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Art and Making Graven Images

On the Ninth of Av in the Jewish Calendar, we read in the Torah that Hashem’s anger is kindled when we do two things: make a graven image, and do evil.

“Doing evil” seems easy enough to understand—Hashem 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?

Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman, or like any animal on earth or any bird that flies in the air, or like any creature that moves along the ground or any fish in the waters below. [3]

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 managed 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.

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 his or her 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. [hearing versus seeing] 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. We must take responsibility for our own lives, whereas a graven image externalizes the responsibility we should be internalizing. 

The problem with being a cheerleader is that standing on the sidelines, living a life in which we avoid risk because we are playing it safe, does not grant immortality. We will all die anyway; the question is whether or not we achieve while we are alive.

May we all make the most of our time on this earth, to take personal responsibility and grow, to create and do good, not through graven images, but through our relationship with Hashem.

Comments are welcome!

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