What’s So Bad about Idolatry?

News and Views

After all, it is idolatry—far more than the wicked and insane Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes—that stands as the real villain of our Hanukkah holiday. That same Antiochus was crowned king decades before the Maccabees ever rose up in revolt against him. In fact, many of our ancestors in Jerusalem favored Epiphanies, whose cosmopolitan outlook suited those Jews who wanted to become a greater part of the Hellenic culture that dominated their day.

But in 168 B.C., something changed. Antiochus changed. Was it the back-to-back discouraging military losses in Egypt? Was it the banishment from Rome that followed? Did he make a tactical error in choosing the wrong side of brewing dissent within the Jewish community? Did the King simply go mad later in life? Historians and theologians are at a loss to explain.

No one can fully explain Antiochus’ unprecedented decision made on the 25th day of the month of Kislev in 168: he placed a pagan sculpture—purportedly the image of Jupiter—inside our Jewish Holy of Holies that was the physical and spiritual center atop that great hill in Jerusalem. Not only did Antiochus desecrate our Temple, but he forbade the study of Torah and most Jewish practices. Where most Empires amassed wealth through a healthy combination of taxation and religious toleration of their colonies, Antiochus chose a different route: outright antagonism of the province of Judea, and pernicious persecution of the Jewish people.

Three years later—to the very day, to the calendar date of the 25th of Kislev 165 B.C.—Epiphanes was defeated, the Maccabees re-established Jewish control of Judea, and our Temple precincts were cleansed of all idolatry. What followed that day was a festival of Re-Dedication—in Hebrew, Hanukkah—of our sacred space. To this day, on that very day, we continue to celebrate our dedication to our Jewish way, to our particular path of spirituality, and to our practice devoid of all idolatry.

We know, from the very beginning of our story as a people, that idols have no place in our Jewish tradition. In that legendary scene at Sinai, the first word our ancestors heard the Divine dictate was that this was the God who brought them out of Egypt; immediately after, they were enjoined not only to have no other gods, but also never to make any sculptured icon or other idolatrous image. We were not to confuse the Power of Redemption with any tangible object or physical representation.

Yet, certainly, words are representations, and in three thousand years we Jews have spilled irretrievable ink describing and detailing our imaginings of God in more detail than could ever be captured in any work of art. So what’s so much worse about a drawn picture in place of a word picture?

The answer, I believe, lies in the teachings of Isaiah. In decrying the idolatry of his day, he lays bare the root of its evil:

Their land is full of false Gods, of idols;
To the work of their own hands they bow down low,
To that which was fashioned by their fingers!

—Isaiah 2:8

Idolatry, literally, is bowing down to the work of our hands. It is worshiping that which we create, turning the tokens of our own manufacture into totems of ultimate worth. Idolatry is our veneration of the objects which we ourselves have made.

We remember the Midrash about Abraham working in his father’s workshop. According to this legend, Abraham’s father Terach owned a shop that sold idols to the fine people of Mesopotamia. One day Terach went out on an errand and left his son to mind the store. When Terach returned, he was dismayed! All the idols had been smashed by a giant club, which happened to be resting atop the outstretched palms of the biggest idol in the store. “What did you do,” Terach asked of his son. “Nothing, father! But you missed quite a scene: this big idol got mad at all the other idols, picked up the club, and smashed them all.” “Do not lie to me, Abraham,” Terach began, “For you and I both know these are sculptures of stone and cannot do anything!” Ending the argument, Abraham replies, “Would that your ear heard what your mouth says.”

Abraham is an iconoclast because he knows any object fashioned by human hands cannot have ultimate value, cannot and should not be adored as a God. Isaiah comes along and gives a more specific name to the sin of misdirecting human worship: this mistaking material objects for anything worthy of worship, this idolatry, is materialism. Material possessions cannot be mistaken for the most important things in our world.

We might ask: What’s so bad about materialism? But, with the lights lining the Magnificent Mile, with countless holiday shopping lists in our heads, and with endless commercials about new gadgets and gizmos popping up on all our screens, we already know the answer. Over 2,000 years ago, our ancestors rose up against those forces that would have us worship the material, and in so doing dedicated our people anew to the worship of forces of light and hope. How ironic now that we celebrate their victory with a proliferation of the material?

Irony aside, Hanukkah is about standing strong in our system of values regardless of the dominating theology of the day. If my colleagues in Christian clergy complain about the commodification of Christmas, it seems we are hardly the only religious community in America forced to confront materialism. And I hardly suggest placing a lump of coal in your latkes or setting aside the gifts you’ve already bought [or that I’ve already bought!] for the children in your family. However, with eight potential evenings for bringing greater light and joy into our world, I do believe we have ample time to balance out our material bounty with the religious gifts our tradition provides in this season. And so, as we kindle our candles this year on the 25th of Kislev—and for the eight nights following—may we make sure our focus remains on the gifts of family, tradition, freedom and hope that Hanukkah truly embodies.


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