Last night I was sitting in my living room, trying out the new recliner I just bought (very comfortable!) and reading “The Hebrew Goddess” by Raphael Patai when I had an awful realization: the fanatics already won! Those of us who bemoan the slide-to-the-right are thousands of years too late.
When I was a kid in school learning Navi the impression I always got was that the people the neviim denounced as evil idol worshipers were the exception, aberrations from the normative worship of Hashem in the Beis Hamikdash. Unfortunately, these few had strayed, and even more unfortunately, at times the idol worshipers were a significant portion of the Bnei Yisroel, but most people most of the time were exemplars of Jewish faith, pious people who we would be happy to welcome into our communities.
Is seems that this impression, like so many others, is wrong. The “The Hebrew Goddess” contends that the majority of the people the majority of the time worshipped “Yaweh and his Asherah,” and often other gods as well. Asherah, the Canaanite mother goddess who is the villainess of Talmudic polemics, was worshipped by virtually everyone as Hashem’s wife. Statues of her, referred to as “Asherahs,” were everywhere: small clay figurines in people’s homes, large pillar-like wooden statues in public spaces on baamos (high places) and under trees, and most shocking of all, in nearly permanent residence in the Beis HaMikdash. The author points out that:
“We find that the worship of Asherah, which had been popular among the Hebrew tribes for three centuries, was introduced into the Jerusalem temple by King Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, in or about 928 BCE. Her statue was worshipped in the Temple for 35 years, until King Asa removed it in 893 BCE. It was restored to the Temple by King Josh in 825 BCE, and remained there for a full century, until King Hezekiah removed it in 725 BCE. After an absence of 27 years, however, Asherah was back again in the Temple: this time it was King Manasseh who replaced her in 698 BCE. She remained in the Temple for 78 years, until the great reformier King Joshiah removed her in 620 BCE. Upon Joshiah’s death eleven years later (609 BCE) she was again brought back into the Temple, where she remained until its destruction 23 years later, in 586 BCE. Thus it appears that, of the 370 years during which the Solomnic Temple stood ion Jerusalem, for no less than 236 years (or almost two-thirds of the time) the statue of Asherah was present in the Temple, and her worship was part of the legitimate religion approved and led by the king, the court, and the priesthood and opposed by only a few prophetic voices crying out against it at relatively long intervals.”
Entire generations lived and died while Asherah was in residence in the Beis Hamikdash. They saw her when they made their pilgrimages during the shalosh regalim. She was served by the kohanim, the rites passed from father to son to grandson without interruption. Worship of the divine couple WAS normative Judaism; the strict monotheism of the neviim was the aberration. Those calling for the removal of Asherah must have been regarded as fanatics, the lunatic religious fringe. Yet they won.
Imagine what it must have been like in those periods when the king was one of the fanatics. Royal troops tore down the sacred Asherah in the Beis Hamikdash, perhaps over the protests of the kohanim. Soldiers ranged the countryside, desecrating sanctuaries set up with local donations and destroying public places of worship. They raided people’s homes and seized Asherah figurines that may have been in the family for several generations. Far from the joyful return to pure Judaism that is portrayed in Nach, it was a time of religious persecution.
Nor did the people easily come to agree with the fanatics. Again and again, the Asherahs were destroyed by purist kings only to quickly spread again once the persecution of Asherah worship was lifted – and be destroyed yet again when another fanatical king came to power.
From the point of view of the average First-Temple-Era Jew, kings like Chezkiah and Yoshiyahu weren’t tzaddikim, but instead played the same role as the yevanim do in the Chanukah story: that of religious persecutor and villain. Just as the yevanim outlawed Jewish religious rituals and practices, so too these kings outlawed what were traditional religious rituals and practices for the majority of Jews. Just as the yevanim desecrated the Beis Hamikdash, these kings desecrated the temples of popular gods and goddesses, and destroyed the sacred objects dedicated to Asherah and Baal that were found within the Beis Hamikdash.
This was just the beginning. As the centuries have passed, practices have come and gone, but the trend has always been towards more restrictive, more layers of interpretation and of halachah, more liturgy, more ritual. Men and women, who once mingled in the courts of the Beis Hamikdash and may have engaged in ecstatic orgies inspired by viewing the erotic statue of the keruvim, were separated and the women eventually removed to balconies. Feast days became fast days, and ascetic customs once observed only by the especially pious became binding on everyone.
We bemoan the creeping chumras that we see now, but these are only the latest symptoms of this long trend. We are much too late. The fanatics already won.