Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Is Oppression, Ignorance and Superstition - The Deadly Brew of Idoaltry - Still a Contemporary Malaise?

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

ונביאי האשרה

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.


  1. Wow, all of this aggression just boiling over in this post :-)

    Anyway, according to the Rambam how do you explain Olam Habah. Do you see a spirtual universe that is distinct from the current physical world we live in. Or is your (or the Rambams) idea of the world to come some kind of "representaion" of the intellegence and yedias hashem we attained in this world, and really not some kind of spirtual reality that the neshomos will dwell in.
    Also do how do you (and the Rambam) understand the concept of Melochim - angles. If you are going to answer they are some kind of image or dream, well that dream is still some kind of reality -isn't it?

    Also to some (most) peoples defense; almost all people I talk to have a very hard time dealing with philosophical concepts, it doesn't interest them and its hard for them to compartmentalize. They just believe in a God and to listen what he has to do involves doing the mitzvos - nothing more nothing less. "Why" is not so much much involved in the equation as "how". Now as for me, I am all about the "why" because I believe only then can we properly learn "how", but to most people it just doesn't work this way.

    Also on a related note, when I talk to people regarding spirtual powers and nature. I ask them why does God have to break his laws - in order to create miracles or in order for nature on its own to operate. (I concede that a break of the law of nature is possible - but this break can still be part of Gods law of nature, just an unusual occurance in it - made extra special by its time and place this miracle occured). Hashem isn't an indvidual where space/time is relevent, so therefore what we do today, yesterday, tommorow - are all not a limitation, as the creater is not bound to time or space or place. What I am trying to say, is that the laws of nature is hashems laws that he created, in the same way he could have created spirtual forces causing these physical forces to work. And by seeing God to have spirtual forces to "do his bidding" in a literal way, doesn't that take away from the oneness of God.

    Anyway this is just my take on the matter, and I hope I am not way off base.

  2. R. David,

    I would like to thank you for your posts I truly enjoy them.
    Do you have any thoughts as to why the Rambam wrote "They believed in them 'just as we believe that our prophets' are perfected and elevated individuals." - what is gained? It seems he already described their belief, why the comparison?

    Thank you

    David W.

  3. ZB

    >Anyway, according to the Rambam how do you explain Olam Habah.

    I have written about this in various places though I have not yet offered a full discussion. One day BN.

    Re angels I wrote a few times. see the label on the sidebar.

  4. David W.

    Thank you for your chizuk.
    Re your question if you read the continuation of that piece in\side he talks about those who predict the future based on astrology. I think he is saying that they were believed just like we believed the neviim although they were only playing with odds and the best available information.

  5. R. David,

    Even still, it seems unecessary. The Rambam is talking about their false belief system which was created by man to control man. The Prophets are part of a system of truth and are necessary for man's knowelege. The comparison seems to equate the two but they are not equatable. The belief in the prophet is almost accidental (although necessary) to the knoweledge they communicate.

    I guess to sum up my point: The Rambam who is so precise in his writings (which i am not) seems to have written something not only unecessary to his point but logically incorrect (Comparing two different catagories). I am therefore wondering if he is alluding to something.

    I am very interested in your thoughts. Thank you.

    David. W

  6. David W.

    Rereading it I do not see anything deeper than just saying that the idolaters followed the priests in the same way we followed the true prophets. He is describing the thinking of the worshipers.

    If you wish you can maybe read into it that in our system we rely on a halachik ruling where we are obligated to follow them see Hil Yesodei Hatorah 8:3 and see also YH 10:3 for a more elaborate comparison.

  7. R. David,

    Perhaps the Rambam is pointing out that superficially Yahadus appears like everything else: God wants man to do something, his Prophets express this, they are set apart from other men (considered to be holy), Priests perform his service, etc. However the comparison is ONLY on the superficial level as Yahadus is a system based on truth and man's pursuit of truth through chochma.

    Because on a superficial level they appear simliar man needs to be vigilant against falling prey to this.

    So perhaps the Rambam draws the comparison (brings it out) so that he can then destroy the comparison.

    David W.

  8. david w.

    Thank you.A possible way of reading it.

  9. David,

    I would appreciate your putting up your thoughts on the Vikuach by SHADAl and also any info that you have on R' Yihye Kafah

  10. Shadal who was extremely rational opposed the Rambam's philosophical derech. He did not believe that it was sound.

    I am mentionign this because you believe that there is the mystical approach and then the Rambam's rational approach, but rational by whose standard? Not by Shadal.

  11. Anonymous, I am sorry if you understood that I believe there is only one rational understanding and one mystical. That is of course incorrect. There is however a delineation on one side you ahve the rational approach and a multitude of variations within it and the other side mystical with its variations. Mixing the two sides is irrational :-)

    I know too little about Shadal to make an intelligent assessment of his shitot. S. at On The Main Line is much better suited for that. I know that Shadal prefers Rashi over Ibn Ezra and Rambam in his pirush on chumash and Yeshayahu. I also know his religion is more humanistic than Rambam's. I know he finds Rambam's derech cold. One can be rational, not believe in mysticism and espouse these beliefs.