#68 - Sanhedrin 58-64
Consent or Humor?
Idol worship is so grave a sin that it is punished by stoning, the severest of the death penalties. Another dimension of its gravity is to be found in the laws of meisit (Devarim 13:7-11).
A Jew who persuades another Jew to worship an idol is liable for the death penalty even if neither he nor the object of his persuasion actually perform any act of idol worship. If the victim of this missionary effort expresses his consent to worship the idol he too is executed even if he does not actually carry out his intention.
What if the persuader has declared himself a deity and attempts to persuade other Jews to worship him? If they actually serve him as a deity both they and he are liable for the death penalty. But what if they express only their consent to do so?
It is the opinion of Rabbi Meir that there is no difference between expressing consent to worshipping the idol being promoted by the missionary or to worshipping the persuader himself, and in both cases the death penalty applies. Rabbi Yehuda, however, contends that the consent expressed in regard to a self-promoting persuader cannot be considered incriminating because it is not a serious declaration. After all, the object of such persuasion will ask himself why another human is more divine than himself, and expresses consent only to humor the persuader.
What about the meisit who attempts to persuade his victim to worship him? Is he still liable for the death penalty for his attempt or do we consider it such an exercise in futility that he too is exonerated?
Two views on this question are found in Tosafot. Support for the view that the meisit to worship himself will be executed seems to arise from the gemara (Sanhedrin 67a) which describes the entrapment which is tagged to incriminate a missionary by having him repeat his pitch for idol worship within earshot of two witnesses. The object of persuasion asks the meisit to repeat his appeal while two hidden witnesses watch and listen. After he hears the appeal he gives the meisit an opportunity to backtrack by protesting that he cannot abandon his Father in Heaven for an idol. The subsequent persistence of the meisit incriminates him and he is executed.
This would seem to indicate that even though the object of persuasion indicates that the missionarizing is futile the meisit is executed for the attempt alone. Tosefot does suggest, however, the possibility of distinguishing between the cases. When it is an idol that is being promoted there is a reasonable chance to convince even a reluctant audience and the attempt alone is punishable. But when one wishes to pass him off as a deity there is so little chance that he will succeed that he is not even considered a meisit deserving of the death penalty.
What a Difference a Letter Makes
As serious as was the sin of the golden calf it did not bring total destruction upon the nation that betrayed G-d so soon after receiving the Torah. The mitigating element in this apparent slip into idolatry is expressed in a single letter.
When the golden calf appeared the people cried out that "this is the god of Israel who brought you out of the land of Egypt" (Shmot 32:4). The letter vov in the term "who brought you out" transforms it into plural form and indicates that the people did not reject their belief in G-d but merely looked upon the golden calf as a partner with Him in bringing about their Exodus. Such a polytheistic belief, say some of our Sages, is bad enough but it is not as serious as abandoning belief in G-d altogether. So it was that little letter vov which saved them from the annihilation total rejection would have invited.
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, however, considers this an insufficient explanation for Israels survival. "Only G-d must be served," the Torah warns (Shmot 22:19) and polytheistic partnership is also a cause for annihilation. What then was the saving grace of the vov which turned the term into plural form?
Maharsha explains that even in worshipping the golden calf they were not rejecting their belief in G-d as the Supreme Power. They made the mistake of "seeking many powers" by adopting the perspective which Rambam (Laws of Idolatry 1:1) ascribes to the first idol worshippers of history. Those idolaters thought that since G-d, Creator of the world, had delegated power to heavenly bodies to run the world for Him, then it must be His desire that these bodies be respected and served in the same manner as a human king expects his ministers to be respected as an expression of respect for the king himself. In the same way the worshippers of the golden calf recognized G-d as the Supreme Power but served what they believed He had delegated power to in order to take them out of Egypt. When Moshe subsequently says to G-d (Shmot 33:12) "See, You tell me Lead this nation " he was suggesting that just as G-d was empowering him with leadership, so too did his people mistakenly think that in his absence it was the golden calf who had received this mandate.