March 24, 2007
This week\’s haftarah gives us an informative and intimate glimpse into the biblical attitude towards idolatry. Its approach verges on parody: \”The craftsman in iron, with his tools works it over charcoal and fashions it by hammering, working with the strength of his arm. Should he go hungry, his strength would ebb; should he drink no water, he would grow faint. The craftsman in wood measures with a line and marks out a shape with a stylus; He forms it with scraping tools, marking it out with a compass. He gives it a human form, the beauty of a man, to dwell in a shrine. For his use he cuts down cedars; he chooses plane trees and oaks. He sets aside trees of the forest; or plants firs, and the rain makes them grow. All this serves man for fuel: He takes some to warm himself, and he builds a fire and bakes bread. He also makes a god of it and worships it, fashions an idol and bows down to it. Part of it he burns in a fire; on that part he roasts meat, He eats roast and is sated; He also warms himself and cries, \’Ah, I am warm, I can feel the heat!\’ Of the rest, he makes a god – his own carving! He bows down to it and worships it; He prays to it and cries, \’Save me, for you are my god.\’\” (44:13-17)
This characterization is expanded in the following midrash: \”If it [the idol] was made of stone or wood, then the worshipper cast it out of the house, but if it was made of silver or gold, then they gave it a place of honor in the house; in addition they hired guards to protect it from being stolen. Woe to the person whose gods need to be guarded… If the god is carved out of wood in the standing pose, it cannot sit. If shaped to sit, it cannot stand. If a poor person [who owns an idol] made of gold [needs funds he could say:] \’Make it of silver\’; of silver: \’Make it of bronze\’; of bronze: \’Make it of wood\’; if he needed the wood, he could chop it in half, use half of it and worship the other half…\”(Adapted from Devarim Rabbah, Lieberman ed. pp. 55-56)
These two polemics portray the religious behavior rejected by the Jewish tradition as fetishism, the worship of objects. Yehezkel Kaufmann, Israel\’s premier Bible scholar during the first part of the 20th century asserted that this was the actual prophetic understanding of how pagan\’s understood their religion since they were so removed from such worship. (The Religion of Israel, Moshe Greenberg ed. p. 17) M. Halberthal and A. Margalit, however, assert that the prophets and rabbis were well aware of the significance of pagan religion but purposefully misrepresented it for polemic purposes, mocking the attribution of religious significance and power either actually or symbolically to a physical object. (Idolatry, pp. 39-40; p. 259 note 6; Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, p. 126)
This biblical and rabbinic wariness of the human potential to misrepresent the significance of material things is something that even we \”moderns\” might want to take to heart.