Like other faiths, Judaism has no one, precisely defined theology: rather, there are a diversity of views on the nature of God, how God interacts with the world, and what the essential principles of Jewish faith should be. There are many rationalist interpretations of Judaism, viewed through the lens of philosophy, and many mystical interpretations, viewed through the lens of kabbalah and mysticism.
However, there are also theological boundaries, beyond which a person’s belief would be deemed heresy.
What are the boundaries of Jewish theology?
Judaism forbids avodah zarah/עבודה זרה, idolatry.
The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) has many statements against avodah zarah, written in different historical eras, in response to different issues. Idolatry includes any of these:
the worship of idols/images
the worship of polytheistic gods by use of idols (or images)
the worship of animals or people
the use of idols even in the worship of God
The Hebrew Bible makes clear that God has no shape or form, and is utterly incomparable; thus no idol or image could ever capture God’s essence. For example, when the Israelites are visited by God in Deut. 4:15, they see no shape or form.
It is true the Bible uses anthropomorphisms to describe God, (e.g. God’s mighty hand, God’s finger, etc.) but these are poetic, not literal descriptions. This is reflected in Hosea 12:10 which says, “And I have spoken unto the prophets, and I have multiplied visions, and by the hand of the prophets I use similes.”
The Bible records a struggle between the prophet’s attempt to spread pure monotheism, and the tendency of some people, especially rulers such as Ahab to accept or to encourage others into polytheistic or idolatrous beliefs. The patriarch Abraham was called to spread the true knowledge of God, but the prophetic books still reflect a continuing struggle against idolatry. For example, the Biblical prophet Jeremiah complains: “According to the number of thy cities are thy gods, O Judah” (2:28).
The Bible has many terms for avodah zarah/idolatry, and their usage represents the horror with which they filled the writers of the Bible. Thus idols are stigmatized “non-God” (Deut. 32:17, 21 ; Jer. 2:11 ), “things of naught” (Lev. 19:4), “vanity” (Deut. 32), “iniquity” (1 Sam. 15:23 ), “wind and confusion” (Isa. 41:29 ), “the dead” (Ps. 106:28 ), “carcasses” (Lev. 26:30; Jer. 16:18), “a lie” (Isa. 44:20 et passim ), and similar epithets.
Pagan idols are described as being made of gold, silver, wood, and stone. They are described as being only the work of men’s hands, unable to speak, see, hear, smell, eat, grasp, or feel, and powerless either to injure or to benefit. (Ps. 135:15-18)
What was the idolatry/paganism described in the Bible?
A classic work is “The Religion of Israel: From Its Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile”, by Yechezkel Kaufmann. It’s Hebrew title is תולדות האמונה הישראלית, (Toledot HaEmunah HaYisraelit.) English readers know this book from its translation by Moshe Greenberg.
Clearly, the Bible condemns the external practices of idolatry – worship of figures/idols. But the Bible’s description of idolatry is overly literal – most pagans didn’t really believe that their idols were gods; historians have shown that pagans believed that their idols were just representations of their deities. So Kaufman asks, why doesn’t the Bible directly attack the theology of paganism itself? Page 20 of The Religion of Israel states
It seems incredible that Israel should have been totally unaware of the nature of pagan beliefs. For Israel was always in contact with its pagan neighbors, and moreover, had believing pagans in its midst. Certainly there were circles who knew about paganism more than is reflected in the Bible. What is shown by the fact that the Bible bases its whole polemic on the argument of fetishism is that the chief influence of foreign beliefs on Israelite religion did not involve mythological materials and that the age-long battle of the Bible with idolatry did not involve mythological polytheism.
This compels us to examine anew the conventional views regarding foreign influences on Israelite religion during biblical times. Moreover, we shall have to re-examine fundamentally the nature of Israelite “idolatry” during this period.
It is clear now that the question as to the origin of Israelite monotheism has been erroneously formulated. We cannot ask whether it was during the preprophetic or prophetic age that the religion of YHWH came to deny the reality of the foreign gods. The Bible nowhere denies the existence of the gods; it ignores them.
In contrast to the philosophic attack on Greek popular religion, and in contrast to the later Jewish and Christian polemics, biblical religion shows no trace of having undertaken deliberately to suppress and repudiate mythology. There is no evidence that the gods and their myths were ever a central issue in the religion of YHWH. And yet this religion is non-mythological. Fossil-remains of ancient myths cannot obscure the basic difference between Israelite religion and paganism. It is precisely this non-mythological aspect that makes it unique in world history; this was the source of its universal appeal.
The Bible’s ignorance of the meaning of paganism is at once the basic problem and the most important clue to the understanding of biblical religion. It underscores as nothing else can the gulf that separates biblical religion from paganism. A recognition of this gulf is crucial to the understanding of the faith of the Bible. Not only does it underlie the peculiar biblical misrepresentation of paganism, it is the essential fact of the history of the Israelite religion.
Kaufman concludes that little relationship existed between the ancient Canaanites and Israelites. In his view, the influence of ancient near-eastern pagan religions existed only prior to the time of Moses. Monotheism was an original development of the Israelites themselves. After the Israelites became monotheistic, their theology no longer was related to the mythological pagan ideas around them -to the extent that the Scriptures do not even understand paganism.
“Israelite religion was an original creation of the people of Israel. It was absolutely different from anything the pagan world knew; its monotheistic world view has no antecedents in paganism.”
Examples of ancient idolatry
Yermiyahu (Jeremiah) attacks those who worship the pagan deities Baal and the Queen of Heaven; the pagans believed that these deities has sexual intercourse; their religious followers taught that humans here on Earth should have sex, even with pagan temple prostitutes, in order to stimulate the deities into heavenly sex.
Ironically, these ideas persisted through history through Gnostic texts, and somehow became embedded within the Zohar – a core text of Jewish mysticism. On this, Yehudah Ilan writes
The kabbalah, however, reintroduced these mythological concepts to the point where kabbalistically-minded individuals truly believe that blessings, etc. come into the world via the supposed unification of male and female forces in a heavenly realm. So, even though Yermiyahu HaNavi (cf. 7:18; 19:4-5; 23:27; 44:17-22, et al) railed against the worship of Baal and the Queen of Heaven (which featured sexual relations with temple prostitutes in order to encourage the deities to do likewise above), [Hasidic Jewish] husbands and wives are now taught that the mystical purpose of their sexual relations on Friday night is for the supposed unification of the sefirot of Tiferet (also called “Tzadik” and representative in the kabbalah of the male member) and Malkhut (also called “Shekhinah” and representative in the kabbalah of the female genitalia). In effect, we have in many ways returned to our ancient errors through such teachings.
Jewish view of Christianity
Some places in the Talmud view Christianity as a form of idolatry prohibited not only to Jews, but to gentiles as well. Rabbis with these views did not claim that it was idolatry in the same literal sense as pagan idolaters in Biblical times, but that it relied on idolatrous forms of worship (i.e. to a Trinity of gods and to statues and saints.) (Babylonian Talmud, Hullin, 13b)
Other rabbis held differently, and by the middle ages a new consensus was reached in which Christianity was generally not held to be idolatry.
– “Exclusiveness and Tolerance”, Jacob Katz, Oxford Univ. Press, 1961, Ch.10
Maimonides writes that Jesus was wrong to create Christianity and that Mohammed was wrong to create Islam; he laments the pains Jews had as a result of persecution from followers of these new faiths that attempted to supplant Judaism. However, Maimonides then goes on to say that both faiths help God redeem the world. In his Mishneh Torah, he writes:
Jesus was instrumental in changing the Torah and causing the world to err and serve another beside God. But it is beyond the human mind to fathom the designs of our Creator, for our ways are not God’s ways, neither are our thoughts His. All these matters relating to Jesus of Nazareth, and the Ishmaelite (Mohammed) who came after him, only served to clear the way for the King [[Messiah]] to prepare the whole world to worship God with one accord, as it is written ‘For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they all call upon the name of the Lord to serve Him with one consent.’ (Zephaniah 3:9). Thus the messianic hope, and the Torah, and the commandments have become familiar topics of conversation among those even on far isles, and among many people, uncircumcised of flesh and heart.(“Mishneh Torah”, Maimonides, XI.4
This paragraph used to be censored from many printed versions of the Mishneh Torah because it contained verses critical of Jesus.
“Maimonides on Judaism and the Jewish People” Menachem Kellner, State Univ. of New York Press, 1991