In the Haftarah for parashat Bekhukotai, the prophet Jeremiah uses these well-known words:
"Can a man make gods for himself? No-gods are they!"
You would think, after all our history and experience, we would have given up on idols, idol worship, on the idea that human beings can make gods.
But, noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. We still don’t get it! we keep trying, and succeeding, in making our idols, and elevating them to high status (sometimes, even Divine status.)
What’s been in the news these last few days? That is, besides the aftermath of the Myanmar/Burma cyclone, the earthquake in China, or the endless "when will Hilary finally call it quits" and "Obama’s Communist ties exposed" ?
The winner of this year’s "American Idol." Imagine what’s in store for him. He has already been shaped into an "idol" so turning him into god won’t be far behind. 97 million votes were cast for the finale of this year’s "Idol." That’s more than the number of people who voted in some of the presidential years in the 1990s. (In 2004, only 122 million voted.) Even if you allow for the duplicate votes that get cast for "American Idol" that’s still a pretty significant number of people who are buying into this whole idea.
Last summer, at the CAJE Conference, the organizers planned a "CAJE Idol" which, after enough objections, got sort of changed to "CAJE Rising Star" or something of that ilk. Now, I was asked to be one of the accompanists for this spectacle, which I did agree to do, and did. The selected judges, thank G"d, understood the program as more of a fun parody of the real thing, and went over the top in their impersonations of the "American Idol" judges whose personalities are continually foisted upon us. And, while the whole thing was all in fun, the whole process was frighteningly similar to the real thing, with coteries and cliques of sign-toting fans. And the attendees had the final word, getting to vote for and select the winner, their "CAJE Idol."
You could say that this was an anomaly, a liberal Jewish fete as a logical consequence of patrilineal descent, intermarriage, etc. No "real" Jew would ever engage in such tomfoolery. However, considering the rather diverse nature of those who attend CAJE (and even those who attended each night of the "CAJE Idol" program, including the judges) I would not be so quick to attribute this failure to "get it" about idols to just the liberal streams of Judaism. (Do I need to say more than Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson z"l to make my point? Does the name "Shabbetai Tzvi" ring a bell?)
We are going to continue to suffer the indignities and horrors clearly spelled out for us in parashat Bekhukotai, and reiterated by Jeremiah in our Haftarah so long as we persist in our stubborn refusal to give up making idols.
The earth itself, is becoming one of our idols. We have worked to reshape her, refine her, tame her, until we have molded her into the image we want. This despite the constant warnings we get – hurricanes, typhoons, cyclones, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, and more – that we aren’t yet in as much control as we would like to be. I’m a great fan of science fiction, and space opera, yet I am beginning to dread the prospect of our species branching out and bringing its disturbed ethics, morals, and values into the broader universe.
We are surrounded by our idols. How many of us have big, flat screen televisions? (Guilty, as charged, though only a 37 incher) We worship at the altar of petrochemicals, even as we face the prospect of a finite resource, and ridiculously high prices. We make idols of actors, sports players, singers, pundits. Some of us make idols of our countries or their flags. We made these things idols. We "voted" for them.
When will we stop? Are we so afraid that those who say "G"d is dead" are right, and that therefore no consequences await our continued idolatry? Do we simply accept that any potential Messianic Age is decades, centuries, or millennia away, so we just shrug our shoulders and say "what the heck, lets get while the getting is good"?
The first step in removing idolatry from our midst is to withhold our votes for those things we have idolized or seek to idolize. Be entertained by "American Idol" if you must, but don’t buy into the premise, and don’t vote. Don’t participate in cults of personality. Make choices based on values, ethics, and the facts at hand. You don’t need a McMansion, or a Beamer. Our cities don’t need new ballparks and stadiums – they need to care for the hungry and the needy and for all their citizens.
Let’s strive for an idyllic society by allowing all our idols to become idle. They won’t be so idolized then. Let’s stop trying to make gods. One is enough.
As the wise rabbis who assembled the siddur did, let us take the closing words of this Haftarah and change them from the singular to the plural communal form, to make our prayer:
"Heal us, O lord, and let us be* healed;
Save us, and let us be* saved;
For You are our glory."
* that’s the JPS Committee’s choice of translation. I find myself preferring the more traditional "and we shall be"
©2008 by Adrian A. Durlester