What are the Modern Forms of Idolatry?

Thutmose III (Menkheperra) 1

Question from Jewish Values Online:

Are the obsessions with money, celebrities and athletes, and maybe even Ivy League education, a form of modern day idol worship? My understanding of idol worship is when human creations or people themselves replace G-d and/or are worshiped as a god, this is idol worship. How do rabbis view idols in the modern sense? What does it mean to avoid worshiping idols? [Administrators note: For a somewhat related question concerning pursuit of money, please see http://www.jewishvaluesonline.org/question.php?id=427.]

Great question:

The subject of idolatry is a fascinating. Before answering your question, it is important to define our terms. The word “idolatry” derives from the Greek words εi δωλολατρεία; , (L. idololatria = adoration) , which comes from the noun εiδωλον  (= idol). Hence, it means the worship of images.

Historians of religion have long debated whether the ancients believed that the images housed the spirit of a deity, or whether the statue was  said to be alive and animate. In many ancient rituals dating back to Egypt and India, it was customary for the potter to breathe into a vessel to symbolically represent bequeathing unto the idol—new life. Thus, the ancients believed that the image somehow mysteriously and magically participated in the life of the deity being worshipped.  Thus, in many of the Mesopotamian and Egyptian records we discover special rituals designed to “open” the eyes of a newly constructed deity; the priest will “wash” its mouth, and so on. The prophet Jeremiah cautioned against those who worship “stones that have no breath in them.”  Every man is stupid, ignorant; every artisan is put to shame by his idol: He has molded a fraud,  without breath of life (Jer. 10:14).

According to Jewish theological tradition, Maimonides warned generations about the danger of thinking that anthropomorphism (human like personality traits) are an attribute of God. Interestingly, Maimonides felt that wrongful concepts of God can transform even a monotheistic faith like Judaism into an idolatrous cult and fetish.

Some 20th century theologians think that idolatry involves making something that has no existential existence apart from God into something that apart from God.  Take money for example, one can easily think that money has an independence and ontology that exists apart from God. The same may also be said of the human ego, for in our wildest imagination we often imagine as though we are “God.”

According to the Hassidic tradition, the Kotzker Rebbi once observed, “ The ‘I’ is a thief – because it takes the partial and mistakes it for the whole.  In theological terms, in our search for self-fulfillment, we  tend to seek meaningful existence in terms of our own existence and needs—rather than see the world from God’s perspective.

The theologian and philosopher Paul Tillich once defined religion as “man’s ultimate concern.” This rather ambiguous definition has a certain amount of elasticity. For many people, their ultimate concern might be the possession of power over others—that is what they live for. For others, it might be the acquisition of wealth—and that is what they live for. Each of these things by itself is not necessarily bad unless the pursuit of these things overwhelms one’s relationship with the Divine.

In capitalistic societies, we frequently see the exploitation of workers, of the environment, and the lusting toward unlimited profits at the expense of the consumer. Political philosophies can also promote idolatrous attitudes whenever government tries to usurp the power of God as the center of people’s spiritual lives. According to Jewish tradition, man does not live on bread alone—he is a creature who must find spiritual contentment through the worship of God. Idolatry can occur whenever people fail to pay attention to the deeper human and moral issues that are at stake, such individuals risk worshipping the works of their hands and ego.

One of the ways the Tanakh helps us avoid this mistaken attitude is by tithing from our best to God. Tithing teaches us that the world does not belong to man; we are merely God’s steward of the Divine treasure and are responsible to God alone for how we use our prosperity.

Even great people after their death have frequently been worshipped as deities. In the Torah, nobody knows the burial spot of Moses; God wanted to make sure that nobody would come to worship Moses as a substitute for God. Yet, in the history of paganism,  holy people have been venerated with rituals that ought to be exclusively given to God.

Over the last two and a half decades, the Lubavitcher Hasidim visit the tomb of their late Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schnersohn and ask him to intercede on behalf of his followers. If Maimonides were living in the present, he would have condemned such acts of devotion as idolatrous[1] Similarly, the Hasidim in the Rebbe’s headquarters re-enact rituals of handing out sacred dollars to the Hasidim—as though the Rebbe were physically among them. Conferring celebrity status to any human being is dangerously close to treating that person as a god.  Some of the Hassidic teachers have historically believed that their Rebbe was the body of God in this world (!).

I often thought that the Rebbe of Lubavitch—and rabbis in general, regardless of their denominational labels—could greatly benefit from the Eagles’ famous song, “Take it Easy.”

Well I’m a runnin’ down the road
Tryin’ to loosen my load

I’ve got seven women on my mind
Four that wanna own me
Two that wanna stone me
One says she’s a friend of mine

Take it easy, take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels

Drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
Don’t even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand

And take it easy

The moral of this song is especially important for any kind of leader—religious or secular. We are NOT the movers and shakers of the world that we sometimes think we are. As human beings—each of us has a gift to offer the world. However, the world will never revolve around the human ego. The universe is God-centered and not human centered.

3 thoughts on “What are the Modern Forms of Idolatry?

  1. Gnarlodious says:

    I observe this Christmas celebration to be essentially idolatry. Imagine in its inception a wonderful sentiment, that the universal yearning for the birth of the messiah can bring us all fulfillment. Even Jews. But instead what we got is a perverse corruption of that yearning in the form of instant gratification brought about by neurotic consumerism. The idolatry we are fed is religious yearning, but the profit motive steps in and makes us to feel we need stuff to satisfy our need for redemption on that glorious morning. In that context, the messiah has been replaced by tchochkes made in China. That offends me and I refute the holiday categorically.

  2. admin says:

    Dear Gnarly,

    Yes, many people today do feel the same about Christmas–and Hanukah because the custom of gift-giving seems to be the only thing that people process as something important. BTW, all modern religious holidays have their basis in archaic pagan religions.

  3. Yochanan Lavie says:

    Yashar koach. One could add the Breslover Chassidim have an idol of Rabbi Nachman, which is a shame because he too was an important religious figure. That’s why we’ll never know where Moshe Rabbenu is buried.

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