The Rambam prefaces his Laws of Avoda Zara with a general history of the origins of idol
worship in the world. That history traces its roots back to the generation of Enoch, son of Seth
and grandson of Adam, who made a simple but significant theological mistake, as described by
the Rambam. They believed that it was the will of the Creator for man to bestow honor upon
those celestial bodies that God seemingly honored by setting them in a lofty place in the
universe. Thus the original idol worshippers indeed believed in the true Creator, but they
mistakenly thought that an appropriate way to laud and praise Him was to honor the spheres in
the Heavens by building temples and offering sacrifices to them. Eventually, this belief system
devolved into one wherein people ascribed divine power to the spheres themselves, and thus
the masses began worshipping these celestial bodies as deities in their own right. Further on,
the Rambam outlines that the entire world eventually held these erroneous beliefs, save for a
small handful of individuals who subscribed to the true conception in God, including Chanoch,
Metushelah, Noah, Shem and Ever. The Rambam then emphasizes that this theological
devolution continued uninterrupted until the generation of Abraham, who introduced the world to
an entirely revolutionary concept of the belief and worship of one God in Heaven.
During the 1000+ year time frame referenced by the Rambam, the Epoch of the Great Deluge
occurred, thereby wiping out all civilization while only the righteous Noah and his family
remained to repopulate the world. During the time when the only people in the world were Noah
and his immediate family, all vestiges of Avoda Zara were ostensibly stamped out of existence.
Only after the world became significantly repopulated, during the Generation of the Dispersion,
did idol worship begin to resurface.
That being the case, where do we find any evidence of any connection between the Avoda Zara
as practiced by the Dor Haflaga, post mabul, and that of Dor Enoch, before the Great Flood? More to the point, why does the Rambam describe the history of Avoda Zara as one long digression when in fact, that entire time frame spanned the years during and immediately following the Flood when Noah and his family had completely eradicated idol worship? Midrash Tanhuma (Genesis 2:24) provides a clue to this question. The Midrash identifies Avoda Zara as the ultimate sin of the Dor Haflaga and invokes the following parable of a bottle full of locusts to explain their deceit. The first locust tries to climb up the bottle to escape but falls back down on its back. A second locust also attempts to climb up the wall of the bottle, only to suffer the same consequence. A third locust does the same but lands on its back at the bottom of the bottle. None of the other locusts learns from the first of the futility of climbing up the bottle. So too, says the Midrash, with the early generations. The Generation of the Flood (the second locust) failed to learn from the wickedness of the Generation of Enoch (the first locust) and later, the Generation of the Dispersion (the third locust) failed to learn from first two. One of the implicit messages of this Midrash is that the brand of Avoda Zara that was practiced by the Dor Haflaga was not a new, unique innovation but was rather, in fact, a revival of the old abhorrent practices and beliefs that were prevalent during the time of Enoch. It is for this reason that the Rambam apparently decided to depict the history of Avoda Zara as one long digression dating back to Enoch, rather than begin that history in the days following the flood. However, this added point still does not sufficiently answer our original question. A digression suggests an uninterrupted chain of descent of the generations’ moral and spiritual standing. While it may be true that the Dor Haflaga may have coopted and revived the ancient Avoda Zara that existed before the Mabul, nevertheless, is it really accurate for the Rambam to depict it as one continuous digression?
An idea from the Ramban’s commentary on the Torah (Bereshit 6:9) provides a possible answer. The Ramban gives two explanations for why the other members of Noah’s family were worthy of being saved from the flood. One explanation is that it is possible that Noah’s entire family was righteous and thus all individual family members warranted salvation in their own right. The second explanation he offers is that, in fact, members of Noah’s family deserved to perish in the Flood on their own, but were nevertheless saved solely on account of Noah’s merit. This second answer suggests that there were at least some people who boarded the Teivah and survived the flood who had serious moral and theological shortcomings that potentially carried over after the world was repopulated. As noted above, by singling out Noah and his son Shem as two of the very few individuals in the world who maintained correct ideas of God. The Rambam’s omission of Ham and Yephet implies that they were not on such a high level and
opens up the possibility that it was they who carried over the ancient traditions of Avoda Zara
after the flood. At the very least, these traditions remained alive in a dormant state, perhaps
buried in the subconscious of some members of the Teiva party, only to resurface years later
when the world once again became repopulated. This is why the Rambam chose to describe
the history of Avoda Zara as one long digression, starting with the generation of Enoch and
spanning the generation of the Flood.
The lesson contained in this idea, as expressed by the Rambam, is clear. When it comes to Avoda Zara, it is not enough to outwardly reject its tenets and avoid its practices. Rather, what is actually required is a continuous and thorough process of soulsearching to ensure that one’s internal belief system includes the abrogation false ideas of God in all their forms. This idea is spelled out by the Rambam in Chapter 2 of Hilkhot Avoda Zara when he writes (2:2, emphasis added): For this reason, (Devarim 11:16) commands: “Be very careful that your heart not be tempted [to go astray and worship other gods].” This implies that the thoughts of your heart should not lead you astray to worship these and make them an intermediary between you and the Creator. And further (2:3): The worship of false gods is not the only subject to which we are forbidden to pay attention; rather, we are warned not to consider any thought which will cause us to uproot one of the fundamentals of the Torah. We should not turn our minds to these matters, think about them, or be drawn after the thoughts of our hearts. In short, a person must undergo a constant evaluation of his heart to ensure that his conception of the One unique God in Heaven is pure and that all foreign and false beliefs are firmly stamped out.
Student Studying in Midreshet Moriah