Haftarah Parshat Behar-Behukotai
May 20, 2017 / 24 Iyar 5777
Idolatry apparently had great allure to many ancient Israelites. This should not be surprising coming from a little people stuck in the midst of a good many larger civilizations. The pressures to conform to the larger cultures or to syncretistically borrow from them were probably great. This was no small problem for the prophets who were advocates for the ideal of total loyalty to the God of Israel. Jeremiah saw in these religious borrowings and the people’s passion for them a primary cause of the nation’s downfall: “As those who remember their children, so they longed for their altars, and their graves by the green trees on the high hills. You who sit upon the mountain in the field, I will give your substance and all your treasures for a spoil, and your high places, because of sin, throughout all thy borders.” (16:20-21 – according to the Talmud’s understanding of the verses)
In the following Talmudic passage, the sages debate the nature of the people’s attachment to idolatry: “Rav Yehudah said in Rav’s name: The Israelites knew that the idols were not real, but they engaged in idolatry only so that they might openly satisfy their incestuous lusts. (In other words, they practiced idolatry to divest themselves of the moral restraints of the Jewish tradition.) Rav Mesharshia objected [using the verse from our haftarah]: ‘As those who remember their children, so they longed for their altars, and their graves by the green trees etc.”; which Rabbi Elazar interpreted [to mean]: As one who yearns for his son [so they yearned for their idols]. [The Talmud rejected this idea in favor of the following understanding]: [They only showed this “lust” for idolatry] after they became addicted to it.” (Sanhedrin 63b)
The debate between Rav and Rav Mesharshia seems to boil down to whether people adopt idolatry for its religious aspects or because it represents an escape from the self-restraint expected by the Jewish tradition. The Talmud attempts to reconcile these two positions with the assertion that someone would only see substance in idolatry if they became addicted to it in an irrational way. In most Talmudic arguments, there is an element of truth to be found in each of the sides in the debate.
While we may debate the exact nature of what idolatry was and the relationship of Jews to it, this debate may have broader implications about how Jews relate to the greater world today. The attractions which pull people from the Jewish sphere today are more cultural than religious. The Jews remain a small people in a larger cultural ocean. The outside world is compelling. For some, the predominant culture is attractive because it offers opportunities of all sorts which some feel that attachment to the Jewish tradition inhibits. For others, there is the allure of the foreign or strange which is tempting and for others being a part of something bigger and less parochial. Jeremiah saw himself as a protector again these centripetal forces. Pondering these threats might do us some good as well.