Mishpatim: Reading Homer: Mitzvah 88 – Concept 46
“The names of the gods of others you shall not mention.” (Exodus 23:13) We may not swear in the name of an idol. (Rambam, Hilchot Avodah Zarah – The Laws of Idolatry and Paganism)
You are allowed to say the name of any idol mentioned in the Torah. You are not allowed to say the name of an idol not mentioned in the Torah, or in Tanach. You can say “ba’al,” “dagan,” “markolis,” and “Ashtarot,” because their names are mentioned in the Torah. However you cannot mention other gods whose names are not mentioned in the Torah.
The question is if they are no longer worshipped are you allowed to mention their names, such as Zeus, Apollo, etc. Do we say that you are allowed to mention them since, although their names are not mentioned in the Torah, they are really no longer worshipped? The Rambam holds that you couldn’t even mention those names, and you could not study the Iliad.
But others however, such as Rav Moshe Feinstein based on other Rishonim, paskens that you are allowed to learn the Iliad.
This was a major debate in Ner Yisrael because I learned these laws with my father and then when I got to high school one of the things we had to read was Homer. I, not wanting to be obligated to read Homer, said, “You are not allowed to!” They asked my father, who was the Rosh Yeshiva, and he held that you are not allowed to because he held like the Rambam.
Someone went and asked Rav Moshe, Rav Moshe said you were allowed to, so this student said, “Rav Moshe said you are allowed to!” When Rav Moshe heard that my father said you are not allowed to, he said you have to follow the head of your Yeshiva. I ended up not having to read Homer but then, because I wasn’t allowed to, I read it. So I think the whole thing was really a manipulation to get me to read something that my father knew I wouldn’t have read if I had to. My father also wanted me to read with the awareness of the subtle influences of foreign beliefs.