Shalom, folks. Continuing in my multi-year long process of mapping all the Biblical commandments into an interactive, visual tree – EtzMitzvot.com – I’ve added several commandments to the tree tonight, most of which deal with idolatry. Commentary below. Enjoy!
#50 Don’t setup statues for worship
Do not set up any wooden Asherah pole beside the altar you build to the LORD your God, and do not erect a sacred stone, for these the LORD your God hates.
Maimonides interprets this as 'Not to erect a pillar in a public place of worship.'
I find this interpretation both too narrow in one area and too broad in another.
Location, location, location
It’s too narrow when he says, “in a public place” – reading the text and looking at several commentaries, it seems apparent God isn’t so much concerned about pillars in public places, but rather, to not erect poles or statues with the intent of worshiping them. While the text does say Asherah poles “next to the altar of the LORD”, the following verse on sacred stones, or statues, seems more open-ended.
The explicit reference to Asherah in the text is likely due to the previous inhabitants of the land of Israel, the Canaanites, who erected poles to worship a fertility goddess by that name. Worship of Asherah, along with her well-known cohort Ba’al, spread from the Canaanites to the people of Israel; 9 different books of the Bible, including 2 books of the Torah, explicitly reference worship of this idol.
The Torah explicitly forbids Asherah poles near the altar of the LORD. This suggests God knew the Israelites would mix idol worship and worship of God. Recent archaeological finds suggest the same: artifacts from 800 BC contain inscriptions linking Yahweh and Asherah as husband and wife.
This has prompted atheists, and a recent BBC television series, to claim the Bible has a conspiracy/cover up of this God-to-Asherah connection. I find this charge easily dismissible; the Torah is quite open – hardly a cover up! – when explicitly forbidding this syncretism.
Pillars, statues, and holy stones
Maimonides’ interpretation is too broad when he says “not to erect a pillar.” The context here is clearly on idolatrous objects of worship, not simply pillars or statues of any kind. It seems to me secular statues – for example, war memorials – are not likely what the Torah is attempting to forbid here.
Maimonides’ broad interpretation, in which virtually all kinds of pillars and statues and likenesses are forbidden, has had a lasting effect on the Jewish people today. When I was in Israel last summer, I saw evidence of this. In the city of Herzliya, named after Zionist pioneer Theodore Herzl, the city’s water tower, as I recall, has a faux statue of Herzl. Instead of a statue, they have some halacha-safe image that looks like a statue but isn’t:
All because of the ban on statues and likenesses, per Maimonides’ broad interpretation of this passage and a few others like it.
That said, as I recall, there are some real statues in Israel that apparently don’t fall under the stringent halacha against statues. Just outside of the Old City of Jerusalem, near David’s tomb, there’s a Holocaust memorial with a statue of a girl, along with a halachic justification for the statue. I found it amusing enough I needed to snap a few photos of it:
Here’s a close-up of the tablet, along with blurb about “Yes, this is in keeping with Jewish law [against statues] and is endorsed by the Rabbis.”
So it would seem there must be some halachic exception to Maimonides’ ruling that statues and standing stones are forbidden. (An exception that the fine people of Herzliya haven’t discovered? )
That said, there are some ugly standing pillars in Israel. The United Nations, in all its vast wisdom, erected a giant pillar just outside Jerusalem as a symbol of tolerance. (Did not a single person at the UN think to check Jewish halacha before building this monstrosity, or are they just trolling us with a giant phallic symbol?)
Somehow, I think the UN Tolerance Monument might just fall under the Scriptural ban on sacred statues!
Thanks for reading, see you next Tuesday.