Q. Does Judaism approve of the Taliban militants in Afghanistan attacking Buddhist sculptures*?
A. The Taliban argue that the stone sculptures that have stood in the Afghanistan mountains since the early days of Buddhism are “the gods of infidels who worship them even now”. Though these antiquities are unique cultural artefacts, they are deemed to contravene Islamic teachings against false idols.
Biblical Judaism has stern warnings against idolatry and commands that idols be destroyed. Because the Promised Land was inhabited by pagan tribes, the Israelites were told, “Do not bow down to their gods nor serve them nor follow their deeds, but utterly overthrow them, and break in pieces their pillars” (Ex. 23:24). The fear was that pagan idolatry would wean the Israelites away from the one God. But the command to destroy the idols applied only in the land of Israel and to seven specified idolatrous tribes, and Maimonides states that these tribes no longer exist.
If Afghanistan were a Jewish state there would be no campaign to apply the Biblical law to the Buddhist sculptures. Whilst regretting that Buddhism does not worship the one God, Judaism recognises that it is a spiritual and moral way and respects its moral conscience. It also understands that figures of the Buddha are an inspiration for Buddhists but are not objects of worship.
* This article first appeared in print in March 2001.