God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry


God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry 
by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Mosaica Press / 398 PP

SPECIAL GUEST POST
Reviewed by Rabbi Naftali Kassorla

The Torah world can once again rejoice, as one of its rising stars, Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein, the author of Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew has produced another impressive work in God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry.

In this work, Rabbi Klein draws upon copious amounts of sources, and years of immersion in Torah Study, to present both the historical/sociological history of idol worship, the development of polytheistic cults from primeval monotheism, and the extent of their worship in ancient times.

But most importantly, Rabbi Klein tackles an important issue that is riddled with much confusion: To what extent were the the Jews of the First Temple period and earlier, truly steeped in the practices of Avodah Zarah?

The plain reading of Tanach and the prophets’ exhortations seem to imply that idol worship was rife within the Jewish people. Yet, given our nation’s unique history, most people find this befuddling. We know our history; we know the amount of persecution that the Jewish people have endured, the embers of flames we have faced, and the forced exiles we have experienced under the threat and ultimatums of conversion or death. Yet, we know how we, collectively, have faced these trials with strength and faith. Thus, how could the fiber of this nation, that we see has been strong for millennia, possibly cower and break down in the times of prophecy and the daily miracles of the Temple? Surely there is something deeper going on here.

With these questions in mind, I found that Rabbi Klein was quite intuitive and methodical in addressing this issue outright in his introduction (pg. 17). Basing himself on both the Doros Ha-Rishonim, written Rav Yitzchak Isaac Halevi Rabinowitz, and the sermons of the late Rav Isaac Sher, Rabbi Klein sets down both a defense of the Jewish People in the First Temple period, but also gives us a working philosophy and narrative with which to properly understand the historical and literary parts of Tanach.

They support an alternative approach: we mustn’t take the words of the prophets at their simple meaning, for actually the prophets’ harshness is attributed to both the seriousness of idol worship, and a higher expectation of the Jewish people of the time.

Not only does this answer the question posed above, but I found it actually enriched my understanding of the seriousness of idol worship, and in contrast the unique nature of the Torah’s vision of the world - a God-centered society - without any medium separating us and the Divine.

This idea is brought out to the fore later in the book (pg. 45). We are introduced to Avraham Avinu, our biological progenitor and spiritual forefather of pure monotheism. The society into which he is born is one that is heavily demarcated and defined. There were numerous sects of religions, each with its own sets of belief and ways of worship. It is a society that is both rigid in its hierarchy, its conception of the pantheon of gods, but also in the caste patriarchal system of leaders of and followers. Everyone knew their role, and it was almost non-negotiable.

Yet Avraham, through the means of inquiry, challenged this system, and is promptly met with Nimrod’s threats of death by fire. Rabbi Klein thrills us with accounts of Avraham’s face off with Nimrod, and how Avraham challenged the status quo (pg. 48). Not only was Nimrod the archetypical war-lord, but he also thought of himself as a deity.

Avraham, through his publicizing monotheism, boldly went where no man went before. His conception of monotheism was meant to democratize the ability to connect with the Divine -- the way it was intended from the time of creation -- without a medium, without a self-proclaimed god lording over us. Instead, Avraham preached that everyone can have a personal recognition and relationship with the Creator of the World.

Once we appreciate this message, the theme presents itself. In Jewish Tradition, dabbling, or even a subtle acknowledgment of idol worship is treated with the utmost seriousness, for it reverts the world back to the drudgery of the spiritual Dark Ages, a time when it was accepted as fact that one could not approach G-d with his concerns or fears, and when the belief that what was decreed from Above was immutable.

But the Torah’s vision of man's relationship with God is on a totally different plane -- there are no intermediaries, no go-between, and there are no powers above the power of God. One can approach Him in seeking a true relationship with Him.

Rabbi Klein does an immaculate job at presenting us with the different approaches to understanding the history of how the battle between idol worship and monotheism played out. It is worthy to be added to anyone’s bookshelf. I found his book enlightening, intriguing, and entertaining, and I strongly suggest it to others as well.

To order: https://amzn.to/2NO4jLy

Rabbi Naftali Kassorla is the Director of Kollel Toras Chaim and a Maggid Shiur at Yeshivas Tiferes Yisroel both in Jerusalem

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