Talmidav Shel Aharon
20-5768: Mitzvah N-15
March 24, 2008
Negative Mitzvah 15 – This is a negative commandment: Do not turn your attention to idolatry.
Hafetz Hayim: For Scripture says, “Do not turn to idols” (Lev. 19:4) It is forbidden to turn one’s attention to them in speech or thought, or even by observing. And it is forbidden to read the books of idol worshippers or to ask them how they worship: for as a result of that, one will give it his attention and reflect on it. Whoever turns toward it, in a way that involves some action, should receive whiplashes. It is in effect everywhere, at every time, for both men and women.
Once again, we see the great fear that the Sages had when it came to idolatry. The Sages of the Talmud lived in a world where paganism was endemic. Everyone was a pagan and they were all very interested in gaining new converts. It was a very seductive religion. If you were a farmer raising crops or cattle and the local religion said that if you make certain offerings you will be more successful. What could it hurt if you made a pagan offering in addition to your offerings to G-d? And if you have a good year, why not make the offering a regular part of your year? And if you skip a year of offering to G-d and you are still successful why, you might ask, do I need to keep up the offerings to G-d? A soldier in battle might think that if the pagan army is successful than their god must be more powerful than mine. A sailor in a storm could pray to every G-d and the one whom they pray to last, who gets to credit for ending the storm, will be the new god of the sailors. It sounds so ancient but do we do things really different. We have our lucky jersey that we wear to football games. We have a lucky suit we wear to important business meetings. It is really the same superstitions that we are trying to “de-paganize”.
Judaism is deeply opposed to both paganism and superstition. We see our world as ordered and operation according to the laws of the Torah. Examining paganism and learning about it would lead to worship and away from Judaism. This is the crux of the prohibition. This leaves us with a question relating to interfaith activities. I have said many times that Christianity and Islam are not considered to be pagan religions since they both worship one god. But where does that leave us when it comes to Hinduism, Shinto, Some forms of Buddhism or some American Indian religions? How can we build bridges of understanding if we do not get to know the faiths of others? A direct interpretation of this prohibition would certainly prohibit us from learning about the faiths of others. I do not look at this prohibition that literally. In certain interfaith situations, the issue is no longer conversion but understanding of others. No one is asking me to join them in a pagan ritual only to understand what that ritual means to them. Attending their rituals would still not be allowed, but learning about them would be permitted. I came across this many years ago when I was interested in meditation. At that time, to get a mantra, I needed to bring flowers and fruit and a white handkerchief. Since the teachers would not tell me what they planned to do with these items, I could only surmise that they were some kind of an offering and I declined to continue with that kind of meditation.
We see, from the many laws relating to paganism, that any type of contact is forbidden, even if we are not performing the ritual ourselves.