Conversation Guide #10: ‘Idolatry’ in Rabbinic Discussion – by the late Leo Mock

This article focuses on the concept of idolatry in online discourses of contemporary rabbis belonging to Israel’s Religious Zionist movement. What part do these tendencies, literary, rhetoric or theological, play in contemporary texts? Idolatry seems an archaic concept for (some) other religions and possible deviant behaviour from ‘insiders’. Considering the modern society and the recent rapid realisation of technological innovations and digital means of communication, one wonders if idolatry is still a relevant theological concept to relate to the religious other? In orthodox Judaism, contemporary texts are shaped by different historical-theological perspectives: the Shoah (retrieving lost traditions as mandatory), modernity and secularism may enforce conservative tendencies. Another important context is the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948 – Jews became a majority in a state with citizens of other religions.


The concept of idolatry in contemporary discourse seems relevant considering some recent incidents against churches and clergy in Israel. A deeper analysis of these incidents is needed to determine the exact role of religious motives and political-ideological-social aspects. Moreover, in religious media on the internet, a negative attitude can be observed by rabbis on practical issues: for example, on using Christian calendar dating, prohibiting a visit to the Vatican Museum or the Jerusalem Festival of Light where churches and Muslim places are lit up. In fact, these opinions are almost all based on the views of one religious-zionist rabbi, Shlomoh Aviner, but similar statements by other rabbis may be found on orthodox sites as well. That orthodoxy is not always averse to a more lenient perception of the religious other is found in the Talmud bHullin 13b: “Gentiles outside of Land of Israel are not idol worshippers, but they are holding on to a traditional custom of their ancestors…”. In the Middle Ages and Modernity period different pragmatic views and theological concepts were developed for a more lenient attitude.

Contemporary Responsa texts

The rabbinic discourse is highly diverse, comprising amongst others codices, commentaries, sermons, novellae on the Talmud and pietistic-ethical literature. A useful source is the genre of responsa: a question that usually arises from real life addressed to a rabbi, which the rabbi is expected to answer. A helpful tool for analysing discourses is the Responsa Project of the Bar-Ilan University (version 26), digitising amongst others responsa of famous rabbis (not complete). A search for the term ‘idol worship’ in the last five to six centuries yields 1273 texts (the majority seems to be related to authors of the post-Shoah period). One should be cautious – the high frequency does not show the way it is used, whether it is a reference to the tractate on idolatry in Mishnah or Talmud, a side track in a different subject, or a theoretical question. These 1273 texts are too comprehensive for the scope of this article.

Other contemporary media: Internet questions is an important online-portal for Religious-Zionism in Israel with articles on a wide range of topics, from news, romantic relationships, the parent-child relationship, food and culture to strictly religious issues on the ‘Ask-the-Rabbi’ page, where some twenty-five rabbis can be addressed.

The 103 questions on idolatry are mostly answered by rabbis, some by a peer-group ‘Listening Friends’ – some questioners appear to be young adults. The length of the responsa varies from a few lines to a sheet of A4. Fourteen of these responsa deal with Christianity, four with Islam/Druze religion, and seventeen with religions of the Far East. In general, the religions of the Far East are seen as most idolatrous, followed by Christianity which, with some nuances, is seen as idolatrous (‘some branches’ though are not), while Islam is seen as fully monotheistic. Ten questions deal with inner-Jewish issues like superstition, exaggerated veneration of rabbis in some groups, the Shoah and nationalism in relation to idolatry. The majority are of a halachic nature (25) or deal with general halachical concepts (24). Other questions show a strong personal perspective and reflection (9).

Some questions are related to ‘traditional’ aspects of idolatry (e.g., objects of Buddhism, Christian statues, Islamic symbols). Other questions relate to the here-and-now and show an interesting scope of possible applications of idolatry by some religious Jews in Israel. Central is the question of how to relate to the other-one, and to the other-culture, without compromising one’s own religious identity.


Questions often refer to situations of being among other religious cultures while being abroad as a tourist or in the State of Israel in relation to minorities – the relation to Islam/Druze religion, Christianity. Some reflect the influence of the Eastern religions, culture and western lifestyles on present day Israeli society and touch on different perspectives on symbols of modern Western culture: jeans, piercings, movies, television, sport, and secular literature. The questions reflect a certain level of doubt, fear, and guilt towards secular symbols of modernity, that are, to a certain degree incorporated into the lifestyle of (many) believers. The answers offer a kind of coping mechanism for the psychological tensions in engaging with these phenomena. The answering rabbi is sometimes more lenient than the religious vision or mindset of the young adult.


The last category of questions deals with the juxtaposition of the believer and adherent of Religious Zionism vis-à-vis other Jewish groups and certain aspects of Religious Zionism (national pride).

A question on nationalism (answered by ‘Listening Friends’) refers to doubts over whether being proud of being religious and part of the chosen people could possibly be idolatrous, given the importance accorded by Religious Zionism to nationhood. The answer differentiates between pride in someone’s own achievements and pride in being chosen by God, which is after all God’s choice, and the importance of remembering the destination and task of the chosen people in the world, as well as a call for developing national pride as reaction to the idea of ‘being as all the nations’. This last question and answer especially, positions the questioner vis-à-vis with secular Zionism (‘being as all the nations’), secular modernity – the non-Jewish world – and ultra-orthodoxy that rejects (religious) Zionism.

Preliminary conclusions

The internet responsa are a valuable addition to the written sources as they present matters from the mundane reality of everyday life, reflecting the easily accessible form of the Internet responsa. The discourse functions as a marker of orthodox religious-zionist Jewish identity of certain groups and presents two perspectives, an internal and external one. The external deals with contemporary western influences, the popularity of religions of the Far East, touristic encounters with the ‘religious other’ and the ‘religious other’ in the Israeli context (Christianity, Islam, Druze, Messianic Jews, Baháʼí). The internal deals with delicate religious queries about the Shoah, or how to deal with other (ultra-) orthodox movements and issues of religious Zionism.

These internet responsa texts make virtually no reference to the Bible – even references to earlier rabbinical sources are relatively rare; the discourse seems to have its own characteristic features. Further analysis of both written responsa and internet responsa is required to sharpen our perspective on these texts and in this respect, the observations offered here  are no more than preliminary reflections.



  1. Does the concept of idolatry play a role in your own religion?
  2. Does idolatry play a role in your own personal religious views?
  3. Could idolatry be used in a positive way in a religious discourse?
  4. Do you think that Internet is the right medium to discuss these kinds of sensitive religious subjects?
  5. Could the concept of idolatry be relevant for secular people too?


This summary belongs to a more extensive article of the late Leo Mock, which can be found here: ‘Idolatry’ in Rabbinic Discussion: To Destroy, to Bury or Something Else? Some Observations of the Subject of ‘Idolatry’ in Rabbinic Questions and Answers on the Internet.
Last year, we published the book Religious Exclusivism and Social Inclusion? A Religious Response, which is available Open Access (for free). People asked for an additional discussion guide to bring the outcomes of this research to a wider audience. We agreed to that, and are happy to present a discussion guide which offers you summaries of all contributions, accompanied by questions for discussion. We hope this stimulates people, in all different contexts, to discuss these matters thoroughly and make them actual and relevant for their own situations. Every week we publish another summary of a chapter of the book, and questions for discussion.  If you want to use the whole conversation guide at once, it can be downloaded here: Conversation guide.