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.

After the Biblical rejection of paganism, for example, Jewish and Christian folk beliefs in God were in turn criticized by Jewish and Christian thinkers of what Halbertal and Margalit call the “religious Enlightenment.” By this they refer not to a specific historical period but to a particular attitude toward religions that characterizes both Plato and Maimonides, and that they define as “the religious trend whose criticism of idolatry was influenced by philosophical conceptions about religion.” Plato, for example, criticized Homer for foisting upon the people illusory gods in place of the Platonic reality. Both Greeks and early Christians argued that the religion of the masses and folk tradition relied on imagination, which led people astray: genuine thought was a privilege of the elite. As for Maimonides, he argued that religious traditions and social conventions could, to some extent, blind people to the truth and perpetuate false beliefs and idolatrous practices.

The view that the imagination was responsible for erroneous beliefs was also used to undermine religious belief. This was one of the arguments advanced at a different point in the chain by the rationalists and empiricists of the secular Enlightenment. Imagination had been criticized again and again for distracting people from perceiving the truth about God; but criticism of the imagination by eighteenth-century philosophers (especially Hume) now yielded new conclusions. For with the secular Enlightenment, religion itself—including both Judaism and Christianity—became perceived as an instance of idolatry. Francis Bacon proposed to substitute “true induction” or science for various fallacies that he characterized as “the idols of the tribe,” “the idols of the cave,” and “the idols of the marketplace.” Karl Marx proposed to substitute money, the ultimate fetish, for the gods of organized religion, the opiate (read: illusion) of the masses.

With the last link in the chain, which draws directly on the previous one, we find that ideologies such as nationalism come in for criticism “as a type of collective illusion,” another form of idolatry. The accusation of idolatry here also refers to “a form of absolute devotion, an attitude that makes something into godlike being”: “‘race,’ ‘nation,’ ‘class,’ ‘blood and earth”‘ were some of the idols that make up ideologies. Freud, by characterizing worship as a projection of inner emotional states, did not mean that worshipers ascribed divine power to the wrong objects, but that all forms of worship were illusions. I dolatry, in these last instances, no longer is a concept used to delimit the boundaries between true gods and false gods: anything can be idolized and many illusions can be believed. “Absolute value can be conferred upon many things”—money, “institutions such as the state, persons, goals, ideologies, and even a football team.” In this way, the authors brilliantly demonstrate that not only all of the religious polemics of Western history, but the antireligious polemics as well, are grounded in arguments made against the worship of idols by pagans.

I dolatry is therefore a fluid notion, and the efforts of Halbertal and Margalit to trace its variable meanings become an occasion for looking at the central themes of the Western philosophical tradition from an unusual angle. But in concentrating on anti-pagan views, the authors take a position that, as they themselves say, is not entirely neutral: they make use of ideas inherited from the secular Enlightenment, and much as they examine the secular Enlightenment critically, they themselves assume the “god’s-eye view”—more precisely the “Enlightenment’s-eye view.” Indeed, the Enlightenment alone among world views has the privilege of running with the religious fox and hunting with the scholarly hounds.

And here is where a minor flaw appears in the crystalline structure of their book: viewing the history of religions through Enlightenment spectacles has its limitations. A good example would be the Bible’s central argument against idolatry as a kind of sexual betrayal, a sin analogous to the sins that people commit against other people. Through the metaphor of the Biblical marriage relationship, the worship of a god other than God is likened to the wife’s (Israel’s) adulterous betrayal of her husband (God). Israelites who are seduced by pagan idolatry are constantly being accused of “whoring after other gods,” and idolatry is characterized in the language of forbidden sexual relations, marital reconciliation, sexual morality, jealous husbands, and personal obligation.

But the metaphor of sexual betrayal is trickier than one might suppose simply from reading the Song of Songs, in which “the love of the man and woman is interpreted as a parable for the love of God and Israel.” The authors note the very different theological views that result from using prostitution and nymphomania as metaphors for idolatry and the subtle contrast between sexual jealousy of a rival perceived as superior and one perceived as inferior. Israel, in some of the prophetic writings, is likened to a prostitute who betrays her husband (God), while in others Israel shows her lack of gratitude to God by engaging in promiscuous relations with other partners (gods). The authors remark that we can learn much “about the problem of jealousy and the power of restraint from a marvelous midrash [commentary] in which Rachel teaches God a lesson about jealousy…” In the biblical text (Genesis 29), Jacob wants to marry Rachel, but Rachel’s father, Laban, secretly substitutes his older daughter, Leah, for Rachel in Jacob’s bed on the wedding night. The authors of the midrash, writing in medieval Europe, imagine what Rachel might have said to God centuries later, when the First Temple had been destroyed and many Jews had been killed and exiled, perhaps in punishment for their sin in worshiping idols such as the Golden Calf. Rachel reminds God of the episode of Jacob and Leah, and then says:

I hid under the bed where he was lying with my sister, and he would speak to her and she would be silent, and I would answer everything he said so that he would not recognize my sister’s voice, and thus I did this kindness for her. I was not jealous of her and I did not permit her to be humiliated. And if I who am only flesh and blood, dust and ashes, was not jealous of my co-wife [Jacob subsequently married Rachel as well] and did not permit her to be shamed and humiliated, then You, O living King, why are You jealous of idols that have no reality, and why have You exiled my children and allowed them to be killed by the sword and permitted their enemies to do as they wished with them?” Immediately God’s pity was stirred and he said, “For you, Rachel, I will return the Israelites to their place. (Petikhta, Eikhah Rabbah 24)

Margalit and Halbertal do not remark on the surely relevant fact that in the Bible (Genesis 32–35), Rachel (again, without Jacob’s knowledge) steals her father’s household idols when she subsequently runs away with Jacob; she later deceives her father by telling him she does not have them, and when he searches the tent she remains sitting on the idols and tells him (truthfully or falsely, we do not know) that she is menstruating and therefore cannot get up—another example of the mingling of sexual and idolatrous deceptions. A later midrash suggests that Rachel stole her father’s idols to keep him from worshiping them.

Margalit and Halbertal make their own perceptive midrash on the midrash:

Rachel restrained her jealousy in the most difficult situation imaginable and then sought to teach God a lesson. The clear demand is that this destructive jealousy, which led to Israel’s ruin, should be replaced by restraint and generosity. Such a midrash could be conceived only when the attitude to jealousy had been transformed and the concept of honor had undergone a substantive change. Moreover, in this midrash God is represented as the wife and the idol as the co-wife. It is possible that the feminine representation of God makes the sin of idolatry less severe, as it is perceived as the addition of a co-wife to the beloved wife, which is not a sin in a society where polygamy is permitted, although it is a difficult thing for the first wife to tolerate—in contrast to the representation of idolatry as the wife’s betrayal of her husband, which is a sin punishable by death.

Though God is still explicitly male (he is addressed as “King,” after all), Rachel implicitly compares her jealousy of Leah to God’s jealousy of the idols the Jews were worshiping. That is, Rachel and Jacob became wife and husband, but she was not jealous when Leah earlier “represented” her, as co-wife, in bed with Jacob; analogously, God and Israel were wife and husband, and God (the wife) should not have been jealous when idols were used to “represent” Him (as co-wife) in temples of Israel (the husband).

This medieval analogy would not be acceptable if Israel were regarded as the wife and God as the husband, as they were during the Biblical period, for then the wife (Israel) would be sleeping with another man (the idol), which would be unacceptable to the sexual double standard of the period. Indeed, God was imagined as a female by many of the medieval Jewish mystics who lived at the time when the midrash was written, and it is the ingenious suggestion of Halbertal and Margalit that this development made possible a new, and more liberal, attitude to idolatry. The metaphor of marriage (monogamous for women, polygamous for men) was still used for idolatry, but with different players assigned to the roles of wife and husband.

Suppose we were to take this argument—that the gender of the deity, combined with certain marriage customs, influences the attitude to other religions—and apply it to worshipers of goddesses, still in a male-dominated society (the only kind on record). We might expect those who worship goddesses to be more tolerant than the worshipers of gods—more tolerant, at least, of the promiscuous worship of other peoples’ idols or gods. And since many of the religions of the world use the metaphor of marriage in their religious imagery, such a hypothesis could be strongly suggestive. Margalit and Halbertal do not pursue such comparisons. They have done precisely what they set out to do when they say, “This is not a book…about how pagans describe themselves, or how anthropologists and historians of religions describe paganism.” But their book may inspire a historian of religions to go a bit farther.

We are never given the pagans’-eye view of idolatry. Do the pagans not have their definitions of true and false gods, and of right and wrong ways of representing them? When the authors lay out four types of representations of a god, or three ways of reading a myth, they seem to be not simply describing what the Jews say about the use of idols or myths in other religions, or what the authors, as philosophers, could expect the possible non-Jewish choices to be, but what other religions actually say about idols or myths. To the extent that pagan voices are heard at all, their statements are merely objects, inanimate, passive things for us to examine and know and fit into our categories. We do not see the pagans as subjects, as active creatures with feelings and ideas of their own, including ideas about us; we never learn what their views of idolatry are. Such views might not fit any of the enumerated types that have been presented to us so exhaustively.

For example, the authors accurately describe Japanese and Egyptian representations of the sun and moon, but do not tell us how the worshipers felt about their gods. Margalit and Halbertal demonstrate how Anglo-Saxon philosophical traditions can analyze the differences and similarities between varying perceptions of the gender of the sun god (who is male for the Egyptians, female for the Japanese). The “others” are used merely as examples for us non-pagans to think about; but it would also be good to see how the “others” actually think. Pagans, like myths (in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s famous formulation), are “good to think with”; that is, we may profitably adapt our ideas about them to our own situations. But they do their own thinking, too.

Calling for a bit of pagan affirmative action, equal time for idolaters, I would suggest that comprehensive philosophical analysis of the concept of idolatry would benefit from the inclusion of the meaning of idolatry for polytheists as well as monotheists. To take an example from Hinduism, the tradition I know best: Western ideas about Hindu tolerance are closely tied up with Western ideas about Hindu polytheism. If Hindus can tolerate all those gods (many Westerners assume), with all their heads and arms, if they can entertain all those different concepts of divinity within their own religion, they should be able to tolerate the different concepts of divinity expressed in different religions. Indeed, according to the model set out in I dolatry, the Hindus tolerate all sorts of representations of gods, and acknowledge the existence (though not the equal power) of gods other than their own, suitable for others to worship, though they do not care to worship them themselves. Their heritage of polygamous marriages (no longer practiced, but still alive in their myths), as well as their worship of goddesses, encourages in all Hindus, not just religious leaders, an openness to other models of divinity than their own.

When it comes to the connection between adultery and idolatry, the Hindus tolerate spectacular infidelity in their gods: Krishna commits adultery with 16,000 married women, extending the traditional eternal sexual triangle to an eternal mandala. Hindus also tolerate what appears to any card-carrying monotheist as a spectacular degree of infidelity in themselves: a Hindu will on different occasions worship a number of different gods, including Jesus, as the supreme god. (Hindu converts to Catholicism go on sacrificing animals, confining the practice to the Easter sacrifice of what amounts to a pascal goat.) F. Max Müller aptly named this phenomenon “henotheism” or “kathenotheism,” the worship of one (supreme) god at a time. Bearing in mind the way in which, as we learn from I dolatry, the metaphor of adultery has traditionally been used by monotheistic religions to stigmatize polytheism (and used by Hinduism itself to characterize the love of god), we might regard this attitude as a kind of theological serial monogamy, or, if one prefers, as theosexual pluralism: “I love you, Krishna/sweetheart, and have never loved any other god/woman.” “I love you, Shiva/sweetheart, and have never loved any other god/woman.”

But when it comes to taking action, Hindus are just as bigoted as the rest of us. True, they do not insist on strictly following doctrine as long as ritual and social behavior satisfy the standards of the particular group (usually a small caste group) to which they belong. But their “tolerance” does not prevent Hindus from murdering Muslims whose behavior is offensive to them, whether ritually (in regarding different foods as impure), socially (in having different sexual customs), politically, or economically. And they will murder them in the name of the Hindu God Rama (who is relatively monogamous) or Shiva (who is not). For the principle of kathenotheism gives Hindus their own upper-case Gods, too.

This, too, is a lesson that we learn from I dolatry: the emotional power of images, even of images that deny the emotional power of images, overrides mere intellectual considerations. Political labels (“pagan”—idolatry type A) override conceptual differences (“monotheism/polytheism”—idolatry type B). Tolerance does not arise out of a set of ideas and arguments; and intolerance arises not only when people have bad ideas about other people but, especially, when they do not have enough to eat. (As Marc Blitzstein’s fine translation of Brecht puts it, “First feed the face, and then talk right and wrong.”) An idea might explain some of the reasons for intolerance; but particular historical factors are needed to explain it convincingly.

The relation between adultery and idolatry could thus be carefully investigated outside Judaism and Christianity. It would prove interesting to apply other models of I dolatry to non-Western religions in this way. The Hindus have much to teach us about the role of emotion in causing intellectual error, about the interaction of elite and folk religions, and about the sources of illusions about god, or God. Hindu ideas about the moment when an idol actually becomes a god (usually the moment when the eyes are painted on) are also illuminating. To a Hindu, for instance, there is no such thing as an image or representation of god; the statue is just a piece of stone, and when the eyes are painted on, it becomes the god, bypassing our stage of representation altogether. What would idolatry mean to such a person?

Such visits into pagan territory would teach us more about ourselves, allowing us literally to cross-examine cultures, to use a formulation from another culture to reveal to us what is not dreamt of in our own philosophy. Through the comparative method we can see what our culture has not said about idolatry. But allowing pagans into the philosophical club would in no way weaken I dolatry’s arguments, which remain entirely persuasive. I dolatry teaches us both why monotheistic religions have thought that they were right and everyone else was wrong, and how, throughout the ages, voices which seemed more reasonable (even Enlightened) have been unable to include within their own philosophies other people’s ways of imagining God.

This Issue

April 21, 1994