Idolatry is a very strong term, and because many Christians are so sensitive not to give their worship to anyone or anything but God Himself, it can seem like a jarring an unfair label. A lot of Christians therefore believe that Jews are only seeing a caricature of Christianity, and that if religious Jews could really understand their doctrine and experiences they would have no more objections. But the reality is that it’s one thing to say or feel that you’re not worshipping God in a way contrary to what He wants, and it’s a different thing to be able to point to the actual commandments from God that serve as a basis for what you are doing. For Jews, these commandments come first; it is an expression of love to keep them, and all extra expressions of love can only be offered to God within them.
In Deuteronomy 17:3 there is a commandment regarding someone “who has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, either the sun or moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have not commanded.” It’s clear in the last few words here that God taught Israel how to worship Him, not through an incarnation of anything in nature, but as the God who created all things. He is personally known not by our senses but in our hearts as we relate to Him in obedience, in thankfulness, in the knowledge of His actions, and in His blessings. The prohibition of worshiping an other doesn’t only relate to rival gods; it also relates to false incarnation claims of the one God of Israel, such as the golden calf which was said to have led the Israelites out in the exodus to be its people. Even though Jesus was a human being rather than an astral object or constellation, Tanach shows us often that the normal identity of a human, and anything with breath or that we can sense in the world around us, is that they owe worship to God. According to Deuteronomy 17:3, anything that God had not commanded to the Israelites is prohibited to worship. So no matter how you cut it, or how you explain how the belief fits with Tanach when you already believe in it, unless a Christian can show that God commanded Israel to accept the specific incarnation claim about Jesus (and showed them how to test and recognise it), the default response for any Jew guarding the Torah is to see the idea as foreign and unable to be accepted.
That said, how can you experience a real relationship with God when you’re also engaged in false worship? With Christianity, it’s not as simple as saying that a person is worshipping Israel’s God but also struggling with an ‘idolatry’ of money or self love, nor is it as simple as thinking that a person can be Jewish but can lack understanding about the powers of the stars and worship them as well. In those cases, when a person calls out to God in a true way, He responds, and when they engage in false worship there are negative effects; even though God is merciful to us in areas of our ignorance. With Christianity, many people do not differentiate at all between their worship of the Creator of heaven and earth and their worship of this man from the first century. But the same principles would apply. In the positive aspects of Christian worship, Israel’s God is truly known by Christians and His love impacts their hearts and their communities. The same is obviously true for Jews who love Him in Judaism, and also for people of other religions. But in all those other religions, including Christianity, the false or negative aspects truly are idolatrous and they are not acceptable for a Torah observant Jew (or any knowing human) to do; nor are they the real cause of your experience of God. But He protects us from what is done in ignorance, otherwise He would effectively be cutting Himself off from everyone in the world who is given false teaching. The key, though, is that how we feel about an experience is not the Torah standard for how we should worship our Creator, according to His commandments and the carefulness of worship that He taught to Israel.
If you found this article helpful please consider making a donation to Judaism Resources by clicking on the link below.
Judaism Resources is a recognized 501(c) 3 public charity and your donation is tax exempt.
Yisroel C. Blumenthal