The role of motive in alien worship: Love and fear as mitigating factors

A debate in Sanhedrin 61b forces us to consider the role of intention in alien worship. Abbaye and Rava argue over whether one who worships מאהבה ומיראה, out of love or fear, is liable for alien worship. Rava says no, such a person is patur, not liable.

Depending on how we define the term, Rava has just introduced a large loophole in the alien worship construct. As you might imagine, the definition of those words therefore led to much halachic discussion.

Rashi: Love or Fear of a Human Being

Rashi interprets the term as love or fear of someone, such as the person who made the object, or a king who will punish those who do not worship it. Rashi adds that there was no intent to accept this object as a supernatural power.

For example, the Gemara discusses a Jew’s mistakenly bowing to an andarta, a statue made to honor the king; such statues are occasionally worshipped, although (according to Rashi) this Jew didn’t know it. If the Jew intended to worship, that’s worship; if s/he intended not to, that’s nothing. If s/he did it out of love or fear, that’s the middle case—which Rashi explains as meaning this Jew thought it was permitted to bow out of love or fear, not realizing it was only exempt from liability.

There’s more to clarify in Rashi’s view, as later authorities struggled to do, but let’s take a detour to Rambam’s reading. While his view is rejected, it is shocking enough to obligate consideration.

Rambam on Love and Fear

In Avodah Zarah 3;6, Rambam says love is that the person thinks the object is so beautiful, s/he feels the need to worship it. A modern example would be someone going to a church because the hymns were so beautiful (assuming that the church in question was a place of alien worship, and that singing was the way of that worship). Fear, for Rambam, is if the person comes to believe that this object has the power to hurt the person unless s/he worships it. If I don’t do the rain dance, for example, my withered crops will die.

The deep problem in Rambam’s view is that that would seem to be the definition of alien worship, turning to a power other than Hashem for protection from trouble. Rambam throws in a confounding factor, that if the person who does this accepts the object as a god, s/he is liable for the death penalty. He seems to be carving out a category where the person doesn’t believe in this, but is worried enough about its influence to worship it in the way it is worshipped.

Exempt Isn’t Allowed, Mistaking the Supernatural for the Natural

Kessef Mishneh offers several ways to make Rambam’s view more palatable, but we only have space for one, that patur for Rambam means still liable for an atoning sacrifice, like someone who transgresses unwittingly. There are more answers offered, some of which come up in elucidating Rashi’s basic view, but I want to offer my own suggestion.

In three weeks, we will see the ambiguous line between what is permitted because that’s how Hashem left the natural world to work (some of which might look supernatural to us, and yet is fully allowed), and that which is prohibited because it is worship of alien powers. We don’t worry that taking aspiring is worshipping the god of headaches, for example.

That line is not as clear as it seems, as we’ll discuss then. Here, I wonder whether Rambam meant “out of fear” to be that the person thinks s/he has to act this way as part of living in the world. What if someone comes to believe that dancing a rain dance is part of how the rain in the clouds is loosened, in some not-yet-explained way? It seems to me Rambam might have read that as the person worshipping out of fear of the consequences, with no recognition of any power, just the facts of how the world seems to work. That is a patur act of alien worship.

The Importance of Being Articulate

Getting back to Rashi, Ramah (R. Meir haLevi Abulafia, 12th-13th century Spain) and Meiri both differentiate based on whether the person announced his intentions. Stoning Markolis is an act of alien worship, whether out of anger, hatred, or worship, unless the person made clear that he gave no credence to Markolis’ powers, and was only doing this act out of love or fear of some human being.

Ramah throws in his surprising view that Rava only meant this after the fact, that the person would be obligated to be killed before acting even in this way. Motives of love or fear don’t change alien worship, according to Ramah, they only change how the courts deal with that person.

Meiri offers one further twist, that if witnesses warn the person, s/he would be liable even if s/he had announced love or fear intentions.  While announced motives allow people to frame an act as alien worship without full intention, the direct warning of witnesses would restore it to its original state.

Love, Fear, and the Interplay of Objective Actions with Stated or Unstated Motivations

With well-established objects of alien worship, we see, more than a few authorities seem to have held that actions will be considered alien worship unless explicitly given a different framework (and even there, there might be an obligation to let oneself be killed rather than transgress). At the other extreme, the simplest reading of Rambam might lead us to believe he would have exempted those who fear the consequences of neglecting to act a certain way, even if that “way” is the worship of a particular object.

We would do well to remember that this whole conversation happens only in the framework of patur vs. chayyav, not liable vs. liable, and leaves untouched the obligation to be killed rather than transgress. I propose we can leave the exact shades of who is liable for what to Hashem and any future Sanhedrin, and remind ourselves that worship of powers other than Hashem is and continues to be a problem.

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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