Rambam’s introduction to alien worship

Once we’ve seen the Gemara’s basic approach to alien worship, we’re ready to see how Rambam and then Ramban phrased it. The two operate with extremely different worldviews, so that their perspectives on a basic issue of Jewish religiosity, shaped by the same sources, will give us valuable insight into what Hashem requires of us in this area of our lives.

A History of Alien Worship and Our National Rejection of It

Rambam starts from the days of Enosh, based on a Midrash that reads Bereshit 4;26, אז הוחל לקרוא בשם ה  to mean that that was when people began to call mundane objects Hashem. One reason for the Midrash to read it this way is that it is odd, in the Biblical story, to have people begin to call to Hashem in Enosh’s generation, when Adam knew and spoke to Hashem. At the same time, tradition needed a way to understand how idolatry developed, since Adam knew and spoke to Hashem.

The First Mistake

Rambam lays out three stages of the descent into idolatry. People in the time of Enosh realized heavenly bodies impact events on earth (probably even more than we believe, but we would say that the phases of the moon affect the tides, and that a polar vortex can affect our weather).  They decided that honoring those bodies would itself be pleasing to Hashem, as a way to honor Him. (Since Hashem created Nature, honoring Nature is honoring Hashem). To that end, they began to build temples, offer sacrifices, sing songs of praise, and bow, in honor of the stars but as an extended way of honoring Hashem.

Lest that sound forced, consider the thinness of the line between writing a poem to praise Hashem for creating a certain star, a poem that simply praises the star, and a poem that is written to the star. The middle option, the poem that speaks of the star’s beauty or majesty, could be thought of (and could be intended) as praise of Hashem for creating that star, even if not made explicit.

The key point is that Rambam says that even this is alien worship, that it is, in fact, the essence of alien worship, despite there being no intent to worship the star for itself. Acts of worship, even while recognizing that all events in the world really come from Hashem, are already alien worship.

The Second Mistake

The next step came when false prophets arose, who said that Hashem had commanded them to worship these heavenly bodies. Not only that, but they claimed that Hashem had revealed to them the “form” of these bodies. By צורה, or form, I believe Rambam means the accurate way to represent that body. We today think of representation as a portrayal that captures as much of the original as possible. I believe Rambam thought (as did many others in his time) that there is an essence to an item, and that essence might be captured in ways that weren’t immediately recognizable. We might accurately represent Alpha Centauri, let’s say, as a plank of wood. Not that we would know that on our own, but these false prophets—who might have convinced themselves they were real prophets—believed Hashem had told them these were the forms of these objects.

Note that at this point, still, the conscious experience was that of honoring the star or sphere, acting towards it in certain ways as a way of honoring Hashem. But that would change as well.

The Third Mistake, Leading to the Alien Worship We Know

From there, they started telling the masses that this form causes success or failure, so it was worth worshipping the form itself. This would be similar to saying that since the moon changes the tides, we can improve our lives by shaping how the moon affects those tides. Eventually, prophets came along to claim those stars themselves had spoken to them, and made known the proper way to serve them.

People got so used to invoking the star or sphere or angel that they forgot Hashem completely, until the masses were sure that it was the star itself that shaped their lives, forgetting about Hashem.

That is the way the world worked, Rambam says, until Avraham came along. Rambam has remarkable views on Avraham’s development, which I sent out in my weekly email, but here I only have space to think about the next jump Rambam makes, from a worry about alien worship to a worry about our abilities to decide what is or isn’t true, what is or isn’t right, what is or isn’t good for us.

Alien Worship and Related Commandments

Rambam in the second chapter of Laws of Idolatry repeats the overall principle, that we may not worship anything created, even if only as a way of honoring them for keeping the world going.

We are also not allowed to read books on alien worship, nor to think about anything connected to their worship. Even to look carefully at one of their images is prohibited by Vayikra 19;4, אל תפנו אל האלילים, do not turn to idols. For Rambam, “turning” means any lasting thoughts, since we may then be drawn in further. Similarly, Devarim 12;30 forbids investigating how they worship their gods, even if in order to be sure they haven’t hit on a good way to worship, which we could apply to Hashem.

Not Trusting Ourselves

The root of these prohibitions is that we don’t trust ourselves to resist the lures of their ideas, a sense of mistrust that applies equally to other areas, as Rambam lays out in 2;3 of Laws of Idolatry, where he records the prohibition to think about anything that could lead us to uproot any principle of the Torah. If some area of study could plausibly lead us to doubt the divinity of the Torah, existence of freewill, or involvement of Hashem in world events, we’re not allowed to even think about them.

This is because we’re not as smart as we think we are. We think we can understand fully whatever we think about when, actually, we can’t. And learning that lesson is one of the basic lessons of the laws of alien worship and its’ related laws, according to Rambam.

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.