The source of idolatry, among the gravest offenses a religious person can commit, lies atop a slippery slope. It comes not from a search for multiple deities and not even from an abandonment of the one true God. Its origin lies in a deeper, more basic deviation that faces every seeker of truth.
Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Avodah Zarah 1:1) explains the historical origin of idolatry. If Adam and Eve interacted with God, at what point and why did their descendants spread their devotions to idols? Rambam states that at a certain point, people decided to worship God’s celestial servants as a show of respect to God, and eventually worshipped them exclusively and neglected God entirely. This was the societal path away from monotheism, a historical recreation of humanity’s direction. However, the personal path may be much different. An individual’s journey to idolatry may take another route.
The Gemara (Pesachim 116a) instructs us to begin our Pesach seder with an embarrassing, insulting tale from the time of Terach, Avraham’s father. “Our ancestors were initially idolators.” Rambam (Hilchos Chametz U-Matzah 7:4) describes them as “Kofrim ve-to’in achar ha-hevel ve-rodfin achar avodah zarah,” “Deniers, mistakenly following nonsense, and seekers of idolatory.” This triple language is unusual and instructive. It explains the personal process by which an individual becomes an idolator.
Elsewhere, Rambam (Hilchos Teshuvah 3:7-8) divides non-believers into three categories—Minim (sectarians who deny God’s existence), Apikorsim (epicureans who deny prophecy) and Kofrim (heretics who deny the Torah). In describing the idolators we mention at the seder, Rambam invoked the third category—kofrim, heretics—from his three-fold list. He does not mention minim and apikorsim. But this presents a puzzle: Kofrim are those who reject the Torah; what Torah existed in Terach’s time for him to reject on his way to idolatry? It must be the prophetic tradition from Adam and Noach. Both Adam and Noach spoke to God and received instruction, commandments to transmit throughout the generations. This tradition on how to act, this Torah, was passed down to Terach and others of his generation.
Terach and his predecessors took their first steps to idolatry by rejecting their tradition. Without such a guide to religious behavior, without their Torah tradition, they had to invent their own guide. Their eventual creation was inevitably wrong—a religion of nonsense, which Rambam tersely describes. And idolatry became a central feature of this mistaken philosophy. This is the first lesson of the Maggid portion of the seder. Our ancestors were idolators. How did they get that way? First they rejected the Torah (they were kofrim); then they created their own nonsensical guide to religious life (ve-to’in achar ha-hevel); their misguided search for truth led them to idolatry (ve-rodfin achar avodah zarah).
The Rambam’s brief lesson in idolatry teaches us that the first step toward religious tragedy is rejection of tradition. Without the trusted guide of tradition, those who attempt to face new situations, such as a world with advanced science and modern technology, risk the likelihood of creation a false ideology that leads them to idolatry in one form or another. It is the well-intentioned seekers, good people following bad advice, who run this risk. Once you step away from the path of the faithful generations of the past, the road to disaster is short and all but unavoidable.
By Rabbi Gil Student