Shiur #10: Worship of God

  • Rav Joshua Amaru

1.         Two Parts to the Fifth Principle


The Rambam was a radical monotheist.  Besides objecting to any sort of polytheism, the Rambam insisted that all religious activity be directed exclusively to God Himself; the use of intermediaries of any sort is banned. 


This is the Rambam's fifth principle:


The fifth foundation is that He, may He be exalted, is He Whom it is proper to worship and to praise; and [that it is also proper] to promulgate praise of Him and obedience to Him.  This may not be done for any being other than Him in reality, from among the angels, the spheres, the elements, and that which is composed of them, for all these have their activities imprinted upon them.  They have no destiny [of their own] and no rootedness [of their own in reality] other than His will,[1] may He be exalted, [of them].  Do not, furthermore, seize upon intermediaries in order to reach Him but direct your thoughts toward Him, may He be exalted, and turn away from that which is other than He.  This fifth foundation is the prohibition against idolatry, and there are many verses in the Torah prohibiting it.


There are two parts to the Rambam's position.  The first part forbids worship or praise to any entity other than God.  If said entity does not exist, then such activity is not merely forbidden, it is stupid, and the Rambam does not even bother to mention such a possibility in this context.  He focuses on unquestionably existent entities, such as angels, spheres and elements.[2]  These, he claims, should never be objects of worship, for they are not deserving of our praise and thanks, nor can they answer our prayers, since they have no will of their own and are simply means by which God pursues His ends.[3] The only being who can really be said to be responsible for anything that occurs is God and, as such, only He is deserving of worship.


The second part of the Rambam's position forbids the use of intermediaries as a means to relate indirectly to God.  This stance calls into question a great deal of common religious practice.  In proscribing the use of intermediaries in religious expression (both praise and worship), the Rambam puts pressure on everything from the practice of praying at the graves of tzadikim (the righteous) to references to angels in the liturgy, not to mention the Chassidic institution of the Tzadik who acts as an intermediary in his prayers for his community.


2.         Worship of Angels and other Subordinate Beings


The mistake of regarding beings other than God as deserving of worship has profound consequences according to the Rambam.  It is the beginning of a slippery slope whose conclusion is full-blown idolatry from which God the creator of the universe has been eliminated.  Here is how the Rambam introduces his exposition of the laws relating to idolatry in the Mishneh Torah:


During the times of Enosh, mankind made a great mistake, and the wise men of that generation gave thoughtless counsel. Enosh himself was one of those who erred.


Their mistake was as follows: They said God created stars and spheres with which to control the world. He placed them on high and treated them with honor, making them servants who minister before Him. Accordingly, it is fitting to praise and glorify them and to treat them with honor. [They perceived] this to be the will of God, blessed be He, that they magnify and honor those whom He magnified and honored, just as a king desires that the servants who stand before him be honored. Indeed, doing so is an expression of honor to the king.


After conceiving of this notion, they began to construct temples to the stars and offer sacrifices to them. They would praise and glorify them with words, and prostrate themselves before them, because by doing so, they would - according to their false conception - be fulfilling the will of God.


This was the foundation of the worship of false gods, and this was the rationale of those who worshiped them, [though] they would not say that there is no other god except for this star…


Thus, these practices spread throughout the world. People would serve images with strange practices - one more distorted than the other - offer sacrifices to them, and bow down to them. As the years passed, [God's] glorious and awesome name was forgotten by the entire population. [It was no longer part of] their speech or thought, and they no longer knew Him. Thus, all the common people, the women, and the children would know only the image of wood or stone and the temples of stone to which they were trained from their childhood to bow down and serve, and in whose name they swore.[4]


The historical accuracy of this sketch is doubtful,[5] but that is not the point.  The Rambam provides us here with the beginning of an account of the psychology and sociology of paganism. Human beings have a basic need to understand and relate to the world around them.  In trying to do so, they encounter forces that are beyond them, and appear vastly more powerful than they are, for example, fundamental natural forces like the weather, the movement of stars and planets, and the ocean (almost all idolatrous systems have deities that account for such things).  Regardless of whether the point of departure is a basic monotheism (as the Rambam posits) or not, it is a natural response to personify these forces and conclude that "it is fitting to praise and glorify them and to treat them with honor."


            Human beings not only need to understand the world around them, they need to connect and relate to their surroundings on an interpersonal level.  Even rationalist medieval Aristotelians (like the Rambam) assumed that higher entities like the "spheres" must be, in some sense, conscious beings.  (Each planet is part of a sphere.)  If such entities exist and are vastly superior to human beings in their abilities to control and affect the world, it makes sense to praise, honor and beseech them.  The Rambam thus makes a point to teach us the flaw in this reasoning.  Only God is an independent agent; subordinate forces and powers in the universe, though perhaps conscious (as the Rambam understood it), are not worthy of worship because they are merely tools by which God carries out His will.


3.         The Problem of our Post-Pagan World


Today, the danger of paganism along these lines is remote for most modern people.  Our understanding of the world and the forces that work in it – be they physical, meteorological or astronomical – is mechanistic.  We do not imbue the basic forces of the world with personality or consciousness and we are not tempted to attribute a will to them.  None of the entities that make up our world is superior to us.  There is obviously an upside to this reality – the paganism that infused the ancient world is mostly gone – but there is also a downside.  The pagan finds spiritual reality, and contact with that which he perceives as divine, to be readily accessible.  By his lights, the world contains an elaborate spiritual hierarchy, which can be accessed most readily by appealing to the “lower” and most intimate aspects of it.  For most modern people, the pagan’s spiritually infused reality (which, even if confused, is onto something) is unavailable or at least remote.  By the same token, most modern people find it a challenge to access any sort of spiritual reality; in other words, they find it difficult to develop a living relationship with God. 


The Rambam, as a product of his philosophical culture, and the most important promulgator of it within Judaism, is closer to the modern understanding of reality. Nonetheless, unlike some of his contemporaries, he insists that even angels (whom the Rambam associated with natural and supernatural forces) are not to be regarded as independent personalities worthy of praise or worship.  Worship is only to God.  The problem then becomes how to make that worship more than lip service and to turn it into a living relationship.


4.         Intermediaries


One popular way to do so is to find religious connections through intermediaries who are more accessible than God Himself.  As I mentioned above, the Rambam is a radical: he rejects the use of any sort of intermediary in divine worship, insisting that all religious activity be directed solely at God.  At the same time, he argues for a deeply transcendent conception of God, with whom it appears very difficult to come into contact. 


What is wrong, according to the Rambam, with going to the Rebbe or the tzadik and asking him to intercede?  Great tzadikim, after all, do have a closer relationship with God than most of us.  Likewise, what is wrong with asking, in prayer, for the intercession of a tzadik who has already passed into the World to Come, by invoking his spirit at his grave?  Or in another version of invoking an intermediary, what about the many Kabbalistic prayers that involve invoking angels or sefirot to intercede on our behalf? 


This radical position of the Rambam's involves the rejection of an attitude that is both well-entrenched historically and theologically and that has undergone something of a renaissance in recent years.  The last twenty years or so have seen a resurgence of activities that have always existed and were only somewhat suppressed by modernity.  More and more people go to rebbeim and tzadikim in order to have them pray for them.  More and more people go to daven at the graves of the righteous, with their prayers including the invocation of the spirit of that tzadik to be a melitz yosher, an advocate before the divine throne.  These people are surely not davening to the tzadik or to his spirit, nor are they at risk of failing to recognize that God is the master of the universe.  They simply recognize the difficulty of achieving a direct connection with a hidden God and call upon the help of spiritual giants, alive and dead, who have had such connections in order to make contact with God.  Why does the Rambam reject this?[6]


5.         Love of God


It is a striking fact about the Rambam that the combination of a transcendent conception of God with the rejection of all intermediaries does not cause him to give up on the possibility of a deep religious connection with God.  Despite God's transcendence, the Rambam understands love of God to be an ecstatic experience.  In describing the mitzva of love of God, the Rambam says the following: 


What is the proper [degree] of love? That a person should love God with a very great and exceeding love until his soul is bound up in the love of God. Thus, he will always be obsessed with this love as if he is lovesick.


[A lovesick person's] thoughts are never diverted from the love of that woman. He is always obsessed with her: when he sits down, when he gets up, when he eats and drinks. With an even greater [love], the love for God should be [implanted] in the hearts of those who love Him and are obsessed with Him at all times, as we are commanded (Devarim 6:5): ["Love God] with all your heart and with all soul."


This concept was implied by Shlomo when he stated, as a metaphor (Shir ha-Shirim 2:5): "I am lovesick." [Indeed,] the totality of Shir ha-Shirim is a parable describing [this love].[7]


The Rambam's resistance to any sort of intermediaries when it comes to worship of God takes on new meaning in light of this passage.  It is not merely a dry philosophical position that excludes intermediaries for fear of a slippery slope to idolatry.  No one wants to connect with his or her beloved through someone else.  An intimate relationship, whether with another person or with God must be direct, especially if it aspires to reach the levels described by the Rambam.  Few people in fact reach that level, but love of God remains a mitzva that is incumbent upon all.  In a sense, the Rambam (who was, without question, a religious and intellectual elitist) propounds a sort of religious anti-elitism.  Access and experience of God, and a relationship to Him through worship, are available to all; calling upon intermediaries can only obscure this. 


            There is no doubt that the Rambam's position about intermediaries is not accepted by all, either amongst his contemporaries or today.  Whether or not one accepts it, the Rambam's insistence that we are all commanded to have a relationship with God is a religious challenge worthy of attention. 



[1] Kellner, from whom this translation is taken, renders this "other than His love…" I have used "other than His will," as appears in the Kapach translation.  I am not qualified to have an opinion about the correct translation of the Arabic, but the difference for our purposes is negligible.  In medieval Aristotelian physics, the movement of the spheres (which are associated with angels) and the elements is one of mechanistic attraction (in the sense that a magnet attracts a piece of metal).  As such, it can be said that the spheres move out of “love” for God, but the point the Rambam is making is that natural (or even supernatural) forces have no independent will and act exclusively in accordance with their nature as determined by God.  

[2] It is ironic that at least two out of the three elements of this list are things that we do not conceive of as existing.  The spheres are part of a discredited Aristotelian astronomy and the elements (earth, air, water and fire), though experienced by us, have no fundamental status as entities.  I will discuss angels briefly below.

[3] The Rambam appears to contradict himself on this point.  In The Guide of the Perplexed (II:7) he says that the spheres and intellects have free choice but that it is different from that of human beings.  I do not think that this is a very difficult problem.  What the Rambam means in the Guide is that angels are conscious beings and as such act themselves rather than simply being pushed around like automatons.  Their actions, however, are wholly in tune with God's will, from which they cannot diverge. 

[4] Hilkhot Avodat Kokhavim 1:1-2.  My thanks to for the translation. 

[5] The Rambam was not a historian, nor did he pretend to be.  The historical sketch quoted here is derived from the Rambam's belief that monotheism is, in principle, accessible to any rational person, giving rise to the question of how human culture ever got so off track as to require the cultural and spiritual revolution led by Avraham that the Rambam goes on to elaborate in the subsequent passages.  There are two premises that set the stage for the Rambam's historical sketch: 1. initially, monotheism was the norm; 2. anyone who is fully rational will conclude that monotheism is true, regardless of cultural context and without the help of revelation.  If we deny these premises, there is no need to explain how idolatry sprang up.  I will argue below that the risk of idolatry, or something like it, is implicit in religious consciousness.

[6]   There is no doubt that many of the great scholars who advocate worship at the graves of the righteous, or the intercession of a tzadik (which is a major theme in Chasidut) or even prayer that invokes various sefirot, did not see themselves as being in conflict with the Rambam's position.  Nonetheless, I believe that the Rambam would reject all of these activities for reasons I will elaborate below.

[7] Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva 10:3.  Translation courtesy of