Introduction by Rabbi J. Immanuel Schochet, o.b.m., to the section on the Prohibition of Idolatry, in “The Divine Code,” Part II:
Trusting and Respecting the One True God
The concept of idolatry would appear to be an anachronism in our day and age, with no practical relevance in most countries. It recalls primitive societies of times long gone when paganism was rampant. For rational humans to worship artificial images fashioned by their own hands is so self-evidently absurd that one wonders how this could ever have happened.
In reality, however, it is not so simple. For one thing, even nowadays one can still find remnants of such practices. Secondly, idolatry is not limited to man-made images, but may alternatively involve natural bodies such as celestial constellations, stars and planets, even animals and vegetation, or even fellow-humans, who are believed to be endowed with divinity. People, even in ancient times, developed sophisticated rationale to justify these practices.
Maimonides presents an anthropological analysis of how idolatry evolved: initially there was no denial of the reality and supremacy of the One G0d and Supreme Being, Who created everything. Then people assumed that their submission to G0d obligates them to honor those natural forces (such as the sun, moon and stars) through which G0d benefits the world and which “minister” before Him. Gradually this deteriorated to perceiving these forces as powers authorized to act independently of G0d, and the world’s dependence on them would imply a rationale to worship them on their own – even while still recognizing the supremacy of G0d. The whole or partial worship of these forces eventually degenerated to a “substitute” worship of images that represent or symbolize them, and eventually led to these images themselves, on their own, becoming objects of worship.
Nowadays this appears to be a vestige of ignorance and naivety. Thus it seems strange that the eternal Torah should be so concerned about idolatry, to the point that it was found necessary to mandate so many cautions and prohibitions about its practices with all their corollaries, and about anything that savored of idolatry.
The answer is found in the generic Hebrew term for idolatry: avodah zarah. Literally it means “strange worship” (in the sense of being outside the boundaries of that which is permitted). In other words, the worship of anything other than G0d alone is an act of idolatry:
“The principal command with regard to idolatry is that one should not worship any of the created beings, neither angel nor sphere nor star, neither any of the four elements nor anything formed from them. Even if the worshiper knows that HaShem  is G0d and he only worships this creature in the manner that Enosh  and his contemporaries worshiped at first, he is still an idolater. It is against this that the Torah warns us when stating, ‘Lest you lift up your eyes unto heaven and see the sun and the moon and the stars… which HaShem your G0d has allotted unto all the peoples’ (Deuteronomy 4:19). This means: you might observe that these guide [sustain] the world, and G0d has allotted them to all peoples, as beings that ‘live’ and exist, and do not suffer decomposition as [all] other things in the world do, and [thus] conclude that it is proper to bow down to them and to worship them. Concerning this, the Torah enjoins, ‘Take heed to yourselves lest your heart be deceived’ (Deuteronomy 11:16); that is to say, you should not be led astray through the reflections of your heart to worship these as intermediaries between you and the Creator.” 
In his formulation of the “Thirteen Principles of the Faith,” Maimonides writes: “The Fifth Principle: [G0d] blessed be He, is the One that it is appropriate to worship and to exalt Him, and to make known His greatness and [the obligation of] obedience [to His commandments]. One is not to do so to any being lower than He – be it of the angels, the stars, the spheres, or the elements and what is compounded from them. For [all these] have been fashioned according to the functions they are to perform. They have no control or free will, but [function exclusively] according to His Will, may He be exalted. One is not to relate to them as intermediaries through which to draw near to [G0d]. [Our] thoughts must be directed exclusively to [G0d], may He be exalted, and anything other than [G0d] must be set aside. This is the fifth principle, the prohibition of idolatry, and the greater part of the Torah cautions us about this.”
Avodah zarah is not restricted to religious service of anything apart from the G0dhead. It includes any assumptions of there being self-contained beings or forces that are not totally dependent on God and His Providence. This will be understood with the following example: when driving in a nail with a hammer, the immediate agent of activity seems to be the hammer. In truth, however, it is not the hammer itself but the hand that holds it and the energy used by the hand. So, too, everything in the universe is forever altogether subject to G0d and His will.
To put one’s faith into a belief that planetary constellations determine events and human fate (astrology), or that certain occurrences are indicative of predetermination, or to engage in any form of enchantment or sorcery (thinking that thereby one can manipulate future events), or consulting “spirits” (like séances), necromancy and other forms of divination – all these imply that there are other powers in existence which work on their own, independent of the continuous Divine Providence governing the totality of creation. Thus all of these are classified as avodah zarah.
Human frailty is centered on self-interest, self-indulgence and gratification, the egocentric as opposed to the Theocentric. The powerful desire to control, direct and manipulate the unknown future, to circumvent the Divine “system,” is extremely seductive. In effect, however, it betrays a lack of trust in G0d and undermines true belief in G0d, Who alone is the Creator and Sustainer of all beings, and Who alone is in exclusive charge of all that happens to them. Avodah zarah is thus denial of pure monotheism. It presupposes a polytheistic – or at least a dualistic – reality. No wonder, then, that there are so many Torah laws, precepts and warnings dealing with avodah zarah. The Torah serves as the antidote to avoid idolatry’s pitfalls, to guide us on the path of truth, and to help us live up to the fact that the human is created in the “image and likeness of G0d.”
1. Maimonides (Rambam), Mishneh Torah Hilchot Avodah Zarah ch. 1, quoted at length below in Chapter 1, topics 4-6.
2. HaShem (lit. “the Name”) is the general non-sacred substitution in Hebrew for “the L0rd” or “G0d.”
3. Enosh was a grandson of Adam. The practice of avodah zarah started in his generation; see Targum Yonatan on Genesis 4:26;.
4. Maimonides, ibid. 2:1.
5. See Maimonides, ibid., Preamble (list of the precepts preceding ch. 1), and ibid., ch. 6 and 11.
6. This explains the numerous statements to be found in the Torah tradition drawing a moral equivalence between certain attitudes and idolatry. For example, pride and arrogance are regarded as tantamount to idolatry (Tractate Sotah 4b), as is losing one’s temper (Zohar I:27b; Maimonides, Mishneh Torah Hilchot De’ot 2:3), avoiding the giving of charity (Tractate Ketuvot 68a), dishonesty and deception (Tractate Sanhedrin 92a), and so forth. All these cases imply some form of self-worship, and even when acknowledging God, also assuming a sense of self-sufficient importance (which thus constitutes dualism).
Introduction by Rabbi J. Immanuel Schochet, o.b.m., to the Prohibition of Blasphemy, in “The Divine Code,” Part III:
At the very center of this world is homo sapiens, the human being Divinely endowed with intellect. This intellect allows us analytical thought and examination of ourselves and the world around us. Without Divinely-endowed criteria for truth and moral values, however, our critical thinking is abstract and theoretical at best, and obviously susceptible to error.
Thus God revealed to mankind knowledge of His inscrutable Will by means of His prophets and the Torah, to know what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is evil. The Divine revelation of the Torah at Mount Sinai, and the Divine designation of Moses as the foremost prophet for all time, set forth the ultimate test for the truth of future prophets, i.e., compatibility with the Torah and its eternal commandments. Even so, this legal and moral code is meaningful only when applying the other special gift endowed upon humans, namely freedom of choice to follow or reject proper conduct.
Open-minded and consistent reasoning readily leads to a realization that there must be a Supreme Cause for our most complex yet intricately precise world. Thus we arrive at the recognition and acknowledgment of God as Creator, Sovereign and Sustainer of the universe. This acknowledgment is not only an intellectual conclusion, but of itself has practical implications.
Noting that life, health and all human needs and blessings emanate unceasingly from the Creator, we must surely acknowledge this in thought, speech and action. We ought to express gratitude for the Divine benevolence on which we are continuously dependent, and make ourselves into worthy recipients thereof. This is the concept of worshiping God that applies equally to all, Jews and Gentiles alike.
The diametric opposite to this ideal of reverence for God is the crass and sinful conduct of deprecating God or His Sovereignty. This is referred to as blasphemy.
In common usage, the word “blasphemy” is generally defined as any form of uttered impiety, irreverence or sacrilege against God. These are acts of defiance seeking to impair the appropriate respect and reverence for God.
[In Torah Law,] the cardinal sin of “blasphemy” is circumscribed [specifically] in terms of verbally “cursing God.” In this religious context, blasphemy is regarded as so unimaginable a rebellion and offensiveness that the traditional Hebrew terminology for it is the euphemism birkat HaShem. Literally this means blessing The Name (i.e., God), thus the very opposite of what it is used to signify. The Torah has two explicit references to this offence:
(a) Exodus 22:27 states, “You shall not curse God.” The Hebrew word used here is te’kalel, from the root-word kal. It means “to degrade,” to hold in light esteem and despise.
(b) Leviticus 24:10-17 relates the incident of one who violated the cited injunction of Exodus 22:27, and the Divine edict declaring this to be a capital sin. Furthermore, it states there, “ish ish (any man) who curses his G-d shall bear his sin.” Why the double expression of “ish ish” (literally: “a man, a man”)? To include all mankind, both Jews and Gentiles. Blasphemy thus is prohibited to Gentiles as a capital sin even as it is for Israelites.
This reiterates the earlier prohibition of the Noahide Code expressed in the all-inclusive verse of Genesis 2:16, “And HaShem [Y-H-V-H], G-d, commanded…”: the citation of the Tetragrammaton Name  in this verse alludes to the prohibition of blasphemy to Gentiles.
A Gentile would be guilty of this offence when uttering a blasphemous statement that invokes any of the explicit Divine Names in the Torah’s Hebrew text (those which are forbidden to be erased when spelled out in full, as explained [in The Divine Code, Part III, Chapter One], and of course the Tetragrammaton itself), or any appellation clearly referring to God (e.g., the Supreme Being, the Almighty, the Creator, the One Above, etc.), or “attributive” names – i.e., terms distinctly referring to the Divine attributes and identified with G-d (such as the Merciful, the Compassionate, etc.), in whatever language it may be.
(Normally one is punished only for offences involving an action. The sin of blasphemy, however, is one of a very small group of offences where speech on its own is deemed tantamount to criminal action. While actual articulation alone in this context will incur full penalty, blasphemous thoughts, too, are serious sins.)
Conceptually, blasphemy is closely linked to heresy and idolatry. Like the other Noahide Commandments, however, it is really a comprehensive category, which subdivides into a number of bylaws. By definition it involves not only a generic prohibition, but of itself implies a number of obligations. An early authority thus notes: “Do not err about the well-known enumeration of the seven precepts of the Children of Noaĥ as cited in the Talmud. In truth these seven are like seven comprehensive principles which contain numerous particulars.”
The very idea of there being a Divinely ordained “Noahide Code” presupposes an acknowledgement of (a) the existence of G-d; (b) the authority of God as Supreme Being; (c) the reality of Divine Revelation instructing mankind with regards to proper conduct (the bond or covenant between the Almighty and His creatures); and (d) the principle of Divine retribution, i.e., that man is accountable for obeying or disobeying these instructions, because a legal code devoid of consequences is ineffective.
More specifically, the Noahide prohibition of blasphemy derives from an acceptance of the supremacy and sovereignty of God which ipso facto demands respect or appropriate reverence for G-d. It follows then that –
(1) All Gentiles are subject to the precept of awe and reverence before God, more commonly referred to as the “fear of God.” Sefer Ha’CHinuch states clearly: “This precept applies everywhere, at all times, and to the whole human species!”
(2) A Gentile is not to use God’s name in vain. To use God’s name in vain (a Torah prohibition stated explicitly for Jews in the third of the “Ten Commandments”) is closely allied with the principle of blasphemy. It is clearly a form of disrespect. This would then also include a prohibition to swear falsely. Thus we find in the Torah that from the earliest times the concept of an oath was regarded as a sacred obligation by Gentiles as well. (See for example Gen. 21:22ff.; ibid. 26:28ff.)
(3) A Gentile must likewise respect God’s creatures, and thus one is not to curse or harm humans, for they are created by God “in His image and likeness” as it were. (The “image of God” within mankind is not the form of the human body, God forbid, which would be a false and idolatrous concept, but rather the unique capacity for intellect and speech that is possessed by the human enlivening soul, and its ability to distinguish between good and evil.)
“God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27). This is reiterated in the Noahide Code in the context of the prohibition of murder: “Whosoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Genesis 9:6). Thus it is also said of the Torah’s “golden rule” to love your fellow as yourself (Lev. 19:18):
Rabbi Akiva said, “‘Love your fellow as yourself’ – this is the main principle of the Torah.” Ben Azzai responded (quoting Genesis 5:1): “ ‘This is the book of the descendants of Adam – in the day He created man He made him in the likeness of God.’ This is an even greater principle! [Thus, if you put another human being to shame, know and realize who you put to shame, for] He made him in the image of God!”
1. Ibn Ezra and Ramban, ad loc.; Rashi on Deuteronomy 22:23.
2. Tractate Sanhedrin 56a; Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 9:1,3.
3. The Tetragrammaton is the essential four-letter Name of G-d (Y-H-V-H), which was uttered only by the kohanim (Jewish priests) at certain points of their service in the Holy Temple of Jerusalem. Beyond this prescribed usage one is not allowed to pronounce this Name as it is written, thus also known as “the ineffable Name.” In sacred service, as public Torah-readings, it is substituted by the Name Ado-nai, and in vernacular speech and writing by the Hebrew term HaShem (lit. “the Name”), which is also the general non-sacred substitution for the term “G-d.” (In this and other Names of G-d in Hebrew, one or more dashes or apostrophes are inserted in the word to avoid writing an actual Divine Name that is forbidden to be erased or dishonored.)
4. Tractate Sanhedrin 56b; Rambam, Hilchot Melachim 9:1.
5. Sefer Ha’Chinuch, section 416 (ed. Chavel, section 424). Also note Tractate Sanhedrin 74b: “Them [the seven precepts] and all that pertains to them.”
6. Section 432 (in ed. Chavel, section 430). Indeed one may add here that a Gentile ought not only attain the fear of G-d but also the love of G-d. Maimonides writes that the Israelite’s commandment to love G-d (Deuteronomy 6:5) includes also an obligation “to call upon all mankind to His service and to have faith in Him. For if you love someone, you will praise and extol him and call upon people to love him as well…” There is, then, an implication that all mankind ought to love G-d.
7. Sifra on Lev. 19:18 and Bereishit Rabbah 24:7.
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