Maimonides on the Core of Judaism’s Worst Sin

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Maimonides doesn’t simply make statements; copying Torah’s method and style, he organizes his words with precision, and subtly reveals paths for our exploration. To understand his depth and his ultimate brilliance, you must patiently analyze his words.

Maimonides states that in Earth’s 3rd generation—that of Adam’s grandson Enosh—mankind made a tremendous error and contradicted the advice of the wise men: 

Man said that since God created the stars and planets to guide the world, and placed them in the heights of heaven, and God apportioned them honor, and they are the ministers that minister before Him, they deserve to be praised and glorified and shown honor. And this is God’s will blessed be He: to make great and to honor those who God made great and honored, just as a king desires that those who stand by him are shown honor, for this is the honor of the king himself. 

They began to build temples and sacrifice to the stars and to praise and glorify them with words and bowing to them in order to attain God's will…in their evil thoughts. And this is the core of star worship.

And so these words were stated by those who worshiped the stars who knew their rites. It is not that they rejected God, replacing Him with a certain star, as Jeremiah said: “Who does not fear You king of nations for that is Your due, for among all the wise men of nations, and in all of their kingdoms there is none like You. But they are both dull and foolish; their doctrine is but delusion, it is a piece of wood” [Jer. 10:7,8] (Laws of Star Worship 1:1).

Maimonides teaches that the original star worshipers did not deny God’s existence, rather: “All mankind knew that God is unique alone. Rather, their mistake and their foolishness is they imagined that star worship is God's will.” 

What was their sin and what compelled them to sin in this manner? In this first law alone, Maimonides repeats the phrase “God’s will” 4 times. His message is this: Idolatry’s core sin is imagination…imagining what is God’s will. Once man equates fantasy to reality, once a man believes his imagination dictates what is true, he in fact does not follow reality. That is why idolatry is referred to as strange worship—“avoda zara”—it is estranged from what is real. Maimonides reiterates this point in law 1:2 (Ibid): 

False prophets would show a form (idol) that they conjured in their own hearts, claiming that it communicated to them in a prophecy, and (claimed) that by worshiping these forms they would improve their lives [since idolatry aims as alleviating insecurity]. Other liars arose and said that a star, a planet or an angel spoke to them and said, “Worship me in such a such a way and do this and do not do that.” And this practice spread throughout the world, to worship idols in various distinct expressions and to sacrifice to them and to bow to them. Over many years the fame of the honored and awesome God was forgotten from the mouths of all people and from their thoughts and no one recognized God, and it ended up that the entire Earth, men, women and children only knew of the idol of wood or stone or of the temple of stones that they were trained in from youth, to bow to and to worship it and to swear by its name. And the wise men amongst them like their priests and similarly, imagined that there is no God, only the stars and the planets.

This describes a downward spiral, a progressive deterioration of mind. Maimonides is consistent with his condemnation of man following his imagination, and not reality. Meaning, this deterioration was due to man following his imagination, where one corrupt thought led to a further corruption, leading man further and further from reality until God was no longer recognized, except by few individuals. Thus, this is not simply a historical record, which does not belong in a code of law. Rather, this progressive deterioration outlines the human psyche in its attachment to fantasy, the precise formulation of idolatry. Thus, with this depiction, Maimonides fittingly codifies what is the formulation of idolatry. Their progressive fantasy must continually follow wrong ideas. For once a builder starts a wall with crooked bricks, the wall can never be stable and perfectly vertical. It will fall. So too, once one commences down a path of fantasy, his further thoughts are now built on falsehood and he can never arrive at truth. Thus, idolatry is not only wrong due to its initial errors, but due to the continued falsehoods built upon the original errors.

In 2:3 Maimonides sites the Torah prohibition: 

“Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them” (Deut. 11:16). This means to say that you should not err in the thoughts of your heart to serve these stars, to be an intermediary between you and the Creator. 

Maimonides broadens the application:

And not star worship alone is one prohibited to turn after it in thought, but all thoughts that cause a person to uproot a fundamental of Torah, we are warned not to entertain them on our hearts (Ibid. 2:3).

In his “Letter to Marseille,” Maimonides again instructs us to accept as true, only one of three matters: 1) that which is perceived by the senses, 2) that which the mind demands to be true, and 3) that which is on the authority of Torah. These clearly exclude fantasy, which Maimonides repeats numerous times above as the core error of idolatry. “Thoughts that cause a person to uproot a fundamental of Torah” refer to fantasy. For that which is reality, truly supports Torah. As God is the sole architect of both Torah and the universe, so both must be complimentary.

As Maimonides stated in his commencing words above, man equated God to a human king and his relationship with his subjects. Man erred thinking that since a king desires his viceroys to receive honor, God too desired this for the stars—thinking the stars’ and planets’ “close proximity” to Him in the heavens elevates them to ministers, demanding they be honored. 

Man then projected human qualities on God assuming God's will is like a king’s will (explaining why idols are formed as humans). Man's first mistake was thinking that God occupies space in the heavens. This led to his second mistake thinking the stars and planets are “near” God. His third mistake is that this close proximity indicates that they minister before God. And his final mistake is to project human rulership onto God and assume that those ministers—stars—deserve human honor. This is how star worship commenced. 

The core error is man's imagination regarding God's will

For if man has imaginations concerning unicorns and other fable-type creatures, he does not do himself so much harm. But once man makes an error about God's will, man now makes an error regarding the purpose of his very existence (i.e., God’s will for man’s life). Man thereby forfeits his purpose as his concept of God's will is complete falsehood, thereby rendering his life purposeless. Thus, imaginary notions of God’s will eliminates man’s purpose in existence, where’s fantasy in other areas are less harmful. Maimonides treats this in his Guide (book I, chap. xxxvi)

One  who believes that angels eat and drink and the like, he deviates less from truth than one who believes that something besides God is to be worshipped; for ignorance and error concerning a great thing, i.e., a thing which has a high position in the universe (God), are of greater importance than those which refer to a thing which occupies a lower place (angels).

More crucially, as man cannot know God's essence, our knowledge of God is limited to His will and His actions. Therefore, if we possess an incorrect notion regarding God's will, our knowledge of God is completely wrong and we thereby worship fantasy, and not God. This is the core corruption of idolatry. 

The same critique applies today about those who believe in mysticism. For this area of the mystical, the occult, astrology, magic, luck, spells, tarot cards, fortune tellers, protective mezuzas, red bendels, et al, share one thing in common: they all are unvalidated by senses, rational thought, and Torah. These are Maimonides’ 3 criteria for determining what is real or false. But believers in mysticism and in that list above offer no validation; they follow fantasy. This is the core error and sin of idolatry and star worship: their claims were never witnessed as true. 

God’s Will

But as Maimonides reiterated, it is not fantasy about anything which is sinful and at the core of idolatry. It is fantasy regarding God's will. Believers in mysticism and other powers deny God as the “sole” force in the universe. Therefore, believers in mysticism have no concept of God and His “exclusive” nature and will, which cannot be overridden by any imaginary force.

Before he died, Jacob (Israel) asked his 12 sons if any of them had leanings away from God. Their response forms our seminal Shima prayer: “Hear O Israel, God is our God, God is one” (Deut. 6:4). The 12 sons answered their father Israel, “There is only One force in the universe. We accept no other imagined gods.” (Pesachim 56a)

We must make a sharp distinction between serving an idol and serving God. The former aims at securing imaginary personal benefit. But service of God has at it's objective the awareness of the real single source of reality. God's greatness demands man's attention and subservience. God gains nothing from man, for He has no needs: “If you are righteous, what do you give Him; what does He receive from your hand?” (Job 35:7)  We worship God as He is great, and not to gain anything personally. God commands our worship so we might benefit from recognizing His great wisdom and enjoying Torah study, the greatest pleasure. 

Unfortunately, idolatry is alive and well today. The sin of mind—following fantasy and mysticism—is expressed not only in Christianity, but in Judaism as well. While gentiles have their horoscopes and fortune tellers, Jews have their red bendels and protective mezuzahs. Maimonides’ lesson is to reject as false all unvalidated claims. No one regrew a severed limb or was cured of cancer by wearing a red string. No one recovered from any disease or got rich by placing a mezuza on his home. Our Torah system is a reward and punishment system: God benefits the righteous and punishes the sinner; no other consideration is valid. A wicked man will not be saved by a mezuza, and a righteous person won’t be harmed if not wearing red strings. As foolish as it sounds, many still need a reminder of Judaism’ fundamental that God is one. No other powers exist.