Monday, August 03, 2009

The Snare of Idolatry

The Torah, in this coming week's portion, seems to offer a surprising description of idolatry in Deut. 7:16, in describing the attitude of the Jews as they were to initially conquer the Land of Israel:

ואכלת את כל העמים אשר יהוה אלהיך נתן לך לא תחוס עינך עליהם ולא תעבד את אלהיהם כי מוקש הוא לך
And you shall consume all the peoples whom the Lord your God delivers over to you; your eye shall have no pity on them; nor shall you serve their gods, for that will be a snare to you.
The last two phrases say that the Jews should not worship the Canaanite idols because that would be a stumbling block and lead to worse things. What could be a worse sin than outright idolatry? What is it a snare for?

Click here for moreI think this difficulty is what caused some commentators (e.g. Seforno) to interpret the snare as referring to an earlier phrase in the verse -- having pity on the native Canaanites. If they would have pity on them, that would lead to further problems. Ibn Ezra understands the snare as referring to the Canaanite gods rather than the Jews' idolatrous worship of them. The gods are stumbling blocks that could lead to worship of them. I'd like to suggest a different interpretation.

In last week's portion, we saw an unusual order in the sin-punishment cycle. We are told that if the Jews in the Land of Israel worship idols, they will be exiled. Then, while in exile, they will worship idols. Only after that, they will repent (Deut. 4:25-26). What is this surprising business of worshiping idols while in exile?

Nehama Leibowitz (Studies in Devarim, p. 53) quotes interpretations from Abarbanel and Mendelssohn that strikingly reflect their historical contexts. Abarbanel interprets it to refer to forced conversion and idolatry that serves as additional punishment for the original sin of idolatry that caused the exile. He saw coerced idolatry as an inherent part of the punishment of exile. This was clearly a reference to the forced conversions Abarbanel saw in Spain in the fifteenth century. Mendelssohn similarly interpreted it to refer to a punishment -- that people will be so assimilated that they are caught in sin and cannot escape it. A fitting comment on eighteenth century German Jewry.

Perhaps we can suggest that it is not either forced or assimilated idolatry but accidental idolatry. The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 8a) says that the Jews in exile worship idols in purity. What this means is that through their close personal connections with idol worshipers, it is as if they worship idols themselves. They cause others to worship idols. They praise idols. They discuss idolatry and value the contributions idol worship has brought to society. In this way, while they don't technically worship idols, they encroach on idolatry and associate overmuch with it. Perhaps that is part of exile and is an aspect of the punishment of living outside of our land.

If so, maybe that is what the above verse means when it says that idolatry is a snare. It doesn't mean actual idolatry but the close association with idolaters and idolatry. If we fail to guard ourselves properly against idolatrous ideas, then they can become a snare, a pitfall, that causes us to stumble on worse sins. We have to remind ourselves that there is a prohibition of "ולא תתרו אחרי לבבכם - you may not follow after your own heart" (Num. 15:39) that prohibits what we are allowed to study in various contexts and there are many other prohibitions that are intended to serve as safeguards and fences to idolatry.

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