Shaya Cohen -


Why are we Commanded to Destroy Pagan Deities?

I have regular conversations with people who wish me luck or good fortune, or tell me that their fingers are crossed for a positive result. I often reply something along the lines of, “My blessings come from G-d – luck is not part of my faith.” Which tends to set people back on their heels a bit. After all, “Good luck” is just a phrase, right? Right?

Or is it? 

To me, if superstition was just rank stupidity, then people would have no trouble shedding it as the remnant of an ignorant age. But it sticks around, and even seems to grow stronger in times of stress. People wish each other “good luck” all the time, especially when they are about to do something dramatic or risky. And words have power, after all: “Fortune favors the bold” dates from when Fortune was a goddess, and her daily invocation shows that Fortune has outlived many of the other deities of its age.

Does any of this matter? I think it does, and here is why: luck and fortune and providence are all coping mechanisms. They are ways people use to deal with uncertainty and fear and the Big Questions related to why some people seem to get all the breaks, and others get none. Isn’t it curious that people instinctively feel that coincidences or events that fall within a statistical probabilistic spread have to be credited to something or someone?

I do not deny that coincidences and chance and probability exist. But they are merely nameless forces, not gods in their own right. I do not invoke them as one would a deity. 

I am a keen fan of insecurity. It is insecurity that forces us to take risks, to seek companionship, to change who we are. Insecurity makes growth possible – but not inevitable!

For example, lust (itself not good or bad) is a major driver for human relationships. Healthy relationships are very good, indeed. But if we satisfy lust by being promiscuous or using sex robots, then instead of growing, we meet our needs through selfish and unproductive means. And the more unproductive diversions we have, the less healthy that we, as spiritual creatures, become. 

I think that believing in superstition and luck – and indeed all false gods – is kind of like having a sex appliance handy to fill a void. When we credit what happens to us or to others to luck or fortune, then we are denying that we have responsibility, that our actions have consequences. “Luck” is not so different from “white privilege.” You either have it or you don’t. And if you were born without it, then there is no legitimate way to obtain the privilege of others. 

The Torah describes that when the Jewish people enter the land, their responsibilities to those who lived there beforehand is very simple:

Destroy completely all the places where the nations you are dispossessing have served their gods—atop the high mountains, on the hills, and under every green tree. Tear down their altars, smash their sacred pillars, burn up their Asherah poles, cut down the idols of their gods, and wipe out their names from every place. (Deut 12:2-3)

And this is a pretty crazy thing to command, unless we see it as removing an impediment to growth.  All of these pagan faiths were ways of making sense of the natural world that removed all responsibility and agency from mankind, except the task to regularly bribe the gods with food and drink and the occasional virgin or child.  Worshipping natural forces was the ancient versions of modern superstition, or even, dare I say, of modern eco-worship. Pagan cultures are spiritually stalled, incapable of growth.

False gods block our ability to see how important we can be. Lady Luck rolls the dice, and we are hapless in the face of her decisions, so we can blame her and in turn deny our own responsibility. Privilege is another word for Fate.

If this is right, then the commandment to tear down idols was not a jealous act by the One God who cannot abide competition. Instead, it was an act designed to help people see the world differently, to help understand that our lives may not be predestined after all, that we can write, at least in part, our own stories.

I think most people experience some kind of an “aha” moment when they change their minds about something important. We may not be aware of it when it happens, but there is usually some residual memory that helps us realize, “Oh, yes! That is when I thought about this differently!” We could call it a “Come to Jesus” moment, or the time the liberal got mugged or the black American saw a Candace Owens video. But in order for that moment to take place, people need to have a clear path toward that vision; the security blankets of false gods need to be yanked off.

The G-d of the Torah commands personal responsibility and decries victim-culture. G-d wants people to grow, to see themselves as a work-in-progress. But to make that possible that, we have to attack every notion that posits that people are incapable of changing, that we are what we are born, that the future is already written and we are merely pawns for others to advance or sacrifice as suits their whimsy.

The road to changing how people see the world and themselves starts, the Torah is telling us, with destroying the gods that offer the false assurances, the claims that we don’t have to act because everything comes down to fate or divine vicissitudes anyway. If we can budge those keystones, then the dam can break and people can come to see the world in an entirely new light.

Comments are welcome!

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