I got busy with several projects and now I am returning continuing with the Pirush Hamishna on AZ 4:7 where Rambam describes how idolatry developed and now addresses the practical negative impact it has on human society. What started as a mistake in thought becomes a political tragedy.
ואלה הדברים כולם נעשו לצרכים, 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
המלכות, והאמינו שהוא דבר אמיתי, והיו אומרים, זה דבר כוכב פלוני וזה דבר
מזל פלוני, ויגדלו אותו וילכו אחריו ויאמינו בו, כמו שנאמין אנחנו בנביאים
עליהם השלום מן השלימות והמעלה. הלא תראה איך קראם הכתוב נביאי הבעל
All these were done for a specific purpose. In times past, these [beliefs] were used to unify nations, fooling the general masses. They were told that the welfare of their land depended on these idols [lit: forms] and they should therefore gather into their temples showing respect to the elders teaching their secrets. The government was thus maintained stable. They [the masses] believed that all this was true, saying that this is a matter that belongs to this star or that sphere. They aggrandized them and followed them. They believed in them just as we believe that our prophets are perfected and elevated individuals. Note how they are referred to in Scriptures – prophets of Ba’al and prophets of the Asheirah.
Now the real tragedy starts. All rituals require specialists who know the wishes of the gods and know how to satisfy them, deflect their attention or focus their attention as needed. They now lord it over their fellow man and a ruling elite comes to power eventually oppressing the populace. A religious movement based on superstition as opposed to one that adopts a positive outlook of acquiring knowledge and seeking truth will always degenerate into two groups: oppressors and oppressed. Using fear of the unknown as a tool, legitimizing supposed savants as saviors and protectors of that same unknown, a population is slowly thrown into slavery for the benefit of those few. It becomes a self-perpetuating system of sinking deeper and deeper into slavery that is difficult to break. Mind control and limits on open-minded thinking are imposed thus preventing anyone even trying to seek out the truth. Jewish history, starting with the Galut of Egypt is replete of these episodes and breaking the yoke of such slavery is an almost impossible task. It is always seen as miraculous.
It is not always obvious when a population falls into such a deep abyss. There are at times movements that seem innocent enough. They are based on philosophical ideas like those that are described by Rambam here with Enosh and his generation venerating God through His servants. That is why constant vigilance is needed. I do not want to be too controversial and enumerate the instances which are many, but we are witnesses in our own community in the last few years, to a drift towards this type of mind control and rejection of truth. There is no question in my mind that it is the result of the mystical bent traditional Judaism has taken. Tehilim clubs, the cursed “Mekubalim” and wonder Rabbis and their ilk are just a symptom of a deeper theological malaise. But the worst is the rejection of truth and the prohibition to seek it. The whole attitude of the community where even such watered down approaches to secular knowledge like TIDE and the Gra’s approach of science at the service of Torah are seen as fringe movements especially in the world of Yeshivot, is at the root of the problem. Rambam’s approach which is that knowledge of our environment is a goal because it leads us to knowledge of God which is the ultimate goal, and that Mitzvot are our God given tool to help us attain that knowledge, is totally ignored.
If we are honest with ourselves, we can discern how the belief in a spiritual world and the resulting superstition, is at the core of the problem. When confronted with existential mysteries, we do not try to understand them and thereby hope to control and deal with them, preventing them or protecting ourselves against them. We conveniently turn to the spirits, we blame unrelated behaviors as the cause of a tragic event both general and personal. The true scientific cause is not even sought out. After all truth is only incidental to the real powers. The angels and spirits (Ruchot) or as they translate this idea piously, God, are the real powers that make things happen.
God IS Truth. He created the universe with its laws which do not contain any spiritual forces. Those spiritual forces are Avodah Zara and falsehoods and lies! He left it to man, the most advanced sentient being He created to discover how those laws of nature work. It is only in his quest for truth, for the true nature of the universe, God’s creation, that man will find the ultimate Truth – God.
As long as we still seek out and believe in the “spiritual” powers and their representatives the men with “Ruach”, whichever type it is, to help us deal with our day-to-day problems, we have not yet absorbed the teachings of Torah and its rejection of Avodah Zara. Though we have come a long way, we are not there yet by a long stretch. The Mitzvot that are meant to distance us from Avodah Zara are very relevant to our contemporary society.