We will be reading Deuteronomy 12:29-13:12 in Synagogue this week.
If a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams comes to you and asks you to go serve other gods, we are instructed in this week’s parashah not only to not follow him , but to kill him forthwith. Even if that person is your brother, or son or daughter, or your closest friend… you cast the first stone and all the rest of Israel will stone him thereafter.
There are number of problems with this passage; the absolutism of the language, the theology- is God really so petty, so ‘jealous’ that God cannot tolerate the odd worship of stick and stone? Why would the Children of Israel want to worship other gods? They have been witness to the reality of the one true God, they have experienced miracles and the promise has been fulfilled, they are now settled on the land with abundant descendents. But turn to idolatry they did.
It is possible that they were not particularly weak, or stupid. Rather, the command was not as clear-cut as it appears. What constituted idolatry was not just the worshipping figures of wood and stone, but also the blurring of boundaries between Israelite and Canaanite identity. It is this that our ancestors found so hard to resist.
We are no better today. Every type of Judaism, one can argue, is in some way idolatrous.
Liberal Jews view kissing the Torah as idolatry – it is literally bowing down to wood and stone. For many Orthodox Jews, the respect accorded to ritual objects is greater than their concern for the treatment of other people particularly non-Jews. Consider, too, the agunah - chained woman – tied in a non-existent marriage to a husband who refuses to release her. Her distress and untenable situation is accepted because this is the law. This too is a form of idolatry - the worship of words rather than of God. The Lubavitch Hasidim can be thought of as idolatrous. Their passion for the late Rebbe exceeds simple reverence. With his picture placed on every wall who exactly are his devotees bowing down to when they pray? To whom do they turn for help and guidance?. Is this the worship of a man rather than of God?
The Zionist who puts the land of Israel at the centre of our history can be idolatrous. It may have been God’s plan, but along with the land came the commandments. To choose territorial integrity over moral integrity is to reject those commandments. Is not this the worship of the land rather than the worship of God? The cultural Jew can be thought of as idolatrous. Having forsaken God, they put many different things in the vacuum instead; Jewish history, Jewish achievements, the Shoah. For many these have become the principle reason for being Jewish. They are worshipping many things, but they are not worshipping God.
And we Progressive Jews? You could argue ours is the worst case of idolatry because we are closest to the biblical charge. We do blur the boundaries between us and our neighbours and we think it a good thing. We see compromise as a virtue and intolerance as a vice. We believe easily the wisdoms of our day while treating the wisdom of Torah with scepticism. Is not that worship of the age rather than the worship of God? The dilemmas we face are no different from those faced in the time of Moses and Joshua. I suspect were we part of the generation who received these commands we would have failed as miserably as did they.