Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shoftim

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Shoftim 5759/1999

An Aesthetic Experience vs. Idolatry

Prof. Dov Schwarz

Department of Philosophy

Parashat Shoftim deals at length with the prohibition of idolatry as well as prohibiting various types of witchcraft which were related to pagan worship. In the ancient world cultic rites were used for magical-utilitarian purposes (such as foretelling the future), and conversely, magic served in cultic ritual (such as appeasing the gods through magic). Although the biblical proscription of these practices is unequivocal, the attitude towards them has been mixed.

Rashi's interpretation of the words, "You shall not erect a mazeva, which the Lord your G-d detests" (Deut. 16:21-22), follows Sifre: "An altar of stones and an altar of earth He commanded you to make; this, however, [the mazeva] He hates, because it was a religious ordinance amongst the Canaanites. And although it was pleasing to Him in the days of our ancestors, now He hates it because they [the Canaanites] made it an ordinance of idolatrous character." A mazeva was an upright stone which served various purposes in the time of the Bible. According to the Midrash and traditional exegetes, the prohibition against erecting a mazeva pertained to sacrificial worship ("to sacrifice on it even to Heaven [to G-d]," Rashi, loc. sit.). Jacob, for one, is described as erecting a mazeva (Gen. 28:18; 35:14). Thus we see, according to the authors of the Midrash, that the attitude towards bringing sacrifices at stone pillars changed over time. Initially it was pleasing to the Lord, but after the practice was taken up by idol worshippers, that which had been held dear came to be loathed.

The change in attitude is clearly reflected in the words of the 14th-century Spanish Jewish philosopher, R. Shlomo Al-Constantine (Megaleh Amukot, printed in D. Schwarz, Yashan be-Kankan Hadash, Jerusalem 1997, p. 281): "Notwithstanding pillars having been held dear in the time of the Patriarchs, since their purpose was directed to the Lord, later He commanded to destroy them because their purpose was none but evil, directed to other gods worshipped by the pagans of the land."

Many commentators and thinkers have viewed stone pillars as exemplifying an aspect of idolatry: they represent nothing wrong in and of themselves, but since ancient peoples adopted them into their pagan worship, they became forbidden. When the Torah was given, all acts of idolatry were prohibited, such as erecting pillars and sacrificing on high places. Henceforth only a well-known and acclaimed prophet could perform such acts as an emergency injunction, the way Elijah did on Mount Carmel.

Let us take another example, also from the weekly reading: Scripture says, "Those nations that you are about to dispossess do indeed resort to soothsayers and augurs; to you, however, the Lord your G-d has not assigned the like. The Lord your G-d will raise up for you a prophet from among your own people, like myself; him you shall heed" (Deut. 18:14-15). In other words, acts of witchcraft serve utilitarian needs, such as foretelling the future or obtaining counsel; once these practices were forbidden, the prophet was assigned to fulfill their function.

This is somewhat similar to the case of the mazevah, for before the institution of prophecy at Mount Sinai the use of magic was considered legitimate. Jacob and Moses, after all, used such devices (the rods Jacob placed in the troughs, Moses' staff, etc.). From the moment that G-d conferred authority on the prophets, however, the use of other means became proscribed. Henceforth the prophet was the one who gave counsel, foretold the future and wrought miracles.

In the Middle Ages, with the systematization of Jewish thought, the role of the prophet was discussed in general, and his relationship to magic in particular. We present one example of the complexity of the discussion of the truth of prophecy: Saadiah Gaon championed the status of the prophet and the truth of his prophecy. His argument was simple: since nature was created by G-d, only He can change it; hence a human being who evinces the ability to bring about a miracle attests of himself that none other than the Lord has sent him (Emunot ve-Deot, Part III). Judah Halevi followed this lead, claiming that only a change in the ways of nature can provide verification of revelation (The Book of the Kuzari, 1.8). Maimonides however flatly rejected this approach. In the introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah he stated firmly that a prophet does not work miracles as proof of the truth of his prophecy. Maimonides' approach is rooted in his perception of nature, but cannot be discussed here.

It follows that according to an analytical approach to Judaism, certain pagan practices are not rejected in and of themselves, but rather because of their direct association with idolatry. This has a bearing on halakhic questions. For example, may one derive aesthetic pleasure from the practices of Christianity, e.g., listen to ecclesiastical music or visually appreciate church architecture? Removing church art from its ritual setting and presenting it as an aesthetic experience, as in the context of a concert where religious works are played, is a fairly recent practice. Rabbinic authorities, however, all tend to rule against such experiences. Occasionally, in personal rulings, authorities on the Halakhah show greater openness. An ultra-Orthodox rabbi privately permitted listening to church music because the enjoyment derived results from the words incorporated in the music, not from the content incorporated in the music. Nevertheless, no new halakhic proclamation has yet been issued allowing the aesthetic creation to be divorced from its religious context. What is the place of current ideas and considerations in shaping the Halakhah? Only the leading halakhic authorities of the future can provide the answer.