On Idolatry: What is Our Golden Calf?

Rabbi Mishael Zion Bronfman Fellowships | Text and the City | Ki Tisa 2013

The principal crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world, the whole procuring cause of judgment, is idolatry.  The idolater is likewise a murderer. Do you inquire whom he has slain? If it contributes ought to the aggravation of the indictment, no stranger nor personal enemy, but his own self. By what snares? Those of his error. By what weapon? The offence done to God. By how many blows? As many as are his idolatries.
[“On Idolatry”, Tertullian, 2nd Century Church father, Carthage

This week’s Parasha, Ki Tisa, with its Golden Calf and broken tablets, tells the tale of the biggest mistake the Jewish people ever made. Not too long after the wedding at Sinai is over, God finds his new wife, Israel, in bed with an adulterer –and a cow no less… In one of the fieriest moments in the Torah, Moses, having come down the mountain and broken the tablets, takes the hoofed object of the betrayal, melts it down, and forces the Jewish people to drink its molten gold. Through this scene, and many others, the Torah identifies its most serious enemy: Idolatry.
As a child I could never understand the draw of idolatry. Judging from the stories told in kindergarten, it seemed quite stupid. Why would people be drawn to worshipping “stones and trees”? If even Abraham could see that the statues in his father’s store were powerless – how could the rest of the world be so stupid? The idea that we, crazy Jews, were the only ones who saw the light on this issue was in itself suspicious. Years later I read that the rabbis agreed with me to some extent: “The desire to worship idols has passed from this world – it has now been given to all transgressions” they say in Sanhedrin 75a. Many pagans in late antiquity might agree (see “Did the Greeks Believe Their Myths?”). In the post-pagan world, where idolatry became the shared enemy of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, you might expect idolatry to stop acting as a useful category altogether.
Unsurprisingly, idolatry never died. The history of Idolatry is fascinating and ever relevant, for while it is no longer about idols and statuettes, it is every bit about defining what God and religion mean. Changing conceptions of God create different ideas about what is idolatry. Or to put it differently - the notion of the alien, or false, god, shapes the concept of GodAs Moshe Halbertal and Avishai Margalit put it in their monograph, “Idolatry” –
The prohibition against idolatry is the thick wall that constitutes the city of God, leaving the strange gods outside and marking the community of the faithful. [However] the location of that dividing wall is not fixed, rather opposing conceptions of idolatry define the outskirts of the city of God differently. It is essential for the self-definitions of non-pagans to share the general concept of idolatry, but they do not share a specific definition of what is idolatry and what is wrong with it. [Idolatry, pg. 236]
It is by knowing what idolatry is that we know what Judaism is, what a relationship with God is. It is by knowing what the act of “slaying one’s own self” as Tertullian describes it, that one knows what it is to live a meaningful life. Which leads me to the question I’ll be pondering this Shabbat: What are today’s idolatries? What is it that we would identify today as “the principal crime of the human race, the highest guilt charged upon the world”? What is our golden calf?
In the 19th and 20th century, idolatry was alive and well. Marx saw idolatry in fetishism, the fetishizing of money and price. The religious literature of the 1950’s saw idolatry in totalitarianism and fascism, the 1960’s saw idolatry in the military-industrial complex or mainstream bourgeois culture. For others it is liberalism and political correctness which is the great idolatry, and fetishizing of equality while losing the compass of the sacred. Common to all of these is the identification of group-think of various kinds as idolatry. What kind of God does this make for then? Obviously, the God of individual autonomous thought… (how American!)
Who today are contenders for the crown of idolatry? The destruction of the environment (or its conservation?), our addiction to consumerism or careerism? Our loss of sacredness, deification of the individual (or of the community?)? Or simply a life “lived without meaning”?
Some prophets have identified that “the principal crime of the human race” can be found in religion itself. If this is a cry against any kind of organized religion in the name of science – count me out. But if it a cry against fundamentalism and religiously-sanctioned-violence – I’m in. If we are not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, I would frame this in the following Jewish terms: the greatest idolatry of our times is the taking of God’s name in vain to justify un-godly actions, a hillul hashem.
I am sure there are others that I missed. There are more idols out there to identify. However – regardless of definition – it is the category of idolatry that I want to hold on to:that internal criticism that I might be deifying something that is not. If we are to live the life of service to our values, we must identify what the idolatrous golden calves which distract us are. We must identify them in order to melt them down in the fire of our passions, to bring upon us a better world.

כל המודה בעבודה זרה--כפר בכל התורה כולה, ובכל הנביאים, ובכל מה שנצטוו הנביאים, מאדם עד סוף העולם:  שנאמר "מן היום אשר ציווה ה', והלאה—לדורותיכם". וכל הכופר בעבודה זרה, מודה בכל התורה כולה; והיא עיקר כל המצוות, כולן.
רמבם הל' עבודה זרה ב:ז