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Notes from Limmud 2008

The Last Taboos—Idolatry and Many Gods

Alan Silver

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

We have a simplistic and patronising approach to polytheists. Idolatry and polytheism are separate but linked topics. These are words that people don't use about themselves. The underlying reality is not as simplistic as how it's portrayed in the Bible.

Idolatry is generally thought to mean the worship of false gods. However, this doesn't take us far: what's a false god? If you understand it metaphorically, though, it becomes more meaningful; for example understanding it as excessive worship of material goods.

When I look around me, I see so many people working harder than they should, in order to make more money than they need, which they use to buy things they don't want, in order to impress people they don't care about.

—Amos Oz

All religions use symbols—the mezuzah, menorah, lulav and etrog, etc. The Sefer Torah is a ritual object made by a skilled artisan, and decorated with previous metals, etc. The congregation treat it with respect, bow down to it, jostle for access to it as the Torah is removed from the Ark. We all know we're not treating it as an idol, but are treating it as a symbol. But an anthropolist not familiar with Judaism could easily be forgiven for thinking it is an idol.

Shiva Nataraja

Eastern Orthodox Christians pray gazing at an icon. This is how they focus their thoughts to pray. Is this is an idol? Observant Jews and Christians get upset having their sacred objects compared to idols, but other cultures have [the same issue too.] Consider Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance (pictured). This is an object used by Hindus as an object for their worship. Jews would consider this an idol.

Objects in the early world was divided into the sacred and the profane. There was a ritual for moving an object into the sacred world; e.g. the mis pi ceremony, the opening of the mouth, described in Akkadian tablets. The idol is dressed with garlands and flowers, and carried past trees and water. The man who made the sculpture symbolically cuts off his arm to show it no longer belongs to him. From then, offerings can be made to it.

The interesting thing is the similarities between religions, and how they copy from each other: syncretism. For example, in Orthodox Christianity, there is a tradition, known as acheiropoieta, that some icons weren't painted by human hand—even where the artist is known.

There is a similar tradition in Judaism. It's quite clear that the Torah was written by several authors over a period of time. The tradition that the Torah was given by Moses on Mt Sinai only dates from Talmudic times. In the same way that the idol-manufacturer disowns his work, so too did the authors of the Torah. Similarly, in Islam, the Qur'an is similarly believed to be the final revelation of G-d, related to His prophet Muhammad. Modern scholarship thinks otherwise.

This is where idolatry arises. This is where the sacred object is worshipped not as a symbol, but as the god itself. Idolatry is mistaking the symbol for the reference. This is something you can be equally guilty of in Judaism, e.g. the settlers in the West Bank using the Torah as title deeds to land.

There are ceremonies like the mis pi in all religions. In Judaism we have הַכְנָסַת סֵפֶר תּוֹרָה. If a Mesopotamian time-traveller found himself there, he would recognise what was going on. There is a similar tradition in the Ethiopian church.

For the Jews and the other peoples of the Book, it is the sacred texts themselves which are subject to this misinterpretation:

Theological metaphors exist in a state of constant tension; they are true and not true, necessary but dangerous. We need them, but are constantly tempted to take them as photographs, and then we slip into idolatry.

—Neil Gillman

Fundamentalists of all religions are prone to this form of idolatry.

One whose world is divided clearly into us and them by virtue of race or religion; one who worships absolutely texts and slogans; one who is incited to hate and who incites others; one who has lost the capicity for reverence; one who has lost the capacity for questioning—such a person's conduct is idolatrous. The object of their worship may be their leader, their people, their religion, or even hate and violence itself. But it's godless, it's idolatry.

—Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

The idea even that knowing exactly what G-d wants is a form of idolatry. As soon as people hold a fundamental belief in a set of principles that they believe to be 100% right, and set in stone, then such a belief can be used to exonerate unspeakable acts.

There are two alternative ways of describing G-d, apophatic and cataphatic. Apophatic theology describes G-d by describing what G-d is not. Cataphatic theology describes what G-d is by using analogies, usually anthropomorphic. G-d the Father, G-d the King, the depiction on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

It's apophatic theology which leads to fundamentalism; cataphatic theology limits G-d. G-d the Father denies G-d a feminist side.

Mystics of all flavours take an apophatic approach; this leads to a paradoxical situation in which monotheists think of Hindus as idolaters because of their idols; but for Hindus, G-d is all of creation, and the idols are merely manifestations of the G-dhead. G-d is present in everything, but that does not make anything G-d. The Hindus think of our concept of a king in a Heavenly court as a simplistic conception; for them, it's a useful analogy for teaching to children!

A good monotheist seeks to be a good subject of the divine King, but they are not seeking to encounter G-d directly; this lack may be what led to mystical traditions like Cabbala and Sufism.

The different Hindu idols represent not different gods, but different aspects of the divinity. This is not a new idea:

Nimurta is Marduk of the hoe.
Nergal is Marduk of war.
Zababa is Marduk of battle.
Nelil is Marduk is lordship and deliberation.
Nabu is Marduk of accounting.
Sin is Marduk illumunator of the night.
Shamash is Marduk of justice.
Adad is Marduk of rain.

—C7 BCE clay tablet from Babylon

If this civilisation had continued, it's not impossible that it might have ended up monotheistic.

In Judaism we don't have different aspects of G-d directly, but we do have different names for different names of G-d. We have a huge number of different names of G-d: Rock of our Lives, Father of Mercy, Healer, Compassionate One, Holy One of Israel, G-d of Abraham, Most High, etc, etc.

Truth is one; wise men call it by many names.

—from the first mandala (book) of the Rig Vega (64.46)

These systems are not so far apart. This was discovered early in the history of religion. A solitary pure remote God, the Sky God, was far too distant to help people with their needs. [Oh boy, this guy's been reading too much Karen Armstrong. Wikipedia points out that rather than proto-Indo-European religion centring around a single sky god, the sky god was only one member of the proto-Indo-European pantheon, and not the only one to percolate down to historical cultures.]

In early religious history, there were local gods, e.g. local rain gods. Over time there is an inexorable trend to make the gods more powerful; for example, god of rain everywhere, not just in the one village, and acquiring jurisdiction over fertility as well as rain.

The logical end of this is monotheism. Such a powerful god is a much more marketable commodity. People able to accept gods from other people are always happy to add another; but with monotheism you can't do that. Monotheists try and convert their neighbours. Judaism doesn't do that nowadays, but it did used to in the Graeco-Roman period, both by the word and by the sword (in the case of the Hasmoneans and the Idumaeans).

A totally pure monotheism is very rare in the world of religion: it's too intellectual for the majority of people. In mythology and fiction, for every god there has to be either an achilles heel or a powerful opponent. Superman with no kryponite does not make for interesting stories.

The godless philosophies like Buddhism are also difficult to take on. Buddhism as it's actually practised, though, has lots of gods, including Buddha himself, even though he said there are no gods!

Judaeo-Christianity has a supporting cast of angels and demons. In places, Christianity has incorporated local gods and made them saints. In Judaism these beings are definitely lesser to G-d. They seem to answer a human need and provide a possible scapegoat for the existence of evil.

A different way of approaching the divine used by polytheists, animists and also some monotheists is the veneration of shrines. People often make long pilgrimages for them. This is not usually in the mainstream of the religions, but religious leaders do not discourage it.

In Judaism, 14,000 pilgrims went the last Rosh Hashana to the grave of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, in the Ukraine. The hope is that the spirit of the righteous ancestor will intervene for G-d. They talk about minor miracles happening after such visits to the graves of R. Nachman or the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

There is a similar phenomenon in the picture of the rebbe in Chassidic homes. Is it an idol... or something to aspire to? How is this different from the Shiva Nataraja in a Hindu home?

Polytheists commonly have a shrine with a representation of their favourite god: teraphim. Judiasm did not eliminate this; we came up with the mezuzah, and the superstitious practice of kissing it. In mediaeval times, there was a lucky charm incorporated into the mezuzah: כוזו במוכסז כוזו. [Actually, there were lots: this one is the only one which survived the Rambam's purge on mezuzah charms.]

As the dominant religion of a place changes, you will find the same sacred places of the previous occupants is kept, but the names changed. Even the dates might be kept the same.

There are some fundamental differences between polytheism and monotheism, to do with transcendence and immanence. It becomes perfectly logical for a believer of an immanent god to say he is present in everything. In Judaism we used to have an object in which the presence of G-d was said to dwell: the Ark of the Covenant. If that existed in a different religion today, we'd call it an idol! Yet we have a representation of it in every synagogue today!

Religion helped both the need to be in touch with the numinous, but also a mechanism for giving answers to the big questions in life. Most of humanity has a great deal of trouble accepting the random nature of events.

Carl Jung, in his theory of the collective unconscious, said people had a predisposition for archetypes, which you could find in all religions of the world. Gods [should this read "idols"?] are the personifications of the symbols: they make the amorphous gods concrete. For believers, it's the other way around. They only appear idols because our religion has a ban on representational art.

Most Jews assume that the theology of monotheism is more sophisticated than that of polytheism; but in practice it does have something to say, and to think about. In the speaker's opinion:

MonotheismPolytheism
Individual 1
Evil2
Suffering3
Divine justice4
Tolerance5
Mutual attitudes6

1. In most polytheistic religions, time is represented as circular. For monotheists, time is linear, and progression is possible.

2. Monotheism wrestles with the Problem of Evil; in polytheistic religions it's not a problem.

3. In polytheism, only the gods can change things; in monotheism people can do something about it.

4. In monotheism, we have to have הָעוֹלָם הַבָּא to get around the problems of lack of divine justice. Polytheists don't claim that divine justice is present in this life: you may get it in your next reincarnation.

5. Polytheists can easily incorporate another god into your system.

6. The polytheists [lacuna]

Indeed, intolerance is essential only to monotheism; an only G-d is by nature a jealous God who will not allow another to live. On the other hand, polytheistic gods are naturally tolerant; they live and let live. In the first place, they gladly tolerate their colleagues, the gods of the same religion, and this tolerance is afterwards extended even to foreign gods who are accordingly, hospitably received and later admitted, in some cases, even to an equality of rights. An instance of this is seen in the Romans who willingly admitted and respected Phrygian, Egyptian and other foreign gods. Thus it is only the monotheistic religions that furnish us with the spectacle of religious wars, religious persecutions, courts for trying heretics.

—Arthur Schopenhauer

Jews are wrong to disparage polytheists, whose religious practices are merely a different way of approaching the divine; but they do need to be intolerant of idolaters, who present a real danger.

Religions are different roads converging to the same point. What does it matter that we take different roads, as long as we reach the same goal?

In reality there are as many religions as there are indivuals.

Mankind is one.

—"Mahatma" Gandhi

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2009-02-22 09:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
In some countries in particular converted countries to Catholic Christianity they worship and carry around the Virgin Mary. The Catholic churches I know in Germany all have a figure of Jesus on a cross. Lutherian got rid of all images in their churches. There is no Jesus, Maria or any Holy Person statues. I have not even pictures. I have no idea what the Prostastans in the UK did.
In countries like Africa and Latinamerica some people kept their believes and practices and mixed it up with the Christian practice. I saw it again recently on a BBC programme on iplayer. A Protestant Vicar from the UK travelled around the world to try all form of religion and worship. He did not always felt comfortable with it. I wouldn't either. I did not know before about a religious group which still did sacrifices. They sacrificed animals, usually those that they ate like sheep and goats. I found it cruel when they killed a puppy and a kitten. It was not for eating and therefore did not make any sense to me nor to the vicar.

Date: 2009-02-22 09:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
In countries like Africa and Latinamerica some people kept their believes and practices and mixed it up with the Christian practice.

...And the whole of Europe. Many of the saints who predated the arrival of Christianity in their country started out as local gods. And many Christian practices were taken from earlier pagan practices—as was the case with Judaism too—though that's a bit off-topic here.

Date: 2009-02-24 02:27 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
They don't carry around their holy figures everywhere.
It is related. You talk about paganism and that Christians deny it.

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Date: 2011-08-29 10:12 am (UTC)
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