Shiur #22: The Reasons for the Mitzvot: the War on Idolatry

  • Rav Chaim Navon


A.        Avraham and the Idol Worshippers


As part of his discussion of the reasons for the mitzvot, the Rambam proposes that many are aimed at combatting and eliminating idolatry. In chapter twenty-nine of Book III, which we will be looking at in this shiur, the Rambam describes the historical background of this epic struggle: "It is well known that Avraham was brought up in the religion and the opinion of the Sabians." This was a pagan cult in the region of Charan, under Muslim rule – a cult that was still active in the Rambam's time. The members of this cult claimed to be the continuation of an ancient form of idolatry. The Rambam accepted this claim, and believed that Avraham had been forced to deal with this very cult.


In one of the Sabian texts, The Nabataean Agriculture, the Rambam found reference to the struggle between those who believed in the stars and Avraham (from the perspective of the former, obviously). He adopted this as the foundation of his argument that Avraham lived within the pagan environment of the Sabians. In his view, it was Avraham who started the war against the Sabian religion:


He therefore began to attack the belief of the Sabians, to expose the falsehood of their opinions, and to proclaim publicly in opposition to them, “the name of the Lord, the God of the Universe” (Bereishit 21:33). This proclamation included at the same time the Existence of God, and the creation of the universe by God.


The Rambam then goes on to record Avraham's absolute historical victory:


The result of the course which Avraham took, is the fact that most people, as we see at present, agree in praising him, and being proud of him; so that even those who are not his descendants call themselves by his name. No one opposes him, and no one ignores his merits, except some ignoble remnants of the nations left in the remote corners of the earth, like the savage Turks in the extreme North, and the Indians in the extreme South. These are remnants of the Sabians, who once filled the earth.


Indeed, Avraham realized God's promise: "All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you" (Bereishit 12:3; 28:14).


B.        The Sabian Religion


What did the Sabians believe in? They were idolaters, in the simplest sense. They worshipped the sun and the other heavenly figures.


They consider the stars as deities, and the sun as the chief deity. They believe that all the seven stars are gods, but the two luminaries are greater than all the rest. They say distinctly that the sun governs the world, both that which is above and that which is below; these are exactly their expressions.


In the Rambam's view, as set forth in his Mishneh Torah (“Laws of Idolatry,” 1: 1-2), idolatry in general began with worship of the sun. The stars and the heavenly orbs are truly very lofty creations, and it is not difficult to understand why people began to serve them. At first, they admired them as God's agents or messengers; eventually, they came to worship them as sources of power in their own right. The Sabian faith awards a place of honor to idols which represent the spirituality emanating from a certain star. This spirituality, according to their belief, also rests upon certain trees, which are sacred to the Sabian people. Thus, worship of the stars led to worship of gods and idols. According to the Rambam, the prophets of Ba'al and of Asheira, as mentioned in Tanakh (see I Melakhim 18:19) are also connected to this worship. All are enveloped in the same ancient idolatry.


With the passage of time, this idolatry gained a philosophical dimension:


Those who were able to think, and were philosophers in those days, could only raise themselves to the idea that God is the spirit of the spheres: the spheres with their stars being the body, and God the spirit.


The Sabians believed as self-evident that the world had existed forever, since the heavens, in their eyes, were God. Since there is no God outside of the world, it is clear that the world must be eternal. The Sabians believed in some of the characters in Tanakh, but their narratives are distorted: Adam, they maintained, was a regular human being, born of a male and female, and he was a prophet who called for worship of the moon. Noach is denounced as having opposed worship of the idols.


Judaism's war against Sabianism is not a one-way affair. Sabian books, too, prohibited any argument over the "true religion." Thus, for example, their books describe stories of natural ways of bringing about thunder and other phenomena, to refute the divine origin and nature of the miracles described in the Torah.


C.        Mitzvot that Come to Counter Idolatry


It was Avraham who launched the war on idolatry. His campaign was intensified by the master of prophets, Moshe:


[Avraham] induced these people, by showing kindness to them, to serve God. Afterwards came the chief of the prophets [Moshe], and completed the work by the commandment to slay those unbelievers, to blot out their name, and to utterly uproot them.


It is interesting here to compare a different source, in which the Rambam describes Avraham's life-work. At the beginning of the “Laws of Idolatry,” in his Mishneh Torah, he writes:


After this mighty one [Avraham] was weaned, he began to explore and think. Though he was a child, he began to think [incessantly] throughout the day and night, wondering: How is it possible for the sphere to continue to revolve without having anyone controlling it? Who is causing it to revolve? Surely, it does not cause itself to revolve.


He had no teacher, nor was there anyone to inform him. Rather, he was mired in Ur Kasdim among the foolish idolaters. His father, mother, and all the people [around him] were idol worshipers, and he would worship with them. [However,] his heart was exploring and [gaining] understanding.


Ultimately, he appreciated the way of truth and understood the path of righteousness through his accurate comprehension. He realized that there was one God who controlled the sphere, that He created everything, and that there is no other God among all the other entities. He knew that the entire world was making a mistake. What caused them to err was their service of the stars and images, which made them lose awareness of the truth.


Avraham was forty years old when he became aware of his Creator. Once he recognized and knew Him, he began to formulate replies to the inhabitants of Ur Kasdim and debate with them, telling them that they were not following a proper path. He broke their idols and began to teach the people that it is fitting to serve only the God of the world. To Him [alone] is it fitting to bow down, sacrifice, and offer libations, so that the people of future [generations] would recognize Him. [Conversely,] it is fitting to destroy and break all the images, lest all the people err concerning them, like those people who thought that there are no other gods besides these [images]. Since he persuaded them through the strength of his arguments, the king desired to kill him. He was [saved through] a miracle and left for Charan. [There,] he issued a great call to all people to inform them that there is one God in the entire world and it is proper to serve Him. He would go out and call to the people, gathering them in city after city and country after country, until he came to the land of Canaan… (“Laws of Idolatry,” 1:3)[1]


"And Avraham was forty years old when he became aware of his Creator” – Avraham [Ra'avad] says: there is a tradition that he was three years old, as it is written, “Since (ekev) Avraham has obeyed Me” (Bereishit 26:5), and the gematriya of “ekev” is 172. [I.e., “Avraham has obeyed me 172 years out of the 175 years of his life.] (Ra'avad's gloss ad loc.)


The Rambam and Ra'avad argue as to whether Avraham came to recognize God at the age of forty, or at the age of three. Chazal offer sources for both opinions (Nedarim 32a; Pesikta Rabbati 21). Clearly, these are two very different concepts of faith. Avraham as perceived by the Rambam travelled a very difficult path to achieve his faith. He had to search, investigate, analyze, and meditate, until – through his hard work – he ultimately arrived at the truth. Avraham as perceived by Ra'avad arrived at his faith at the age of three – approximately the age at which a person begins to gain some sort of idea of the world outside of himself. The controversy here actually centers on the question of the naturalness of faith: is faith ingrained in a person from birth, or is intensive work required in order to bring it to the fore?


Let us return to the Rambam's words in the Guide. He maintains that Avraham's campaign was a one-man operation which sought to bring the true faith to a world seeped in the poison of idolatry. Moshe's task was completely different. He did not propagate his own message, but rather established a divine constitution – the Torah – which was meant to combat the corrupt and false ideas and practice of idolatry. Unlike Avraham, who fought idolatry in a moderate way, through information and persuasion, the Torah of Moshe launches a frontal attack. In the Rambam's view, this attack is the main aim of the Torah.


The principal purpose of the whole Law was the removal and utter destruction of idolatry, and all that is connected therewith, even its name, and everything that might lead to any such practices… [or] to imitate the heathen in any of these deeds.


The centrality of the war on idolatry, in terms of the Rambam's view, makes perfect sense. The Rambam argues that the perfection of the human intellect is man's most supreme pursuit. Idolatrous practices themselves concerned the Rambam less than the evil and false beliefs that they entailed. Idolatry brings a person to absurd views concerning the world and God, and therefore the Torah is vehemently opposed to it. Therefore, the Rambam concludes, many of the mitzvot are aimed at combatting such foolish beliefs:


I say that my knowledge of the belief, practice, and worship of the Sabians has given me an insight into many of the divine precepts, and has led me to know their reason. You will confirm it when I shall give the reason of commandments which are seemingly purposeless… The knowledge of these theories and practices is of great importance in explaining the reasons of the precepts. For it is the principal object of the Torah and the axis round which it turns, to make the existence of idolatry impossible, so as to blot out these opinions from man's heart.


The Rambam notes two secondary aims in the all-encompassing war on idolatry: to erase these views from people's hearts, and to erase acts of idolatry and its worship from reality. As always, for the Rambam, the thoughts are a higher priority than the actions. One first has to eradicate all traces of idolatry from reality, and this is done "so as to blot out these opinions from man's heart." The most important aim is to purify faith from the vain beliefs of the pagans.


Further on in the Guide, the Rambam explains many of the "chukkim" – the mitzvot which appear to lack any logical explanation – against the background of the customs among the pagans, as reflected in the books of the Sabians. The following are just a few examples, from one chapter in the Guide:


We have explained in our large work that it is prohibited to round the corners of the head, and to mar the corners of the beard, because it was the custom of idolatrous priests. For the same reason, the wearing of garments made of linen and wool is prohibited: the heathen priests adorned themselves with garments containing vegetable and animal material, whilst they held in their hand a seal made of a mineral. This you find written in their books. The same is also the reason of the precept, "A woman shall not wear that which pertains to a man" (Devarim 22:5). You find it in the book Tomtom, that a male person should wear the colored attire of women when he stands before Venus, and a female, when standing before Mars, should wear a buckler and other armor….


It was the custom of the people in those days to sow barley and stones of grapes together, in the belief that the vineyard could only prosper in this way. Therefore the Torah prohibits us to use seed that has grown in a vineyard… For the practices of the heathen, which they considered as of a magic and talismanic character, even if not containing any idolatrous element, are prohibited… (Guide, III:37)


D.        Criticism of the Rambam


The Rambam's explanation of the reasons of the mitzvot in light of Sabian customs drew sharp criticism. This is one of the Rambam's most controversial theories. What was all the fuss about?


First, the historical accuracy of the theory is itself in some doubt. The generally accepted view in modern scholarship is that in the year 830, the Caliph Al-Ma'moun ordered all the inhabitants of Charan to convert to Islam, exempting only the adherents of the ancient religions. Some of the idolaters in the region decided to pretend that they belonged to the ancient Sabian religion, and attributed their books and customs to this faith. This false Sabian cult survived for hundreds of years, until its members were annihilated by the Mongols, in 1260.[2] The Rambam viewed the Sabian books as representing the foolish beliefs that had prevailed already at the time of Avraham, and which were contested by the Torah. As it turns out, however, these were most probably later texts.


Moreover, some of the books noted by the Rambam as sources of Sabian beliefs make no mention of the cult at all,[3] and scholars are divided as to when and where they were written.[4] Perhaps some of the pagan traditions of the Sabians are indeed of ancient origin. However, it is impossible to know this with certainty, and a heavy cloud of doubt hovers over the Rambam's central thesis – that the Torah comes to counter the Sabian customs.


Some scholars have suggested that the Rambam was not referring to the Sabians as a specific nation, but rather as representatives of the general, universal phenomenon of idolatry, extending over many ages.[5] The Rambam apparently assumed a certain continuity, even if not absolute identity, linking the idolaters of different generations and geographical locations. On the basis of this assumption it becomes possible to understand the jumble of sources dealing with completely different periods.


Thus far we have addressed just one criticism of the Rambam's theory. There is another, far more fundamental one. We will address it in its full scope and power in the next shiur, when we examine the Rambam's approach to the reasons for the commandments concerning the sacrifices. In this sphere the Rambam's reasons ignited a tremendous storm of controversy. For the meantime, we shall present just the main direction of the criticism.


The very suggestion that many of the mitzvot come to combat idolatry diminishes, to some extent, their value. For example, ancient and more modern commentators alike have explained the prohibition against "kil’ayim" – sowing a field with mixed seeds – as a prohibition against corruption of the boundaries and categories of nature: the mitzva, according to this view, expresses an eternal message concerning man's obligation to perfect nature, the prohibition against destroying it, and the distinction between repair and destruction.[6] This discussion also has ramifications for such contemporary issues as genetic engineering and the cloning of animals or even human beings. The Rambam, on the other hand, argues that the prohibition of kil’ayim is a targeted attack on a specific custom of pagan worship, which has long disappeared. What meaning does such a mitzva have, then, for someone of our generation? Clearly, the Rambam maintained that the mitzvot are binding for all time, even if we assume that their reason, or meaning, no longer exists. Had the Torah permitted the nullification of any law whose reason was no longer valid, it would have led to anarchy and disdain for the Torah. But how is a believer to feel upon discovering that the stringent and challenging laws to which he devotes such careful attention, and according to which he conducts his life, are no more than an ancient relic of a fight that ended long ago?


Many philosophers view the Rambam's approach as diminishing the importance of the mitzvot, turning them into an educational device that is time and context-dependent, and thus devoid of eternal value. The Rambam attributes absolute, eternal value only to true views. True actions – the mitzvot – lose much of their value and importance.


The Rambam's defenders argue that the role that he attributes to chukkim – the commandments that combat idolatry – should not be underrated. These chukkim are an educational device for inculcating true beliefs, and to the Rambam's view this is a most exalted aim, for which many people have given their lives.


I personally admire the Rambam's fierce war on idolatry, his struggle to find reasons for all the mitzvot and to counter the view that they represent arbitrary divine dictates, and the tremendous educational system that he builds from the foundation stones of the Torah. I must acknowledge, though, that in this particular area I am left unsatisfied.


Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1]  From the translation by Eliyahu Touger.

[2]  See Guide, I:63.

[3]  S. Stromza, "Tzaba’im shel Charan Ve-tzaba’im etzel Ha-Rambam," Sefunot – Sidra Chadasha 7 (22), pp. 277-295.

[4] Michael Schwartz, a translator of the Guide into Hebrew, defended the Rambam and wrote that "Even among these scholars [i.e., those who question the antiquity of The Nabatean Agriculture], some believe that some of the views cited in the book are reliable" (III:29, p. 525, n. 31).

[5]  Stromza (see above, n. 2).

[6] See, for example, Ramban's commentary on Vayikra 19:19.