The Evil of Idolatry

Why does God command us to so utterly destroy idols? We are told for example not only to cut down an asherah tree but to thoroughly uproot it. We may also not refer to idols by name but we give them derogatory nicknames. The Torah even describes God as being “jealous” of idols, and as a result despises them so utterly. But aren’t idols powerless? What is there for God to be “jealous” of?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for making your excellent points. First of all, you are right that God does not forbid idolatry (“avodah zarah”) so strongly because it threatens Him or He sees it as His competition. Naturally, idols are meaningless to an infinite God. In fact, the phrase the Torah often uses of God being “jealous” (“kana”) of idols (e.g. Exodus 20:5) can also mean (and is also understood by the Midrash to mean) “zealous”. (See Rashi to that verse.) God zealously opposes idolatry because He wants to teach us how intrinsically evil it is. (As always, the commandments of the Torah are given for our sakes, not for God’s.) So what is this critical message God is teaching us by opposing idolatry so categorically?

Idolatry is the belief in other, finite forces which control the world. One can serve and pray to such beings in the hopes they will grant him what he wants. Naturally, if a person believes only in his physical idol, it is a denial of God in the most basic way and thus earns such strong Biblical condemnation.

Even if a person claims he believes in a single, infinite “god” but believes that god has physical aspects to him or that other independent beings exist who operate independent of him, such a belief is antithetical to Judaism. Once other beings exist, why submit oneself to god and follow his commandments if he can get what he wants without god, through other independent forces? The most basic ingredient for building a relationship with God is removed.

On a deeper level, if a person believes that god is physical and finite, or that other independent powers exist (i.e., ones which can grant us what we want without God’s knowledge and/or approval), then the person cannot really be said to believe in God – even if again, he claims he believes in a single god above them all. If everything is not under god’s purview, then by definition god is not infinite, but himself an “idol”.

Further, if he is not infinite, there would not be – could not be – any notion of serving and subordinating ourselves to a perfect God and connecting to the infinite. “God” is finite just as we. He may be bigger and stronger than us – and he may even have the power to grant us our wishes, but he is not the ultimate. Serving him is not the ultimate expression of connecting to the Divine. It is basically a way of serving ourselves – doing favors for god (who is perhaps hungry and wants fresh meat (or even human meat)) and getting what we want for ourselves in return.

Similarly, we would not view the commandments of such a god as the perfect and ultimate expressions of truth of an infinite Creator. They may be wise and virtuous ways to act, but they are not absolutes. And if so, there would be no reason to observe the commandments other than for personal self-improvement, or simply so that god gives us what we want in return. But we become the centers of our own little universes – not God.

This in a nutshell is why the Torah views idolatry in all its forms as so antithetical to Judaism.

More Questions

Due to limited resources, the Ask the Rabbi service is intended for Jews of little background with nowhere else to turn. People with questions in Jewish law should consult their local rabbi. Note that this is not a homework service!

Ask the Aish Rabbi a Question

Receive the Daily Features Email

Sign up to our Daily Email Jewsletter.

Our privacy policy