Our parashah begins with a set of instructions to the Israelite people that apply when they will cross the Jordan River and enter the land of the Canaanites, promised to the Patriarchs for their descendants. Announced by Moses in advance, they were to go into effect only when the conquest was complete and the people were settled in their new home (Deut. 11: 31–32).
And what is the first commandment that becomes operable after the crossing and the conquest? “You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshipped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.” (Deut 12:2–3: a repetition and expansion of Deut. 7:5).
The continuation of this passage develops this theme: an absolute repudiation of anything related to Canaanite worship. No imitation of Canaanite practices is to be tolerated, even if directed to the true God (12:30–31). If someone claiming to be a prophet urges worship of another god, even if he performs a miraculous act to substantiate his claim, he is to be put to death (13: 2–6). If any Israelite counsels worship of another god, he is to be killed by the first person who hears him, as an object lesson for others (13:7–12). If inhabitants of a town are seduced to the worship of another god, then—after full investigation—all the inhabitants are to killed along with their cattle, and all the spoils burnt, so that it will never be rebuilt (13:13–19).
What can explain the ferocity of these injunctions? There is a general principle of legal science that lawmakers rarely bother to pass laws prohibiting acts that no-one is engaged in or even tempted to do. The intensity of these prohibitions suggests that the Canaanite shrines and the worship that occurred there must have been appealing to many of the community of Israelites. In order to appreciate the radical breakthrough of biblical monotheism, we first have to appreciate the power of paganism.
I remember viscerally sensing something of this power when first visiting the ruins of the Temple of Karnak at Luxor (ancient Thebes) in Egypt. The surviving ruins impelled me to imagine how awe-inspiring the place must have been when it was intact, how intoxicating the ceremonies held there must have seemed, how seductive the pagan rituals must have felt to Israelites who may well have preserved memories of the Egyptian religion.
Now they were entering a new land without any temple of their own, committed to worship a God who could not be seen, of whom no image could be made, who demanded loyalty to the exclusion of all other gods. No Canaanite temple or shrine could compare with the Egyptian temple, but what was so wrong with observing how their neighbours worshipped at their own shrines and modelling the Israelite practices after what seemed impressive and appealing, or taking over the Canaanite shrines and altars in order to use them for offerings to the God of Israel. Perhaps even making an occasional offering to the god of the neighbouring peoples in addition to the worship of their own God? Why should this have been deemed so abominable?
Yet monotheism exacts a strong toll, which may indeed appear to be intolerance. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, it did not take long before Christian armies were following the guidelines of our parashah and tearing down the great pagan temples of antiquity, smashing the statues of the pagan gods, and implementing a policy of total intolerance for pagan worship. During the wars of religion in 16th- and 17th-century Europe, Protestants destroyed altars and images in hundreds of Catholic churches, convinced that this was godly warfare, while the Catholics perceived it as sacrilege. In dynamiting and tearing down the monumental Buddha statues at Bamyan , were the Taliban perhaps acting in accordance with the hope expressed in our Aleynu prayer: le-ha’avir gilulim min ha-aretz, ve-ha-elilim karot yikkaretun, “sweeping idolatry away, so that idols will be utterly destroyed”? The claim that monotheism is intrinsically susceptible to militant intolerance is not one that can be casually dismissed.
Does an uncompromising commitment to our own faith in the God of Israel preclude us from recognizing truth and beauty in other religious traditions? Is there something wrong with visiting the great Cathedrals of Europe and feeling inspired by their soaring architecture, by the sunlight pouring through their stained glass windows? Something wrong with appreciating the magnificent decorations and calligraphy inside the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem? Are we being unfaithful if we find ourselves profoundly moved and uplifted by Bach’s B Minor Mass or Verdi’s Requiem? Or by the intense spirituality of a Muslim dhikr that many of us have experienced during the Jewish-Christian-Muslim Dialogue week? Can we feel a genuine religious response to passages in the Gospel of Matthew or in the Qur’an, to Michelangelo’s painting in the Sistine Chapel or his sculpture of the Pietà, without betraying our own loyalties?
In the infancy of our people’s religious life, perhaps it was necessary to tear down the altars and smash the images of other nearby religious expressions. But today these commandments seem to express a deep insecurity and immaturity of religious faith. The medieval Jews who retained their Jewish identity while living in the shadows of the magnificent Gothic cathedrals built as symbols of the Church triumphant, the 19th-century German Jews who resisted the blandishments of baptism as what Heine called the entry ticket to European culture, are a more impressive model than the Israelites who had to be protected from exposure to any expression of an alternative religious worldview by destroying the pagan shrines. We should be able to recognize the power and beauty—alongside all of the shortcomings and failings—of our neighbours’ religions while remaining uncompromisingly loyal to our own.
Rabbi Professor Marc Saperstein
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.