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Unspeakable Sins


by Moshe Halbertal, by Avishai Margalit, translated by Naomi Goldblum
Harvard University Press, 299 pp., $39.95

If hatred were affected by logic, I dolatry would put an end to holy wars. (But then, if hatred were amenable to logic, perhaps there never would have been any holy wars.) The concept of idolatry has been used as a weapon in these wars by the Western monotheistic religions discussed in this book, primarily Judaism, but also Christianity and Islam. It has been used in two ways: first, to refer to the worship of gods other than the true God, violating the first of Ten Commandments: “You shall have no other gods beside Me”; and, second, to refer to the representation of a god (it might even be the true God) in unacceptable ways, violating the second Commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image of any likeness.”

To understand idolatry, type A, we must examine arguments that monotheistic Western religions have used to support their claim that they worship the true God and that other religions worship false, lower case gods. Moshe Halbertal, a member of the Shalom Hartman Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, knows a great deal about the history of the relationships between Judaism and Christianity and the religions that they encountered in their long history; that is, he knows about religious hatred. To understand idolatry, type B, we must examine arguments, made by the same Western traditions, that some people represent the right God in the wrong way, in the form of false idols. Avishai Margalit, professor of Philosophy at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, knows a great deal about the ways in which philosophers in the Western traditions from Plato to today have formulated questions of truth and error, similarity and difference, perception and reality.

Together Halbertal and Margalit have created a remarkable book, which tells us, more thoroughly and persuasively than anyone has done so far, why and in what ways religions hate one another. They ask, “What is idolatry and why is it viewed as an unspeakable sin?” By applying philosophical arguments to religious texts they gain new insight into the problems of pluralism and intolerance. In view of the mass slaughter taking place in the name of religion, far too much of it glibly and falsely explained by arguments about “fundamentalism,” this is a very important book. Moreover, despite the topic’s complexity, the book is elegantly written and translated, and mercifully free of jargon. Epistemological questions are unraveled and formulated in lucid prose, as if Will Rogers were trying to explain each problem step by step to an extremely precocious child, perhaps the young Bertrand Russell. The often complex arguments are illuminated on every page by anecdotes and examples, many of them funny or sad, naive or cunning, beautiful or repellent. Some of the examples come from most unexpected sources, such as the story (used to illustrate a particular sort of intellectual error) of the man who voted for George Bush because Bush was a Democrat, a fine governor, and of Greek origin (i.e., Dukakis).

The accusation of idolatry has been used to set the boundaries between paganism and non-paganism, monotheism and polytheism. The people who make images of wrong gods are the people that Western religions used to call pagan—that is, those who are not Jews or, later, Christians or Muslims. The authors observe that

from the point of view of practitioners, anthropologists, or historians of different pagan religions, the very general category of paganism—a category that includes an enormous variety of religious phenomena—seems empty. Mesopotamians and Egyptians would not have described themselves under the supercategory of pagans. They were Mesopotamians or Egyptians, each group forming a distinct religion. The only perspective from which the category of paganism makes any sense is the non-pagan perspective, and it is this perspective that we have tried to explore.

But, as they repeatedly point out, the distinction between pagan and nonpagan is not the same as that between monotheism and polytheism. In Jewish mysticism, and in the Kabbalah, divinity can be a complex force, not necessarily a unified single power; there are other forces and deities, including angels and cherubim. What makes one form of worship right and the other wrong is, they argue, a question that requires many answers.

The authors make the point at the start that what, initially, distinguishes non-pagans, i.e. Jews, from pagans is

not the answer to the question of what forces there are in the world, but rather the answer to the question of who one is permitted to worship, of whether worship must be exclusive to the figure at the head of the hierarchy [of deities].

Pagans, then, are guilty of idolatry, type A, because they worship the wrong deity. As Halbertal and Margalit write, “the ban on idolatry is an attempt to dictate exclusivity, to map the unique territory of the one God.”

But to engage in idolatry, type B, is not just to worship the wrong god: the mistake lies not in the choice of the object of worship, but in how one understands worship itself. The authors call this kind of idolatry one in which the method of worship is wrong, or, as rabbinic writings put it, “strange,” “zarah.” By calling the worship of a physical image idolatry, monotheism not only protects itself against other possible forms and objects of worship, but defines itself as the only possible way of worshiping.

I dolatry presents a great variety of Jewish texts that argue that other religions are based upon false assumptions, mistaken premises, and flawed logic. The authors patiently dissect these arguments. They analyze God—the God of the Bible, of the Talmud, and of the medieval philosopher Maimonides—with the help of the contemporary or near-contemporary ideas of J. L. Austin, C. S. Peirce, Nelson Goodman, G. E. Moore, Gilbert Ryle, Wittgenstein, and others. If the prohibition against idolatry is “the thick wall that separates the non-pagans from pagans,” the location of that dividing wall is not fixed, and “opposing conceptions of idolatry define the outskirts of the city of God differently.” Indeed, changing conceptions of God create different ideas about what is idolatry, and no single account of it will be adequate. The authors ask good questions: Do other people worship gods who do not exist at all, or gods who exist but are inferior to our own god? When other people worship gods who resemble ours in some ways, what is the basis on which we may argue that two religious phenomena are the same or different?

By the end of the book, though, the authors have been able to boil down what they call the “different articulations of what stands for the opposition between idolatry and proper worship.” One account, examined in the first chapter, is to be found in biblical descriptions of idolatry as a form of sexual betrayal. It relies on an anthropomorphic view of God, since, in the Bible, idolatry is considered a sin “through analogies to human institutions and relationships that create demands of exclusive obligation and loyalty, obligations that are breached in the worship of other gods.” Indeed, the Biblical God is a person: emotional, angry, jealous, forgiving: He is not—yet—an abstraction. The Jews of the Bible were, in effect, married to the God that protected them, and the Jew who worshiped an idol was thus seen as an adulterer. I dolatry was also seen as political rebellion, since the political and social cohesion of the Jews depended on the worship of their one God, and because God had designated the boundaries of their territory.

Another conception of idolatry was based on philosophical distinctions. For Maimonides writing in the twelfth century, God is abstract, and the anthropomorphic view of God was itself nothing but idolatry; and so Maimonides argues that to read literally the human metaphors used to describe God in the Bible is a grave fallacy. In this view any verbal representation of God is improper, since language necessarily conveys an erroneous picture of God. Whenever one talks about Him it cannot be God one is talking about since God is always beyond language. The authors write that according to Maimonides:

Nothing can be known about God’s essence and thus there is obviously no possibility of expressing such knowledge…. There is no congruence between linguistic expressions and intellectually conceived knowledge about God. The attempt to give this knowledge linguistic expression is what causes error.

The authors analyze such arguments in great detail, and point out that Maimonides brought about a shift in the interpretation of the Jewish prohibition of idolatry. During the period of the Second Temple, there had been a temporary truce, since the temples of Baal and Astarte ceased to pose any real threat; a legend tells that the Rabbis of the Great Assembly shut idolatry up in a barrel. But Maimonides reopened the barrel, not because any new idolatrous religions posed a threat, but because Jewish consciousness itself had changed:

The focus of the concept of idolatry was…transferred from the performance of alien rituals to the harboring of alien beliefs. The worship of idols is a symptom of alien belief, and is therefore a sin, but it is a sin derived from the belief it expresses and not primarily from the act itself. The transition from alien worship to alien beliefs constitutes a crucial shift in the conception of the sin of idolatry as well: from the sexual sin of idolatry to the sin of the great error.

The authors point out that in post-Biblical thought, the word “idol” implies that an error has been committed: the simple need to worship or believe in something is said to be fulfilled by a false god or a god that is not worthy of worship, a false belief or a truth not worth believing in. Halbertal and Margalit, in tracing the arguments that philosophers have used to pin down erroneous beliefs, find that these arguments recur at each link of a “conceptual chain” that runs throughout Western intellectual history. Those who accuse a worshiper of harboring wrong beliefs make similar intellectual moves at different points in history.

Halbertal and Margalit explore the various attitudes to idolatry that have prevailed from the beginning of recorded Western history to the present. They have identified in the early criticism of idolatry by Jews and Christians certain intellectual tendencies or formulations that later came into use in the criticism not of idolatry as we understand it but of religion and ideology. Though these formulations seem foolish and bigoted to us when we see them in their original form they may not seem so foolish or bigoted when embedded in a contemporary discourse so familiar to us that it is invisible. But whatever their intrinsic validity or invalidity, the fact that the same arguments have been used to combat pagans, folk religions, elite religions, and modern ideologies, must give us pause.

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