Parashat Re'eh: In what world are we living?

The words ‘abomination’ and ‘hates’ appear only once in the entire Torah.

WORSHIP DISTINCTION: Golden statue of Buddha, Thailand (photo credit: PUBLICDOMAINPICTURES.NET)
WORSHIP DISTINCTION: Golden statue of Buddha, Thailand
This week, we continue listening to Moses’s long speech. Moses jumps from one topic to another, guiding the nation as it prepares to enter the Land of Israel. One of the salient topics in his speech is the imminent encounter with the nations of Canaan and their culture. Moses was concerned – and history proved that his concerns were justified – that the Israelites would learn from their neighboring nations to worship Canaanite idols. This concern led to a series of laws meant to create social distance between the Jewish nation and the Canaanite nations.
Even if the Jewish nation does not join in the ritual worship of Canaanite idols and continues to worship God – the one and only, the abstract and transcendental, Who has no body and of Whom no image or other symbol can be made – Moses was still concerned that the character of the Canaanite ritual worship would ultimately influence and control the kosher Jewish ritual.
“Beware, lest you inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? And I will do likewise.’ You shall not do so to the Lord, your God, for every abomination to the Lord which He hates, they did to their gods, for also their sons and their daughters they would burn in fire to their gods” (Deuteronomy, 12: 30-31).
The Canaanite nations’ ritual worship was, among other things, particularly violent and cruel. They traditionally sacrificed children to their gods. Moses raises the concern that the Jewish nation would worship God, but might imitate Canaanite ritual and do “every abomination to the Lord that He hates.”
This is very strongly worded, using the very negatively connotated words “abomination” and “hates.” These appear only once in the entire Torah, in reference to the despicable act of sacrificing a human being.
Thank God, widespread human sacrifice no longer exists. To a large extent, this is due to Judaism’s tenacious battle against it. But these verses invite us to examine the contrast the Torah is making between idol worship and Jewish worship.
What is it about idolatry that brings about such appalling cruelty? And what, in contrast, is it about Judaism that brings about morality and holiness?
The answer to these questions is hidden in the contrast between the story of creation told in the Book of Genesis and the story of creation told by idol worshipers. The Babylonians’ story of creation told of a huge battle among a number of gods; the Egyptians divided creation among the many gods in the Egyptian pantheon; the Canaanites told of a family of gods that created itself and the world; the Greeks described a violent and cruel battle among the gods that was the source of all reality; the Inca tribe described a god who was afraid of other gods, so he would destroy them; and in Nordic mythology, young gods rebelled against their parents, murdered them and created the world out of their bodies.
In sharp contrast, the story of creation in Judaism is quiet and organized. One God, Who is not part of creation but is external to it, creates the entire universe using words. Perfect harmony is expressed in the summary of each of the days of creation: “And God saw that it was good.”
The world is not a battleground for gods and does not emanate from chaos. The Torah teaches that we – all human beings – live in a good, appropriate place.
Obviously, idol worship would be violent and cruel, since it is directed at gods for whom those are central characteristics. Similarly, it is obvious that Judaism would vehemently oppose such ritual worship, since Jewish worship is directed toward a good and beneficial God Who created us in His benevolence and grace into a wonderful world.
The question about our worldview is not dependent on one ritual practice or another. Man is called upon to determine, and sometimes repeatedly so, if we live in chaos or in a world of cosmic order. Does goodness emerge victorious or is violence the correct path? Can we trust others, or should we be guided by suspicion?
These are questions we are all asked to answer. If we examine and learn the stories of the Torah and its laws, we will have a better grasp of how Judaism answers these significant questions.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.