Parashat Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) leaves no doubt as to what must done with the gods of the Canaanites: “Ye shall surely destroy all the places, wherein the nations that ye are to dispossess served their gods, upon the high mountains, and upon the hills, and under every leafy tree. And ye shall break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim [trees used for worship of the Canaanite goddess Asherah] with fire; and ye shall hew down the graven images of their gods; and ye shall destroy their name out of that place” (Deut. 12:2-3).
God commands the Israelites to destroy all idolatrous images and accessories, so that not one artifact remains of any theological possibility other than worship of the God of Israel, the only god in the universe.
But the attitude toward other gods undergoes a radical shift from the biblical conception of the period of the sages. The phrase “other gods,” which essentially recognizes the deity of the Other, is replaced by the neutral “avodah zara” (idol worship). The obligation to eliminate other gods is replaced by the ban on the trappings of idolatry; the war against idolatry thus becomes one of persuasion, eventually accompanied by interfaith dialogues.
“They [Gentile philosophers] asked the sages of Israel in Rome: If he [God] does not want idolatry, why does he not eliminate it? The sages replied: If the idolaters were worshiping something the world did not need, he would eliminate it. However, they worship the sun, the moon and the stars. Should God destroy his own world because of these fools? The Gentiles then said: If so, he could still destroy things the world does not need [i.e., the images and monuments of idolatry] and allow the things the world does need [the sun, the moon and the stars] to exist.
“The sages of Israel answered: If he were to do so, it would encourage worshipers of the sun, the moon and the stars, who would claim: ‘Here is proof that the sun, the moon and the stars are truly gods because they continue to exist [although the images and monuments of worship were destroyed]’” (Mishna, Tractate Avodah Zara 4:7).
The above mishnah puts biblical logic, according to which idolatry should be eliminated, in the mouths of idolaters engaged in a theological debate with the sages: “If God does not want idolatry, why does he not destroy it?” The provocative response is not raised: that if God permits idolatry, he is either not the only, absolute deity, or else does not object to idolatry. The sages’ clever reply: Since God does not want to destroy his world because of idolatrous fools, he will not destroy the forces of nature that other nations worship. And yet, he does not want to ratify the deity of these forces, so he does not destroy the objects of idol worship that have no real connection to those forces – namely, the statues and altars.
The sages refute the Roman philosophers with a small logical explanation, whereby it is forbidden for God to reveal his fury in the world, as that could lead to misinterpretation of his partial revelation. However, this issue reveals a deep philosophical “crack” in the wall, touching on the debate over how one can identify God’s will in a world where divine revelation is no longer possible. The Romans ask about God’s “will”; they already know about it from an explicit commandment in the Torah, but argue that the commandment is self-contradictory because idolatry continues to exist.
Two parameters reveal what God’s will is. The first is the literal law that God gave Israel at Mount Sinai; the second is creation of the universe. The supposition that if God found the existence of idolatry intolerable, he would eliminate it is based on the previous assumption that there must be harmony between nature and the law. That God would not create a law that would contradict nature, nor would he create anything whose existence contradicts the law. By that logic, God would not allow the existence of a force in nature that could be object of idolatry, which is a violation of the law.
As seen in the above mishnah, the fact that a certain form of idolatry involves the forces of nature is, paradoxically, an “insurance policy” for all forms of idolatry – a means to protect them from God’s wrath. He will not actively interfere in the world nor display his will; he seeks to prevent idolaters from thinking that such a display proves he accepts worship of the natural forces he has not destroyed so as to keep the world he created intact.
In effect, since much idolatry revolves around nature, which God cherishes, the idolaters prevent him from revealing himself in this world. The sages see in the Romans’ provocative question a theological reason for concealment of God’s face (i.e., his seeming nonintervention in the world for a time), a phenomenon they themselves experience; furthermore, the sages interpret this concealment as reflecting the distinction between God’s will as expressed in law and his will as expressed in nature.
The Gemara expands on the sages’ response to the Romans and depicts a philosophical world that distinguishes between divine law and nature: “If somebody steals a se’ah [a biblical measure] of grain and then plants the seeds, is it logical to expect that the seeds will not grow? The world operates according to nature’s laws, and fools who act wrongly will be punished for their sins. Another point: If a man and a woman commit adultery, is it logical to expect that the woman will not fall pregnant? The world operates according to nature’s laws, and fools who act wrongly will one day be punished. Reish Lakish says that God declares: ‘Not only do the wicked use my rock publicly in committing adultery, they force me to assent to the child they brought into the world!’” (Mishna, Tractate Avodah Zara, p. 54b).
According to the Roman philosophers’ logic, any natural contradiction of God’s will, as expressed in law, should not be allowed to exist. Wheat that is stolen should not be allowed to sprout; the adulterous woman should not be allowed to fall pregnant.
The sages, however, describe another mechanism, whereby the law and punishment for sins are entities that operate alongside nature, not instead of it. The sages refer the philosophical contradiction in this picture of the world back to God. Reish Lakish verbalizes God’s “reaction” to adulterous sex: The two wicked people used God’s “rock” – namely, the man’s penis, which was circumcised and is an expression of God’s covenant with Israel – for a sinful purpose and therefore forced God to validate the birth of the child, the product of a forbidden relationship.
God’s grievance over having been forced to participate in an act of forbidden procreation displays in an absurd fashion the contradiction between the two expressions of God’s will (in law and nature). According to Reish Lakish, his complaint is sarcastic. But, not only is God sarcastic toward the adulterous couple; one can argue that Reish Lakish is expressing his own view of God in a sarcastic way.
The frustration and powerlessness of a Jew who believes in God and in whose world there is no divine revelation are combined here with a sharp sense of humor, an impressive degree of theological reflection, and perhaps with subtle criticism of heaven itself.