Shaya Cohen -


What is the Problem with a Graven Image?

We read in the Torah that G-d’s anger is kindled when we do two things: make a graven image, and do evil.

“Doing evil” seems easy enough to understand – G-d wants us to do good. It is not hard to see why acts of kindness and holiness are what we need in order to improve the world, to make the most of our lives.

But why are graven images – idols – such a problem? Of all things we can do or make, why is this one singled out?

Man is insecure. There are many powerful forces beyond our control and our understanding. These forces seem to hold our lives in their hands, and they are fundamental forces like wind and rain and sea and volcano and sun. In turn, they may be influenced or manage by what might be called “higher order gods” – Luck, or Fate, or any of a number of named deities in the Greek, Norse or other pantheons.

In a primitive world, people simply worshipped the natural force itself. Slightly more advanced societies named deities as being in charge of their respective natural component. But it really all amounted to a cargo cult of sorts: paying off the appropriate deity by means of sacrifice and suffering would do the trick.

Note that idol worship was tightly connected to doing evil: buying off the deity cost, in sacrificed foodstuffs and children and virgins, not to mention the hearts of vanquished enemies. And if the god was satisfied, then he did not care what men did between them. Might made right. Once the volcano deity got his virgin, the powerful people in the village could go back to whatever it is they liked doing, which usually involved being unkind (to say the least) to others.

This all seems so deliciously unconnected from our modern, technologically advanced world. After all, even the words “graven image,” and the concept of idol worship, sound like a quaint notion from an ancient past. But think about it: are people today really so secure about the Big Bad World that they won’t seek out an idol?

Think, for example, about superheroes in film and television. As religion fades, superheroes have come back into fashion. Some of them (Ironman or Batman) are ordinary men who harness their ambition to become extraordinary. But most have magical powers that make them better than mere mortals. Deities from ancient pagan worlds are coming back as superheroes: Thor and Loki and others.

Why are we attracted to superheroes? For the same reason the ancients worshipped idols: Superman gives us an alternative to taking responsibility for our own world. Who are we to change the world, when there are superheroes out there who are so much more capable than a mere mortal? It is all an excuse for passivity, for choosing to become a cheerleader instead of taking the field.

Beyond the silver screen we also have no shortage of idols. Chief among them is Gaia herself. Just as with ancient deities, she has many names: Mother Earth, Nature, Sustainability, The Planet, etc. And Gaia is mad. Through her priests, scientists, she threatens apocalypse and ruin, hurricanes and climate change and global warming and droughts and ozone holes. Independence from her clutches is wrong, so we are told that everything mankind does to improve the world is in turn evil, and sure to lead to our destruction. Thus we are supposed to condemn GMOs and effective pesticides and herbicides, and ban mysterious chemicals that somehow supposedly lead to reduced sperm counts. Even air conditioning and modern medicine are clearly wrong, and only serve to anger The Planet.

We placate Mother Earth’s appetites by sacrificing our lawns by not watering them, by sorting our trash into different piles, by spending more money for “organic” produce. We buy Toyota Piouses, and mount money-losing solar arrays on the shady street-side of the house so that everyone can see them. We pass endless regulations that make life more difficult, all for the sake of The Environment. Best of all, we get to signal our greater piety by sacrificing others. Just as liberals are in favor of raising taxes on Other People, so, too, Earth-Worship involves endless rounds of Making Other People Suffer.

Idols come in many shapes and sizes, of course. We worship Authorities and Experts, people who Know Better, by virtue of being Authorities and Experts and Scientists. Best of all, of course, are Experts in Government. Government, of course, has the power to coerce, which means it has the power to not merely convince us that they are right, but to shortcut the whole sticky persuasion thing and force us to accept their authority.

It is government that represents the worst combination of Gaia and superheroes and coercive scientists. Government does not have to convince people. It has the power to override the objections of us great unwashed idiots who are not convinced by the rhetorical flourishes and apocalyptic nonsense.

So when parents want to try to treat their son who suffers from an illness, government can step in and save the day, making sure, through endless processes and experts and authorities, that the child will surely die. And it will be for Charlie Gard’s own good, don’cha know.

It all comes together in the same problem: people who do not want to take responsibility for their own lives need to make themselves small, need to make excuses for why they have not personally tried to fix the world. So they vote for liberals, they drive their Prius to shop at Whole Foods, they believe in experts and other superheroes, and they expect government to solve every problem.

Death is not the enemy. Death comes to all of us, sooner or later. The enemy is a life that is not well lived, a life in which we avoid risk because we are playing it safe – only to die in the end anyway.

And here it comes full circle. The problem with graven images are they are external, shared images, but the spiritual path for each person must, in Judaism, be internal. Each person has their own unique path, with a conversation – words – at the heart of that internal quest. The Torah has no illustrations, and the prophets never painted. Words engage with each person’s soul,

It is words – the spoken word – that is at the heart of the Torah. Words talk to the soul, not, as do graphics, to the eyes. People perceive the same words differently, each engaging with their own imagination to give the words life.

Idol-worship represents wasted opportunity for individual development. A graven image externalizes responsibility.

May we all make the most of our time on this earth, to take personal responsibility and grow, to create and do good.

Comments are welcome!

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