By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
We are returning back to our series on the 13 Principles of Jewish belief:
Maimonides writes in his commentary: “The fifth principle teaches us that God is the only One whom we may serve and praise. We may sing only of His greatness and obey only His commandments. We may not act in this way toward anything beneath Him, whether it be an angel, a star, one of the elements or any combination of them. All these have a predetermined nature and, therefore, none can have authority of free will. Only God has these attributes.
It is therefore not proper to serve these things or make them intermediaries to bring us closer to God. All our thoughts should be directed only toward Him. Nothing else should even be considered. This 5th principle forbids all forms of idolatry, and it constitutes a major portion of the Torah.”
Today it is difficult for us who live in Western culture to understand why there needs to be a separate principle forbidding idols. Upon further analysis, we also see that the first of the Ten Commandments reminds us that there should be no other gods before God, while the second commandment is adamant that there be no graven images of other gods. If we look at these in context, we understand that idols were once very widespread throughout the world and are still prevalent today in many societies, such as in India and most of the Far East. A couple of years ago I was shopping in a large Indian store in Richardson and saw a special sale: gods were on sale 2 for 1!.
The fifth principle goes beyond simply forbidding idols; it forbids the use of intermediaries between us and God. This, of course, is in direct contradiction to many forms of Christianity teaching that the only way to approach God is through Jesus.
In his “Code,” Maimonides offers a fascinating explanation of how idol worship initially came about. In the days of Enosh, in the first generations of creation, mankind fell into a grave error. They realized that God created the sun, stars and moon as conduits through which to trickle down His blessings into the world. Hence, the word mazal, which is “star” in Hebrew, literally means “to drip” (as in nozzle. Mazal, or mazel, doesn’t mean “luck,” which is how it’s usually mistranslated.
Through the stars, the blessings of God “drip” into the world. The people of that generation reasoned that, as the heavenly bodies were honored by God through elevation to the heavens as His emissaries, they should certainly honor them as well. This reasoning led to temples being built to the heavenly bodies, and soon forgot that the heavenly bodies are nothing more than conduits for the blessings of God. Mankind used the same temples to worship the emissaries, leaving out the Source of the blessing, which was God. This was so prevalent in the early civilizations that when Abraham began to worship God Himself it was considered a complete anomaly.
A more relevant corollary of the fifth principle is the concept of prayer. Many Jews know they shouldn’t pray to anyone or anything other than God, but at the same time they don’t really know what it means to pray to God. Often I am asked to pray for a sick family member or someone in trouble, with the assumption that I, as a rabbi, am able to pray for them while others cannot. I am always happy to oblige those requests, but saddened that the petitioner feels he or she is not in a position to pray. Throughout our history, one of the most-deeply felt beliefs was that every Jew, rich or poor, rabbi or layperson, educated or not, could always turn to God to pour out their hearts in prayer. I’m not referring to prayer with a siddur in synagogue. Rather prayer as it relates to to every Jew’s ability to use his/her own words to speak what’s upon his or her heart.
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.