Sanhedrin 61b: If one worships an idol out of love or fear, Abaye says he is liable, Rava says he is exempt. Abaye said: I can prove my opinion from the following Baraisa: The Torah says, “You shall not bow down to them.” To them you shall not bow, but you may bow to a fellow man, unless he is worshipped like Haman. Now, Haman was worshipped out of fear, yet it says you may not bow to him. Rava replied: The Baraisa only cites Haman as an example of a person who was worshipped, but in Haman’s actual case, it would have been permitted to bow down because he was worshipped only out of fear. Only in a case when the people worshipped a human being not out of fear but out of real belief, would the Baraisa prohibit bowing.
Tosafos begins by assuming Rashi’s explanation of the Gemara: that we are discussing an idol that has real believers, but this particular Jew does not believe and is only bowing to it out of love for a person or fear of a person. Tosafos asks: isn’t a Jew forbidden to bow to an idol even when threatened with death? Obviously, if he bows at gunpoint, he doesn’t actually believe and is only bowing out of fear, yet the rule is “be killed rather than transgress” – יהרג ואל יעבור. How can Rava permit this?
Tosafos answers that, true, one is forbidden to bow at gunpoint, and Rava only meant that if he does so, he is not liable to punishment. (According to this, Abaye would hold that he is punished even if he bowed at gunpoint. The halacha, brought by the Rambam in Yesodei Hatorah 5:4, that one who failed the trial of Kiddush Hashem and bowed to the idol is not executed by Beis Din, would be true only according to Rava.)
Then Tosafos offers a second answer that revises our understanding of the whole sugya: that the case of the Gemara is where no one actually believes in the idol; all of them bow only out of love or fear. In this case Rava permits bowing along with them. The Baraisa cites Haman as an example of someone worshipped only out of fear, and Rava says that in Haman’s exact case, it would have been permitted to bow. Why then did Mordechai refuse to bow? Because Haman had an idol on his heart, or because Mordechai wished to go beyond the call of duty and made a Kiddush Hashem.
Although Rashi and the first opinion in Tosafos do not learn the sugya this way, there is no reason to assume that they would disagree in halacha if such a case – where no one actually believes in the idol – were to arise.
סנהדרין סא ע”ב: איתמר, העובד עבודה זרה מאהבה ומיראה, אביי אמר: חייב, רבא אמר: פטור. אביי אמר: חייב, דהא פלחה. רבא אמר: פטור, אי קבליה עליה באלוה ־ אין, אי לא ־ לא…. אמר אביי: מנא אמינא לה ־ דתניא: (שמות כ׳) לא תשתחוה להם, להם אי אתה משתחוה, אבל אתה משתחוה לאדם כמותך. יכול אפילו נעבד כהמן ־ תלמוד לומר (שמות כ׳) ולא תעבדם. ־ והא המן מיראה הוה נעבד. ־ ורבא: כהמן ־ ולא כהמן. כהמן ־ דאיהו גופיה עבודה זרה, ולא כהמן ־ דאילו המן מיראה, והכא לאו מיראה.
תוספות: אע״ג דבפ׳ בן סורר ומורה (לקמן דף עד.) אמר בעבודת כוכבים יהרג ואל יעבור י״ל נהי דחייב למסור עצמו לכתחלה מ״מ היכא דלא מסר את עצמו לא מיחייב מיתה וכו’ וי״מ הא דאמר יהרג ואל יעבור היינו בסתם עבודת כוכבים והכא איירי בעבודת כוכבים שהכל עובדים מאהבה ומיראה דומיא דהמן דמייתי וכו’ וא״ת לרבא אמאי לא השתחוה מרדכי להמן וי״ל כדאמר במדרש שהיו צלמים על לבו אי נמי משום קידוש השם כדאמרינן בירושלמי דשביעית (פ״ד) כגון פפוס ולוליינוס אחים שנתן להם מים בזכוכית צבועה ולא קיבלו:
During WWII, Harav Aharon Kotler spent time in Japan. There was a law in Japan that if ever the Emperor’s vehicle drove through a street a siren was sounded and anyone in the area had to immediately fall to the ground – a law which was enforced instantly and forcefully. One was not required to bow directly towards the Emperor, rather to just fall to the ground as a matter of respect, and it seems even Yeshiva men complied. The Rosh Yeshiva in general refrained from walking in the street as much as possible, but one day he had to go to the bank and did so accompanied by a certain Reb Moshe Cohen. Sure enough, the Emperor appeared. Everyone, including Reb Moshe Cohen, fell immediately to the ground. Everyone that is, except the Rosh Yeshiva, who feared that the show of respect was connected to the Japanese belief in the divinity of the Emperor. Immediately the Rosh Yeshiva was clubbed on the back by a policeman so hard that he was laid up in bed for days. When he next saw his companion he berated him. “R’ Moshe, Hayitochen? How could you fall? Abizraya d’avodah zarah! There was a taint of avodah zarah involved.”
Source: The Legacy of Maran Rav Aharon Kotler, p. 437, related by Rav Zvulun Schwartzman.
[The Japanese fascist government of that period encouraged emperor worship in order to unify the people and motivate them to fight to the death in World War II. During earlier periods, as well as today, the emperor was not worshipped, although he was believed to be descended from the sun.
The dispute between Reb Aharon and the others seems to hinge on the above Tosafos. Reb Aharon feared that the Japanese people really believed in the divinity of the Emperor, while the others held that even the Japanese only bowed out of love for their country, dedication to the Emperor and fear of the police.
How many Japanese would have to view their emperor as a god in order for Reb Aharon to be correct? Tosafos says:
והכא איירי בעבודת כוכבים שהכל עובדים מאהבה ומיראה
“Here [that Rava says it is permitted to bow down] we are talking about an idol that everyone worships out of love or fear.”
The implication is that if some people, even a small number, actually believe in the idol, it is forbidden to bow.
However, the Piskei Hatosfos (123) says:
ע”ז שדרכה לעבוד מאהבה ויראה או שמפרש מאהבה ויראה פטור עליה
“If an idol is normally worshipped out of love and fear, or when the Jew bowing states explicitly that he is only doing so out of love or fear, he is exempt.”
The first part of this quote indicates that what is usually done is the determining factor; it does not matter if there is a small minority of believers. The second part, that the Jew’s statement helps, comes from Tosafos in Shabbos 72b. In fact, it seems that the reason why “usually” is enough is precisely because it allows us to assume that that is the Jew’s intent too even without him making an explicit statement.]