Many Jews who would never think of condemning the religious practices of Australian aborigines, Peruvian shamans or Buddhist nuns, and who might even enjoy the art in a Catholic church, give sermons about how worshipping images or praying to multiple deities is the root of all evil.
For many years, as I sat in synagogues, someone on the bimah would make an off-handed reference to the evils of idolatry. Many Jews who would never think of condemning the religious practices of Australian aborigines, Peruvian shamans or Buddhist nuns, and who might even enjoy the art in a Catholic church, give sermons about how worshipping images or praying to multiple deities is the root of all evil. Traditional teachers often equate idolatry—that is, worship of multiple gods, worship using images, or worship of components of the natural world—with murder, child sacrifice, and incest. Less traditional ones still condemn idolatry, but identify its evil with the worst kind of misguided materialist beliefs (worshipping one’s money, for example). In Torah study sessions, I have seen individuals share their private ideas about God’s tangibility or presence in nature, and even point out these ideas when they appear in a Biblical text. But then, someone asks “Isn’t that pagan?” as if the conversation is now over. Paganism is bad. Even a hint of paganism is bad. That is the Jewish position.
What is so bad about paganism? For some Jews, it is a matter of ethics. Many have argued that paganism, because of its multiple gods, its focus on nature, and/or its multiple images of God, does not promote ethics or unity among humankind and therefore leads to atrocity. Yet both pagans and “monotheists” (a difficult distinction, as some pagans are monotheists) have massacred innocent people, conquered countries, enslaved the poor and members of other nationalities and races, etc. Some pagan societies are peaceful, and some are violent and warlike; we could say the same
for Jewish, Muslim, and Christian societies. I value Jewish theological and ethical traditions, and believe that the Torah comprised a powerful critique of the religions of its time and region. Yet looking at history, it would be hard to make the argument that monotheism promotes universal brotherhood and sisterhood or that it is more ethical by definition than polytheism. Nevertheless, I hear these arguments all the time in shul.
RABBI JILL HAMMER, PhD
is an author, teacher, midrashist, mystic, poet, essayist, and priestess. She is committed to an earth-based and wildly mythic view of the world in which nature, ritual, and story connect us to the body of the cosmos and to ourselves. She is the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion and co-founded the Kohenet Hebrew Priestess Institute. She is the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women; The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons; The Omer Calendar of Biblical Women; The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership; and The Book of Earth and Other Mysteries.