There is a belief that religion is a safe harbor in times of troubles. Religion is the place where people might go to escape the hardship of their daily lives, the brokenness of their relationships, the frustrations of their workplaces, the skepticism and doubt of their intellectual pursuits.
There is a belief that religion is a radical change — a revolutionary overturning of all that came before. Religion is the anvil upon which verities will be smashed, traditions broken, and sureties questioned. Religion provides the adept with a place from which to struggle. Religion is not for the faint of heart or the immature of spirit and intellect.
Both of these are, of course, true. Religions claim a revolutionary beginning in their mythical past and then spend their days figuring out how to domesticate the very revolution they have idealized. We’re all still figuring it out.
According to the midrash, Genesis Rabba, a Palestinian midrash written sometime in the 5th or 6th century of the common era, Abraham’s father, Terach, was an idolator and an idol maker. One day he left Abraham in charge of his idol store. As each person came to buy an idol, Abraham would make fun of them. When an old person came to buy an idol, Abraham looked at him incredulously and said: “Why would you worship an idol that was made just yesterday?”
Later that day, a woman came to the store with an offering of grain to give to the idols. Abraham took a mallet and smashed all the idols save the largest one. When Terach returned he was understandably furious.
“What happened here?”
Abraham calmly explained that there was a fight over the offering that was brought to the idols and the largest idol smashed all the other idols. Terach was beside himself.
“These idols can’t move, let alone fight with each other!!”
“If that’s the case,” Abraham replied, “why would you worship something that cannot do anything?”
Terach dragged Abraham to the king, Nimrod. Nimrod and Abraham engaged in a type of religious disputation. Nimrod opened with: “I worship fire.” Abraham countered with: “Why don’t you worship the water which can douse the fire.” Nimrod acquiesced. “Okay, I’ll worship the water.” “So then,” Abraham went on, “you might as well worship the clouds, since they are obviously stronger than the water which they carry.” Nimrod agreed with this and said: “Okay, let us worship the clouds.” Abraham then suggested the wind which blows the clouds, and then, finally, a person who can withstand the wind.
Nimrod finally exploded at Abraham: “You are just playing with words. I worship the fire. When I throw you into the fire, we’ll see whether your god is greater than the fire, or whether you succumb to my god.”
Abraham was thrown into the fire and, like Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednego in the time of Daniel, Abraham emerged unscathed.
This midrash, significantly, is a commentary to the last verse before God issues those famous marching orders: lech lechah, go forth! Read in this light, the midrash seems to be arguing that before Abraham could move on to the “land that I will show you,” he had to smash his father’s idols.
Rabbi Yakov Yosef of Polnoi, one of the two main students of the founder of Hassidism, the Ba’al Shem Tov, would often start his weekly discourse with the following question: How is this part of the Torah relevant in every time and every place? In other words, how does my life hang in the balance over whether Abraham smashes the idols or not? Or, from another perspective, what are the idols that I have to smash in order to move on to the Promised Land? (and, perhaps, then, what is that promised land?)
This year Sh’ma will be asking this question of contributors from many walks of Jewish life. What are the idols that you had to/still have to/should have smash(ed) to get to Canaan? Did you get there? What idols of yours do you expect your “children” to smash?
Coming out of the gratuitously tragic Lebanon War of 1982, I began chipping away at many of the icons I had grown up with. Acknowledging my many dead friends, being discharged from the army, leaving yeshivah, starting university, all helped maximize the amount of thinking with minimal interference from official gatekeepers and other ideologues.
There were many small moments over several years that culminated in an aggregate crash. It took leaving Israel to envision a serious Jewish community that was not Orthodox. In Israel then, it was the rare few who were able to see viability between the flags of so-called “dati” (i.e., Orthodox) and socalled “chiloni” (i.e., secular). It then took an iconoclastic group of ardently consensual, egalitarian, hard-edged, and extremely welcoming and serious Jews in Somerville, Mass., for me to be able to finally take the mallet to the idol that proclaimed that Orthodoxy was Judaism. Period.
While we as a community are collectively swept up in worshiping the golden calf of continuity, perhaps we should dance over to the shtibl of rupture, and see what they’re serving for kiddush.email print