American idolatry

I don’t know if it’s OCD, years of Talmud study or a vagary of the English-teacher gene, but textual variances stick out to me like a sore thumb. Alert readers may have noticed, for example, that my previous post was titled “Swimsuit edition,” but the link reads: the-6-year-old-in-the-sundress as I abandoned my original (creepy?) title for something punchier.

As a reader, therefore, I quickly noticed that a Hirhurim post ostensibly entitled “The Fine Line Between Science and Avodah Zarah” had a different HTML name: the-line-between-science-and-avodah-zarah. The distinction is important: the latter would suggest a reassuring piece for Jewish conservatives about how modern research and technology is not to be feared or shunned, while the former strongly implies that avoda zara (idolatry) and science are essentially indistinguishable.

I thought Coleridge fans were supposed to be mellow.
I always thought Coleridge fans were supposed to be mellow.

Indeed, that’s precisely what the author, Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein, whose work I’ve addressed before, argues. Idolatry, he maintains, is the substitution of anything for God, and science precludes God because it does not take the miraculous into account. To put it bluntly:

Jews are required to believe in the real possibility of miracles, in our time, and not just those natural-looking events we define as a miracle, like the victory in the Six Day War.

I’d like to delve into what this means, but R. Rothstein does not really explain what this means, beyond applying “Hashem [God] could change it, miraculously” to medical tragedies and environmental disasters. He spends most of the article proceeding from a melange of Miqra, Midrash and medieval commentary (particularly based on Gen. 12 and Num. 15) to the tortured conclusion that most Jews are, in fact, literal idolaters. The technique apes Landovian or Feinsteinian responsa, but the great rabbis strove to free people from marriages to the living dead, to vindicate popular customs and to legitimate those marred by the stain of bastardy–not to define believers as heathens.

Ironically, not a bastard by Jewish law. But some people just earn it.
Ironically, not a bastard by Jewish law. But some people just earn it.

So R. Rothstein does not define what belief in miracles actually requires, nor does he even use the phrase. He does, however, refer to “belief in Mashiach” (the Messiah) and “belief in Hashem and Mashiach,” phrasing that would send shivers down the spine of anyone raised in a majority-Christian country. It’s no coincidence that the same institution which believes its leader speaks ex cathedra with the unerring voice of God also requires miracles for beatification. In fact, the only time the Torah tells us to expect miracles is in order for a prophet to establish his bona fides (Deut. 13): “When a prophet or dreamer of dreams will arise among you, he will give you a sign or a wonder.” Indeed, the Talmud (Horayot 13a) uses this verse to establish that “Wonder means nothing but prophecy.”

This rule does not appear in Shulchan Arukh, the classic 16th-century Code of Jewish Law, because prophets have not been among us for well over two millennia. Nevertheless, we may find a particularly relevant ruling there, in Yoreh De’a 376:2, where the Rema rules that engaging in philosophical mumbo-jumbo in a mourner’s house “is like blasphemy, as he implies that if he could change it, he would do so; rather, he should accept God’s decree lovingly.” Blasphemy, by the way, is a term the Torah reserves for willful idolatry (Num. 15:30). Now, by the “God could” criterion, there is no difference between one who is deathly ill and one who is dead; God could bring back the dead. We do not pray because we expect miracles; we pray because of what it does for us and our relationship with God. We plead with God to draw closer to the divine, not because we might somehow say the magic password to eternal life.

Speaking of miracles, this guy could spring to life. Should I cast a stone for Mercuralia just to be safe?

I wrote a few weeks ago about the Great Knesset and the era of its activity. According to the Talmud, this body oversaw the end of prophecy (Megilla 18a), the canonization of Scripture (Bava Batra 15a), the beginnings of rabbinic Judaism (Avot 1:1), the elimination of the desire for idolatry (Sanhedrin 64a), and the codification of prayer (Berakhot 33b). Some view the contemporaneous nature of these elements as some great coincidence. I find that hard to believe.

More importantly, let’s look at the final element: daily prayer. Were belief in miracles so important, you’d expect it to find it in those texts recited thrice daily before God. What do we in fact find in the penultimate Amida blessing? Those same miracles that R. Rothstein dismisses: “natural-looking events we define as a miracle” (or, as the Sages put it, “Your miracles which our with us daily, and your marvels and beneficent acts which are at every time”) along with, on special dates, historical military triumphs “like the victory in the Six Day War.” I’m not feeling the miracle envy.

All things being equal, I prefer the heaven of the Great Knesset. It may not be as exclusive as the alternative, but it’s good enough for me.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.