Thursday, January 31, 2008

What Is Wrong With Idolatry and Superstition? Astrology - Lies and Falsehood.

In Bamidbar 15:22 we read –

כב וְכִי תִשְׁגּוּ--וְלֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, אֵת כָּל-הַמִּצְו‍ֹת הָאֵלֶּה: אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה.

22 And when ye shall err, and not observe all these commandments, which the LORD hath spoken unto Moses,

The difficulty with this verse is obvious – a special sin offering for not keeping (doing) ALL the Mitzvot?

The Rabbis in Sifrei tell us that this verse is talking about Avodah Zara – idolatry – because it is the underlying reason for the majority of Mitzvot. Idolatry is so nefarious that its eradication is the Torah’s central objective. That is why it is seen as if one has contravened all the Mitzvot.

What exactly is Avodah Zara? Why is it so nefarious? Rambam in the first chapter of Hilchot Avodah Zara gives a long historical explanation for idolatry and also addresses it in various places in his Pirush Hamishna and Moreh Hanevuchim. I will try to summarize how I understand him, quoting and paraphrasing / translating what I believe to be pertinent segments. (Link to the full original MT Hil AZ at the fabulous Mechon Mamre - )

People noticed that the stars and spheres (the ancients understood the cosmos as being composed of a number of spheres) have a strong influence on how things work on our world. The moon controls the tides; the sun daylight and night; the weather is influenced by seasons which are controlled by the movement of the sun and so on. Not having developed a natural scientific theory for how the stars and spheres function, they assumed that they were sentient entities created by God as His subordinate representatives, similar to what we would call a cabinet minister. The original idea was that as representatives of God, one shows respect to their Creator by honoring and worshipping them, much as a king’s minister requires homage as a representative of his master.

כיון שעלה דבר זה על ליבם, התחילו לבנות לכוכבים היכלות

ולהקריב להם קרבנות, ולשבחם ולפארם בדברים, ולהשתחוות למולן--כדי להשיג

רצון הבורא, בדעתם הרעה. וזה, היה עיקר עבודה זרה

Once this idea was developed, [people] started to build temples to the stars, offering them, Korbanot [fire-offerings], praising and honoring them with words and prostrating themselves to them. All this was done to acquire God’s goodwill according to their misguided thinking. This was the basis [literally: root] for idolatry.”

The misguided thinking Rambam refers to, as I understand it, is that there is a non-physical - a spiritual - cause and effect relationship between the stars and our world. Worship and other such acts can influence the natural flow of events; in fact, it IS how nature works. That idea, which to the ancient idolaters was natural science, blinded them to reality and had far-reaching consequences in every aspect of humanity’s intellectual and social development. It took millennia to reverse the harm done by this thinking and it still plagues many of us nowadays. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Coming back to Rambam, what appeared as a harmless misguided way of thinking, in fact had deep and extremely negative consequences. Instead of turning to scientists to try to understand how humanity could affect its environment, people listened to false “prophets” who developed entire religions based on what they claimed would influence the gods, the stars, the spheres and the “spirits” that emanated from them. Some “prophets” claimed that God instructed them while others claimed that they were in communion with the different forces that ruled as His proxies. A human hierarchy of kings, prophets and priests sprouted who oppressed and controlled the population exploiting this superstitious understanding of their environment.

In his commentary to the Mishna in Massechet Avodah Zara 4:7, Rambam breaks down the development of the pseudo-science that idolatrous thinking brought about into three steps. First people established Astrology as a science. As the stars do not influence physically but rather spiritually, knowing which star is in ascendance at a particular time and the type of influence it has, would be the first step in understanding our world. This was followed by developing a whole system of talismans and statues that affected the stars influence some attracting and others deflecting. The third step combined with the second led to a whole system of worship where certain incense coupled with rituals and magic words could influence further the way the stars would deal with us.

This way of thinking was encouraged by the ruling elite because it was an easy way of uniting the populace and controlling and oppressing them.

וזה, שבזמנים שעברו אוחדו בהם המדינות והוטעה בהם המון העם, ונאמר להם שתיקון ארצכם ומצביכם באלה הצורות

ושתתקבצו לבתיהן, ותגדלו אלו הזקנים אשר ילמדו סודותיהן, והתקיימה בזה


It is through this that in the earlier times nations were united, fooling the masses with this [fiction]. They were told that their land and status would improve by worshiping these stars and statues and therefore they should gather into places of worship and honor and aggrandize the elders who taught these secrets. This then promoted the monarchy [who supported these elders].”

By taking advantage of ignorance, in fact promoting it by closing the door to any rational scientific investigation, and playing on the fears of these people in their struggle for day to day survival in the face of the elements, their rulers controlled them. That is why idolatry persisted for so long and, if we think about it carefully and honestly; it is why superstition is still rife even in our contemporary community.

Rambam, unlike other Rishonim, insists that the core problem with idolatry and superstition is that it is a lie. It is false and falsehood is destructive. Here is how he puts it in a letter to the sages of Marseilles who asked him about astrology, the first of the steps towards idolatry.

דעו רבותי, שאין ראוי לו לאדם להאמין אלא באחד משלשה דברים.
הראשון דבר שתהיה עליו ראיה ברורה מדעתו של אדם כגון חכמת החשבון, וגימטריאות, ותקופות.
והשני דבר שישיגנו האדם באחד מהחמש הרגשות, כגון שידע ויראה שזה שחור

וזה אדום וכיוצא בזה בראית עינו. או שיטעום שזה מר וזה מתוק. או שימשש שזה

חם וזה קר. או שישמע שזה קול צלול וזה קול הברה. או שיריח שזה ריח באוש

וזה ריח ערב וכיוצא באלו.

והשלישי דבר שיקבל אותו האדם מן הנביאים ע"ה ומן הצדיקים.

Know my teachers that a person may only believe in one of three things –

The first are things that can be proven rationally such as arithmetic, geometry and astronomy [literally: seasons].

The second are things that one can “feel” through one of the five senses, such as, recognizing colors, differentiating tastes, feeling different temperatures, hearing different sounds or smelling different odors.

The third are things transmitted from the prophets and the righteous.”

Rambam continues by telling the Marseilles sages that one has to always keep in mind to which category a particular knowledge belongs.

וכן צריכים אתם לידע, שכבר חיברו הטיפשים אלפי ספרים, וכמה אנשים גדולים

בשנים - לא בחכמה - איבדו כל ימיהם בלמידת אותם ספרים, ודימו שאותם ההבלים

הם חכמות גדולות, ועלה על ליבם שהם חכמים גדולים, מפני שידעו החכמות ההן.

So too must you know that these fools wrote thousands of books [on the pseudo-science of astrology], and many “great” people – [great] in age not in wisdom – wasted their life reading them thinking that all this nonsense is a great science. They considered themselves wise men for having [acquired] this “wisdom”.”

After dismissing the popular belief that written things must be true, Rambam makes a fascinating and full of implications statement –

וזו היא שאבדה מלכותנו והחריבה בית מקדשנו

והאריכה גלותינו והגיעתנו עד הלום. שאבותינו חטאו ואינם, לפי שמצאו ספרים

רבים באלה הדברים של דברי החוזים בכוכבים, שדברים אלו הם עיקר עבודה זרה,

כמו שביארנו בהלכות עבודה זרה, טעו ונהו אחריהן, ודימו שהם חכמות מפוארות

ויש בהן תועלת גדולה, ולא נתעסקו בלמידת מלחמה ולא בכיבוש ארצות, אלא דמו

שאותן הדברים יועילו להם.
ולפיכך קראו אותם הנביאים סכלים ואווילים.
ודאי סכלים ואווילים היו, ואחרי התוהו אשר לא יועילו הלכו.

And it is the sins of our ancestors that caused us to lose our land, destroyed our Beit Hamikdash and lengthened our exile bringing us to our current situation. They found many books written on this subject of astrology, which are at the root of idolatry, as I explained in Hilchot Avodah Zara, and mistakenly followed them. They imagined that this [astrology] was an admirable science that afforded great advantages. They therefore did not learn how to fight wars nor did they conquer lands, believing that these things would help them [prevail]. That is why the prophets called them [our ancestors] evil fools! They were evil fools for following hopeless nonsense!”

I think that reading this we get an idea of how Rambam understands the great damage that idolatry brings about. It is the negation of truth, the consequent resistance to seeking truth out, losing touch with reality. One cannot win a war by invoking the spirits that emanate from the heavens! One wins wars through courage, tactics and strategy, building armies and acquiring weapons.

There is much more to be said but I am reaching the limits I imposed on myself on the size of a post.

To be continued…

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