"And they called the people to their religious sacrifices and the people ate and worshipped the Moabite gods" (25:2). How could the Jewish people on the threshold of entering the land that the "eyes of G-d your Lord are on it at all times" violate the most cardinal of Judaism's precepts. Nothing shakes the foundations of Judaism more than worship of other gods. Had they learned nothing from the building of the golden calf? Did they not know that if not for Moshe's intercession the Jewish people would have been wiped out? And the idol of Baal peor ! Worship of this god involved defecating in front of it. Were the Jews so easily fooled to believe that relieving oneself would bring favour from above?
Our sages ever so sensitive to the human psyche understood that the idolatry of Baal Peor was not that enticing. Rather, the idolatry was a means for the Jewish people to justify sexual immorality. While the Jews had already engaged in illicit acts with the daughters of Moab, by turning to a foreign god all limits were broken. No longer would sins be done in private but rather "an Israelite brought forth a Midianite women to his brethren before the eyes of Moses and the Israelite community" (25:6).
Human beings have a psychological need to justify both to themselves and to others the correctness of their behaviour. We have tremendous difficulty admitting an error often insisting that there is no error to be found. This is why the first and most difficult step in the teshuva process is hakarat hachet the recognition that we have in truth sinned. Our sages teach that while the first time we sin we may recognize the error of our ways the second time we do so it "becomes like it is permissible". Rather than admitting our wrong we explain it away. The Ba'alei Mussar (ethical coaches) explain that by the third go around our sin has miraculously been converted into a mitzvah.
The Jewish people had no real interest in idolatry. What they were interested in was a different sexual ethic. As the Torah does not allow this why not change the "torah". With a new religion in place one can of course get a new set of values. Baal peor is the gateway to religious autonomy, moral relativism, and personal freedom. We who now know better (sic) believe in the notion of two consenting adults being allowed to do as they please. That is quickly followed by viewing the new ethic way as superior as we remove the shackles of ancient oppressive law. Yes what was once an ideal is now shameful, replaced by the mantra of personal freedom. We unfortunately see this in many areas of life. Except for those with little moral conscience the first time that one is remiss in their business dealings they feel a little guilty. Soon after that guilt turns to justification, after all everybody does it, so we are just levelling the field. But it does not stop there. We soon regard our cheating as a mitzvah, as governments waste our billions or even discriminate against non-Catholics, arguing that we must keep the money out of their hands. Similarly by cutting corners in dealing with a non religious Jew or gentile I can give more charity.
The Torah says that such a view requires a harsh response. "Moshe said to Israel's judges: each of you must kill your constituents who were involved with Baal Peor" (25:6). The Jewish way is the way of peace eschewing extremism. Yet when one justifies ones sins by denying and rejecting the fundamentals of our faith an extremist approach may be warranted. While in practice no one today has the level of religious piety to know when extremism may be necessary we must guard against religious relativism. We human beings by our very nature sin. That is understandable, acceptable and can even be a step for future growth as long as we attempt to correct our misdeeds. But by attempting to justify our sins we run the risk of idolatry. Shabbat Shalom!