A New Look at Idolatry and Slave Labor


Idolatry (avoda zara) is one of the gravest sins in the Torah. In fact, it is one of three sins for which one must accept death before succumbing (Yoma 82a). But is it merely an ancient relic? As 21st-century Jews who have demythologized the world, we simply cannot relate to the worship of trees, rivers, and statues. Nonetheless, today’s desire for idolatry is as strong as ever, clothed deceptively in new forms such as slave labor and unethical consumption.

Monotheism is inimical to idolatry. The importance of monotheism highlighted in the daily Shema declaration is foundational to Jewish belief. This is primarily a commitment not to believe in or serve any other god or to make any statues (Exodus 20:3-4). For many, it is also a denial of multiplicity to the G-d of oneness. While theists and atheists both can act morally or immorally, all individuals must beware that no absolute object or value replaces the concept of G-d. It is my belief that when embraced properly, a belief in G-d should inspire more humility. One always knows that the job of G-d is taken.

I would suggest that monotheism and the rejection of idolatry can be understood not only as a theological, but also a moral, commitment. The Greek philosophers taught that polytheism leads to moral relativism, since there are many conflicting bosses. When we embrace one G-d, on the other hand, we are guided by the one absolute moral truth and authority.

Rabbi Menachem HaMeiri, a great medieval authority, explained that an idolater was one who lives a lawless lifestyle. He explained: “They are polluted in their practices and disgusting in their moral traits…but the other nations, which are law-abiding, and which are free of these disgusting moral traits and, moreover, punish people with these traits—there is no doubt that these laws do not apply to them at all” (Beit Habehirah, Avodah Zarah 48). Thus, one’s moral life is the barometer for the holy—or for the idolatrous. 

Many Jewish sources understood idolatry not to be an intellectual error but a wrong associated with sexual morality: “The Israelites knew that the idols were nonentities, and they engaged in idolatry only in order to allow themselves to perform forbidden sexual relations publicly” (Sanhedrin 63b). Again the rabbis teach that the rejection of idolatry is a moral commitments.

Similarly, the prophets constantly compared idolatry to adultery. If one betrays G-d for another, one is like an adulterer cheating on a spouse. The comparison is not only metaphorical. A desecration of G-d can be done to G-d’s image. We learn that each human being is created in the image of G-d—to desecrate a human being is to desecrate G-d. Immoral activity is also an act of idolatry.  Thus, while Romans honored statues of their rulers, Hillel the Elder noted that to wash oneself in the bathhouse was a mitzvah: “All the more so am I required to scrub and wash myself  – I, who have been created in G-d’s image and likeness” (Midrash, Leviticus Rabbah, 34:3). A rejection of idolatry can inspire care for physical human needs.

Philosophers have broadened our understanding of modern idolatry in a way we can understand. Emil Fackenheim explains: “Sinful passion can reach a point at which it becomes an independent power—as it were, an alien god within—a point at which the ordinary relation is reversed and passion no longer belongs to man but man to passion. This is why the rabbis refuse to belittle idolatry by defining it too widely, as indistinguishable from sin in general” (Encounters Between Judaism and Modern Philosophy, 178). The role of religious life is to become aware of, and take control of, this “independent power” that can dominate our capacity for reason and restraint.

Theologian Paul Tillich writes, “Idolatry is the elevation of a preliminary concern to ultimacy. Something essentially conditioned is taken as unconditional, something essentially partial is boosted to universality, and something essentially finite is given infinite significance; the best example of contemporary idolatry is religious nationalism” (Systemic Theology, 1:13). There is only one unconditional, universal, infinite Entity, and when anything concrete or finite is made absolute or infinite, it may be considered an act of idolatry.

Choosing self-interest over the needs of another was considered by the rabbis to be one form of idolatry. “Anyone who shuts his eye against charity is like one who worships idols, for here it is written, ‘Beware that there be not a base thought in thy heart,’ etc. [‘and your eye will be evil against thy poor brother’], and there it is written, ‘Certain base fellows are gone out, as there [the crime is that of] idolatry, so here also [the crime is like that of] idolatry’” (Ketubot, 68a). Caught in the traps of insatiability, one can throw off the very moral responsibility that makes us human. The paradigmatic idol, the golden calf, represents this undisciplined pagan behavior combined with materialistic greed.

The Sefer HaChinuch, a 13th-century Spanish legal work, links idolatry to consumer spending: “For we should not attach any item of idol worship to our money or property, in order to gain pleasure from it, and for this reason, the Torah says, ‘You must not bring an abhorrent thing into your house.’ And one reason for this commandment is to distance every element of detested idol worship… And within the commandment is that one should not attach to his own money, which G-d graced him with, the money of another which was gained through theft, violence or exploitation, or from any disgusting element, because all of these are included in the elements of idol worship. For man's heart is inclined towards evil, which desires [items paid for by any means] and brings it into the home; and this inclination towards evil is called idol worship” (Sefer HaChinuch, mitzvah 429).

The Chinuch is explaining that when one merely fulfills a desire for consumption, ignoring the moral duty to consider how it was produced, one worships pleasure over all else. When one worships oneself, it is considered an act of idolatry.

Today, we are aware that as westerners we benefit from slave-produced products. Consider taking the slavery footprint survey. You are likely to find that more than 20 slaves produced the food and consumer goods that you use daily. In an age where more than 30 million people live as slaves and millions more work in sweatshops around the world, we must confront this reality. The idol of immediate gratification at the expense of the basic welfare of human beings needs to be smashed. This requires more moral sophistication than a hammer. 

Today, there is growing transparency in where our food comes from, such as kosher certifications, fair trade stamps, and the ethical kosher seal (Tav HaYosher). There are so many other areas where we do not have access to transparency. Clothes production is a great example. How can we become moral exemplars willing to make significant personal sacrifices in areas where transparency and access to credible reliable information is so difficult?

The rabbis teach us, “One who sees an idol that has not been destroyed pronounces the blessing, ‘Blessed is He who is slow to anger’” (Tosefta, Berakhot 7, 2). Incredible! I would suggest that this wording was chosen because G-d should be angry at how much evil there is in the world that is unchallenged. Yet G-d has humbly allowed us to be the ambassadors of truth and the defenders of justice on earth. We can emulate this Divine patience frustrated at an unredeemed world while still feeling a great sense of urgency. May our rejection of idolatry inside and outside of ourselves inspire us to live more ethical and holy lives, spreading justice near and far.

Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available for pre-order on Amazon.