By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
There is a great need to encourage our children to read more. The benefits of reading are huge. Reading increases intelligence, attention span, and vocabulary, may ward off Alzheimer’s, and has many other virtues. And, of late, our yeshiva students and Bais Yaakov girls have been reading less and less. Thus, whenever halachically possible, we should be trying to encourage reading–particularly when a book or book series has a strong appeal to our readers. This, however, must be tempered with a strong adherence to our Torah traditions and proper observance of mitzvos.
Yet there are some questionable books that kids are reading. One such series involves the character known as Percy Jackson. This character is known as a demi-god, half Greek god and half human. The question is whether there is a prohibition of reading this series on account of the issue of “al tifnu el elilim–do not turn to gods.”
What is the nature of the prohibition and what does it encompass? The commentators say it is a lav (a “Thou shalt not”) in the Torah to direct attention toward avodah zarah in any manner, and it refers to avodah zarah that technically was not used yet as well (see Shevet HaLevi Vol. IV #94).
This is a crucial distinction between this prohibition and the other prohibitions of idol-worship found throughout the Torah. The other prohibitions refer to active idols or gods. Here, the prohibition deals with directing significance and attention to them.
The Rambam (Avodah Zarah 2:3) mentions that based upon the aforementioned prohibition, it is forbidden to read books about avodah zarah, and that even mentioning their name is forbidden. Rav Moshe Feinstein (I.M. Y.D. II #53) addresses the question whether a public-school teacher who teaches global studies may teach about Greek civilization’s religious beliefs. He writes one crucial caveat–that he may only do so if he teaches about their belief system in a negative way. Rav Moshe seems to be more lenient when the avodah zarah was mevutal–when no one worships it anymore. We can see this by examining key phrases in his responsum.
It is also well known that Greek and Roman “mythology” was actually the dominant religion in Greece and the Roman Empire until it was replaced by Christianity from about 35 CE to 320 CE and with the Emperor’s active support after 320 CE. Current historians state that there were about 200,000 Christians in the Roman Empire at the year 200 CE.
Is It An Active Religion?
But is it truly the case that Greek idol-worship is not halachically considered an active religion? Readers may be shocked to learn that until about 1995, it was illegal in Greece to believe in the ancient gods. Modern Greece is officially a Greek Orthodox Christian nation. The country was formed in about 1830. The anti-ancient-god laws were initially promulgated at the formation of the country. When the law was repealed, various “neo-Hellenic” groups formed with ceremonies dedicated to Zeus, Athena, Neptune, etc.
The religion known as Dodekatheism originated in and is practiced in Greece and in a number of other countries too.
How many practitioners of this old/new religion are there? Leaders of the movement claimed in 2005 that there are as many as 2,000 adherents to the Hellenic tradition in Greece. They also claim that there are about 100,000 people with some sort of interest in them as well.
The naming of the religion is interesting. Some are referred to as neo-Hellenists, others as Hellenic Polytheistic Reconstructionism, but this refers more to the methodology used by practitioners to revive a version of the religion. Not all Hellenes are necessarily Reconstructionists, per se. Dodekatheism and Olympianism are other names for the religions of these practitioners.
What About Harry Potter?
In this author’s view, Percy Jackson is significantly worse than Harry Potter because in the latter there is no technical violation of attaching significance to avodah zarah. True, the Harry Potter series attaches significance to kishuf or magic. However, the prohibition of magic does not have the “al tifnu” issues that idol-worship does — hence it would be more lenient.
Other Halachic Issues
What about reading Homer? It seems that there are many subtle references to Homer in the Yerushalmi (see for example Sanhedrin 10:1), but there it kind of mentions the gods only in the context of offerings being brought to a god.
Although the reading of fiction is often discouraged by many seforim (see S.A. O.C. 307:16) and poskim, some have ruled leniently because of the many educational benefits of reading. (According to those poskim, the prohibition of reading fiction has gone the way of the prohibition against the tefillin mirror for men.) Yet when I posed the question of reading Percy Jackson, they were unaware of any leniency.
This author would like to suggest that parents and schools should strongly discourage the reading of this series, as it is hard not to see how it does not violate “Al tifnu el elilim,” particularly now when there is a revival of this religion. The Five Towns Jewish Times hopes to pose the question to leading gedolim over the next few months.
There is an interesting word that appears in our Siddurim when we recite Psukei D’Zimra. In the verse that begins “ki kol elohei ha’amim elilim” and ends with “v’Hashem Shamayim assah,” we are instructed to pause between the beginning of this verse and the end. Why is that? Because we do not wish to mention the word “gods” and then mention the True One G d right away, together in one breath.
But we can ask, isn’t the person reciting Shacharis every day here way beyond falling victim to a belief in avodah zarah? Of what purpose is it to insert this pause? The answer is that it creates within us a sensitivity to ensure that we do nothing that takes us away from Hashem.
Rav Yitzchok Hutner, zt’l, once asked why it is that the expression used to denote one who fears Hashem actually employs a euphemism–Yarei Shamayim, or one who fears Heaven? The answer he gave was that this expression is in and of itself predicated upon fear of Hashem–not to even mention a first-degree euphemism for Hashem, but to employ a two-degree euphemism. This is an extraordinary thought.
We are approaching the season of Chanukah. The main enemy of the Jews at the time of the Chanukah events was Antiochus Epiphanes, who tried importing the culture of Hellenism replete with the very Greek gods which Percy Jackson novels attempt to idolize. How can we not be sensitive to this issue?
One should consult with one’s own rav or posek, but it is this author’s opinion that Jewish boys and girls should unquestionably not be reading Percy Jackson novels or seeing such films. We can and should utilize other series and books to enhance our children’s reading, many of which have already been gathered together for the convenience of parents. For example, we are privileged in the Five Towns community to have the Levi Yitzchak Library which offers an ample supply of appropriate reading material. There are lists of good reading material available online as well.
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.