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 …

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