Idolatry in Our Time

I want to revisit the Second Commandment, here it is, as a reminder:

Ex. 20:3 You are not to have any other gods before my presence.
4 You are not to make yourself a carved-image or any figure that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the earth;
5 you are not to bow down to them, you are not to serve them...

Twenty-First Century Jews don’t regularly worry about idol-worship.

Displaying statues of deities has moved from absolute Jewish condemnation throughout the Tanach - for example, the numerous prohibitions against an Asherah, or idol of a tree god in our prophetic works - to an easy acceptance of objets d’art in our homes. Jews refrain from religious, if not artistic, comments on the decorative Buddha or Ganesh in someone’s living room, or even a stylized Shinto shrine in someone’s Japanese-style garden. None of this approaches what we might expect as the threshold of this particular prohibition, after all, we don’t connect to God through statues.

So can we treat the Second Commandment as merely an archaic, and mostly useless prohibition? Do we dare to discount it so easily?

I try to understand the laws of the Torah from the perspective of giving our ancestors the benefit of the doubt. I believe that we are not much cleverer than they were, and  that although an idea sounds simple, it may in fact not be simple at all.

We are all familiar with the midrash often told to give us greater insight into Abraham’s character as a child: he smashed idols in his father Terach’s shop and tried to blame it on the biggest idol. Terach doesn’t fall for Abraham’s ruse, understanding that the young boy did the smashing, that a statue doesn’t smash other statues, that the statue represents the divine, but is not the divine itself. Terach may be an idolater, and as Jews we see ourselves as Abraham smashing idols, but there may be more to learn here.

We might tell this midrash for an additional reason - we are not just understanding that Abraham the iconoclast, the idol-smasher, sees that God isn’t in the idols, we also see that Abraham’s understanding of idolatry may be simplistic. The universe may be asking him to relate to the infinite on a deeper level, beyond just smashing his father’s idols. Again, the midrash depicts Terach as already understanding that there is no “god” in the idols. The teller of the midrash may be pointing to an attitude towards things, rather than the things themselves.

Idolatry might be a more nuanced problem, not merely the presence of a statue or representation, but the attitude towards it. The prohibition talks about other deities, not just their images, and bans bowing down to them and serving them. We can connect this to some core principles in Jewish tradition - appropriateness and proportionality.

We define behavior in terms appropriateness in order to make society function. From what we eat, to how we engage people, we recognize that agreeing upon our group’s norm, a sense of what’s appropriate, makes it easier for us to get along with one another.

In Judaism, our consensus about what is appropriate also leads to reasonable responses to transgressions. Payments, damages, penalties all must relate directly, in a proportional manner, to the harm done. “Eye for an eye...” we remember is about proportional, appropriate, compensation for damages. As a rabbi, my eye is important, but not nearly as important as a pilot’s, and so losing the use of our eyes, God forbid, would result in different compensation for each of us, according to Jewish law.

Since the prohibition against idolatry stands at number two in our most important “top ten list”, these principles should be included in it, since they seem to inform all of Judaism’s central ideas.

When it comes to idolatry, before we do anything else, we must evaluate what constitutes the wrongness of inappropriately relating to God, or inaccurately assessing the divine. The main concept we have about the divine, that most Jews agree on, is what God isn’t - God is not limited. There is no limit to the divine. In Jewish mysticism we call God “Ein Sof,” roughly translating into “Without End.”

Any attempt to depict the divine limits it. The prohibition against idolatry specifically bans imagining the infinite in any concrete or finite form.

If attempting to shrink the limitless into something small counts as idolatry, then we may assert that the inverse also holds. Any attribution of infinite or limitless properties to anything that isn’t expressly the divine, places a disproportionate importance on that thing.

We can call this idolatrous since it is the symbolic extension of making an idol to represent something beyond representation. To treat something as limitless, is to treat it as God. Therefore the only thing that we can treat as infinite must be the divine.

We avoid making the divine small, or making things equal to God. Neither comparison holds, and both lead us to inappropriate behavior through inaccurate assessments of both the mystery of the universe, and the limited nature of our physical reality.

In this way whenever we regard an object, an idea, or a person inappropriately, we accord it too little or too much importance, and it may have a disproportionate hold on us on account of this.

The key here is not to talk about the thing - the statue, for example - but to talk about our relationship to it. If the statue is just decoration, no problem. If the statue is our image of the infinite, then neither the mere material statue, nor the infinite, get fairly treated. The stone will hold too much of our attention for its actual importance, and we might be satisfied with a simpler understanding of the universe and the divine than they both demand. Idolatry warps our understanding, and so changes our interactions for the worse.

Getting past the statue doesn’t take a huge leap. To take something limited, and claim it to be unlimited - any resource will do, time, life, health, oil, water, air, wood, money are all good examples - demeans both the resource and our respect for that which is truly infinite, our concept of the divine.

When we treat something as appropriately limited we respect it as precious because of its limits. Our time is valuable because we only have so much, and thus we use discretion in what we do, trying to make priorities. When we treat our time, or someone else’s as limitless, we cease to honor a limited resource, and undervalue something important.

Maintaining the divine as infinite, we cannot imagine it as containable. When we contain the divine, we stop granting it the respect to be the ultimate source of meaning, we limit our awe for the mystery of the universe, and we raise ourselves to a point where we are prone to lose our humility in the face of creation. This leads to hubris, and a breakdown of those fundamental qualities of appropriateness and proportion.

We maintain a concept of the infinite in part to admit our own limits, to remind us of the limited nature of ourselves and our world.

This measured understanding of ourselves in relationship with the infinite urges us to use things with caution and respect, and to treat the universe as if there were a meaning more important than the one we pursue at any given moment.

This leads us to another very basic form of idolatry - the notion that we can simply understand something. The prohibition against idolatry demands that we encounter the infinite, the mystery at the center of the universe, without easy to understand symbols. This gives us a model for encountering all things - when we treat something as simple, we probably do so inappropriately. Since most things - people, stuff, problems, ideas - require more thought, require more inquiry, and require us to treat them as reflections of the infinite, in other words as complicated, and thus not simple.

Examples can be seen in the way we regard each other and our time together, our ideas, and material objects. We work towards becoming the kind of people that we hold as ideal - respectful, compassionate, thoughtful and wise.

Treating people as people, in every aspect of our day, requires effort to be appropriate and proportional. Our behavior towards others says who we are internally, and aiming for better conduct transforms us into better people.

When we look at another person as a fellow traveler, a bearer of the divine spark, and not as a source of revenue or a mark, then we offer appropriate respect and create the possibility of engaging in fruitful relationship with her or him, and perhaps even friendship. To treat people as objects constitutes idolatry because we ignore their actual value, and attempt to limit them inappropriately.

We often find ourselves irritably over-reacting to something small, that deserves much less bluster than we give it. Instead of making the effort to be a good fellow traveler, we made a small issue big. This applies both to unfriendly and dismissive reactions to people we barely know, and snapping at annoyances with our family members at home.

A larger reaction, attaching too much importance to something incidental, shows our smaller regard to another individual. We have demeaned their human value, and been idolatrous. Treating the miracle of a person as too small is like trying to put the infinite into a thing.

The inverse happens as well. We may be too distracted to appreciate the miraculousness of a small but amazing moment with other people. Allowing our gadgets to dominate our attention when interacting with anyone else is a good example of this. We’ve attached too much importance to something outside of that moment, and elevated it inappropriately, treating it as an idol.

Similarly, we can grow too attached to any of our own ideas or plans. We might get inflexible about something that absolutely must happen without consulting with anyone else about their lives. A trip to the store, a particular vacation destination, a project that absolutely must get done - we make the decision, don’t consult with those involved, and they must rearrange to accommodate us. That’s an idolatrous treatment of our ideas as more important than the ones around us.

We must embrace the complicated web of the needs and desires of everyone in our lives, including ourselves, constantly updating our sense of what’s important, so that each of us gets treated fairly.

We can’t ignore stuff either. Treating material objects according to their type, their source, their impact, requires effort to be appropriate and proportional.

When we admit the possibility that a material object may be precious because it is both useful and limited, the way we interact with that thing and the world that provides it becomes respectful, thoughtful, and appropriate.

When speaking of resources, conservation challenges us, and the more we know, the more complicated this becomes. Which uses more of the things we need - recycling at the curb, or having people sort it for us at a central site? How much farther do we drive in order to find the product with less environmental impact? How many more resources are needed to make a Prius than a car that gets worse gas mileage, but might have less global environmental impact? We know that we want to use less and conserve more, and finding that path requires much more effort than we usually anticipate.

On these issues, being proportionate and appropriate requires thought since the solutions to difficult questions - finding a way to sustain our lives on our planet for example - are seldom simple.

In this way, the paradigm of avoiding idolatrous behavior applies to every moment of our lives, instead of being some irrelevant archaic formulation.

When I began, I asked us to evaluate the thoughts of our ancestors with the same regard as our own - recognizing them as thoughtful and intelligent, intricate and complicated. The simple image of the midrash - Abraham breaks idols to prove that they are not actually the divine, that they are merely inanimate - doesn’t convince  his father Terach the idol-maker, he already knows that the idols are mere representations. Terach’s response to Abraham’s simple understanding of idolatry hints at the need for a second look. We delve deeper to see that the story may be asking us to be more thoughtful than Abraham when we confront idolatry, that merely smashing the idols doesn’t solve our own idolatrous attitudes.

And then, since one story and a few interpretations do not suffice on such an important issue, we return to the theme in Exodus, with the second of the Ten Utterances. Do not demean the divine by making it any smaller than it is. Accept that the mystery of the infinite will remain a mystery, protect it from our inclinations to simplify. Preserve the mystery as one worth seeking and always admit that we have more to learn, more to see, and more to understand.

For the year to come, I hope we can all band together to look below the surface. Let us encourage each other to embrace complexity in all its difficulties, and reject simplicity and its idolatrous trappings. When we treat each other and our world appropriately, with proportional understandings of importances great and small, we honor our ancient teachings and renew them through our own thoughts and actions.