Sunday, March 07, 2021

On Contemporary Idolatry


I'm thinking about Avodah Zarah.
Actually, I've been thinking about it not only lately, but for a few years now. As an halakhic and experiential religious category, Avodah Zarah has not played much of a role in Traditional Jewish Life, for at least two centuries. Islam has, with minor exceptions, always been viewed as a monotheistic faith. Even the attitude to Christianity has significantly softened. Whereas Maimonides and most early Ashkenazic authorities viewed Christianity as unadulterated Avodah Zarah, for five centuries now the dominant position has been that Christianity is not Avodah Zara for non-Jews. This, together with twentieth century religious relativism and syncretism, has taken the sting out of the traditional Jewish revulsion at Trinitarian Belief, the attribution of Divinity to a Human Being, and the various trappings of the more traditional Christian Churches. 
The result is that even the most traditional Jews have lost their spiritual 'sea-legs' when it comes to Avodah Zarah. 
Consider, when a prominent rabbi was obliged to participate in a church service, the opposition was largely an expression of the long, bitter and bloody history between Church and Synagogue. It barely echoed the genuine reaction of Traditional Ashkenazic Jews to Avodah Zarah (see, e.g., the various elegies and chronicles written the wake of the First Crusade or the Chmielnitzki Uprising). Or, when Jews visit India and the Far East, they have no problem visiting, admiring (or eating) sites that are indubitably unalloyed Avodah Zarah (at least according to Halakhah). We just don't know it when we see it.
And yet, Avodah Zarah is the polar opposite of the Torah.
It is the antithesis of everything the Torah stands for, and the fundamentum upon which our relationship with God stands or falls. The entire TaNaKh is infused with this binary, which Hazal pithily summed up: כל המודה בעבודה זרה כופר בכל התורה כולה וכל הכופר בעבודה זרה מודה בכל התורה כולה(ספרי דברים פרשת ראה פיסקא נד 
You may ask, then, why am I thinking about Avodah Zarah (unless I plan to travel to the Far East)? The answer is that we are living in a pagan age. We are confronted at every turn by Avodah Zarah, and we fail to realize it.
Avodah Zarah is not confined to the fetishistic adoration of images or of natural forces. In fact, the prohibition against idols is really (by most counts) only comes up in the Second Commandment, not the First. It is merely a sub-section of the more important injunction that we must have no other gods but the One True God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, the One whose Will we are bound to uphold under any and all conditions. On this basis, my teacher and friend, Rabbi Dr. David Berger offered the best definition of Avodah Zarah that I know of: Avodah Zarah is to accept or worship as god, someone or something who/which is not actually God. 
This begs the question: What makes the present age pagan?
The answer was provided, unknowingly, by the great classical scholar, Edith Hamilton, in her wonderful book, Mythology. In the introduction (pp. 14-20), Hamilton describes the novel features of Greek and Roman Mythology. Chief among these is that 'the Greeks, unlike the Egyptians, made the gods in their own image.' The gods of Greece were an exercise in human narcissism and human self-indulgence [and yes, I'm aware of Frankfurter's 'Before Philosophy' and Margalit and Halbertal's Idolatry].
Contemporary Western 'Enlightened' Culture, that which demands that we measure up to its demands and adjust to all of its values, is very much the successor of Greece and Roman religion. The difference is that the Greeks and Romans posited these ideal humans as being above them and that they owed them obedience and obeisance. We, however, have done away with that distinction and simply worship ourselves as a group and/or as individuals. Accepting Nietzsche's assertions about God, the West has posited that belief in God and adherence to Religion is either an opiate (Marx) or a Neurosis (Freud). The result is self-worship, self-adulation and epistemological, axiological and moral relativism. 
As Tara Isabelle Burton, in her book 'Strange Rites, notes: In the absence of God people create a plethora of rites and religions; self-centered, self-concerned, self-indulgent and morally unfettered rites that she herself (a PhD in Religion from Oxford) describes as pagan.
In his lectures on the story of Abraham, 'Abraham's Journey,' Rav Soloveitchik anticipated the West's move back to paganism (enlightened, sophisticated paganism, but paganism nonetheless). Everything he discerned has come to pass, and to a degree that I suspect would have surprised even him.
The trouble is that even ostensibly religious Jews too often don't recognize this new/old Avodah Zarah for what it is. They don't see the dissonance between many of its values and the Torah. They live in compartmentalized tension. Alternatively, they too often wish to resolve the points of disconnection between them by (to invoke and reverse an image of Tchernikhovsky) 'putting Tefillin on Apollo.' 
None of these responses are sustainable.
At some point, we will have to return to the realization that there are places to which Judaism and its adherents cannot and will not go. It will be a traumatic moment. There is, however, no avoiding it. The existential fact for the Jew is, as the Midrash says:
כל העולם מעבר אחד והוא מעבר אחד
)בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשת לך לך פרשה מא)

The whole world is on one side and he (viz. Abraham) is on the other side.