As Thomas Cahill famously wrote, monotheism was one of the greatest “Gifts of the Jews.” Did this gift come with a steep cost? You be the judge, based on these two verses from this week’s parashah, Re-eh:
“You must destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site” (Deuteronomy 12:2-3)
The Torah’s insistence on eradicating avodah zarah–idolatry–from the land, is certainly comprehensive and unequivocal. But anything expressed in such stark terms is bound to make someone uncomfortable. The rabbis of the midrash seemed to shudder just a bit when reading this, as reflected in this debate over the meaning of certain phrases:
“Rabbi Eliezer said: From where [do we know that] one who cuts down a sacred post is also obligated to uproot it? From Scripture’s words ‘obliterating the name.’ Said Rabbi Akiva to him: Why do I need [this interpretation]? Does [the Torah] not already say ‘You must destroy?’ So what, then, does ‘obliterating their name’ teach us? To change the name [of a place of idolatry]” (Sifrei Devarim 61)
What are the advantages of Rabbi Akiva’s approach? What are its dangers? We’ll explore this and other rabbinic thoughts about the Torah’s troubling command on Shabbat morning.
Wishing you Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov,
Rabbi David Wise