"Do not turn toward false gods." (Lev. 19:4)

This verse is the basis for the law that forbids gazing upon idols or studying the rites of idolatry. The Torah forbids us to immerse ourselves in the experience of idolatry - even if we do not intend to serve idols. This is both in order to keep us far from the temptation to engage in idolatrous practices and because the contact itself - sensual or intellectual - leaves us somewhat numbed to holiness, in a word: defiled.

An exception to this rule is the study of idolatry in the context of Torah study. In order to properly avoid the transgression of idol worship, we must perforce familiarize ourselves with exactly what types, aspects, and forms of idolatry the Torah forbids. Indeed, one of the larger tractates of the Talmud is entitled "Avoda Zara" (meaning, "Idolatry") and discusses, among other things, the rites of various ancient forms of idol worship. Thus, in the context of Torah study, not only are we allowed to study the various forms of idolatry, we must.

We are required to study the laws of forbidden things….

Spiritually, we are required to study the laws of forbidden things (of which idolatry is only one instance) because, through direct contact, we can only elevate the permitted elements of the physical world. [The Hebrew word for "permitted" ("mutar") also means "untied"; permitted things are "free" to be elevated by human effort.] These elements are referred to in Kabbala as deriving from the "translucent shell" (kelipat nogah) - meaning that they are neutral energies that can be either drawn into the realm of holiness or its opposite. Man elevates these forces by using them for a holy purpose. Idolatry, however, belongs to the realm of reality that is forbidden (in Hebrew, "asur", literally "tied" down). These forbidden elements of reality are referred to in Kabbala as deriving from the "impure shells" (kelipot ha-temei'ot) - meaning that they are intrinsically evil and we cannot elevate them by immersing ourselves in them.

Nevertheless, we can elevate even these "tied down", forbidden, aspects of reality - not by experiencing them first hand, but through studying about them in the Torah. In the Torah, these forbidden entities form an intrinsic part of the Divine Plan; they become not subjects of study in their own right, but referenced and seen in the context of their implications vis-a-vis holiness. They thus assume the holiness of the divine wisdom they form a part of.

[With the power of the Torah, our vicarious journey through idolatry (and other "forbidden zones") has the capacity to transform its spiritual darkness to light. Ed.]

[Adapted by Moshe-Yaakov Wisnefsky from Sefer HaMa'amarim 5743, pp. 85-7; Copyright 2001 chabad of california / www.lachumash.org]