Introduction to Judaism and Disability: Portrayals in Ancient Texts from the Tanach through the Bavli continued . . .

So, if idolaters were aware that the gods they worshiped were not contained in statues, nor even in the heavenly bodies with which the gods were associated, how did they see their deities in relationship to these physical symbols? There are three possibilities:

  1. The god is the star.
  2. The god [can be seen] as an institution and the star as the building in which the institution is housed. The institution's building is often a convenient way of identifying the institution, but obviously the institution's identity will be preserved even if it is moved to another building.
  3. An alternative model for the relation between a god and its associated star is the relation between the mind and the body, where the god is the mind and the star is the body. The god dwells in the star as the mind dwells in the body..When a god is described as being fixed to a star, the fixed relationship is generally a punishment for rebellion, which transforms the god into an entity lacking freedom and limited in the realization of its desires. (Halbertal and Margalit 1992, 142-43)

Jews and non-Jews differed in the ways they conceived of idolatrous relationships, according to Halbertal and Margalit, "roughly" as follows: "the view that the god of the sun is identical with the sun is the view that the monotheist attributes to the idolater. The view of institutional identity between them is the attribution of the neutral observer. But it is the mind-body relation as the model for relation between the god of the sun and the sun that is apparently closest to the view of the sun worshiper himself" (143-44). Judaism characterizes idolatry as foolish and unsophisticated, a childish worship of what one sees rather than a recognition of the single essence at the heart of all creation that is true faith.

Why was Judaism born at all? Why were Jews dissatisfied with idolatry as a paradigm? What, specifically, was lacking in Mesopotamian idolatry? (Avraham, the founder of Judaism, had Mesopotamian roots.) The answer is order and reason, dependability and mutuality. As Nahum Sarna puts it,

The pagan worshiper had no reason to believe that the decrees of his god must necessarily be just, any more than he could be convinced that society rested upon a universal order of justice. According to the pagan world-view the fate of man was not determined by human behavior. The gods were innately capricious, so that any absolute authority was impossible..Man always found himself confronted by the tremendous forces of nature, and nature, especially in Mesopotamia, showed itself to be cruel, indiscriminate, unpredictable. Since the gods were immanent in nature, they too shared these same harsh attributes. To aggravate the situation still further, there was always that inscrutable, primordial power beyond the realm of the gods to which man and gods were both subject. Evil, then, was a permanent necessity and there was nothing essentially good in the pagan universe. In such circumstances there could be no correlation between right conduct and individual or national well-being. The universe was purposeless and the deities could offer their votaries no guarantee that life had meaning and direction, no assurance that the end of human strivings was anything but vanity. (1966, 17)

Judaism formulated the Jew's relationship to God to address this problem created by Mesopotamian theology. The Jewish God is as closely bound by the covenant as is the human Jew. Thus, the Jewish God, though omnipotent, allows divine power to be limited by the agreement the Deity entered into with the Jewish people.

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