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Can Belief in Science Fulfill the Criteria for Worshipping Avodah Zarah? Teshuvah and Fundamental Beliefs by Gidon Rothstein

September 12, 2010 by  
Filed under New Posts, Philosophy

Who’s Crazy Enough To Worship Idols?

Growing up, I remember finding עבודה זרה a totally foreign concept— we were supposed to believe that many years ago, benighted and backward peoples believed that stones and statues and trees could control their lives, and worshiped them to secure better outcomes. And we Jews, with a tradition of rejecting idolatry going back to Avraham Avinu, did not do that.  We did not bow down to figures or icons, which freed ourselves about having to worry about that whole sensitive area.

As I got older, the questions became more complex, since there are world religions today that are at least questionably close to fitting the halachic categories of עבודה זרה. For a simple example, when Buddhists bow to statues of the human founder of their belief system, the halachic ramifications of that bowing depend significantly on how the person expresses his or her attachment to Buddhism.  Some bow to the statue—and Buddhists themselves use the word ‘worship’ for what they are doing– “only” מאהבה, as an expression of love and respect (which is not acceptable in halachah, but is significantly less serious than actual idol worship), but some expressions of what that worship seem to me to be full-fledged idolatry, with all the halachic ramifications that ensue. 

If my understanding of Buddhism is deficient, I know that some versions of Feng Shui, the Chinese practice of arranging furniture to produce a better energy in a room, speak explicitly of it as a way to get good spirits (actual metaphysical forces) to come to that space, and keep bad or evil spirits away.  I remember once buying a book about the practice, out of curiosity, and realizing that it was real, actual idol worship.

Those examples may resonate with some readers, but may seem rather distant to those who have no interest in Eastern philosophies, and I did not come to delve into that, only to note that even the forms of idol worship that we might have assumed we had left in the past still exist today. 

Idolatry That’s Much Closer to All of Our Hearts

More interesting to me, though, and more directly applicable to those who live in Western societies, is the question of whether Jews’ belief in science can become so engrossing as to fit the category of idolatry as well.  By offering a few supporting details for that claim, I hope to accomplish two goals: 1) to remind myself and others that God’s prohibition of idolatry went further than just bowing down to explicit forms of religious worship, and 2) secondarily but not less importantly, to raise the possibility that we often lose sight not just of minutiae of Torah, but of significant, fundamental propositions of Torah (in this case, the nature of idolatry that we have to avoid).  If so, part of our teshuvah process, this and every year, should be to recheck ourselves as to whether we’ve gone astray not only in failing to live up to our ideals, but also in forgetting what those ideals should be—and, again, not just in small or ancillary details.

No Luddite or Technophobes We Jews Be

Let us start by reminding ourselves of our long tradition of embracing the clear conclusions of science, those that note generally recurring patterns in the world’s operation, and structuring our lives accordingly. Thus, Abbaya and Rava tell us, Shabbat 67a, that anything that has actual medicinal value cannot be prohibited as imitating the ways of idol-worshipping nations.  So, too, when Rambam notes that we do not follow the opinion of R. Matya b. Harash (Yoma 83a), he distinguishes between a form of healing that is natural and one that depends on a סגולה, which I understand to mean operates in a way that is not identifiably natural.  Natural means of healing are permissible always; once we leave nature, we might be treading in dangerous territory.

That would seem to leave science wide open, since science explicitly seeks to be empirical, to study nature’s modes of operation.  In many if not most cases, when science operates within those parameters, that is absolutely true, and Jews may or must follow the conclusions of scientific study.  It is for that reason that so many Jews have found the sciences, medicinal or otherwise, a congenial occupation, since the study of how God set up the world, and the rules that generally govern its operation, is a perfectly acceptable—perhaps even meritorious—activity for a believing Jew, one more path to understanding the great wonders of God.

Idolatry Without the Bowing

But there is a simple halachah recorded by Rambam—taken from a Mishnah in Sanhedrin—that gives room for further consideration.  When listing those sins whose egregious and public flouting could lead a court to administer the death penalty of stoning, the Mishnah includes עבודה זרה, which it then defines to include (7;6), “sacrificing, offering incense, libating, bowing, or accepting it as lord or saying to it ‘you are my god.’”  Rambam’s Laws of Avodah Zarah, 3;4, codifies this idea as it sounds, that accepting anything other than God as one’s god is a crime, punishable by stoning.

In the first two chapters of those laws, I note, Rambam had made clear that this is not limited to statues and other completely ineffective aspects of the world.  As he put it in the beginning of the second chapter, the “essential commandment of idolatry is not to worship anything created, not an angel, not a heavenly sphere, not a star…” It was not, I stress, that Rambam (at least as he presents it in the משנה תורה) did not think that these parts of creation had any power; rather, even if God had delegated some control to them, it was prohibited to worship them.

And Rambam reminds us that idolatrous belief did not have to exclude a belief in God.  Rather, Rambam explicitly includes the worship of subordinate powers as an example of idolatry, even granting that God created those subordinate powers.

One more misconception about idol worship might be the sense that the idolater conceives of the focus of worship as a conscious being of some sort, so that the worship will influence it to act better towards the worshipper, but this also seems untrue.  For only one proof, the fact that simply accepting any power as one’s god (even not in its presence—that is the distinction the Talmud draws between מקבלו עליו לאלוה, accepting it as a god, and saying אלי אתה, saying ‘you are my god.’) shows that it is not the expectation of a response that makes something idolatry, it is also the underlying attitude the person brings to it.

How Much Belief in Science Is Going Too Far?

Which brings us to the complicated case of nature and science.  To the extent that a Jew believes that God runs the world through a general pattern of occurrences we call Nature—and without in any way judging whether Ramban is right that these are all miracles, but regular ones, or that these are laws of Nature, as Rambam would seem to have them—there is no objection or worry of idolatry.

But what happens if a Jew shades over—as many prominent non-Jewish scientists do today; most recently, Stephen Hawking, who announced that scientists’ understanding of the laws of physics precludes the existence of God—into believing that science necessarily limits the power of God? That is not the same, let me stress, as saying that science defines the way the world almost always works, or even the way the world works 99.9% of the time; the difference between 99.9% and 100%, though, crucially divides a believing stance from one that seems to me dangerously close to accepting science לאלוה, as the power that runs one’s life.  If one comes to believe that God cannot abrogate the laws of science as we know them, God forbid, I personally think that is indistinguishable from accepting some worship as an אלוה, as a god, and would put the person believing that in the category of an  עובד עבודה זרה, although probably as a שוגג, doing so without full understanding.

This past summer, I had the following startling experience: In the course of a conversation with a group of serious, committed Jews, I mentioned my understanding that it was a necessary part of Orthodox belief to accept the possibility of miracles. Asked for an example, I offered the following scenario: if a person, God forbid, is ill, and medical science (which, I stressed, a patient in our times must consult) has no tools left to heal the person, that person—and all other Jews as well—must nonetheless believe in the possibility of a miraculous recovery. Not the necessity, not the likelihood, but the possibility.

To my surprise and distress, just about everyone else in the conversation—and, I repeat, these were highly dedicated Jews– seemed shocked by the idea.  It was clear to them that the world operates solely by the laws of Nature, and there is no possibility for it to operate otherwise.

From my perspective, this ignores the lessons of the Exodus from Egypt, one of the points of which was to firmly and permanently fix the belief in a God Who can, whenever circumstances are right, change Nature, even radically.  (Some will say Rambam disagrees with this idea; I believe they are completely wrong, but do not have the space to prove that point here).

If I am right, many, many Orthodox Jews are unwittingly violating the prohibition against עבודה זרה, since the belief in science in many segments of the Jewish community extends to believing that science shows the limits of what God can or cannot do, as Stephen Hawking said it years ago in his A Brief History of Time.  I say unwittingly because I don’t think they realize that this belief is exactly a form of idolatry, and ignorance of the law does, in most cases, change a person’s halachic status from a willful violator to an unintentional one. But even unintentional sins require atonement.

A Missing Piece of Our Teshuvah

Which brings me to the teshuvah aspect of this discussion.  If I am right in my thought process so far, it would mean not only that many Jews are committing a serious sin without realizing it, but that they are also struggling to repent their sins without realizing one major area calling for rectification.  And not just an ordinary sin, but one of the central concerns of the Torah, the sin the Prophets spent pretty much all of the first Temple period trying to uproot!  And if many of us are still violating that basic prohibition, how many other sins are we accumulating without even realizing them?

A central challenge of this time of year, then, is not only to regret that which we know we do wrong, but to search as thoroughly as we can, to try to educate ourselves as much as we can, to be more familiar with what Judaism wants of us, what God has demanded of us, so that we can at least know more fully where we have failed – knowingly or not—and work to repair our relationship with God from a state of full understanding of where that relationship currently stands.

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