Supplementary Readings - Class #7

Supplementary Readings – Idol Worship

            I apologize for not having complete reference material for these selections.

 

Thomas Carlyle, Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History, A.L. Burt Co.

Let us consider it very certain that men did believe in Paganism; men with open eyes, sound senses, men made altogether like ourselves; that we, had we been there, should have believed in it.  Ask now, What paganism could have been? …

            You remember that fancy of Plato’s of a man who had grown to maturity in some dark distance and was brought on a sudden into the upper air to see the sun rise.  What would his wonder be, his rapt astonishment at the sight we daily witness with indifference.  With the free open sense of a child, yet with the ripe faculty of a man, his whole heart would be kindled by that sight, he would discern it well to be godlike, his soul would fall down in worship before it.  Now, just such a childlike greatness was in the primitive nations. … Nature had as yet no name to him; he had not yet united under a name the infinite variety of sights, sounds, shapes and motions, which we now collectively name universe, nature or the like – and so with a name dismiss it from us.  To the wild deep-hearted man all was yet new, not veiled under names or formulas; it stood naked, flashing-in on him there, beautiful, awful, unspeakable. …

            And look what perennial fiber of truth was in that.  To us also, through every star, through every blade of grass, is not a god made visible, if we will open our minds and eyes?  We do not worship in that way now; but is it not reckoned still a merit, proof of what we call a “poetic nature,” that we recognize how every object has a divine beauty in it; how every object still verily is a window through which we may look into infinitude itself?” …

            Some speculators have a short way of accounting for the pagan religion:  merely quackery, priestcraft and dupery, say they; no sane man ever did believe it – merely contrived to persuade other men, not worthy of the name of sane, to believe it.  It will be often our duty to protest against this sort of hypothesis about men’s doings and history; and I here, the they very threshold, protest against it in reference to paganism, and to all other isms by which man has ever for a length of time striven to walk in this world.  They have all had a truth in the, or men would not have taken them up.

 

Tikva Frymer-Kensky, In the Wake of the Goddesses, Ballantine Books, 1993.

In ancient religion, “nature” reflects an interplay of divine forces and personages.  Gods may battle each other, as when the Canaanite goddess Anat defeats Mot, and they may join together, as do the Sumerian Inanna and Dumuzi in the sacred marriage   Gods bring disaster because they envy other gods, as does the Babylonian Irra.  Or they cooperate in bestowing blessings on humanity or the king.  The relationships between these gods are not static.  There is no one polytheism; gods gain and lose their relative status.  Pagan religion is characterized by change and flux. …  Throughout the history of polytheism, the universe was always understood as a balance of interactive forces. … Human myths and rituals enable people to operate in this many-directional system, so that they can collaborate with first one god, then another; so that they can help the gods come together and celebrate this union; or so that they can play one god off against another. …

            No such stratagems could operate in biblical Israel.  Israel could not pit one god against another, or ask one god to intercede with another, for the core idea of ancient Israel is the exclusive worship of one God.  According to the Bible’s understanding, Israel owes all its loyalty and worship to the god who brought the people out of Egypt. …

            Ancient religions provide a way to participate in the creation of fertile abundance and to ensure its continuation.  They address a human desire to do everything possible to make the earth fertile and to make the crops grow. … Agricultural abundance depended on an interaction of forces and their divine embodiments, upon the fertility of the earth and its fertilization by water, and upon the joining of the power of life with the exercise of agriculture.  This conjoining of forces could be aided by sexual activities on the fertile bed, sexual intercourse into the body of the young nubile goddesses.  Even when sexual union is not part of the ritual, this union of forces is the essential metaphysical idea.

            Like other Near Eastern peoples, Israel was concerned with fertility.  In order to feel secure on the land, the people must be assured of God’s power to ensure fertility.  However, the biblical understanding of fertility is radically different from that of ancient Near Eastern polytheism.  Israelite prayer and ritual cannot facilitate the union of the forces of the cosmos; only the worship of one God is allowed. … [T]here is no need for humans to focus concern on the creation or continuation of this fertility.  Just as people do not have to think about helping the sun to rise, because God created it to rise and set, so too they do not have to think about helping the earth to be fertile, for this is the way it was created. …

            The Bible’s picture of God’s sole mastery over the universe creates two major difficulties in understanding the working of the cosmos.  The first problem is theoretical:  if God has all the power, and there is no one else in the divine realm, what can impel God to act?  Power without motive results in a state of stasis, of equilibrium without movement.  And yet it is clear that the universe is not stagnant.  Something must be the reason and cause of God’s actions.  The second problem is practical:  the idea of God’s absolute mastery conflicts with the reality principle.  The experience of the people of Israel does not always conform to that which could be expected from such a masterful deity.  Despite God’s dominance in history, Israel is frequently besieged and overrun in warfare.  Despite God’s power over rain and fertility, Israel experiences drought and famine.

 

Kenneth Seeskin, No Other Gods, Behrman House, 1995.

According to the first and second commandments, the only thing worthy of worship is something we cannot see, touch , build, paint, or imagine – and nothing that we can see, touch, build, paint, or imagine can serve as a substitution. … The tendency to conceive of God along the line afforded by people and natural objects runs deep.  If God is all-powerful, why should we not take a mighty ruler, a towering mountain, a stately tree, or a vicious beast as an image?  And if we do have images, why should we not have a separate god corresponding to each one?  In short, what is so important about saying that God is one?

            At an elementary level, “God is one” means that there is only one God, not 12, 256 or 728 gods.  But mere singularity is not monotheism, and Heschel was right to ask whether singularity alone is worth the price of martyrdom that so many Jews have paid.  A person who believes that Baal alone is divine is not a monotheist even if only one god is involved. … We can therefore follow Maimonides in saying that God is not one in the way that a building, an animal or a book is one: God is not a whole of parts or an item that belongs in a number series.

            According to Maimonides, to say that God is one is to say something much more important: that God has no equal, that nothing in the universe can be compared to God or stand as a rival to God.  In other words, God is not a bigger, stronger, more formidable version of something found on earth.  When the second commandment forbids us from drawing pictures of God, the point is not that you could draw one if the prohibition were lifted but that God’s perfection cannot be represented in a visual medium.  In the early part of the twentieth century Hermann Cohen captured this point by saying that when applied to God, one really means unique.

           

            Why is it so difficult to believe in a God who is truly unique?  The answer is that if we take uniqueness seriously, there is nothing in human experience that can serve as a model for God – not natural objects, and not human images like those of kings, parents, employers, marriage partners, or any of the other comparisons used in the prayer book. …

          Unfortunately, it is difficult to think about divine transcendence and human limits for very long.  Sooner or later, we all need a model to help us think about God, and the only place to look for one is our own experience.  God is a parent, shepherd, big brother or sister, friend, or teacher.  The problem is that once we have a model, we compromise God’s uniqueness.  Instead of seeing the universe in terms of two categories – God and everything else – we now see it in terms of one category and one mode of experience: our own.  In short, once we have a model, we have taken the first step down the road to idolatry.  That is why idolatry is difficult for even the most pious and God-fearing people to avoid. … If idolatry is the litmus test for being a Jew, it is difficult to be a Jew.

 

 

RUPTURE AND RECONSTRUCTION: THE TRANSFORMATION OF CONTEMPORARY ORTHODOXY, Haym Soloveitchik, Published in Tradition, Vol. 28, No. 4 (Summer 1994).

           

   In 1959, I came to Israel before the High Holidays. Having grown up in Boston and never having had an opportunity to pray in a haredi yeshivah, I spent the entire High Holiday period—from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur—at a famous yeshiva in Bnei Brak. The prayer there was long, intense, and uplifting, certainly far more powerful than anything I had previously experienced. And yet, there was something missing, something that I had experienced before, something, perhaps, I had taken for granted. Upon reflection, I realized that there was introspection, self-ascent, even moments of self-transcendence, but there was no fear in the thronged student body, most of whom were Israeli born.95 Nor was that experience a solitary one. Over the subsequent thirty-five years, I have passed the High holidays generally in the United States or Israel, and occasionally in England, attending services in haredi and non-haredi communities alike. I have yet to find that fear present, to any significant degree, among the native born in either circle. The ten-day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are now Holy Days, but they are not Yamim Noraim—Days of Awe or, more accurately Days of Dread –as they have been traditionally called.

   I grew up in a Jewishly non-observant community, and prayed in a synagogue where most of the older congregants neither observed the Sabbath nor even ate kosher. They all hailed from Eastern Europe, largely from shtetlach, like Shepetovka and Shnipishok. Most of their religious observance, however, had been washed away in the sea-change, and the little left had further eroded in the "new country." Indeed, the only time the synagogue was ever full was during the High Holidays.  Even then the service was hardly edifying. Most didn't know what they were saying, and bored, wandered in and out. Yet, at the closing service of Yom Kippur, the Ne'ilah, the synagogue filled and a hush set in upon the crowd. The tension was palpable and tears were shed.

   What had been instilled in these people in their earliest childhood, and which they never quite shook off, was that every person was judged on Yom Kippur, and, as the sun was setting, the final decision was being rendered (in the words of the famous prayer) “who for life, who for death, / who for tranquility, who for unrest.”96 These people did not cry from religiosity but from self- interest, from an instinctive fear for their lives.97 Their tears were courtroom tears, with whatever degree of sincerity such tears have. What was absent among the thronged students in Bnei Brak and in their contemporary services and, lest I be thought to be exempting myself from this assessment, absent in my own religious life too- was that primal fear of Divine judgment, simple and direct.98

   To what extent God was palpably present on Yom Kippur among the different generations of congregants in Boston and Bnei Brak is a matter of personal impression, and, moreover, it is one about which opinions might readily and vigorously differ. The pivotal question, however, is not God's sensed presence on Yom Kippur or on the Yamim Noraim, the ten holiest days of the year, but on the 355 other—commonplace—days of the year: To what extent is there an ongoing experience of His natural involvement in the mundane and of everyday affairs? …

   We regularly see events that have no visible cause: we breathe, we sneeze, stones fall downward and fire rises upward. Around the age of two or three, the child realizes that these events do not happen of themselves, but that they are made to happen, they are, to use adult terms, 'caused.' He also realizes that often the forces that make things happen cannot be seen, but that older people, with more experience of the world, know what they are. So begins the incessant questioning: "Why does . . .?” The child may be told that the invisible forces behind breathing, sickness and falling are "reflex actions," "germs" and "gravitation." Or he may be told that they are the workings of the "soul," of God's wrath" and of "the attractions of like to like" (which is why earthly things, as stones, fall downward, while heavenly things, as fire, rise upward). These causal notions imbibed from the home, are then re-enforced by the street and refined by school. That these forces are real, the child, by now an adult, has no doubt, for he incessantly experiences their potent effects. That these unseen forces are indeed the true cause of events, seems equally certain, for all authorities, indeed, all people are in agreement on the matter.

   When a medieval man said that his sickness is the result of the wish of God, he was no more affirming a religious posture than is a modern man adopting a scientific one when he says that he has a virus. Each is simply repeating, if you wish, subscribing to the explanatory system instilled in him in earliest childhood, and which alone makes sense of the world as he knows it. Though we have never actually seen a germ or a gravitational field, it is true only in a limited sense to say that we "believe" in them. Their existence to us is simply a given, and we would think it folly to attempt to go against them. Similarly, one doesn't "believe" in God, in the other explanatory system, one simply takes His direct involvement in human affairs for granted.99 One may, of course, superimpose a belief in God, even a passionate and all-consuming one, upon another causal framework, such as gravity or DNA. However, a God "believed" over and above an explanatory system, functioning through it as indirect cause, in brief, a God in a natural cosmology, is a God "believed" in a different sense than the way we now "believe" in gravitation or the way people once "believed" in God in a religious cosmology, a God whose wrath and favor were the explanatory system itself.

   God's palpable presence and direct, natural involvement in daily life—and I emphasize both "direct" and "daily"—, His immediate responsibility for everyday events, was a fact of life in the East European shtetl, so late as several generations ago. Let us remember Tevye's conversations with God portrayed by Sholom Aleichem. There is, of course, humor in the colloquial intimacy and in the precise way the most minute annoyances of daily life are laid, package-like, at God's doorstep. The humor, however, is that of parody, the exaggeration of the commonly known. The author's assumption is that his readers themselves share, after some fashion, Tevye's sense of God's responsibility for man's quotidian fate. If they didn't, Tevye would not be humorous, he would be crazy.

  

   … And much of the traditional literature of the Jews, especially as it filtered into common consciousness through the Commentaries of Rashi and the Tzenah Re'enah,101 contained a humanization of the deity that invited intimacy. God visits Abraham on his sickbed; He consoles Isaac upon the death of his father. He is swayed by the arguments of Elijah or the matriarchs, indeed by any heartfelt prayer, and decisions on the destiny of nations and the fate of individuals, the length of the day and the size of the moon, are made and unmade by apt supplications at the opportune moment. The humor of Sholom Aleichem lay not in the dialogues with God, but in having a "dairyman" rather than the Baal Shem Tov conduct them102. The parody lay not in the remonstrances but in their subject matter.

  

   There are, understandably, few Tevyes today, even in haredi circles. To be sure, there are seasons of the year, moments of crest in the religious cycle, when God's guiding hand may be tangibly felt by some and invoked by many, and there are certainly occasions in the lives of most when the reversals are so sudden, or the stakes so high and the contingencies so many, that the unbeliever prays for luck, and the believer, more readily and more often, calls for His help. Such moments are only too real, but they are not the stuff of daily life. And while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious. Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that individual Divine Providence, though passionately believed as a theological principle—and I do not for a moment question the depth of that conviction—is no longer experienced as a simple reality.103 With the shrinkage of God's palpable hand in human affairs has come a marked loss of His immediate presence, with its primal fear and nurturing comfort. With this distancing, the religious world has been irrevocably separated from the spirituality of its fathers, indeed, from the religious mood of intimate anthropomorphism that had cut across all the religious divides of the Old World.

   It is this rupture in the traditional religious sensibilities that underlies much of the transformation of contemporary Orthodoxy. Zealous to continue traditional Judaism unimpaired, religious Jews seek to ground their new emerging spirituality less on a now unattainable intimacy with Him, than on an intimacy with His Will [as expressed in the halachah], avidly eliciting Its intricate demands and saturating their daily lives with Its exactions. Having lost the touch of His presence, they seek now solace in the pressure of His yoke.

 

In light of the supplementary readings, and your own experience and beliefs, consider the following questions:

What was attractive about idol worship? 

Assuming people who worshiped idols were not stupid, how did they understand the world and why did that understanding make sense to them?

            What does it mean to worship something?   

            How does Judaism deal with the two questions raised by Tikva Frymer-Kensky?

            Is Kenneth Seeskin correct in his formulation of how a Jew is required to understand God?  If so, can it be done?  If not, is there any real alternative?

            Haym Soloveitchik describes several models of believing in God.  Can you restate each one?  Do they seem familiar to you?  Are they the ideal?  How do they fit with Seeskin’s ideal?  How is believing in God different from having an imaginary friend?

            What is so bad about idol worship? 

            How are the mitzvot prohibiting idol worship relevant to our current Jewish practice?

            What does it mean to believe in God?

 

In light of the supplementary readings, and your own experience and beliefs, consider the following questions:

What was attractive about idol worship? 

Assuming people who worshiped idols were not stupid, how did they understand the world and why did that understanding make sense to them?

            What does it mean to worship something?   

            How does Judaism deal with the two questions raised by Tikva Frymer-Kensky?

            Is Kenneth Seeskin correct in his formulation of how a Jew is required to understand God?  If so, can it be done?  If not, is there any real alternative?

            Haym Soloveitchik describes several models of believing in God.  Can you restate each one?  Do they seem familiar to you?  Are they the ideal?  How do they fit with Seeskin’s ideal?  How is believing in God different from having an imaginary friend?

            What is so bad about idol worship? 

            How are the mitzvot prohibiting idol worship relevant to our current Jewish practice?

            What does it mean to believe in God?

 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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