Idolatry has a special place in Jewish law along with bloodshed and promiscuity as being one of the three cardinal sins. Whereas in the rest of Jewish law we attempt to find leniencies to accommodate people, we are much stricter in regard to this area. It makes sense, since once a person can create G-d in their own image, then everything else becomes fair game.
There are three areas of consideration for this question: Halacha (Jewish law), official doctrine, and popular belief and behavior.
The Torah forbids making images, be it of G-d, other gods, or a whole host of natural phenomena, basically anything that could be worshipped. This is the second of the Ten Commandments and is a prohibition repeated many different times throughout the Torah. It would seem then that there should be no leniences.
There are two possible areas where one could come to find a reason to permit this: people's belief systems and the status of the object itself.
The Rema, the Ashkenazi (Eastern European) authority for Jewish law, found a slight leniency in the area of Yayin Nesech. There is a prohibition to drink or even derive benefit from non-Jewish wine because a non-Jew might have poured some wine as a libation to their god. However, the Rema says that pouring wine to idols is not normal by non-Jews and therefore selling the wine would be okay (Yoreh Deah 123:1).
According to Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda Maha Thera, Buddhists pay respect to the images of the Buddha and the Bodhissavah but don't actual worship or ask requests from these images. They are revere as great people and what a Buddhist does by praying in veneration of what he (the Buddha) represents. They use the object as a focus of concentration during meditational activities and such but do make offerings as if the real teacher is standing before them. The comparison made by Maha Thera is to that of a memorial, although this memorial seems to have some kind of living properties to it.
I have however seen how Buddhists behave with these statutes. They believe bad things will happen to you if they break, meaning they subscribe a belief that supernatural powers reside in the object even as official Buddhist doctrine would negate such beliefs. It would seem that regardless of what dogma states, Buddhist statues have the status idols in every sense of the word.
Then there is the status of the head itself. Here we are dealing with a plastic head. The assumption is people wouldn't worship things like plastic or plush toys. An idol should be something significant like nice stone or gold. The Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 141:1), the codification of Jewish law, says that statues made just for beauty can be used. That's why stuffed animals and G.I. Joes are okay. ( Barbies are creepy and shouldn't be brought into the house, though my wife argues.) The Shach, a Polish commentary on the Shulhan Arukh, argues and says any figure of a person should be forbidden. Certainly the image of an actual deity should be forbidden.
However, people do in fact worship plastic statues. The statues sold at botanicas, the stores that sell images of Catholic saints and paraphernalia are in fact the object of worship. This is especially true of the Narco-Saints, figures that have been deified in Mexico as a response to the horrific situation in some cities but are now found in the United States, whose worship is growing like wildfire. Their worship cannot be written off as the actions of a few crazy people but a renewed enthusiasm for a new form of idolatry that is a fusion of Christian and Mesoamerican religious traditions. Moreover, the types of actions they engage in to worship these saints is varied, and the pouring/offering of wine to idols might be going on there. In that case, we make what is called a lo ploog, a rule that says that if someone is true in one case we extent that rule to all cases that are sufficiently similar.
The conclusion: the neon Buddha head should stay at Ikea. If you already bought one, I can't say whether or not to get rid of it, because it would seem that it is in fact made for decoration. It requires further thought.
When it comes to idol worship, the Torah and subsequent Jewish texts are very clear. In Exodus 20:4-6, the second of the Ten Commandments prohibits the creation and worship of idols:
You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them…
These words mark the distinctive Jewish notion of Monotheism, our belief in One God with no physical form or shape. Jews believe in a God who can be known through our appreciation of God’s creation, including and perhaps especially, humanity, but whose presence goes far beyond any physical representation that we could fashion.
In terms of the question here, there seem to be two issues that need to be addressed. The first issue is whether or not it is permitted to buy a plastic Buddha head for a house decoration, and the second is whether it fits into the spirit of a “Jewish home” (something that is much more subjective).
As for the first issue, the Etz Hayim Humash includes the following comment on the above mentioned Exodus verse:
..any material representation of divinity is forbidden. This does not prohibit artistic, representation, only the use of the images for worship (Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary, 443).
There are examples of synagogues dating back to the Rabbinic time period in which pagan symbols, such as the zodiac, appeared in beautiful decorative mosaics. (See: Jewish worship, Pagan Symbols, by Walter Zanger in Biblical Archaeology review published by the Biblical Archaeology Society). It seems that these pagan symbols were not prohibited because they were seen simply as art, and not looked upon as deities to be worshipped.
And herein lies the distinction: If a person is buying a plastic Buddah head purely for decoration, with no religious purpose attached to it, this artistic purchase would be permitted. At the same time, I would offer a word of caution: While it may be permissible to buy something with pagan associations for artistic purposes, you still should ask yourself if this decoration fits into your understanding of a Jewish home. When you walk into a Jewish home, are there things that you expect to see? Are there things that you do not expect to see? And in what category would you place the purchase of a plastic Buddha head for a house decoration?
Question:According to Jewish law and custom, may I buy a plastic Buddha head for a house decoration?
The Second Commandment clearly proscribes the worship of the images of other gods, and many may suggest that this commandment also eliminates the possibility even of ownership of these images:“You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below.You shall not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Eternal your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6).
You may wish to completely search your motivations for having this “house decoration” among your possessions.Is it a religious relic that you somehow wish to honor, or is it part of a Buddhist ‘shrine’ that you have set up for you or another member of your family?If so, this would be contrary to Jewish religious law and custom, unless you or others may be wondering about conversion.
Is it part of a kitschy collection of various kinds of symbols, religious or otherwise, that you wish to display?If so, it would be inappropriate to include a plastic Buddha in such a display, as it could be seen as an insult to people of another religious community.I doubt that anyone of real faith would approve of having their cherished religious symbols included in a satirical display or parody of religion.
I think that you may want to shy away from this particular expression.I am not sure that I can think of any rationale for having this included in one’s Jewish home.
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