Talmidav Shel Aharon
14-5768: Mitzvah N-8
February 4, 2008
Negative Mitzvah 8 – It is a negative commandment to entertain no thought that there is any other god except the blessed G-d.
Hafetz Hayim: For Scripture says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3) Whoever entertains the thought in his mind (Heaven Forbid!) that there is any other god except G-d or some partner or associate (Heaven Forbid!); or he considers in his mind the thought that there is some substance to idol-worship (Heaven Forbid!) he denies the very fundamental principle (of the one and only G-d). One is not to utter any word whose sense is heresy (Heaven Forbid!) or some acknowledgment of idolatry (Heaven Forbid!). For if anyone acknowledges idol-worship, it is as though he denies heretically the entire Torah, since he denies the very fundamental principle. And we are duty bound to be ready to give up our lives and our might over this; for in regard to all things that touch on the main principle of our faith, there is an obligation to accept death (if necessary) and not transgress. It is in force everywhere, in every time, for both men and women.
From the very beginning, Judaism has been about the concept of monotheism, that there is one G-d, no more, and no less. From the ancient polytheism of idol worship to the trinity of Christianity to the Prophecy of Mohammed, Judaism has maintained that there is one G-d, one testament of that G-d called the Torah and one standard of justice that is demanded by that G-d. This G-d so loved the people of Israel that G-d redeemed them from slavery in Egypt and gave them the Torah as an act of love and concern with the promise that it was our duty to teach the world the importance of Torah. Absolutely any idea, concept or faith that tries to add or subtract from the one G-d, is to be rejected body and soul.
The Torah says this insistence on the unity of G-d is due to the fact that our G-d is a “jealous” G-d. G-d somehow demands our unquestioned loyalty. This is factually untrue. The unity of G-d makes justice and fairness in human relations possible. There is no appeal to a “higher” or to a “different” authority. There is no variation in G-d’s law. No one can say that G-d demands one thing but that demand is opposed by a different or better G-d.
I find the use of the word “heresy” a bit unusual for a Jewish Scholar. The term “orthodox” usually implies its opposite, “heretic” but there are precious few Jewish leaders who would brand another Jew a “heretic”. While there may be lots of differences between Jews over a host of issues, we don’t call each other “heretics” at all. We also do not have a “doctrine” that one can deny. Still, that does not change the fact that as soon as a Jew contemplates more or less than one G-d, one has stepped outside Judaism and that Jew can no longer include him/herself as a member of the Jewish people. On the other hand, if one is agnostic, that is, one is not sure what one believes about G-d, as long as one lives a Jewish life, as long as one observes the Mitzvot, then belief is not important and that Jew has not separated him/herself from their faith.
The Jewish understanding of G-d includes the fact that G-d is everywhere and in every age. There is no beginning and no end when it comes to G-d. There were neither “primordial” gods nor will there be any other G-d in the future. To imply that there is any other god would confuse the whole issue of Torah. If there are other gods, then there could be other torahs. If there were other gods there could be other obligations that might conflict with what G-d says. If one were to sin, one could claim that they were following the directions of the alternative god. When there is only one G-d, each person is personally responsible for his or her actions and infractions.
Finally, we are supposed to hold on to our faith in times of persecution. One should choose death rather than convert to idolatry. This is especially true when one is a community leader or if one’s actions will cause other Jews to become disheartened. Rabbis in every age were lenient regarding this law, because they understood that while choosing death rather than apostasy was the ideal, in fact, it was difficult for Jews to live by this law. Rambam noted that when we find Jews during persecution who gave up their faith to save their lives, we judge them charitably since, were we in the same position, we do not know what we might do ourselves.