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Modern, Every-Day Idolatry

Parashat Behar-Behukotai

Saturday, May 8

German-Jewish theologian Franz Rosenzweig writes a commentary on modern polytheism in the late 19th, early 20th century:

Names change but polytheism continues. Culture, civilization, people, state, nation, race, art, science, economy and class - here you have what is certainly an abbreviated and incomplete list of the pantheon of our contemporary gods. Who will deny their existence?

No “idolator” has ever worshipped his idols with greater devotion and faith than displayed by modern man towards his gods… a continual battle has been going on to this very day in the mind of man between the worship of the One and the many. Its outcome is never certain.

Rosenzweig names some examples of modern idols - culture, civilization, people, state, nation, race, art, science, economy, and class. What are some other modern examples of objects or ideas that we all too often worship? (Wealth, political party, reputation, career, cell phones, etc.)

The Torah repeats what seems like endless variations on the same commandment. In a parshah a couple of weeks ago, “Do not turn to idols or make molten gods for yourself; I, Adonai, am your God” (19:4). This week, “You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I, Adonai, am your God” (26:1). In the Ten Commandments, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or in the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them…” (Exodus 20:4). And plenty more throughout the Torah. It is tempting to read these commandments and brand them as products of an ancient, pagan world. However, as Rosenzweig and we have shown, idolatry is a real and present danger. Each and every day, we must check ourselves for hidden idols, for excess gods.

Nechama Leibowitz, the 20th century Israeli commentator defines idolatry simply as “the transformation of means, even perfectly legitimate ones, into ends in themselves” (320). There is nothing wrong with making money, with clinging to an idea, or even with enjoying food, clothing, or technology. Devotion becomes dangerous, however, when a person cares more about an object or an idea than she cares about adherence to God and mitzvot. 

We cling to the idol of materialism, when we stay tied to our phones and our wallets over Shabbat, choosing to forgo rest from productivity on the seventh day. We cling to the idols of convenience and desire when we choose to order chicken parmesan, when we could easily order a salad or salmon instead. We cling to the idols of our preconceived notions, refusing to change our minds when we hear evidence that contradicts us or makes us upset. We even cling to human idols when we view our mentors as flawless, either shutting down when they make a mistake or refusing to side with those they may have hurt. More broadly, so many of us cling to career over compassion or to status over tzedakah. More narrowly, we have tiny obsessions - whether objects or habits - upon which we focus, sometimes forgetting to take care of ourselves and our loved ones.

Our God is Creator and Sustainer of all, and when we zoom our focus onto one object, idea, habit, or desire, we miss the big picture. Yes, our phones can be used to call our parents or to call a Senator - for the mitzvot of honoring parents and pursuing justice. Our wallets can be used to donate to individuals or organizations in need. Food can bring family together or represent celebration of a festival. We work in careers that provide people with sustenance, heal the sick, and inform the public. But none of these pursuits - [aspiration, wealth, or material desire] - should be an end in itself. Instead, each must represent a means to the end of love of God through mitzvot. 

Throughout our Torah, this commandment not to build idols repeats itself precisely because it is so easy to forget our propensity towards the narrowmindedness of idolatry. We come here each week, as our Aleinu controversially proclaims, to “sweep idolatry away from the land and cut down false idols, to fix the world…” While we are here, in this synagogue space, we reevaluate our unique propensities and reorient them into ways we can engage in that task of tikkunolam. We turn our ends back into our means. As we engage in learning and celebrating together, we see the bigger picture of Jewish community, of the needs present in our world, and of God. Tonight, I invite you to go through the list of things and ideas to which you cling, and decide how you can orient this action or desire towards that bigger picture.



Thu, April 18 2024 10 Nisan 5784