Tuesday, July 10, 2018

My Elephant Idol

Ever have one of those days? I just had two of them. I'm not going to go into the various reasons why they were so lousy - suffice it to say that (a) it is very upsetting how many people in the Beit Shemesh city administration seem to have no desire to improve the city, and (b) my family are refusing to go into my car because something that I transported made it smell so bad.

Anyway, this afternoon, even though I was totally not in the mood for it, I decided to switch with the guide at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, and take over leading the tour. It was a large and diverse mixture of religious Jewish tourists from the US and Australia, secular Jewish students from South Africa, and a Hindu family from India. Leading the tour lifted me right out of my bleak mood; it's always immensely rewarding to see people so excited and happy as they learn so much about Torah and nature.

Pictured: Not my elephant idol
As they left, one of the men from the Hindu family approached me to thank me. He said that they had heard a lot about the museum (in India?!) and they were so happy that they were able to come. As a token of their gratitude, he pushed a gift into my hand: a keychain with a gold-painted replica of an elephant's head. He told me that it was a Ganesha, the elephant-headed god of wisdom, and that it would protect the museum.

I was very touched, and thanked him as he left. But I was left in a quandary. It was a bona fide idol! I asked my Rav and he said that while he's not a specialist in the halachos of idolatry - it doesn't tend to come up on a regular basis - it would appear to be problematic to keep it.

This was disappointing. After all, it's not as though I am ever going to be worshiping an elephant-headed deity. Idolatry is so not a concern in our society. And it had really symbolic value to me, as representing the happy conclusion to a day that had started so badly. Still, halacha is halacha.

Yet it occurred to me that actually, I can understand the halachic problem. I was on the verge of considering this idol to be a good-luck charm. And the idea that a physical object would have the metaphysical ability to help me goes against the very essence of monotheistic Judaism.

My only remaining question is, how is a hamsa, or a silver segulah ring, any different?


  1. Get a non-Jew to be mevatel the Avodah Zarah.
    Then you can keep it.
    Double-check with your Rav.

    1. May need to be another Hindu, who will probably not do it. Certainly a massive machlokas whether an atheist non Jew can do it, or whether a non-hindu can do it.

    2. Once you have it in your possession it can no longer be batul

  2. The segulah ring is not worshiped as a god, it's a weird way of worshiping The G-d. Or more precisely: to get Him to serve you...

    (Unless you encounter the one person who can relate to it as a tangible prayer, like the Rosh haShanah apple-in-honey. Which would require knowing the symbol system behind the "why"...)

    Ganesha is the god of success, new beginnings and wisdom. Because of the first two, you tend to see a picture of him hung up to bless a business. (I hear he is also invoked to start the school year too.)

    Being in software in the US, I have had numerous Hindu co workers. And often they would return from a trip to India with gifts or "sweets" (candy, in American).

    One time, a co worker came back with little jade ganesh statues for everyone else in the team, and a magnetic levitation toy for me. He explained that in the airport, he realized that bringing me the statuette would put me in an awkward position. So last minute he hunted around for anything I would enjoy so that he wouldn't make things awkward and yet show he didn't forget me.

    5 jobs and 18 years later, I still have that toy on my desk. Such consideration deserves to be remembered.

  3. Idolatry is totally a concern for our society. It's just that many people turn themselves into idols and self-worship

  4. Good point. It would seem the former is ע"ז, the latter דרכי האמורי

  5. It's not. I just heard R. Berel Wein remark (in a lecture delivered in 2002)that the "red string" is basically the same idolatry that, according to Rambam, underlies Shatnez.

  6. Many Hindus would argue that they are not worshipping the physical representation itself nor that the murti possesses any deity-like properties. In other words, to most Hindus, murtis are not 'real'. They may represent certain spiritual individual aspects of a single deity. Also there is no uniformity as to the meanings and representations so even from their perspective. They are 'atmosphere' creators that represent the Godhead's creation - perhaps comparable to images of Lions, Deer and nature that have been a feature of many (European) shuls throughout the millenia. Ancient Ashkenazi shuls would be literally covered in representations of animals, people and nature.

    1. Yes, it's great that 'many' Hindus are an expert in hilchos avodah zoroh. How many is many?

      How do they "represent certain spiritual individual aspects of a single deity" exactly? What does that actually mean?

      "Ancient Ashkenazi shuls would be literally covered in representations of animals, people and nature." - that is nonsense.

    2. The point about Hinduism is that it is by and large completely fluid with few 'certainties', so the 'many' equates to tens of millions (if not more) of Hindus. Hinduism has completely different notions of faith - many that would be considered paradoxical to 'western' monotheists - that are driven by conscience for example as an input. How do they 'represent individual aspects' of the Deity? Think of the Sefirot of Kabbalah and you will get an inkling of these representations. Most Hindus essentially believe in a single, unified Deity. Polish Lithuanian synagogues (think the Chodorow Synagogue for example) where covered in such representations, including the '3 hare' symbol of paganism that also was displayed on Jewisg graves.

    3. Meir,

      I am happy that you are an expert both in the sefirot and in Hunduism, that you can make such a comparison, at least to get an inkling. I would suggest that if somebody worships one of the sefirot, that may well be avodah zoroh.

      Look, you can wax lyrical about Christianity as well, using similar flowery language. We know, that the Eastern Orthodox (Russian) form of Catholicism is far more into idols, icons, candles, wafers, blood and wine and what-not than perhaps Seven Day Adventists. It really makes no difference. It is a brave man that paskens that Hinduism is not Avodah Zoroh. It is a severer issue you know.

      General consensus is that they indeed bow down to various strange looking idols. And a non-sophisticated Hindu certainly believes the idol has power, whether correct or not. There are Hindu houses of worship that have idols, and these are bowed down to.

    4. ****:

      How on earth do you justify your assertion that the statement about old Ashkenazi shuls was nonsense? Have you ever been in one? I have been in many. The statement is absolutely accurate. What gives you the cojones to just flippantly dismiss it as nonsense? Your tenth-grade rebbi? Your night seder chavrusa who's "very breit" and trades stocks on Robinhood?

      Without going to European shuls, just look up the Talmudic-era murals from the shul at Dura Europos. Might shake your little boat a little.

    5. It's not just Hinduism.

      Years ago, I made a house call to examine the sick child of a friend and coworker. She is from a nominally Christian background, and in her world travels met and married a Tibetan man and adopted his animist flavored version of Buddhism.

      When I entered the home, I saw a prominent altar with both flat icons and 3D statuettes, an incense bowl, and pieces of fruit. She knew I keep kosher, and offered me a glass of water and piece of fruit.

      I wondered what the relationship between the fruit on the altar and the rest of the fruit in the home was: did the offering in some way represent the rest of the fruit?

      I just took the water.

      At some point, she explained her beliefs to me, and it sounded very similar to the way Rambam explained the development of avodah zarah: The idols etc. were not deities (at least as far as the educated and intellectually sophisticated practitioners of the religion were concerned – though the uneducated might well think of them as deities) but symbolic representation or acknowledgement of natural forces which were subordinate to a remote and formless supreme power.

      Be that as it may. Incense, statuettes, bowing (I didn't pry...)

      I realized that in our day and age, Hilchot Avodah Zarah was once again halacha l'maaseh.

    6. "Many Hindus would argue that they are not worshipping the physical representation itself nor that the murti possesses any deity-like properties. In other words, to most Hindus, murtis are not 'real'. They may represent certain spiritual individual aspects of a single deity."

      Sort of like Chet Ha'Egel?

    7. According to the Rambam, this is typical of AZ. See Hilkhos AZ 1:1.

      I also agree with Yossi Rathner. Cheit ha'eigel was an attempt at keruvim worship. Not belief that the eigel was the supreme god and creator. But worship of a kind of metaphysical entity that actually exists.

      (Bulls were work animals at the time, and thus represented the ones who pull the cart full of prayers to the heavens, and the blessings back down to earth. See the Sumerian god Kirub (note the name), or the Egyptian cult of Apis. Yir'avam repeats the cult of Apis in the northern kingdom and establishes it in a ceremony in which he paraphrases Aharon at the eigel. The eigel was an attempt to replace Moshe with a messenger-god model they've seen in other cultures. And in the case of the eirev rav -- their culture of birth.)

      But in general, this problem comes up when one overly focuses on sephiros and partzufim. One may intellectually realize they are models of how G-d reveals Himself in the world, but we aren't supposed to create a layer between us and Him.

      That's AZ.

  7. Who says they're any different?

  8. "My only remaining question is, how is a hamsa, or a silver segulah ring, any different?"

    Because it doesn't represent a deity?

    1. "Because it doesn't represent a deity?"

      I have to some degree been fascinated by the reference in Melachim Bet where Hezekiah destroys the Nachash that Moshe created to counter the snakes bites in the desert. Although the Nachash wasn't itself a diety, Hezekiah still destroyed it since it became an object of veneration amongst the Israelites.

      Why it fascinates me: Consider that we had a relic today from Moshe - say his staff. The act of vandalism in destroying that object because we would bestow onto it religious significance!

      Come to think of it, perhaps the Kotel might be similarly considered.

    2. The practice of Kvitelach has always seemed to me to be close to AZ. Certainly seems invalid according to Rambam.

  9. What if you broke the trunk off it...?

  10. Once it's yours, you can't nullify the idol. Your only option is to destroy it. YD 146:1-2. I would like to know how you would go about doing that. Look at the bright side: many of us will never get to perform the mitzva of destroying idols...

  11. Iconoclast wannabeJuly 11, 2018 at 9:50 AM

    "Still, halacha is halacha."

    What a sad statement about the level of your religious commitment.
    I for one would be thrilled to have the rare opportunity to fulfill an explicit mitzvah of the Torah many of us will likely never do. I would destroy the idol with great simcha, knowing I was doing my part of tikkun olam by expressing in action that there is only one G-d.
    (Of course I wouldn't publicize it so as not to offend anyone or jeopardize future Hindu patronage to the museum-- which is obviously the most important thing...)

    1. This is silly. Are you thrilled to prevent an Agunah from marrying?

    2. You seem very special! If only we could all be just like you.

    3. Iconoclast wannabeJuly 16, 2018 at 3:57 PM

      @ David Ohsie:
      I don't really understand why your rhetorical question is all relevant to the issue.
      G-d (and recalcitrant or missing husbands) makes agunos. No-one is "commanded" to prevent an agunoh from marrying--unless she shows serious interest in violating an issur arayos.
      But destroying idols is an explicit commandment in the Torah. Actually, it was just in last week's parsha:
      נב וְהוֹרַשְׁתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-ישְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ מִפְּנֵיכֶם וְאִבַּדְתֶּם אֵת כָּל-מַשְׂכִּיֹּתָם וְאֵת כָּל-צַלְמֵי מַסֵּכֹתָם תְּאַבֵּדוּ וְאֵת כָּל-בָּמוֹתָם תַּשְׁמִידוּ:
      Why on earth would a religious Jew not feel simchah when given the opportunity to do his small part of ridding the world of the evil of Avoda Zara?

      And isn't it a part of the rationalist enterprise to disabuse the world of it's false beliefs? Rambam was quite intolerant of those, I'm sure.

    4. @Iconoclast wannabe: An Agunah doesn't require a recalcitrant husband. You can have a husband with a traumatic brain injury. By your reasoning, the wife should be happy to remain single her whole life, and the Rabbi should be happy to inform her of her wonderful opportunity to fulfill God's will and to ensure no one around the world will allow her to marry.

      "Why on earth would a religious Jew not feel simchah when given the opportunity to do his small part of ridding the world of the evil of Avoda Zara?" What if he feels that it is in no way actually ridding the world of AZ?

    5. Iconoclast wannabeJuly 17, 2018 at 10:13 AM

      "Should be happy" is too strong a word. "Laudatory" or "Praiseworthy" is more appropriate. And it applies to the agunoh herself who is being challenged by keeping halacha, not the rabbi who is not making any sacrifice.

      I find your comparison of an agunoh's pain in facing lifelong celibacy with Rabbi Slifkin's pain in having to smash a cheap pagan gift totally obscene. Have you no sense of propriety David Ohsie?

      And let me get this straight:
      According to you, one shouldn't bother trying to 'be'simchah' when challenged by circumstances (or hashgacha pratis) to perform a difficult mitzvah or refrain from performing a tempting sin?

      We should toss our mussar sefarim and just observe difficult mitzvos mechanically with remorse and resignation like Rabbi Slifkin, and take no gratification in achieving a goal that is higher than our personal aspirations for happiness?

      It seems your level of religious commitment is just as sad as Rabbi Slifkin's.
      No wonder you're always trying to defend him from criticism!

    6. There are certainly sources that would suggest that an agunah should be joyful keeping her obligation not to violate lo tinaf. The Gra writes something analogous about the Akeidah.

      However, one does not need to adopt this view. Destroying AZ isn't some unfortunate thing that happens when necessary laws bump into messy reality; it's the whole point of the Torah. Certainly one should be joyful whenever given the opportunity to do it, or at least try, or at least express some kind of wish to try, or at least refrain from gratuitous statements of halachic formalism. Personally, it would be very hard for me to destroy the Sistine chapel, but very easy to destroy an keyring with an elephant on it, but my preference for high art is not a sign of virtue and nor is wanting to cherish the memory of an amiable Indian fellow who, by the way, is in all likelihood hayav mitah on multiple counts.

      The bottom line is that a lot of observant Jews today just don't think AZ is actually very bad, just like they don't think giluy arayot is very bad, or breaking Shabbat, or anything really except prejudice.

    7. @IW, what a pity. You had a decent point but had to destroy it with a frothy presentation.

    8. Iconoclast wannabeJuly 18, 2018 at 10:03 AM

      Accept the truth from wherever it comes. A little "froth" never hurt anybody.
      And that's part of my criticism because religious feeling is exactly what Rabbi Slifkin seems to be lacking here.

  12. Idolatry not a problem today?

    Look at Chabad.

    1. I have looked very closely and critically at Chabad. There is no vestige of az there. The meshichists may have other religious problems but idolatry isn't one.

    2. While there's no reason not to believe you, we are having a discussion here. That means that you can't just say "I've looked into this." You have to make an argument.

      That said, how do you justify statements such as אלהות בלבוש גשמי? (Hint: "other hasidim say that too" is NOT a good answer.)

    3. David Singer agrees with Black Bear. David Berger and IC agree with Shmuel.

  13. Maybe you can add it to the museum as a work of art. This way you don't offend who gave it to you but its being treated as art work not an idol. The description can just say "Elephant head from India"

  14. "Idolatry is so not a concern in our society"

    Maybe in Israel. In chu'l it comes up regularly.

    * I know of a builder who was asked to pour holy water from the Ganges into the foundations of a house he was building
    * Many activities such as voting and meetings take place in churches/church halls or church grounds
    * employees and workers being asked to hang up Christmas decorations and trees.
    * manufacturing crucifixes as jewelers and clothes for priests

  15. While it would certainly be inappropriate (i.e., assur) to represent our own Deity with the image of an elephant, I second Meir Moses' comment. Please read carefully the important and fascinating statement issued by the second Hindu-Jewish Summit, which was held in Jerusalem in 2008 with the support of the Israeli Rabbinate. The Jerusalem meeting concluded with a landmark
    declaration that Hindus worship “One Supreme Being” and are not in fact idolatrous: https://archive.org/stream/HinduJewishSummitInformation/Hindu-Jewish_Summit_Information_djvu.txt

  16. How about pictures of the Rebbe? In Chabad, its looked at about having as much kedusha as a sefer.

    1. I have been privileged to be in many Chabad households and in most there are pictures of the late Rebbi. They are not considered to have any innate kedusha,

    2. I’m not saying one way or the other, but you are an outsider. They know to hide the more controversial things from you. Visiting doesn’t tell you much.

  17. If we take it to be genuine Avodah Zara, it appears that we are conferring upon it actual power. What, then, are we saying in Aleinu? שהם משתחוים להבל וריק המתפללים אל אל לא יושיע
    Either it has power or it hasn't!

  18. Can't you re-purpose it and make it a symbol of your commitment to the Republican Party?
    :- )

  19. That’s right. They’re no different. Just because we’ve tolerated hamsa icons for the last two millennia doesn’t make them any more permissible than the asheira charms that abounded all throughout the first temple period. The issue is not worship - it’s the ascription of divine power or agency to an inanimate object. I’m constantly amazed at the overt commercialism the proliferation of hamsas, red strings, segula rings, raziel hamelech books and whatever flavor of the day trinkets represent and people’s inability to recognize the farce for what it is. I had a great laugh in the Old City three years ago when a hamsa I looked at was stamped with a “made in China” sticker on the back. ‘Nuf said...

    PS - comments about Chabad are misguided, certainly for the mainstream. David Berger’s fears never materialized. To wit, the true scandal of orthodox indifference is the preponderance of these accepted icons and the unwillingness to swing abrahamic hammers as Rav Slifkin’s rav so swiftly wielded in response to his sheila. Hopefully his Hindu patrons are not readers of this blog...

    1. @Uninvisible: "Just because we’ve tolerated hamsa icons for the last two millennia doesn’t make them any more permissible than the asheira charms that abounded all throughout the first temple period. The issue is not worship - it’s the ascription of divine power or agency to an inanimate object."

      Then why did Rambam tolerate amulets?

    2. PS - comments about Chabad are misguided, certainly for the mainstream. David Berger’s fears never materialized.

      Here is what I heard with my own ears in a public park one Shabbat by a pair of Chabad Rabbis catechising a group of 20 or so children (about a third of them observant) in full view of their parents.

      יחי אדוננו בוראו א-לוהינו מלך המשיח לעולם ועד

      Dirt in his mouth.

      Now, is that all Habadniks in Israel? No, but it's a growing minority, already much larger than the minority which will ambiguously state that that man was not the machiach without engaging in weasel language.

      Then why did Rambam tolerate amulets?

      This is a large part of the problem. The Rambam permits certain things because either he felt them to have a placebo effect or he thought it impossible to ban them. This then gets morphed into an endorsement (see, for example, the Shin on the mezuzah) and the then these alien concepts that are tolerated by the Rambam become specifically Jewish teachings that must be observed because of their authentic Jewishness. Then, when this is challenged, the defenders of AZ in Judaism shift back to their minimum position and say 'whoa dude, chill out, why do you want to be more machmir than the Rambam?'. Then, with the opponents of AZ in Judaism denounced by the left hand as intolerant hysterics, the right hand gets back to imposing these alien concepts as near obligations. Rinse, repeat for a few hundred years and you have ... well you have what we have now I guess.

    3. I wasn't endorsing the hamsa. I think that they are silly (perhaps they sometimes look nice). But they are not AZ or else Rambam would not have tolerated them. So tolerate these while you poke fun.

    4. GM: No, but it's a growing minority, already much larger than the minority which will *ambiguously* state that ...

      You mean "*un*ambiguously", no?

    5. @Gavriel M: Without trying to draw any conclusions, let me share an anecdote.

      I asked a local Chabad rabbi about the singing of "yehi adoneinu", which I have seen taking place at 770 (not long after the Rebbe's passing). Needless to say, it bothers me, given the fact that there are those who believe in some kind of second coming, and I consider such a belief to be absolutely idolatrous.

      His answer is that it is no different from people singing "dovid melech yisrael, chai chai v'kayam". In both cases, it is talking about how the person's legacy will live forever, not that the person's body somehow remains alive.

      As answers go, it's a good one. And it's enough for me to give my fellow Jews the benefit of the doubt. But I have absolutely no clue how the majority of Chabad chassidim feel about this, nor do I know how this sub-movement has grown or shrunk in the 24 years since the Rebbe's passing.

    6. Shamino: As you say, the problem is that they won’t tell you what they are really thinking.

    7. The messianist ferver is shrinking.

      On a conscious-effort level, Morristown, Chabad's primary yeshiva, is anti-messianist. And that's the majority of the men who will influence the next generation.

      On a natural sociological forces level.... It has been 24 years. A whole generation is growing up never having memories of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Not having grown up with a dream they couldn't picture failing, at most with excuses for how the dream didn't really fail. Of course the number of believers and the fervency of belief will decline.

      Interestingly, R/Dr David Berger (no relation) himself told me a bit of history that serves as a counter-example to his own position. When Rav Nachman died, there was a similar problem among his own followers. But by the end of the next generation, not only had their messianism died off, it was expunged from their history. No one speaks of it any more.

    8. @Shamino, I too would love to judge my Jewish brothers favorably. Only that the answer they gave, typical for when they get these type of questions, ignores the background and the baggage. King David is alive in some genuine but mystical sense. His being alive isn't being abused for example by someone claiming to be King David himself, alive in the flesh. The idea of the Rebbeh being alive has been terribly abused, with evil connotations that hide under the fact that they aren't explicit. This way there's the option of talking out of both sides of the mouth.

      To a large degree, the problem is when they think that the Rebbeh is unique, not merely one of the holy men of our history. Will they allow singing about a different Tzadik that he's alive? Will they educate that the Rebbeh is alive together with King David, with Yaakov Avinu Lo Met, with other Tzadikim? See if you can get a straight answer on that. Too often only the run-around is offered, just like you got now.

      Sadly, as one wag said, חב"דהו וחשדהו.

      @Micha, was the scale of Breslov messianism on par with the Chabad one?

  20. "This was disappointing. After all, it's not as though I am ever going to be worshiping an elephant-headed deity. Idolatry is so not a concern in our society. And it had really symbolic value to me, as representing the happy conclusion to a day that had started so badly."

    Curious, I wonder if you would have had the same reaction if the gift giver was a devout Christian and the gift was a cross bearing an engraved image of the Christian savior?

    If not, are you perhaps guilty of "idolism"--discrimination against certain idols and in favor of others?

    1. Maybe pick an original name there, buddy.

    2. Maybe if you post comments more than once a year and I'll consider it.
      Otherwise, there's no copyright infringement.

    3. Not Curious At AllJuly 18, 2018 at 6:38 AM

      So you send comments with your name that regularly except once a year get thrown into the cybertrash but try to sneak some in with a different, unoriginal, name and want the publisher to uncritically post them for you

  21. Chabad is indeed engaged in a type of Avodah Zarah. Most view Rabbi Schneerson as being a still alive demigod.

  22. People here don't seem to be aware of the prior discussions on this subject. I'm not an expert, but here is my understanding.

    Chazal permitted various kinds of superstition such as amulets. While the Rambam did not think that they worked, he also did not prohibit all forms of superstition (and he had some of his own although he thought that they were "scientific"). He permitted those that were thought to have some medical benefit even though they don't. The Ran says quite explicitly that only those superstitious activities which fall under the rubric of requesting the help of or pleasing heavenly bodies are forbidden. Just because something doesn't work doesn't mean that it is automatically assur. It could be just dumb.

  23. Here's a sure-fire way to get rid of even the worst smell in your car. Grind about a cup or two of roasted coffee beans and place in a porous cloth bag. Place bag in car. Within a day or two nasty smell will disappear.

  24. I would rather worship Genesha than Yehovah.


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