Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shoftim 5763/ August 30, 2003

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.
Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,

Prof. Dov Schwartz
Department of Philosophy

An Aesthetic Experience or Idolatry?

Much of Parashat Shofetim is devoted to laws prohibiting idolatry and witchcraft, closely related to idolatry. In the ancient world rites such as sacrificial offerings were used for magical utilitarian ends (such as foretelling the future), and conversely, acts of magic were used for religious ritual (as in appeasing the gods by witchcraft). Even though the prohibition against such acts in Judaism is unequivocal, the attitude towards them is mixed. The verse, "You shall not ... erect a stone pillar (matzevah); for such the Lord your G-d detests" (Deut. 16:22) was interpreted by Rashi, following Sifre, as follows: "He commanded that an altar of stones and an altar of earth be made; and this He detests, for it was the practice of the Canaanites; and even though He liked it in the days of the patriarchs, now it is hateful to Him, since idolaters took over the practice."

The word matzevah in Scriptures refers to a stone which, in the Biblical period, served various purposes. According to the midrash and various commentators, the proscription against erecting a matzevah only applied in the context of offering sacrifices (Rashi, loc. sit., "even for sacrificing to Heaven on it"). Over the years the attitude towards giving offerings on a matzevah changed. In the time of the patriarchs, the Lord viewed the matzevah with favor, but since it came to be used by idolaters, the favor turned to disfavor. This change is clearly expressed in the words of a 14th-century Spanish Jewish philosopher:[1]

Even though matzevot were well-liked [by G-d] in the time of the patriarchs, since they were used to direct worship to the Lord, later He commanded that they be destroyed, because they became directed only to evil, to the foreign gods worshipped by the non-Jewish inhabitants of the land.

According to many philosophers and exegetes, the matzevah is illustrative of idolatrous practices which are not intrinsically to be ruled out, but since ancient peoples adopted them in their worship of pagan gods, they became forbidden. When the Torah was given, all acts of idolatry were forbidden, such as erecting matzevot and offering sacrifices on high places (bamot). From that point on, only a well-known and famous prophet could employ these means as a temporary measure, as Elijah did on Mount Carmel.

In this week's parasha we read, "Those nations that you are about to dispossess do indeed resort to soothsayers and augurs; to you, however, the Lord our G-d has not assigned the like. The Lord your G-d will raise up for you a prophet from among our own people, like myself; him you shall heed" (Deut. 18:14-15). In other words, magic served utilitarian ends such as foretelling the future or giving advice; since the prophet is the one who answers these needs for Israel, the use of magic was forbidden. Once more, the message conveyed by the plain sense of the text seems to be that prior to the establishment of prophecy through the Theophany at Mount Sinai magical means had been considered legitimate. Jacob and Moses, after all, employed such means (the troughs for the flocks, Moses' staff and the like). However, from the moment the Lord empowered the prophets with authority, using other means henceforth became forbidden; the prophet was the one who gave counsel, foretold the future and performed miracles.

In the Middle Ages, with the systematization of Jewish philosophy, the role of the prophet in general, and of his relationship to magic in particular, came up for discussion. Here we present one illustration of the complexity of the issue concerning the truth of prophecy: Rabbi Saadiah Gaon exalted the prophet and extolled the truth of his prophecy. His rationale was straightforward: since Nature was created by G-d, only He can alter it; hence a person who is shown to have the power to work miracles thereby attests that he has been sent by G-d (Emunot ve-De'ot, third article). Following his lead was R. Judah Halevi, who claimed that only through alteration of the natural order of things is Revelation proven true (The Kuzari 1.8).

Maimonides vehemently opposed this approach. In the introduction to his commentary on the Mishnah he firmly asserted that prophets do not work miracles as proof of the truth of their prophecy. Maimonides' position is deeply rooted in his perception of Nature, but his argument is too lengthy to present here. At any rate, there is some connection between prophecy and the magical in the first view, while Maimonides denied any such link.

It follows from what we have said above that the attitude in Judaism draws distinctions by which certain acts of idolatry are not intrinsically improper, but are declared improper as a direct consequence of their association with idolatry. This issue has implications for several questions of halakhah. For example, is aesthetic enjoyment of acts of non-Jewish worship permissible, when they are severed from the religious context, such as listening to church music or appreciating church architecture? Taking a religious work created for the Church and removing it from its ritual setting, presenting it as an aesthetic experience - such as playing church music in a concert-hall setting - is a relatively recent development, which most posekim are inclined to disallow. Sometimes, in individual rulings, rabbis show more openness. There is an ultra-Orthodox rabbi who is known to have permitted privately listening to church music on the grounds that the enjoyment results from the combination of words and music and not content and the music. Nevertheless, there seems not to have been any new halakhic tidings that make it possible to isolate the aesthetic work from its religious context. Ought the place of current ideological considerations in halakhic rulings be reexamined? The answers lie with the halakhic authorities of the future.

[1] Rabbi Solomon Al-Constantine, Megaleh Amukot, printed in D. Schwarz, Yashan be-Kankan Hadash, Jerusalem 1997, p. 281.