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Idol Worship or Torah: Two Different Worldviews

This week we begin reading the third book of the Torah, ספר ויקרא, Sefer Vayikra. This Sefer brings together seemingly disparate topics: the sacrificial system, laws of legal defilement and purity, how to identify kosher animals from the non-kosher, a list of forbidden conjugal relationships, honoring of parents, laws governing property ownership and agriculture, and the celebration of our holidays. Is there any sense to this organization or is it just a hodgepodge collection of Torah do’s and don’ts? Furthermore, this book of the Chumash is also known by our Sages as Sefer Kedusha, the Book of Holiness. Why?

The Talmud refers to the various forms of idol worship with the descriptor, “they are without burden or effort,” in Hebrew בלי עול, literally meaning “without a yoke.” In other words, the practices of idol worshiping religions are considered by our Sages to be effortless and easy to do. But what about those performances that seem to be degrading and humiliating such as the idol worship of Baal Pe’or. It required its followers to defecate on their idol? What about the practice of human sacrifice found among the religious rites of many peoples such as the Incas and Aztecs? On the contrary, requirements such as those would seem difficult to do, stressful, and very burdensome. In one case its practitioners embarrass themselves; in the other they accept killing another person as an offering to their idol. What was their commitment when the selection fell upon a dear friend or beloved family member? Why wouldn’t these and many other ceremonies described in the work “The Golden Bough,” be considered “with burden” or “with a yoke?”

In stark contrast to the above, our Talmud also tells us that reciting the Shema, a twice daily requirement for men, is considered “with burden.” Believe me it is a very simple verse to recite; and even if you want to follow the opinions that this mitzvah requires the recitation of 3 paragraphs of the Torah, still who would consider this mitzvah a burdensome performance. True it has a prescribed time in which it can be fulfilled, yet I don’t think anyone would argue that the kosher laws are much more burdensome than the mitzvah of Shema.
What then is the idea presented by our Talmud? What is the difference between the religious rites, rules and restriction of the idol worshippers and those of Judaism? In what way can we understand the statements of our Sages and their comparison of the mitzvah of reciting the Shema to performing human sacrifice?

To answer we must lay down one premise. It underscores every performance idol worshipers engage in no matter the particular manifestation it takes. Their rituals are designed for one thing, to satisfy their desires and instincts. The satisfaction may come from the removal of some fear or guilt or it may come from satisfying some hedonistic desire. All forms of idol worship are created by humans for the purpose of allowing their inner instinctual nature, outward expression.

A corollary to this premise is the subsequent need by man for either a tangible deity or some physical representation of one. Another aspect of the “yoke “ of Judaism is that not only must a person know there exists one, non-physical God, but that no material manifestation of this idea is permissible whatsoever. In other words a person must be intellectually and emotionally secure with reality of a non-physical Creator.

Modern man finds the primitive activities of idol worship, on the surface, to be abhorrent; but just lurking below the surface we can see substitute manifestations even in the more modern religious practices. Catholics, for example, that eat the Eucharist during Communion, are to think it is the flesh of Jesus. Man, in short, seeks a way to satisfy his base desires and at the same time assuage his quilt in doing so. The Rambam states many times in his “Guide for the Perplexed,” that one of the chief aims of the Torah is to remove idol worship in all its forms and vicissitudes.

Judaism is uniquely different. It calls upon man to make the greatest human sacrifice, submitting oneself to the Will of the Creator. When saying the Shema, we are to think that through this recitation we are accepting the “yoke of the Kingship of Heaven,” עול מלכות שמים. That means all human passions, desires, instincts, and feelings can only find expression in the manner and ways dictated by the Creator. So for example, our very powerful desire to eat, is brought under control not by some man-made system which is self-serving, but rather by a loving and caring God who wants humans to have and experience the fullness of human existence. This proper expression and control of our inner nature, directed by the Torah’s system of laws regarding sexuality, property ownership, celebrations, offerings, relations with our fellow men and women, produces a human being that is free of the inner emotional pulls of life.  His or her nature is harnessed and directed to the true service of his Creator. This process completely recasts the human spirit. His nature is now unique and distinguished.  A new and enhanced existence results. That new state is what the Torah refers to as being in the state of “kedusha.” Hence, all the laws of Sefer Vayikra aim at this one goal.

Submitting to this system is, no doubt, a challenge. Doing so does not always satisfy the inner world that mankind initially craves. It often requires abstention or to give up some momentary instinctual enjoyment. The Torah’s system does control when, where, how, and who can or cannot do something. But if you study the system carefully, you will find that not one human feeling or desire is ever denied by Judaism. It only requires that we submit the functioning of our inner world to the external, objective world created by God. We make this submission every day to the external laws of science. Our ongoing physical existence is dependent on this submission. How much more so is this submission true and necessary for our continued spiritual growth and existence?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan