This was originally published August 20, 2013.
We are now in the midst of the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av, which recall the siege on Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. Tradition teaches that the Jewish people’s involvement in avodah zarah (idol worship), was one of the main causes of the first Beit Hamikdash’s destruction. In the modern day it is very difficult to see the attraction to such forms of worship.
R. Akiva in Mishna Avodah Zarah 3:5-6 makes two statements which help one to better understand the issue. He initially states:
“I will explain and expound [the subject] before you: wherever you find a high mountain or a lofty hill or a vibrant tree know that [in that place] exists an idol…”
R. Akiva links the beauty and fertility of nature to avodah zarah. He is certain that one will find an idol in any memorable spot in the natural world. The power and awe experienced by humans in that spot will be marked. He knows that the wonders of nature are vessels for human spirituality and transcendence.
Further along he expands his view when he disagrees with the Rabbis, who believe that idols impart tumah (impurity) in a similar fashion to shratzim (dead creepy insects). R. Akiva says,
“[they impart impurity] similar to a niddah (menstruous woman).”
Both the Rabbis and R. Akiva bring verses to support their opinion but what deeper understanding about idols is at the core of their argument? What is the difference between conceptualizing an idol as sheretz or a niddah?
The prototype of tumah is a dead body and all other impurities are linked to death, decay and the loss of potential life or life force. The sheretz imparts impurity because it is dead. The menstruous woman imparts impurity because with the shedding of the uterine lining and its unfertilized egg the potential for creating life that month has been lost. The Rabbis view idols as dead disgusting objects, whereas R. Akiva seems to feel that idolatry had the potential for life with in it but that it was aborted. A sheretz can never change its state whereas a niddah can go to the ritual bath and become tahorah (pure), once again.
R. Akiva acknowledges the pull and power within nature which can lead one to a misguided view of the source of life in the world. Instead of acknowledging the Divine as the source of creation one can mistakenly attribute power to the life in the tree itself. In his view it is not that idols are lifeless fake forms but rather they are in fact a reflection of the life force of the Divine in this world which has been misplaced through a misguided spiritual experience. Just as the woman can purify herself so too the experience of the awesome natural world can be redirected towards a correct mode of worship and reflect the face of God in our midst.