How it Started & the Psychology of this Sin
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Maimonides on Idolatrous Deterioration
In the days of Enosh (Adam’s grandson), the sons of man erred exceedingly, the advice of the wise men of that generation was nullified, and even Enosh himself was among the victims of that folly. Their mistake was this: They thought: “God created these stars and planets to rule the world, He placed them high above [in the skies] thereby honoring them, and as they are ministers who render service in His presence, it is proper that they be praised and glorified and honored, this is the will of God, to exalt and honor him whom He exalted and honored, even as a king desires to honor those who stand in his presence, for such is the honor of the king.”
As soon as they entertained this in their heart, they commenced to erect temples in honor of the stars, to offer sacrifices to them, to praise and glorify them in words, and bow down to them in order to reach the will of God, in their evil thoughts. This was the essence of the worship of stars.
Over much time, there arose among the sons of man false prophets, who asserted that God commanded them saying, “Worship such a star, or all of the stars, and offer sacrifices to it, and anoint it, and erect a temple for it, and hew its image so that all of the people, women and children and the rest of the populace included, bow down to it.” And these false prophets informed the populace of an idol which they imagined (lied), and told them that this was the image of the star which was pointed out to him in his prophecy.
In this manner they commenced to draw images in temples, beneath trees, upon mountain-tops and elevated places, where they congregated to bow down to them and sermonize to the people, saying: "This image has it in its power to do good and evil, and it is proper to worship it, and be in awe of it." Their priests, moreover, said unto them: “By this worship you will increase and succeed; do thus and such, but not that and this.”
Then, still other liars rose up to assert that the star itself, or the planet, or the angel spoke to them and instructed saying: “Worship me thus and such,” and thereat made known to them the way to worship them, instructing them, “Do this, but do not do that.” In this manner this thing [star worship] spread throughout the world, and the worship of images with varied ceremonies, to sacrifice to them and to bow down to them.
After the lapse of a long time the Glorified and Awful Name was forgotten to be mentioned by the mouth of all substance and blotted out from their consciousness, so that they gave Him no recognition, as a consequence whereof all the people of the earth as well as women and little children knew nothing [about God] except the image of wood and stone, the stony temple wherein they were brought up from their infancy to bow down to it, to worship it and to swear by its name. As for their wise man, for example, their priests and their like, they supposed that there was no God, but only the stars and planets [existed], for whose sake, and in whose likeness, those images were made; but the Rock of Ages, no man recognized Him or knew Him, except some individuals in the whole world, for example, Enoch, Methuselah, Noah, Shem, and Ever. And, on this path the world continued its course of circuity until the birth of the firmest pillar of the world, Abraham our father.
(Maimonides, Laws of Star Worship 1:1,2)
Why did man’s deterioration into star worship follow “stages,” instead of an immediate plunge into the lowest stage?
In Stage 1, man erred by projecting human qualities on God’s will, imagining stars were “near” God, that they “minister” to God, and that God “desired” His planets and stars to be honored.
In Stage 2, false prophets arose, when man further deteriorated, claiming God commanded man to “Worship such a star.” False prophets arose who informed others of an idol, which they conjured-up in their fantasies (false prophets and idols did not exist in Stage 1).
In Stage 3, God no longer was the authority, and the liars claimed the star or angel directly commanded them in star worship.
Finally in stage 4, “After the lapse of a long time, the Glorified and Awful Name was forgotten.”
We find similarly in Rashi on Leviticus 26:15:
TO MAKE VOID MY COVENANT — Denying the great principle of the existence of God (Sifra, Bechukotai, Section 2 3). — Thus you have here seven sins, the first sin brings the second in its train, and so on to the seventh. And these are: He has not studied and therefore has not practiced the commandments; consequently he scorns others who do practice them, he then hates the Sages, followed by preventing others from practicing, he then denies the Divine origin of the commandments, and finally he denies the existence of God.
Thus, man declines progressively—“After the lapse of a long time”—not sudden deterioration. Rashi says above, “the first sin brings the second in its train.” Why is this? Why couldn’t man skip the first 3 stages of idolatry and deteriorate from full knowledge of God, directly to stage 4 where God was forgotten altogether? What psychological truth determines that man acts progressively, from stage 1 to stages 2, 3 and then 4?
Furthermore, in Stage 2, man claimed God spoke to him. This was not true, but why did man’s deterioration include ego—“God spoke to me”—claiming himself as a prophet?
Sinful man operates by catering to his emotions. At various stages in life, man experiences different emotions. At first, Adam possessed accurate knowledge God, as Ibn Ezra says, “Adam was a great intellect.” But 2 generations later, his grandson Enosh caved to his emotions. Enosh projected human qualities onto God, assuming God is like a human king, that God desired honor be bestowed upon those ministers close to Him. Instead, Enosh should have accepted complete ignorance of God's true nature and followed his grandfather’s awe and acceptance of the “unknowable God.” Thus, Enosh made a number of errors. One error was as we have just stated. Another error was assuming God exists “in the sky,” leading him to another error that stars are “near” God. The next error was that stars “minister before God.” And this finally lead to honoring and worshipping stars.
Man Reacts to His Current Restrictions
We deduce that man reacts only to his current assumptions. Meaning, as Enosh still accepted God, but assumed He was in the sky, his reaction to this was that the stars are “near” God. He did not deviate too far and reject God's existence, for his understanding was still closely related to his grandfather's acceptance of the true God. Complete denial of God would not satisfy his current world purview, which was that God exists. Thus, he rejected that God is outside of space and time, forcing God into the heavens. That is all that was needed to satisfy his current discomfort with an abstract metaphysical God. The rule: Man seeks only to alleviate what disturbs his current state.
The Core Error
We must emphasize that the underlying error was this: man attributing physicality and location to the true God. And this error was due to man's inability to escape his senses. Man could not mature intellectually, as was God’s will by granting man intelligence. Instead, man, unable to accept God's unknowable nature, forced a wrong and physical understanding of God onto his infantile psyche, which, from youth, grew attached to physical parents. As man could not escape the clutches of the physical sensual world, and his dependance upon tangible parents, he forced God into his tangible world, attributing to God a location in the skies, and the emotions of human kings.
Not the Same man
Sin deteriorates man’s psyche. Only once a person has deteriorated to stage 2, is Stage 3 attractive. This is the key: In Stage 2, one is no longer the same person he was at Stage 1. The rabbis say, “One sin causes another” (Rashi on Deut. 22:14). Once man sins, he is no longer the same person he was prior to sinning. Also, “Rabbi Yoḥanan said: ‘There is a small limb in man; if he starves it, it is satiated, but if he feeds it, it grows hungrier’” (Succah 52b). Both statements teach that once man excites his desires, they crave more satisfaction and gratification. As Enosh sinned, and mankind followed, each stage produced a more sinful personality, where over each succeeding year and generation, man grew more attached to emotional satisfaction, and further from intelligence and truth. At first, Enosh recognized God, but his sensual nature could not tolerate an abstract God, so he viewed God as “in” the skies. This in turn allowed a deterioration where man assumed stars held a high status, as they were “near” God, a thought that could not exist prior to Stage 1, when God was still viewed by Adam as non-physical. Thus, with each succeeding corruption, man built fallacy upon fallacy. Therefore, once stars were viewed in an elevated rank over all other creations, man’s insecurities projected “will” onto the stars, and he believed they communicated with man. This cleared the path for man to forget about God altogether.
Similarly, as noted above, Rashi writes:
He has not studied and therefore has not practiced the commandments; consequently he scorns others who do practice them, he then hates the Sages, followed by preventing others from practicing, he then denies the Divine origin of the commandments, and finally he denies the existence of God.
This progression starts with the failure to follow Torah. But as he senses Torah is true, his self-worth is jeopardized. To retain an acceptable self-image, he must view others as evil: “They’re wrong, I am right” his ego maintains. But as one’s peers are not the authority, he must now attack authorities, namely the rabbis. His intolerance forces him to prevent others from practicing Torah, since his mere hate alone of Torah practicing Jews fails to placate his ego. He needs to stop others from following Torah. Then he realized God as the source of Torah so he denies Torah as divine, and ultimately he denies God Himself. Again, the train of events deteriorates as in each succeeding regression the person is faced with a new realization that must be dealt with. At first the sinner doesn’t jump to a denial of God, as the matter he confronts at first is his peers following Torah, so it is this alone to which he reacts by scorning them. With each new stage of decline, the sinner is confronted with new obstacles at which he must lodge an attack to maintain his self image.
Why did star worship include false prophets, an expression of ego? Rambam says, “False prophets asserted that God commanded them to worship a star,” and also, “Other liars asserted that a star, planet or angel instructed them saying, ‘Worship me [that star] in such a way’” (Hilchos Avoda Zara 1:2). Why did ego enter into star worship, that false prophets made such self-aggrandizing claims, that stars selected them? Rabbi Israel Chait answers this in this essay: www.Mesora.org/Idolatry-SelfDeification.html