The persistence of idol worship

We still need substitutes, and the most obvious is the personality cult and the worship of text.

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January 22, 2008 21:16
The persistence of idol worship

idol worhsip 88. (photo credit: )

According to the biblical history of Judea, idol worship ceased after the destruction of the First Temple. That in itself is a paradox, implying as it does that it existed only while the Temple stood; but unfortunately it was so. Solomon introduced his wives' idols, and the murderous usurper queen Athaliah brought Ba'al worship to Jerusalem. Ahaz, father of Hezekiah, built an altar in the Temple like the one in Damascus, and his grandson Manasseh worshiped both the idols Ba'al and Astarte there. After the destruction, we hear no more of idolatry. But is it true that idol worship has died out - and, furthermore, is it true today? We have no clear picture of what happened after the destruction. The exiles in Babylon were told by Jeremiah to accept their fate, settle down, build homes and marry out. It seems that those who came back had been in general faithful to their religion, except for marriage, and there is no record of the Second Temple being devoted to forms of idol worship, as the First had been at times, until the rule of the High Priest Menelaus and his master Antiochus IV Epiphanes. When the Maccabees cleansed the Temple, idol worship again ceased, and was later so strongly resisted that our ancestors even refused to have the bust of the Roman Emperor Caligula set up in their communal centers. HOWEVER, Rabban Gamliel was not unhappy to see the statue of the goddess Aphrodite in the bathhouse in Acre that he frequented, nor were there objections to Helios the sun-god in the center of zodiacs on the floors of many ancient synagogues. They were treated as decorative items and no longer as subjects for worship. True idol worship, moreover, as practiced in the past, had been both active and widespread. Quite apart from the golden calf incident in the wilderness, a throwback to the Egyptian worship of Hathor, the gilded cow, the later Israelites of Canaan adopted most seriously the worship of Ba'al, the god of fertility. He comes up again and again in our history, and it took an Elijah and a Jehu to kill off hundreds of his priests; but the worship of Ba'al continued right up to the time of the Babylonian invasion. It was much easier to see Ba'al, or his associate, Reshef, as the bringer of rain and fertility, than to imagine it as the work of the invisible God of Mount Sinai. IDOL WORSHIP was anathema, but it was not stupid. No one believed that a piece of wood, metal or stone could change the weather or increase the flocks. The carved material was only a symbol of the power of natural forces, and it was presumed that concentration on their form, whether human or animal, together with suitable gifts and sacrifices, could bring about the desired results. Although the God of Sinai was invisible, He also had visible attributes, such as the cherubim that guarded the shechina, His Sacred Presence, on the Ark of the Covenant. THE LEADERS of the northern kingdom of Israel are all portrayed as wicked, in the steps of king Jeroboam, who set up the bull idols in Beit-El and Dan. But these were miniature bulls and may well have served just the same function as the cherubim did further south, as the great American orientalist William Foxwell Albright pointed out many years ago. The form of the bull was more easily comprehended than the cherub, a magical creature not found in nature. In other words, Jeroboam removed an element of mystery and replaced it with a straight symbol of natural fertility. That is all in the past, and history is correct in saying these idols have disappeared; but it is not totally so. For it is virtually impossible for us to concentrate solely on an invisible God. We still need substitutes, and the most obvious is in the form of the personality cult. IN JUDAISM we have father-figures, the great rabbis of the past and today. In the yeshivot of today, the words of medieval Rashi are treated as sacred. So are those of the Rambam, who is considered to be the great rationalist authority, though he is only so within the terms of his guide, the Greek Aristotle. No element of criticism is allowed against their works, which are hallowed by tradition, and skepticism has to be suppressed for the sake of that tradition. The hassidim follow their rebbe, who is still considered today to be a wundermensch or miracle-saint, without question or criticism. When he dies (if indeed he does die!) thousands flock to his funeral to express their personal worship. Belief in his saintliness makes life easier for his followers. This kind of fatherly substitute may not be idol worship, but it comes close. The difficult relationship to the invisible God is channeled through another source that is honorable, communicable and above all visible. In theory that is not idol worship; but when the conduit is honored to the point of worship, as so often happens, it becomes idolatry. There is another path to idol worship, in the form of an object rather than a person. As we have said, the classic idol is an object representing the power that is being invoked, and in modern Judaism that also has a parallel. I refer to the Torah Scroll. THE TORAH is the fundamental text of Judaism and of the Jewish people. It is precious, it is sacred and it is to be revered. But is it to be worshiped? Our tradition has decreed that the text of the Torah, hand-written on parchment, is not to be touched, it is too sacred for that. But we make a point of kissing the coverings whenever we can. Children are taught to kiss the mezuza, the small scroll on the doorpost. Men kiss their tefillin (phylacteries), and when the Torah appears in synagogue, all swarm around to kiss it. In the United States I have seen this kissing extended to a scroll of the haftarot, the readings from the Prophets, printed on paper, rolled and wrapped up to simulate a genuine Torah scroll. The Kohanim, the priests, will kiss the curtain of the Ark of the Torah before blessing the congregation. There is tactile pleasure in kissing, in showing reverence to the Torah, and it is this worship of the visible object that we delight in. No wonder women want to participate in it. The well-known author and neurologist Oliver Sacks has said that we Orthodox Jews treat the scrolls of the law as "little gods," and he is right. One could say that we are showing respect, but when one sees the crowding around the Torah as it is carried through the synagogue, it looks more frenzied than just respect - it looks like worship itself, in which all the congregants desire to share. IT MAY well be, as our history shows, that idol worship has ceased, but that is only in its old classical form. In its new forms, of personality cult and worship of the text, it persists, and it persists in Orthodox circles as strongly today as it ever did in the past. The writer is a fellow at the Albright Institute of Archeological Research, Jerusalem.


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