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09.09.2015 09:56    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: scriptures torah shabbat parshat  nitzavim  

“I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart”

This week’s reading contains a perplexing statement regarding someone who has turned to idolatry yet thinks that the Holy One, blessed be He, will not punish him:  “…he may fancy himself immune, thinking, ‘I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart’” (Deut. 29:18).  This verse makes one wonder, since time and again the Torah stipulates the most severe punishment for a community or individuals who turn to idolatry, as in the second passage of the Shema (Deut. 11:16-17):

Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them.  For the Lord’s anger will flare up against you, and He will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce; and you will soon perish from the good land that the Lord is assigning to you.

The Torah also contains two lengthy passages of admonishment, one over thirty verses long (Lev. 26:14-46), and the other over fifty verses long (Deut. 28:15-68), containing 98 curses that include a detailing of the most severe punishments that will be visited on a person who turns to idolatry.  After all these warnings, how could anybody conceivably think “I shall be safe” when worshipping other gods?  What sense is there in ten verses (Deut. 29:19-28) again enumerating all these punishments, as we find in this week’s reading?  What new point is Scripture making that does not appear in the previous passages of the Torah pertaining to idolatry?

The answer depends on understanding the world outlook of the idol-worshipper.  In the modern Western world a religious person is either a devout Jew or a devout Moslem of a devout Christian.  One would not observe Jewish ritual alongside Christian ritual, or Christian alongside Moslem.  This, however, was not so in the past.  In the ancient world it was generally assumed that every people had its own gods.

For example, the main god of the Romans was Jupiter, and other gods accompanied him, including Ceres, the god of agriculture, and Mars, the god of war.  But the Romans did not doubt the existence of the gods of other nations, like the Greek gods, with Zeus at the head of their pantheon, and Demeter, the Greek god of agriculture, and Ares, the Greek god of war.  Yet the Romans placed greater faith in Roman gods and therefore offered their sacrifices to them.  In a year of drought, however, Romans would bring offerings to the Greek Demeter, as well, or before an important battle against a dangerous foe, Roman soldiers would offer sacrifices to Mars as well as Ares.  The Romans did not view bringing sacrifices to Greek gods as in any way detracting from their faith in the Roman gods.

In fact, the idea that one can offer sacrifices to the gods of two different faiths at the same time is not unique to the past, nor limited to primitive tribes in central Africa.  For example, in Japan, a developed and modern state in every respect, the typical devout Japanese might believe both in Shinto and in Buddhism.  The home of devout Japanese contains two altars, one for gifts to the Shinto gods and another for gifts to Buddha.  Shinto ritual is jolly and full of joie de vivre, therefore weddings are celebrated according to Shinto practice, but funerals in Japan follow Buddhist ritual, emphasizing the seriousness of life and soul-reckoning.

Believing in the existence of the gods of other peoples also explains the first encounter of Moses and Aaron with Pharaoh.  When the Holy One, blessed be He, sent Moses and Aaron to ask Pharaoh to let the Israelites go, Pharaoh said to them:  “Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go?  I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go” (Ex. 5:2).  Pharaoh had no doubt that Moses and Aaron were indeed sent to him by their G-d, the Holy One, blessed be He, for he believed that every people had its own god.  However, Pharaoh related to the G-d of Israel disparagingly, as to a lesser god, for he had never heard of Him (“I do not know the Lord”), and even considered Him a god with no power (“Who is the Lord that I should heed Him?”).

The purpose of the portents that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave Moses and Aaron to perform was not to prove the existence of the Holy One, blessed be He, in whom Pharaoh already believed.  Rather, it was to persuade Pharaoh that the Holy One, blessed be He, had power and influence.

When Moses cast down his staff before Pharaoh and turned it into a serpent (Ex. 7:9), it was important for Pharaoh to know whether this sign attested to the might of the Hebrew G-d.  Therefore Pharaoh asked his wise men to replicate the sign.  When the Egyptian sorcerers proved successful (“and the Egyptian magicians, in turn, did the same with their spells” [Ex. 7:11]), Pharaoh became convinced that he had no reason to fear the Holy One, blessed be He.

The same demonstration of power is repeated in the first three plagues:  blood (Ex. 7:22), frogs (Ex. 8:3) and lice (Ex. 8:14).  Pharaoh asked his magicians to replicate these miracles in order to check whether the Holy One, blessed be He, had more might than the Egyptian gods.

The main point for our discussion is that knowing whether the Holy One, blessed be He, existed was not the issue for Pharaoh; the only question in Pharaoh’s eyes was the amount of power and influence wielded by G-d.

Another illustration of this world view can be found in the book of Jonah, in the conversation between the pagan sailors and Jonah.  The setting is well known (Jonah 1:4-7):  Jonah refused to go to Nineveh as the Holy One, blessed be He, had commanded him, and instead boarded a ship setting sail in the opposite direction.  To force Jonah to obey him, the Holy One, blessed be He, caused a tempest at sea, and the sailors on board, highly experienced professionals who had never seen such a violent tempest, understood that this was not a natural storm and concluded that the gods must be angry.

The sailors were asked to pray each to his own god (“cried out, each to his own god” [Jonah 1:5]), but to no avail.  The tempest only grew stronger and “the ship was in danger of breaking up.”  By casting lots the sailors established that the tempest was due to Jonah, at which point they asked Jonah, “Tell us, what is your business?  Where have you come from?  What is your country, and of what people are you?” (Jonah 1:8).

This seems to be a totally incomprehensible dialogue.  What was the meaning of these questions?  When any moment was likely to be their last, why was it important for the sailors to know Jonah’s occupation, place of residence, and citizenship?  Jonah’s answer was strange, as well:  “I am a Hebrew.  I worship the Lord, the G-d of Heaven, who made both sea and land” (Jonah 1:9).  Had anybody asked Jonah about his faith?

This conversation can be explained as follows:  it was clear to the sailors that each profession had its own god, each city its own god, and each people, its own god.  Perhaps Jonah had an influential god connected with his occupation (“what is your business?”), or a powerful god associated with his country (“what is your country?”), or a mighty god related to his people (“of what people are you?”).  Perhaps, the sailors thought, praying to Jonah’s gods would save them.

Jonah understood the questions and answered the sailors that the Hebrews have only one G-d, the Holy One, blessed be He, who rules over the entire world (“who made both sea and land” [Jonah 1:9]).  The important point for our discussion is that the sailors thought, as was common in their day, that there existed other gods, aside from their own, on whom one could, and even should, depend in time of need.  They saw no harm done to their own faith by also turning to other gods.

Now let us return to this week’s reading.  The Israelite who turns to worshipping idols but thinks, “I shall be safe,” does not necessarily think that idolatry means the person abandons the Holy One, blessed be He, and begins to offer sacrifices and address his prayers to other gods alone.  He might think that if he does not stop believing in the Holy One, blessed be He, but continues to pray to Him and offer Him sacrifices, while also observing the religious rites of another people, that is perfectly alright in the eyes of the Lord (“I shall be safe”).

But the Holy One, blessed be He, warns the Israelites here against any tendency to adhere to this mistaken approach:  “Beware…Do not inquire about their gods, saying ‘How do those nations worship their gods?  I too will follow those practices’” (Deut. 12:30).  The Torah stresses that such behavior is altogether unacceptable (Deut. 29:19-27).  When it comes to the Jewish faith, one cannot have both “the one and the other.”

Today, too, there is a tendency in certain Jewish circles to be tolerant of other religions to the extent of incorporating ritual elements of other faiths into Judaism in order to “improve” Judaism and make it attractive to the public.  The Torah rules out any such approach a priori, as it says:  “You shall not add anything to what I command you” (Deut. 4:2).

[1] Nathan Aviezer is Professor of Physics at Bar Ilan University and author of the books, In the Beginning:  Biblical Creation and Science and Fossils and Faith:  Understanding Torah and Science.


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