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Idolatry


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The worship of any being other than God; Heb. avodah zarah (‘strange worship’). The Hebrew prophets fought against the worship of Baal and the other foreign gods but nowhere in the Bible are the other nations condemned for worshipping their gods, only for the ‘abominations’ attendant on that worship. However, in the Rabbinic doctrine of the Noahide laws, the Torah for all mankind so to speak, idolatry is as serious an offence for Gentiles as it is for Jews, although, in the nature of the case, this was purely academic. It was unlikely in the extreme in Rabbinic times that a Gentile would ask a Rabbi whether or not he was allowed by the Torah to worship his gods. A whole tractate of the Talmud, tractate Avodah Zarah, is devoted to the laws against idolatry and idolatrous practices. Hardly any attempt is made in the classical Jewish sources to distinguish between different kinds of pagan or primitive worship such as animism, fetishism, and polytheism. All forms of worship that are not purely monotheistic are treated together as idolatry and severely condemned. Not only idolatry itself was treated with the greatest severity by the Rabbis, but anything appertaining to it was strictly prohibited. It was forbidden to use the leaves of an idolatrous grove, even for their medicinal properties, because leaves from another place could serve the same purpose (Pesahim 25a). No use might be had of an idol, but if it had been desecrated by its worshipper, by being defaced, for example, it was permitted to have use of it. This only applied to an idol belonging to a non-Jewish idolater. An idol worshipped by a Jew was permanently forbidden even after its defacement by the owner (Avodah Zarah 52a).

In the post-Talmudic period, there was no longer any threat to Judaism from the pagan religions and a certain relaxation was granted of some of the stricter rules against relations with idolaters. The discussion among the Jewish teachers then centred on whether Islam and Christianity, the two daughter religions of Judaism, as they were called, and the new rivals to the Jewish religion, were to be treated as idolatrous religions. Islam was seen as a purely monotheistic religion but opinions differed with regard to Christianity. Eventually, the consensus emerged that while Christianity did not constitute idolatry ‘for them’, that is, a Gentile Christian did not offend against the Noahide laws, it did constitute idolatry ‘for us’. Many Jews suffered martyrdom rather than embrace the Christian faith. To worship the gods of the Far Eastern religions is, of course, held to be idolatrous by all Jewish authorities.

Subjects: Judaism and Jewish Studies.


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