Idolatry taboo as integrity constraint

I have a lot of reasons for doing things, but the iron law that governs all the others is integrity. Things that help my friends are good, things that promote human flourishing and alleviate suffering are good, but when there’s even a whiff of embracing falsehood or ignoring the facts in an action, the gates slam shut against it.

But that just describes - it doesn’t explain. Why am I this way. Was I born with a commitment to the truth above all else? Is it in my genes? Or was I taught it? My parents seem hold other values like tradition or caring about equally, not assigning such an unique place of honor to epistemic integrity, which is evidence against both heredity and direct acculturation as explanations.

My hypothesis is that I have a basic impulse to systematize my understanding of things, and that when I learned about Jewish idolatry taboos, I generalized this into an abhorrence of falsehood.

The Torah is full of admonitions to destroy the idols of foreign nations. Jewish law is firm on the point that one of the worst things you can do is worship an idol - it is one of the three sins that a Jew is expected to die rather than commit. In that context, the story of Abraham destroying his father’s idols, from Genesis Rabbah, made a strong impression on me (adapted from the Hebrew by my father):

Rabbi Chiya grandson of Rav Adda of Jaffa related:  Terach, Abraham’s father, was a maker of idols.  One day Terach had to leave the shop, putting Abraham in charge.  A man entered seeking to purchase an idol.  Abraham asked him, “How old are you?” “I am sixty years old,” replied the man.  “Woe to him,” said Abraham, “who at the age of sixty chooses to worship a god that my father made just yesterday!”  The would-be customer retreated in shame.

On another occasion a woman came carrying a dish of fine flour which she left as an offering to the idols.  Abraham grabbed a club and shattered all the idols but one.  He then left the club in the hand of the idol that remained.  It was the biggest one.  When Terach returned, he asked, “Who did this to them?”  Abraham replied:  “We cannot lie to you.  A woman brought some fine flour to be offered before them.  And so when I offered it, one of them said, ‘Let me eat of it first!” and the other said, ‘No, I shall eat of it first!’  Then the biggest idol in the shop took a club and shattered the others.”  “Don’t try to fool me,” said his father, “you know full well that they have no understanding!”  To that statement Abraham responded, “Let your ears hear what your mouth declares.”

Abraham repudiates his father’s idols - the epitome of immorality - on an epistemic basis. Empirically, they do not behave like gods. Therefore, it is morally abhorrent to worship them. They are lies. It is morally abhorrent to make an image of a lie. It is morally abhorrent to have one in your house.

The Bible is a more authoritative source, and Psalm 115 similarly repudiates idol-worship on epistemic grounds - it is knowably false:

Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God? But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them.

Generalizer that I was, I noticed the implicit argument was that idolatry was morally abhorrent because it was false, and accepted the underlying principle - that accepting a knowably false belief is morally abhorrent, that there is a moral duty to uncover the truth. Even if no one around you can see it. Even if it flies in the face of your own loving father’s faith. Idols are for smashing, not serving.

Is it any wonder that I became an atheist?

7 thoughts on “Idolatry taboo as integrity constraint

  1. Rabbi Eric H. Hoffman

    Yes, the Torah does prescribe the destruction of idolatrous shrines in the conquest of certain nations, but more frequently and far more urgently it proscribes idolatry by Israelites. Let us not give the impression that Judaism is a militaristic faith that emphasizes the smashing of other religions' idols.

    Your account shows how potent is myth and legend in transmitting values. You unpacked the midrash of Abraham and his father's idols without the friction of the beliefs of those who taught it to you. Similarly, when I, as a congregational rabbi, was considering a new pulpit, I was shown its ark, which appeared to hold four Torah scrolls but then was proudly shown that there were only two actual scrolls in it while the other two items were merely accoutrements stuffed with sawdust. These false embracements in the Torah's home seemed to me idolatry, a message that transcended the benign intentions of the stuffers.

    Would it not help for you to define idolatry more generally? Some have said that it is more action than belief, such as the singleminded accumulation of wealth or power, success or status. Could we not also define idolatry as devotion to an ideology which ignores the facts? What about atheism? While agnosticism is the refusal to posit the existence of God because of a lack of logical or empirical proof, is there a logical or empirical proof for the non-existence of God? By your test of idolatry, there is a whiff of embracing falsehood in the assertion of atheism.

    1. Benquo Post author

      Definitions of atheism and agnosticism vary widely. In general people seem willing to say that they believe a thing is true or false even if they don't have enough evidence to justify certainty. The reason I use "atheism" and not "agnosticism" to describe my beliefs is that it seems to me that there is a strong preponderance of evidence against the existence of anything like what major world religions mean by the word "god". (Mostly in the form of a conspicuous lack of evidence for such a god.)

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  5. Jasnah Kholin

    as someone who's first reaction to all the idolatry-condemnation is to internally yell "you are lying!", it was really interesting see that from other perceptive. i am atheist, but this is maybe the first example of straw manning i knew. aka - polytheists don't believe their idols are gods more then i believe my picture is me. i never actually consider someone may HONESTLY model polytheist so wrongly. i mean, present time Jews - sure, i know them. but people who actually knew polytheists themselves, not only from the stories that the winners? no chance. it's standard bad-faith ridicule of the enemy.

    1. Benquo Post author

      I was a child at the time and started from the assumption that I was being told true stories. But it does seem like there's a thing going on with veneration of images that doesn't quite cleanly distinguish between representations and the thing represented. Jews do this too, kissing Torah scrolls, and fasting if they drop one, and you're supposed to avoid putting books with God's name on the ground or destroying anything with his name written on it, which is why genizas exist.


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