Rabbi Eliezer Melamed
Rabbi Eliezer Melamed PR photo

Currently, I am writing another volume in the ‘Peninei Halakha’ series on emunah (faith) and idolatry, in which the halakhot of avodah zara (idolatry), mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice), and the prohibitions of creating images, magic, and sorcery will be explained.

Usually, in the first section of each chapter, I write more in depth than in other sections, because in it, I explain the clal (the general, overall description) detailed in each chapter. In this column, I will present the first two sections of the first chapter, as they now appear in the original draft.

The goal is to clarify where emunah stems from, and in contrast, the tendency towards idolatry. Later in the book, I will explain the laws of avodah zara designed to guard emunah from the temptation of paganism.

The Basic Attribute of Faith

All human beings possess the attribute of faith. By means of it, man trusts his senses and intellect, his family and friends. Through faith, man believes his life has meaning, and consequently, he plans his future with the hope and confidence that he will succeed in changing his life for the better. By way of faith, he believes that there are values ​​worth striving for, such as the value of truth and goodness.

On a higher-level, man, by nature, believes a supreme and eternal force exists beyond everything visible. By means of it, all things exist, and bestows supreme and sacred significance to all values. Even man’s individual life is connected to eternity, and its value is greater than his mundane and fleeting routine of life in this world. In order to give expression to this belief, all human societies created religions for themselves.

Emunah Bestows Confidence in the Face of Dangers

I will explain further: faith is the foundation of man’s existence in the world, since his cognizance and consciousness rest upon it. Besides that, his existence in the world is unstable, and danger lurks around him. Nothing that sustains his existence is guaranteed. If he does not work diligently and amass food and property – he may starve to death; if he does not bother to store up water – he may die of thirst. He must build a house in order to protect himself from cold, heat, and beasts of prey. He also requires an organized society to protect himself from thieves and enemies who might plunder his property, and subjugate him to slavery. In order to secure himself from illness, old age, and achieve a certain kind of eternal permanence, he starts a family and has children.

Yet, after all this effort, nothing is guaranteed. Without belief that life has value, and his effort will pay off, eventually, he will despair, and his chances of survival decrease. He senses that the belief motivating him originates in the stable, eternal source of life, and defines the source of life as God, omnipotent, and all-powerful. He realizes the more faith he has in God, the more confidence and stability, diligence and resourcefulness, he attains.

Especially in times of distress when his life is threatened, such as in times of illness, famine, or war, he turns to God in prayer, and asks for His help, and his faith gives him strength to act in order to save himself, his family, friends, and nation.

Belief in a Good Future

Nevertheless, it is not only the need to survive that necessitates man to call on God; more than that – it is the desire to advance, to break through boundaries, and constantly raise himself up. This is the meaning of the verse (Genesis 1:27): “God thus created man with His image. In the image of God, He created him.” Since he was created in the ‘image of God’, his inner nature has no boundaries, and his aspirations are limitless.

Therefore, even when a person achieves stability he does not rest, because due to his natural faith, he always strives for more – to further understand, feel, enjoy, create, and develop. There is no end to his curiosity in understanding the world — his longing to experience all of the world’s beauty and sublimity, his desire to relish all the pleasantness and good in the world, and his ambition to create and develop the world with the help of his talents.

As he delves deeper into his soul, he realizes that the more connected he is to God, the more his desires are fulfilled, his blessing increases, and whatever he achieves and develops, is of far greater value. Those who delve deeper, come to the realization that man longs for closeness to God, for the infinite source of all aspirations and desires for which he longs, and when he fulfills them, he draws nearer to God.

The Temptation to Paganism

As stated, man’s aspirations are infinite, and consequently, he is inspired with an immense desire to draw near to God, the source of everything However, he faces a huge problem: since God is infinite, He cannot be defined, and without a definition it is difficult to draw near Him. If a person is wise and honest he will restrian himself, understand that God is above and beyond all attainment, and try to find ways to be inspired by Him, walk in His ways, and add blessing to the world.

However, many people are tempted to define and materialize God, and see Him manifested in the great powers of creation, such as the heavens and earth, sun, moon and stars, the sea and the wind, animals, plants, and the inanimate. Given there are numerous values ​​and creatures, people are tempted to see many different idolatrous forces, such as the ‘god of truth’ manifested in the sun, in whose light objects are exposed, and the ‘god of war’ exhibited in the stormy wind, and the ‘god of fertility’ expressed in earth, or rain.

Over time, in a gradual process, spiritual and creative people formed sculptures and images that symbolized the forces of nature and the significant values, and created ways of worship by which man could honor the idols, and gain their closeness and blessing. In this way, all types of pagan religions of various kinds were created.

The Shared Mystical Experiences

A further explanation: many people occasionally experience a mystical, spiritual experience, in which they suddenly receive a great enlightenment – above and beyond that familiar to them, and feel this enlightenment elevates and inspires their being, and wish to give it a permanent place in their lives. However, once the enlightenment disappears, since there are no words or language to describe it, it gradually fades until it is forgotten, and the only remaining feeling is the longing and craving for that wonderful experience.

The Mystical Experiences of Creative People

In particular, creative and spiritual people are those who merit experiencing these spiritual encounters more intensely and more frequently, to the point where they feel they have met with the source of their life and soul, which they perceive in their consciousness as God. They realize that God constantly revives the world, and for Him they have always longed. Sometimes, in the midst of the enlightenment, they feel the heavens and earth unite, the past and future merge, questions they had are resolved, and they are able to foresee the future. Once the experience is over, they are not willing to relinquish it, and know that the more they succeed in restoring it, the more empowered their lives will be.

The Critical Choice

If they are humble and patient, they will absorb the spiritual experience in its purity, and in a deep and gradual process, it will elevate them to be seekers of truth and kindness. If they continue to purify themselves and rise, they will merit ruach ha’kodesh (Divine inspiration); and if they continue to heighten in their wisdom and good deeds, they may even receive prophetic revelations, as Avraham Aveinu did.

For many, however, the temptation to experience the spiritual encounter again and quickly and with all their senses, over-powered them, and using their spiritual, literary, and artistic talents, materialized God, and defined Him and His character, created images and statues, and methods of worship.

The Basis for the Error of Paganism

The basis for the error of paganism is that indeed, God gives life to everything, and a life-granting Divine spark is revealed that gives them life in all forces of nature, in man and in animals Creative and artistic people are capable of perceiving this spark as being detached from its root, define it, give it a tangible figure of a statue, and create around it methods of worship that give a person the opportunity to recreate the spiritual encounters, and receive inspiration from them. The rituals include sacrificial offerings, singing and ecstatic dancing, illicit sexual relations, drugs, and alcohol.

Pagan Worship Echoes a Mystical Experience

When they succeeded in creating a statue and methods of worship that aroused a powerful impression, and gave expression to the spiritual encounter hidden in the hearts of the rest of the people, an idolatrous cult was created that intensified the sense of faith among them. This gave them the empowerment, confidence, and hope that as a result of worshiping the idol, they would be blessed.

Without Faith in Hashem, People Believe in Idols

Since by nature man has faith, if he does not believe in the true God, he will be inclined to believe in avodah zara. This is because man’s natural faith also includes a belief that there is an explanation and meaning to occurrences in nature and in man’s life, and as well, includes a belief there is a means by which man is able to resolve his troubles, and advance himself. Consequently, even when he does not find a certified explanation for occurrences in nature and life, he believes there is an explanation, and will accept the explanation that seems most logical to him, even if it is not accurate.

Thus, out of a basic premise of faith, creative and spiritual people established the pagan religions that gave explanation and interpretation to what was happening in the world and to man, and developed rituals by means of which they could gain the grace of the idols. Today, their faith seems ridiculous to the West, although it still exists in parts of the East, but when man’s life centered on dealing with the great forces of nature, coupled with his natural faith, the pagan concept seemed a necessity. Indeed, there were different interpretations of the higher powers, however, they were all pagan. Therefore, no profound differences existed between the various pagan religions, and in different locations, paganism was interpreted according to the living conditions and environment. Apparently even today, people believe in things that are not true, because they seem more probable to them.

The nature of man to seek an explanation and believe in it is fundamentally positive, and stems from the image of God in man, namely, from his belief in his ability to understand the world, and act to change it for the better. Owing to this faith, man believes that it is worth the effort to find a solution to every problem. However, the evil instinct diverts this trait to believe in false solutions, and descend into terrible mistakes. Eventually, however, man will understand that as a result of his mistake his troubles and torments have multiplied, he will continue to search, and thanks to this, continue to advance.

Only yichidei segulah (exceptionally virtuous individuals), people with humility and honesty – for as long as they do not have a confirmed answer – are able to restrain themselves, and say “I do not know,” and continue to seek a more correct solution – all the while, willing to pay a price for it – and thanks to them, science develops. Above and beyond such people are Avraham Aveinu and the prophets of Israel, who were not satisfied with partial emunah, and the Lord, God of Israel, revealed Himself to them, and illuminated the way for them to cling to His virtues, and bring blessing and tikun (rectification) to the world.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew.