There is no Torah requirement to destroy items used in the worship of Avodah Zarah (Hilchos Avodah Zarah 7:1-2, as proved by Kehilos Yaakov, Bava Kamma end of #3). However, as mentioned above, one is required midarabanan to destroy anything that is prohibited to use to make sure that no one benefits from the avodah zarah items (see Gemara Avodah Zarah 51b; Rambam, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 8:6).