Revisiting the Worship of Images: Glimpses of a Future Dialogue

  • Alon Goshen-Gottstein
Part of the Interreligious Studies in Theory and Practice book series (INSTTP)


We have noted that Avoda Zara refers both to the otherness of the deity worshipped and to the strangeness of method of worship, primarily the strangeness and otherness of worshipping God through images and forms. In the relation between theology and worship, we have noted the theoretical possibility that Avoda Zara would be defined by acts of worship. This may be the viewpoint of the formative rabbinic period, where we find little express discussion of what constitutes Avoda Zara and why it is problematic. Such attitudes were perpetuated emotionally in later periods and, as we have noted in various places, some later authorities appeal to the problematic ritual, particularly to image worship, as markers of Avoda Zara in their own right. However, the various voices we have analyzed, coming from the different literary genres of the Middle Ages, all seem to privilege theology over and against worship. The various strategies by means of which the same God is affirmed all rely on theology, rather than worship. For such views we would have to consider that worship is in and of itself meaningless. It requires a theoretical structure to interpret it and a religious framework of attachment to and relationship with a deity to endow it with meaning. We also recall that prioritizing philosophy over worship is an internal Hindu option, and not only a way for the outsider to make sense of Hindu practice. But even if the philosophical or theological perspective allows us to recognize the same God as worshipped in both religions, the otherness of worship does not disappear.


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    See Sapir, quoted by Alan Brill, Judaism and World Religions: Encountering Christianity, Islam and Eastern Traditions, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2012, p. 211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    See Jon Levenson, Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible, Winston Press, Minneapolis, MN, 1985, pp. 137ff.Google Scholar
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    See Gary Anderson, Towards a Theology of the Tabernacle and Its Furniture, Text, Thought and Practice in Qumran and Early Christianity, ed. Ruth Clements and Daniel Schwartz, Brill, Leiden, 2009, pp. 161–194.Google Scholar
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    Hefter, p. 23, quoting Heinrich Zimmer, Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization, ed. Joseph Campbell, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1946, p. 130.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 18.
    Ibid., pp. 25–26. Underlying Zimmer’s and Hefter’s discussion is a certain understanding of images. It is useful to relate this understanding to the fourfold division of attitudes to icons and images, developed by Bruno Latour. See Bruno Latour, What Is Iconoclash? Or Is There a World beyond the Image Wars, Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art, ed. Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, MIT Press, Cambridge, 2000, pp. 14–37. On p. 14 Latour defines four classes of iconoclasts: A—those who are against all images; B—those who may destroy images, but are not against them as such, only their “freeze framing,” their absolutizing or fetishizing; C—those who are only against images of others; D—those who break images only by accident, unintentionally. This is a helpful breakdown of possibilities. Most Jewish theorists would belong to group A, or to group C (if we are willing to accept verbal images as our own legitimate images, while condemning the images of others). Hefter’s identification with option B is largely unique within a traditional Jewish framework.Google Scholar
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    Within the vast literature on the subject see the debate between the two authors cited in the present chapter. If Jan Assman, in both Moses the Egyptian and Of God and gods, affirms the potential relationship, Mark Smith seeks to put the charge of monotheism and violence to rest, once and for all. See Smith, God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World, Mohr Siebeck, Tubingen, 2008, p. 28.Google Scholar

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© Alon Goshen-Gottstein 2016

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  • Alon Goshen-Gottstein

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