What Can We Learn From the War on Idolatry? Parashat Re'eih 5781

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In the Bible, the ultimate conflict is between true worship of God and idolatry. Indeed, the Torah declares all out war on idolatry, and nowhere as totally as in our parashah. Yet, if we study the biblical record, it shows that all out war did not work at all. Since the Rabbis did succeed in overcoming idolatry among Jews, we should analyze the secret of their success and the reason for the Bible’s failure.

In my forthcoming book, The Triumph of Life, I describe the intensity of the contradiction. God is the God of life, the One God Who loves life and sustains it wherever it is found. Idolatry takes something human—a project/idol/deity manufactured or generated by humans—and absolutizes it, but this finite, human artifact cannot sustain the infinity of life. In Rav Soloveitchik’s view, when the dignity of life is anchored in a finite human foundation, then that same human power can take away or deny its irrevocable dignity. This undermines the unlimited, non-negotiable value of life. In my view, the Infinite God literally sustains all living by pumping vitality and energy into the fabric of universal life. No human creation, no finite force can sustain life—so it shrivels and dies. From all these interpretations, it follows that idolatry is the religion of death.

The Holocaust offers an example of the absolute contradiction of Judaism and idolatry. In Nazism, a human Führer is elevated to the status of God—the one who decrees policies, decides what is right and what is wrong, determines who shall live and who shall die. But the Führer is only a human. The only way that the Führer can be infinitely wiser, infinitely more than any human, is by reducing the human to zero. This was done, starting with the Jews. In the process of reducing humans to zero value, in what Elie Wiesel calls the “Kingdom of Night,” the Kingdom of Death was created. In this world—especially in the concentration camps—all the forces and systemic interactions were designed to degrade and belittle the prisoners, to reduce their value toward nothing,1 even as they were pushed toward death and finally murdered.

In Parashat Re’eih, the Torah confronts idolatry with all its guns blazing. “You shall utterly destroy all the places [where idolatry was practiced]... you shall overthrow their altars, break their pillars, burn their asherim [sacred trees] with fire, cut down the carvings of their gods, and wipe out their name from the place [they were worshipped]” (Deuteronomy 12:3). The Torah warns Israel that, after God cuts off the idolatrous nations, “Do not inquire after their gods, [asking:] how did these nations serve their gods?” Because “every abomination… which [God] hates have they done for their gods, even their sons and daughters they have burned in the fire for their gods…” (Deuteronomy 12:30-31). Note that here too idolatry is identified with death and the ultimate horror of sacrificing children—equal to killing a burgeoning life and ending a chain of life—in the name of worshipping the gods.2

So total is the offensive against idolatry that our parashah gives three cases of potential idolatry and prescribes execution to end the threat. If “a prophet or dreamer of dreams” urges Israel to follow idolatry, he is put to death (Deuteronomy 13:1-6). If a wife or close relative urges you to serve foreign gods, “you shall not listen, nor shall your eye pity him… you shall kill him, your hand should be first” to put the idolatry seducer to death (Deuteronomy 13:7-12). Finally, if a whole city chooses to worship foreign gods, then the inhabitants of the whole city shall be put to the sword (Deuteronomy 13:13). The city and all in it shall be herem (destroyed completely with nothing taken for use by others), never to be rebuilt (Deuteronomy 13:17-18).

The call for destroying idolatry is terrifying in its intensity, and the policy of stamping it out comes across as bloodthirsty. The question is: Did this war succeed? One would think that the all-out war must have wiped out idolatry. The answer found in the biblical record is: no. In fact, the total war was largely ineffective. The biblical books of Judges and I and II Kings show that the Israelites regularly, continuously, turned to neighboring idolatrous religions. The repeated divine punishments and sending of oppressors to grind down the Jews led to periodic repentance as the Israelites turned back to God. Unfortunately, repentance was often followed by backsliding and a new cycle of oppression and punishment.

Why did the war on idolatry fail? One contextual reason is that idolatry was embedded in the cultural consensus surrounding the Israelites, so they found it natural to believe in the efficacy of a Baal who brought rain, crops, and blessings in return for idol worship. There is also a more global reason: Coercion and force—even all-out violence—rarely succeed in changing minds, or turning people’s hearts in a more constructive direction.

Idolatry was finally defeated in the age of the Rabbis.3 They accomplished this goal, first and foremost, by educating the Jews to love God and Jewish worship. In biblical times, the Israelites were mostly an ignorant peasantry, religiously compliant largely due to God’s awesome miracles and interventions. However, such people could be easily impressed by pagan gods’ displays of power, as reported by their believers or as interpreted in those cultures. The Rabbis educated the people to understand what is true divinity and the good life. With their new understanding, the people’s minds were engaged and they were less credulous and less open to the seduction of other gods and religions. The Rabbis made talmud torah (the study of Torah) a central mitzvah in Jewish life. Rabbinic Jews turned less to God as maker of miracles. Instead, they were taught to find holiness and the sacred in every aspect of life, and that “olam ke-minhago noheg,”4 that the world runs by a natural order, and that “bribing” God—or the local gods of nature—is not the way to get a good crop.

The Rabbis were helped by the spread of Hellenistic culture, which was more sophisticated. A somewhat greater sense of a scientific universe, and a more abstract understanding of a Creator God, weakened the credibility of the pagan, idolatrous religions. In short, the Rabbis reacted with good educational policies, and were able to take advantage of the changing culture, in order to erase the credibility of idolatry.

The Talmud captures the reality that the change of culture enabled the Rabbis to overcome the appeal of idolatry and other alternate religious ways. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 102b:2-4) tells of Rav Ashi5 announcing a coming lecture on three kings who were great sinners—they turned to idolatry—but “they were Torah scholars like us.” That night King Manasseh, the worst of the idolatrous kings, appeared to Rav Ashi in a dream and angrily demanded: “By what right do you claim that you and your colleagues are equal to us in Torah learning?” In the dream, Manassah shows him that he was a greater scholar than Rav Ashi and his colleagues.6 Rav Ashi is thus persuaded that Manasseh and the other Kings were far greater scholars than his own generation. He then asks: “Since you were so wise [in Torah], what is the reason that you engaged in idol worship?” Manasseh replies: “Had you been there [in my time], you would have taken and lifted the hem of your cloak and run after me.” The wicked king insists that Rav Ashi would have the same fierce desire to engage in idol worship, due to its appeal and the fact that it was the consensus faith.

The lesson of the historical record of idol worship confirms a truth that is the cornerstone of democracy. Coercion and force can evoke submission and fellow traveling, but education and voluntary understanding evokes a true loyalty and a deeper commitment. That is why democracies outlast dictatorships. Soldiers in democratic armies fight harder, and put their lives more fully at risk, because they believe in their cause and identify with their political community. Taxpayers in democratic countries pay a higher percentage of their tax obligations than do citizens in dictatorship or authoritarian systems. People feel a greater dignity and a greater sense of self-investment when they are able to influence their system, and their views are heard and respected. Voluntary acceptance leads to a higher level of commitment.

Even God had to learn this lesson. God was not able to stop the Israelites’ attraction to idolatry by force. Perhaps this explains the stages of the covenant. In the second stage, God self-limits, gives up much of the divine powers of coercion, and invites humans to take on more responsibility.7 This includes that humans become shapers and teachers of God’s Torah, who must win their following through persuasion and role-modeling. The Rabbis defeated idolatry where the Torah failed, because they did not rely on force or coercion. Autonomous people are the most committed to the causes they accept. This is the great discovery and application of the war against idolatry in our time.

1 The Nazis literally worked on reducing the cost of killing Jews and switched from bullets to lower-cost gas and then from carbon monoxide to Zyklon-B, a cheaper pesticide. In the summer of 1944, they brought down the cost of killing to half a penny per person. See Irving Greenberg, “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire,” in Eva Fleischner (ed.), Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era? (Ktav, 1977), pp. 9-10.

2 On the importance of the chain of life in the Torah, see my essay on Parashat Pinhas, “The Chain of Life,” available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/chain-life.

3 See Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 84a. The Rabbis spoke of finally destroying the evil urge to idolatry after the Destruction of the Second Temple. I shall not discuss here the fanciful aggadah of how the evil imp/urge of idolatry is captured and imprisoned—only to discover that without the evil urge, many important civilizational activities will not take place.

4 See Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 54b:14-16. For more on the purpose of this idea in religious life, see my essay on Parashat Noah, “Covenant,” available here: www.hadar.org/torah-resource/covenant.

5 He was one of the greatest of the Amoraim (sages of the Talmud, 3rd-6th centuries). Traditionally, he is ascribed the role of putting together the Gemara, although modern scholarship has shown that this is not the case. Even so, the fact this traditional picture arose gives a sense of his immense stature.

6 This follows the Talmud’s aggadic approach in which all biblical figures—including warriors, judges and kings—are re-imagined as Torah scholars. This effect is sometimes called “Rabbinization.”

7 For more on this transformation of the covenant over time, see my essay on Parashat Eikev, “The Great, Mighty, and Awesome God Isn’t What S/He Used to Be,” available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/great-mighty-and-awesome-god-isnt-what-she-used-be.

Texts Cited

(ג) וְנִתַּצְתֶּ֣ם אֶת־מִזְבְּחֹתָ֗ם וְשִׁבַּרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־מַצֵּ֣בֹתָ֔ם וַאֲשֵֽׁרֵיהֶם֙ תִּשְׂרְפ֣וּן בָּאֵ֔שׁ וּפְסִילֵ֥י אֱלֹֽהֵיהֶ֖ם תְּגַדֵּע֑וּן וְאִבַּדְתֶּ֣ם אֶת־שְׁמָ֔ם מִן־הַמָּק֖וֹם הַהֽוּא׃
(3) Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, and cut down the images of their gods, obliterating their name from that site.
(ל) הִשָּׁ֣מֶר לְךָ֗ פֶּן־תִּנָּקֵשׁ֙ אַחֲרֵיהֶ֔ם אַחֲרֵ֖י הִשָּׁמְדָ֣ם מִפָּנֶ֑יךָ וּפֶן־תִּדְרֹ֨שׁ לֵאלֹֽהֵיהֶ֜ם לֵאמֹ֗ר אֵיכָ֨ה יַעַבְד֜וּ הַגּוֹיִ֤ם הָאֵ֙לֶּה֙ אֶת־אֱלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה־כֵּ֖ן גַּם־אָֽנִי׃ (לא) לֹא־תַעֲשֶׂ֣ה כֵ֔ן לַיהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ כִּי֩ כׇל־תּוֹעֲבַ֨ת יְהֹוָ֜ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר שָׂנֵ֗א עָשׂוּ֙ לֵאלֹ֣הֵיהֶ֔ם כִּ֣י גַ֤ם אֶת־בְּנֵיהֶם֙ וְאֶת־בְּנֹ֣תֵיהֶ֔ם יִשְׂרְפ֥וּ בָאֵ֖שׁ לֵאלֹֽהֵיהֶֽם׃
(30) beware of being lured into their ways after they have been wiped out before you! Do not inquire about their gods, saying, “How did those nations worship their gods? I too will follow those practices.” (31) You shall not act thus toward the LORD your God, for they perform for their gods every abhorrent act that the LORD detests; they even offer up their sons and daughters in fire to their gods.
(א) אֵ֣ת כׇּל־הַדָּבָ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֤ר אָנֹכִי֙ מְצַוֶּ֣ה אֶתְכֶ֔ם אֹת֥וֹ תִשְׁמְר֖וּ לַעֲשׂ֑וֹת לֹא־תֹסֵ֣ף עָלָ֔יו וְלֹ֥א תִגְרַ֖ע מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃ {פ}
(ב) כִּֽי־יָק֤וּם בְּקִרְבְּךָ֙ נָבִ֔יא א֖וֹ חֹלֵ֣ם חֲל֑וֹם וְנָתַ֥ן אֵלֶ֛יךָ א֖וֹת א֥וֹ מוֹפֵֽת׃ (ג) וּבָ֤א הָאוֹת֙ וְהַמּוֹפֵ֔ת אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר אֵלֶ֖יךָ לֵאמֹ֑ר נֵֽלְכָ֞ה אַחֲרֵ֨י אֱלֹהִ֧ים אֲחֵרִ֛ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יְדַעְתָּ֖ם וְנׇֽעׇבְדֵֽם׃ (ד) לֹ֣א תִשְׁמַ֗ע אֶל־דִּבְרֵי֙ הַנָּבִ֣יא הַה֔וּא א֛וֹ אֶל־חוֹלֵ֥ם הַחֲל֖וֹם הַה֑וּא כִּ֣י מְנַסֶּ֞ה יְהֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶם֙ אֶתְכֶ֔ם לָדַ֗עַת הֲיִשְׁכֶ֤ם אֹֽהֲבִים֙ אֶת־יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֔ם בְּכׇל־לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וּבְכׇל־נַפְשְׁכֶֽם׃ (ה) אַחֲרֵ֨י יְהֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֛ם תֵּלֵ֖כוּ וְאֹת֣וֹ תִירָ֑אוּ וְאֶת־מִצְוֺתָ֤יו תִּשְׁמֹ֙רוּ֙ וּבְקֹל֣וֹ תִשְׁמָ֔עוּ וְאֹת֥וֹ תַעֲבֹ֖דוּ וּב֥וֹ תִדְבָּקֽוּן׃ (ו) וְהַנָּבִ֣יא הַה֡וּא א֣וֹ חֹלֵם֩ הַחֲל֨וֹם הַה֜וּא יוּמָ֗ת כִּ֣י דִבֶּר־סָ֠רָ֠ה עַל־יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֜ם הַמּוֹצִ֥יא אֶתְכֶ֣ם ׀ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֗יִם וְהַפֹּֽדְךָ֙ מִבֵּ֣ית עֲבָדִ֔ים לְהַדִּֽיחֲךָ֙ מִן־הַדֶּ֔רֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֧ר צִוְּךָ֛ יְהֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ לָלֶ֣כֶת בָּ֑הּ וּבִֽעַרְתָּ֥ הָרָ֖ע מִקִּרְבֶּֽךָ׃ {ס} (ז) כִּ֣י יְסִֽיתְךָ֡ אָחִ֣יךָ בֶן־אִ֠מֶּ֠ךָ אֽוֹ־בִנְךָ֨ אֽוֹ־בִתְּךָ֜ א֣וֹ ׀ אֵ֣שֶׁת חֵיקֶ֗ךָ א֧וֹ רֵֽעֲךָ֛ אֲשֶׁ֥ר כְּנַפְשְׁךָ֖ בַּסֵּ֣תֶר לֵאמֹ֑ר נֵֽלְכָ֗ה וְנַֽעַבְדָה֙ אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁר֙ לֹ֣א יָדַ֔עְתָּ אַתָּ֖ה וַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ׃ (ח) מֵאֱלֹהֵ֣י הָֽעַמִּ֗ים אֲשֶׁר֙ סְבִיבֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם הַקְּרֹבִ֣ים אֵלֶ֔יךָ א֖וֹ הָרְחֹקִ֣ים מִמֶּ֑ךָּ מִקְצֵ֥ה הָאָ֖רֶץ וְעַד־קְצֵ֥ה הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (ט) לֹא־תֹאבֶ֣ה ל֔וֹ וְלֹ֥א תִשְׁמַ֖ע אֵלָ֑יו וְלֹא־תָח֤וֹס עֵֽינְךָ֙ עָלָ֔יו וְלֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֥ל וְלֹֽא־תְכַסֶּ֖ה עָלָֽיו׃ (י) כִּ֤י הָרֹג֙ תַּֽהַרְגֶ֔נּוּ יָ֥דְךָ֛ תִּֽהְיֶה־בּ֥וֹ בָרִֽאשׁוֹנָ֖ה לַהֲמִית֑וֹ וְיַ֥ד כׇּל־הָעָ֖ם בָּאַחֲרֹנָֽה׃ (יא) וּסְקַלְתּ֥וֹ בָאֲבָנִ֖ים וָמֵ֑ת כִּ֣י בִקֵּ֗שׁ לְהַדִּֽיחֲךָ֙ מֵעַל֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ֛ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִֽים׃ (יב) וְכׇ֨ל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יִשְׁמְע֖וּ וְיִֽרָא֑וּן וְלֹֽא־יוֹסִ֣פוּ לַעֲשׂ֗וֹת כַּדָּבָ֥ר הָרָ֛ע הַזֶּ֖ה בְּקִרְבֶּֽךָ׃ {ס} (יג) כִּֽי־תִשְׁמַ֞ע בְּאַחַ֣ת עָרֶ֗יךָ אֲשֶׁר֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לְךָ֛ לָשֶׁ֥בֶת שָׁ֖ם לֵאמֹֽר׃ (יד) יָצְא֞וּ אֲנָשִׁ֤ים בְּנֵֽי־בְלִיַּ֙עַל֙ מִקִּרְבֶּ֔ךָ וַיַּדִּ֛יחוּ אֶת־יֹשְׁבֵ֥י עִירָ֖ם לֵאמֹ֑ר נֵלְכָ֗ה וְנַעַבְדָ֛ה אֱלֹהִ֥ים אֲחֵרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־יְדַעְתֶּֽם׃ (טו) וְדָרַשְׁתָּ֧ וְחָקַרְתָּ֛ וְשָׁאַלְתָּ֖ הֵיטֵ֑ב וְהִנֵּ֤ה אֱמֶת֙ נָכ֣וֹן הַדָּבָ֔ר נֶעֶשְׂתָ֛ה הַתּוֹעֵבָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את בְּקִרְבֶּֽךָ׃ (טז) הַכֵּ֣ה תַכֶּ֗ה אֶת־יֹ֥שְׁבֵ֛י הָעִ֥יר הַהִ֖וא לְפִי־חָ֑רֶב הַחֲרֵ֨ם אֹתָ֧הּ וְאֶת־כׇּל־אֲשֶׁר־בָּ֛הּ וְאֶת־בְּהֶמְתָּ֖הּ לְפִי־חָֽרֶב׃ (יז) וְאֶת־כׇּל־שְׁלָלָ֗הּ תִּקְבֹּץ֮ אֶל־תּ֣וֹךְ רְחֹבָהּ֒ וְשָׂרַפְתָּ֨ בָאֵ֜שׁ אֶת־הָעִ֤יר וְאֶת־כׇּל־שְׁלָלָהּ֙ כָּלִ֔יל לַיהֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ וְהָיְתָה֙ תֵּ֣ל עוֹלָ֔ם לֹ֥א תִבָּנֶ֖ה עֽוֹד׃ (יח) וְלֹֽא־יִדְבַּ֧ק בְּיָדְךָ֛ מְא֖וּמָה מִן־הַחֵ֑רֶם לְמַ֩עַן֩ יָשׁ֨וּב יְהֹוָ֜ה מֵחֲר֣וֹן אַפּ֗וֹ וְנָֽתַן־לְךָ֤ רַחֲמִים֙ וְרִֽחַמְךָ֣ וְהִרְבֶּ֔ךָ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖ע לַאֲבֹתֶֽיךָ׃
(1) Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it. (2) If there appears among you a prophet or a dream-diviner and he gives you a sign or a portent, (3) saying, “Let us follow and worship another god”—whom you have not experienced—even if the sign or portent that he named to you comes true, (4) do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For the LORD your God is testing you to see whether you really love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul. (5) Follow none but the LORD your God, and revere none but Him; observe His commandments alone, and heed only His orders; worship none but Him, and hold fast to Him. (6) As for that prophet or dream-diviner, he shall be put to death; for he urged disloyalty to the LORD your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt and who redeemed you from the house of bondage—to make you stray from the path that the LORD your God commanded you to follow. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst. (7) If your brother, your own mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend entices you in secret, saying, “Come let us worship other gods”—whom neither you nor your fathers have experienced (8) from among the gods of the peoples around you, either near to you or distant, anywhere from one end of the earth to the other: (9) do not assent or give heed to him. Show him no pity or compassion, and do not shield him; (10) but take his life. Let your hand be the first against him to put him to death, and the hand of the rest of the people thereafter. (11) Stone him to death, for he sought to make you stray from the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. (12) Thus all Israel will hear and be afraid, and such evil things will not be done again in your midst. (13) If you hear it said, of one of the towns that the LORD your God is giving you to dwell in, (14) that some scoundrels from among you have gone and subverted the inhabitants of their town, saying, “Come let us worship other gods”—whom you have not experienced— (15) you shall investigate and inquire and interrogate thoroughly. If it is true, the fact is established—that abhorrent thing was perpetrated in your midst— (16) put the inhabitants of that town to the sword and put its cattle to the sword. Doom it and all that is in it to destruction: (17) gather all its spoil into the open square, and burn the town and all its spoil as a holocaust to the LORD your God. And it shall remain an everlasting ruin, never to be rebuilt. (18) Let nothing that has been doomed stick to your hand, in order that the LORD may turn from His blazing anger and show you compassion, and in His compassion increase you as He promised your fathers on oath—
רב אשי אוקי אשלשה מלכים אמר למחר נפתח בחברין אתא מנשה איתחזי ליה בחלמיה אמר חברך וחבירי דאבוך קרית לן מהיכא בעית למישרא המוציא אמר ליה לא ידענא א"ל מהיכא דבעית למישרא המוציא לא גמירת וחברך קרית לן א"ל אגמריה לי ולמחר דרישנא ליה משמך בפירקא א"ל מהיכא דקרים בישולא א"ל מאחר דחכימתו כולי האי מאי טעמא קא פלחיתו לעבודת כוכבים א"ל אי הות התם הות נקיטנא בשיפולי גלימא ורהטת אבתראי למחר אמר להו לרבנן נפתח ברבוותא
One day Rav Ashi ended his lecture just before reaching the matter of the three kings. He said to his students: Tomorrow we will begin the lecture with our colleagues the three kings, who, although they were sinners, were Torah scholars like us. Manasseh, king of Judea, came and appeared to him in his dream. Manasseh said to him angrily: You called us your colleague and the colleagues of your father? How dare you characterize yourself as our equal? Manasseh said to him: I will ask you, from where are you required to begin cutting a loaf of bread when reciting the blessing: Who brings forth bread from the earth? Rav Ashi said to him: I do not know. Manasseh said to him: Even this, from where you are required to begin cutting a loaf of bread when reciting the blessing: Who brings forth bread from the earth, you did not learn, and yet you call us your colleague? Rav Ashi said to Manasseh: Teach me this halakha and tomorrow I will lecture and cite it in your name during my public lecture delivered on the Festival. Manasseh said to him: One cuts the loaf from where it crusts as a result of baking. Rav Ashi said to him: Since you were so wise, what is the reason you engaged in idol worship? Manasseh said to him: Had you been there at that time, you would have taken and lifted the hem of your cloak and run after me due to the fierce desire to engage in idol worship and due to the fact that it was a common faith. The next day Rav Ashi said to the Sages as a prelude to his lecture: We will begin with the treatment of our teachers, those kings who were greater than us in Torah knowledge but whose sins caused them to lose their share in the World-to-Come.
גמ׳ ת"ר שאלו פלוסופין את הזקנים ברומי אם אלהיכם אין רצונו בעבודת כוכבים מפני מה אינו מבטלה אמרו להם אילו לדבר שאין העולם צורך לו היו עובדין הרי הוא מבטלה הרי הן עובדין לחמה וללבנה ולכוכבים ולמזלות יאבד עולם מפני השוטים אלא עולם כמנהגו נוהג ושוטים שקלקלו עתידין ליתן את הדין דבר אחר הרי שגזל סאה של חטים [והלך] וזרעה בקרקע דין הוא שלא תצמח אלא עולם כמנהגו נוהג והולך ושוטים שקלקלו עתידין ליתן את הדין דבר אחר הרי שבא על אשת חבירו דין הוא שלא תתעבר אלא עולם כמנהגו נוהג והולך ושוטים שקלקלו עתידין ליתן את הדין

GEMARA: The Sages taught: Certain philosophers [filosofin] asked the Jewish Sages who were in Rome: If it is not your God’s will that people should engage in idol worship, for what reason does He not eliminate it? The Sages said to them: Were people worshipping only objects for which the world has no need, He would eliminate it. But they worship the sun and the moon and the stars and the constellations. Should He destroy the world because of the fools? Rather, the world follows its course, and the fools who sinned will be held to judgment in the future for their transgressions. The baraita presents another matter that illustrates the same concept: Consider the case of one who stole a se’a of wheat and went and planted it in the ground. By right it should not grow. But the world goes along and follows its course and the fools who sinned will be held to judgment in the future for their transgressions. The baraita presents another matter that illustrates the same concept: Consider the case of one who engaged in intercourse with the wife of another. By right she should not become pregnant. But the world goes along and follows its course and the fools who sinned will be held to judgment in the future for their transgressions.