Starting up with God

September 4, 2009
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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.

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Aryeh Cohen, a Sh’ma Advisory Board member, lives in Los Angeles with his partner Andrea and their children, Shachar and Oryah. He teaches Talmud at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, davens at the Shtibl Minyan, and writes about Talmud, justice, Shabbat, and gender, among other topics. He is currently writing a book, Justice in the City: Thinking the Just City out of the Sources of Rabbinic Literature.


  1. the story about avraham is one of my favorite storys.I am really connected to the idea of ONE G-D THE SOLE CREATOR OF is it possible that a human mind grasp such wonders.I feel its the soul that takes us to higher back to your perush of avraham smashing the idols I WISH I could of been there Iwould of helped him.יתכן שיש גם קשר [שבירת הכלים[ התפתחות רוחנית ויתור על דיעות ותפוסים ישנים ו’תור על שגרת חיים נוחה להפתח לדיאולוג חדש של חקר האמת על ourselves מול הבורא האם יש עוד פרושים על הסיפור המרתק אברם והאלים.תודה yvonne.

    Posted by
    yvonne goodwin benguigui
  2. I commend Aryeh Cohen on a well-written, thought-provoking piece. One thing that puzzles me, though, is that her title is “Starting Up with God;” It would have been SO nice had something G-D actually said had been included. It is difficult for me to grasp, understand, and relate to those who are Jewish, but never allow
    G-D’s actual Words into their literature, thought, life, words. One cannot start up with G-D without starting up in His Word.

    Did you know that G-D’s Word said that: “If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands (words) I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come upon you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God.” Deuteronomy 28: 1-2 (NIV). (Parenthetical statement mine).

    Not claiming to know everything, I do know one thing G-d’s Word has a validity and authenticity that no other source can provide. If by breaking idols, Cohen is refering to turning our backs and walking away from those traditions and practices in our family’s that go at direct odds with G-d’s written word as Abraham did, than I wholeheartedly agree with her. sdh

    Posted by
    Sarah D. Johnson
  3. Sarah Johnson, Aryeh Cohen is male. And his inclusion of a midrash in his piece is thoroughly in keeping with the Jewish tradition; in fact, it’s rare for Jews to study the Bible without rabbinical commentaries by their side as well.

    Coming from a Christian perspective as you clearly are (or would you prefer “worshipper of Yeshua”?) you might not be aware that normative Judaism is as much a rabbinic institution as a biblical one, but that is, in fact, the case. That’s how, for instance, the biblical command to abstain from “boiling a kid in its mother’s milk” can become the commandment not to eat any dairy and any meat together. There’s a lot more to Judaism than the Written Law.

    Finally, since you’re talking about words, you should know that your “parenthetical statement” is incorrect: the Hebrew term for commandments refers not to words in some general sense but to the mitzvot. So the biblical quote you include is actually an injunction to follow the law given to Moses at Sinai, not a general statement that encourages biblical literalism.

    Posted by
  4. And yet, Abraham is unwilling to confront God at the most crucial time - when he’s told to sacrifice all that he’s lived for and his sole hope for the future - his son Isaac.

    Maybe Abraham was too much at peace with God. Maybe the better lesson can be learned from Job who is willing to risk all for the truth.

    note: For an alternate theory of of Job as a political manifesto see - “The First Dissident” by the late William Safire.

    Posted by
    velvel horowitz
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