Parashat Pekudei: A basic introduction to alien worship

In Parashat Ki Tissa, we discussed prohibitions stemming from an idolater calling us to eat of his sacrifice. To understand that fully, we need to know what qualifies as idolatry, but that will take a few weeks.

For sticklers that this is a parsha blog, consider this. As the Jews finish the construction of the Mishkan, and Hashem’s Kavod fills it, how could they be sure they always worshipped only Hashem and not other, alien objects of worship? (I use “alien worship,” because it better translates עבודה זרה, and avoids the misimpression that it’s only idols that qualify.)

Five Active Ways to Worship

A Mishnah, Sanhedrin 60b, lists six forms of alien worship.  There is “העובד, one who worships,” one who sacrifices, offers incense, libates, or bows down. R. Yirmiyah explains that העובד refers to any and all acts native to that form of worship. The end of the Mishnah stresses that this is even if it appears to denigrate the object, such as defecating before Pe’or or stoning Markolis. Whatever worshippers do for that object, however odd or embarrassing, it’s full-fledged alien worship.

The simplest reading (come back next week for further analysis) is that intent doesn’t matter—even if the defecator meant to deface Pe’or, the Mishnah seems to say, it would be full-fledged alien worship, (it might be unwitting, meaning that it wouldn’t incur death or karet, but it would still be worship).

Sacrifice, incense, libation, or bowing are the ways we worship Hashem (in the Temple), and Scriptural inferences teach that they count as worship objectively. Even if the real worshippers of a particular object would not recognize what we were doing as worship, we would be capitally liable for doing that to something other than Hashem.

Meiri—in other contexts is an outlier of tolerance in attitudes towards non-Jews—says that singing Psalms is part of the sacrificial process, and therefore also capitally liable alien worship. If Christianity were considered alien worship, singing Psalms in church would be alien worship, according to Meiri.

The least well known category of alien worship is verbal, such as referring to an alien form of worship as an “אלוה, a god,” or saying to it “אלי אתה, you are the power that rules over me.” This expression need not include an added mention of fealty, love, or admiration to be the full form of the sin.

People often jump to say that that has to be where the person means this is the sole power in their lives, to the exclusion of Hashem. The story of the Golden Calf shows that’s untrue, for Jews. For non-Jews, it’s a centuries-old question.

These Are Your gods, O Israel! שיתוף for Jews and Non-Jews

R. Yochanan, Sanhedrin 63a, argues that the saving grace of the Golden Calf was that the Jews used the plural for who took them out of Egypt, including Hashem as well as the Calf. R. Shimon b. Yochai protests that that’s no better, since Shmot 22;19 insists that we worship Hashem alone. Shittuf, partnering Hashem with some other force, is full alien worship for Jews.

For non-Jews, Tosafot Sanhedrin 63b seems to say it’s not. The Gemara prohibits commercial partnerships with non-Jews because, in case of a falling out, the non-Jewish partner would substantiate his claims by swearing in the name of his alien worship. The Jew would then be responsible for causing the non-Jew to invoke his false god.

Tosafot argues that that doesn’t apply to Christians, because they mean the Creator, whatever words they use, and also because… well, there’s a centuries-long debate over what Tosafot meant, with some arguing they meant only that non-Jews aren’t specifically prohibited from invoking a partnership god in an oath. R. Ovadya Yosef, Yechaveh Da’at 6;60, adopted the other view, that Tosafot (and Rema) meant that believing and accepting a partner to Hashem is not prohibited for them.

Sometimes, a Question of Articulation

There are many religions/ worldviews that qualify as alien by this definition (some are articulated by Jews who think of themselves as extremely observant, but seem to me to shade over into prohibited alien worship; for the sake of politeness, I will not specify any of those here).

Jews have to treat a father/son/holyghost combination as alien worship for themselves (whatever the law is regarding non-Jews). I believe this is true even if the non-Jews claim those three are all one, mystically.  Halachic literature has been clear for centuries that “three as one,” however dressed up to sound more monotheistic, is not. Anything that openly speaks of multiple gods, such as pagan religions, is obviously prohibited.

The same is true of many Eastern religions/philosophies. In each case, some practitioners will weed out the parts that sound problematic to Westerners, but others will speak in terms that make clear that this is in fact a belief in a power or powers other than Hashem. For one example, feng shui speaks of arranging one’s furniture, home, or office, to promote the right spirits and flows of energy. This is exactly what is prohibited—we are not allowed to acknowledge the power of such spirits (if they exist) over us, nor are we allowed to attempt to alter their attitude towards us (other than pray to Hashem).

So our central first message is that the prohibition of alien worship involves recognizing/accepting any power other than Hashem, and certainly prohibits acting in any way to seek help or assistance from those powers as opposed to turning directly to Hashem.

One Mistake Leads to Another

I close with one non-halachic comment in Sanhedrin 63b. R. Yehudah says in the name of Rav that the Jews started with alien worship to allow themselves to engage in sexual immorality. Rav is reminding us that sin doesn’t always lure us with principled belief: sometimes ulterior motives ease our way. If the only way to express a desired sexuality is by adopting alien worship, Rav says, some will do that. And will be liable for alien worship, whatever their original motive.

The Gemara later asserts that the Jews eventually came to believe in those alien worships, another cautionary tale. What we start for one reason initiates a cascade that can take us in unforeseen directions. Someone looking for a freer sexual society can find themselves, days or decades later, firmly ensconced in the belief in alien worship.

Yet one more reason to be careful about where we step, to check ourselves and our motives carefully before we take new actions, and to always hope it leads us towards Hashem and true worship and not, God forbid, the other way.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.
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