Jewish Idolatry

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

I, I am the one who wipes away your sins for My own sake and remembers your sins no more (Isaiah 43:25).

This verse forms part of the haftorah of Vayikra, where later on God rebukes the Jews for their idolatry:

 The makers of idols, all are empty; and the things they treasure can do no good, as they themselves testify. They [idols] neither see nor think, and so they shall be shamed (Ibid. 44:9).

In 43:25, we wonder at the double use of God’s self reference “I, I.” There is a profound lesson here in God’s message that He wipes away sin. 

How is sin defined? It is only through communication. When God says He wipes away sin, He means that He also defined sin: He alone communicated a religion to man. Immediately, one reading these words must suddenly realize the harsh, dead silence of his carved and molten gods. He must realize these lifeless sculptures have not communicated; they have not “prohibited.” The Jews’ belief that failure to serve idols elicits from them an evil fate, must immediately vanish. Their inanimate gods never “communicated,” telling them what is sin. When God says He “wipes aways sin,” He exposes idols as false. Had God said, “I wipe away your sin,” the reader would understand this to mean that forgiveness is one of God’s traits. But by saying, “I, I am the one who wipes away your sins” the focus is not only that God forgives, but that it is “God alone” who wipes away sin: “I, I am the one who wipes away your sins.” This is a potent statement, which exposes the lifeless nature of idols, which never communicated what sin is. God alone communicated a religion to mankind; He alone defined sin, and can wipe away sin. Idols and all other religions are without basis.

This rebuke equally applies to superstitions and violations which today permeate Jewish life. Jews still wear red bendels, they pray to the dead and place notes on graves, they check their mezuzahs and they recite tehillim thinking these objects or recitals magically secure good fortune. Torah’s prohibitions of omens and superstitions aren’t limited to secular practices, but even religious objects can be used in violation of God’s words. Great Rabbis have said this:

If one affixes the mezuza for the reason of fulfilling the command, one may consider that as reward for doing so he will be watched by God. But, if one affixes the mezuza solely for protective reasons, it in fact has no guidance, and the mezuza will be as knives in his eyes. (Gilyon M’harsha, Yoreh Daah, 289, page 113 on the bottom)

It is a universal custom to write the word Shaddai (Almighty) on the other side of the Mezuzah, opposite the blank space between the two sections. As this word is written on the outside, the practice is unobjectionable. They, however, who write names of angels, holy names, a Biblical text or inscriptions usual on seals, within the Mezuzah, are among those who have no portion in the world to come. For these fools not only fail to fulfill the commandment but they treat an important precept that expresses the Unity of God, the love of Him, and His worship, as if it were an amulet to promote their own personal interests; for, according to their foolish minds, the Mezuzah is something that will secure for them advantage in the vanities of the world. (Maimonides, Laws of Mezuzah 5:4)

The Rabbis above are clear. God is too:

Let no one be found among you who consigns his son or daughter to the fire, or who is an augur, a soothsayer, a diviner, a sorcerer, one who casts spells, or one who consults ghosts or familiar spirits, or one who inquires of the dead. (Deut. 18:10,11)

Like all holy books, Tehillim is to be studied to realign ourselves with God through increased knowledge of truth, and improving our ways. But reciting Tehillim as a means to heal, violates “casting a spell.” When his infant was sick, Tehillim’s author fasted and prayed, be he did not recite Tehillim. If King David did not recite Tehillim as a healing device, we certainly must not.  And one must not inquire of the dead, expressed today by placing notes in rebbes’s graves.

All these practices contradict God’s justice and His system of Reward and Punishment, one of Maimonides 13 Foundations of Torah. A wicked person will not be healed by reciting Tehillim, wearing a red string, or by checking his mezuzah; he will be punished until he repents. And a righteous person will not suffer by not wearing some amulet. If you ignite a red bendel or a mezuzah, it burns. As it cannot protect itself; it cannot protect you. The evil and good that befalls man is due only to his sins and perfect actions. If we suffer through coronavirus, Tehillim will not remove it; only our repentance will. Maimonides writes:

When we see that some men escape plagues and mishaps, whilst others perish by them, we must not attribute this to a difference in the properties of their bodies, or in their physical constitution, “For by strength shall no man prevail,” but it must be attributed to their different degrees of perfection, some approaching God, whilst others moving away from Him. Those who approach Him are best protected, and “He will keep the feet of his saints,” but those who keep far away from Him are left exposed to what may befall them; there is nothing that could protect them from what might happen (Guide, book III chap. XVIII).