Idolatry as “Bad habits,” “addictions,” “kissing Torah scrolls”: Weren’t these the kind of things pulpit rabbis spoke about in the 1950s on Shabbat when they couldn’t think of anything else to talk about?
As I have written elsewhere, the issue of idolatry is at the center of what some have called the clash of civilizations. If we look back and remember the first time most of us heard about the Taliban, it was not on Sept. 12, 2001, but a few months before that, in March 2001, when they decided to blow up ancient statues of the Buddha, claiming that the images where idolatrous.
Truth be told, the greatest idolatry being perpetrated today is by those who have substituted finite religious text for an infinite God. The extreme elements within Islam and Christianity (and some religious Zionists in Israel) are currently unable to distinguish between God and God’s written word.
God’s fixed word has in some sense taken the place of God’s infinite being. Idolatry is when one confuses a partial truth for a whole truth, or when one makes a relative into an absolute. As the 18th-century thinker Moses Mendelssohn argued in his book, “Jerusalem,” God gave Judaism an oral law in order to act as bulwark against the idolatry of text. What these groups fail to realize is the ultimate infinity of God’s being. The struggle each of us engages in every day is keeping that infinity present.
These radical elements of religion, especially in Islam, wish to engender an absolute rule over all of humanity, forcing all to obey their reading of sacred text. This tyranny has now moved beyond politics and is infecting culture.
Whether it’s Muslim cab drivers in Minnesota who refuse to take passengers carrying liquor, or Muslims in Europe threatening to disrupt a Mozart opera that contains “heretical” ideas, a new wave of cultural absolutism has been unleashed on humanity.
What is most ironic is that it is those who are screaming against idolatry are its greatest practitioners. What is child sacrifice if not a suicide bomber?
In Judaism, the term for idolatry is avodah zarah, which literally means a strange worship of God. It does not mean a denial of God, but rather serving God in an abnormal way. In other words, although one’s intention may have a grain of truth, the mode of practice is all wrong and confused.
What all idolaters have in common is that they are religiously intoxicated human beings. They want to become closer to God; unfortunately what they forget is that they, like all of us, will never truly know God.