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Breaking the Idols

Sermon delivered at Manchester Reform Synagogue on Yom Kippur morning 5783/2022. Influenced, as always, by the teaching of Rabbi Judith Rosen Berry and her teaching of Judaism as the deconstruction of oppressive meta narratives.

I would like you to picture the scene. I’m on Market Street, just around the corner from here, raincoat on, kippah visible. I turn into one of the numerous phone shops in front of me. I stop at the display of the latest phone models and reach into my handbag. I quickly bring out a hammer and before any of the shop assistants can reach me, I have smashed several of the phones and I keep going, until I am restrained.

Later that day, from my police cell, the Jewish Telegraph calls and they ask me – Rabbi, what happened? I say – ‘I am following in the footsteps of Abraham, the idol smasher. Today, I say, I smashed our modern-day idols, the phones which we carry in our pockets as if they are gods, the futile chase we are in for the newest model, craning our necks to get the best angle for a selfie’.

The Jewish Telegraph ends the call and the headline that week reads – ‘Rabbi gone Meshuggeh…’

Well, don’t worry, that did not happen and, I hasten to add, will not happen – especially as I’m looking forward to my phone upgrade next month! Instead, this is a modern re-telling of a famous midrash, an ancient story, when Abraham, our ancestor, went into his father’s shop of idols and smashed the whole lot, leaving the stick in the hands of one of the larger idols. When his father came back and asked his son what happened Abraham said:

Would I hide anything from my father? A woman came, carrying in her hand a basket of fine flour. She said: ‘Here, offer it before them.’ When I offered it, one god said: ‘I will eat first,’ And another said, ‘No, I will eat first.’ Then the biggest of them rose up and smashed all the others”. [His father] said:, “Are you making fun of me? Do they know anything?” [Avraham] answered: “Shall your ears not hear what your mouth is saying?”[1]

Abraham’s violent act was a way of trying to show his father that the idols were worthless and given that they could not talk and were not alive why – he asked - were they being worshipped?! It was a dramatic attempt to turn his father towards God – to that which is greater than all and which unites everything and everybody. Abraham – the first Hebrew – was an idol smasher.

The famous Israeli poet, Yehudah Amichai draws on this midrash and in his last book of poetry, published before his death, wrote:

We are all children of Abraham but also the grandchildren of Terach, Abraham’s father. And maybe it’s high time the grandchildren did unto their father as he did unto his when he shattered his idols and images, his religion, his faith. That too would be the beginning of a new religion.[2]

In essence, Amichai demands that we become idol smashers rather than idol worshippers and asks, which idols will fall today? How are we being Abraham in the year 2022? How are we inhabiting our age-old Jewish spirit of radicalism, protest and idol smashing?

Perhaps this idea of us as Jews being idol smashers feels strange and even a little outrageous so let’s explore the idea together. Firstly – what is an idol? Well, the Cambridge Dictionary says it is either a person who is loved, admired, or respected a lot or, which is more appropriate for our study, ‘an object or picture (and I’m going to add, idea) that is worshipped as a god.’

Let’s explore the idol as an object that we worship as if it is divine, eternal, true and unchanging. This is a dangerous thing indeed because we end up worshipping a part of the whole as if it is in the entire truth – it takes up our entire focus and attention, blinding us from the magnificence and diversity of our world. Just like, perhaps, the phone or social media. I was struck, at a concert at the Arena last year how most of us were watching the artist, through the screens of our phones, rather than being present in the moment. We were separated from the present – our attention mediated by our phones as we move, zombified, through each day.

An idol as an object probably makes sense to us and I’m sure I’m not alone in my addiction to my phone and my awareness that it can become god-like to me as it affects the way I think and feel. So what then about an idol as a thought or an idea? We’ve seen, increasingly over the past few years, that we as a society have become more and more stuck in our own ideas – certain that we are right, and they are wrong. Perhaps we saw this most clearly with the divide over Brexit and all of the twitters rows which continuously erupt and the behaviour of our politicians. This idol, we could describe as the Idol of Being Right. This idol means that debate, on almost any issue, has become polarised as we sit further and further in our Rightness. There is no room given for mistake and a lack of generosity of spirit as we get ready to attack anyone who expresses an opinion which is different to ours and threatens our idol.

We have become too scared to speak out when we might want to express the nuance in an argument, or say something which doesn’t fit with the prevailing opinion. Why is this?

Well, we’ve all heard the psychology studies, where people, buoyed from the energy of the group and not wanting to stand out or question authority end up taking some pretty awful action in direct conflict with their values. Human beings are often very averse to acting contrary to the group. Like the famous Milgram experiment, conducted by Stanley Milgram, which measured the ‘willingness of men in the age range of 20 to 50 from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education, to obey an authority figure who instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Participants were led to believe that they were assisting an unrelated experiment, in which they had to administer electric shocks to a "learner". These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real. The experiment found, unexpectedly, that a very high proportion of subjects would fully obey the instructions, albeit reluctantly.’

The experiment has since been repeated many times around the globe, with fairly consistent results.[3] As a crude summary – we, as human beings, tend to follow the groups and do not like to question authority. Again – we end up idolising and over-valuing the idols of Conforming, Fitting In and Being Right. This is why Abraham was our leader – he was not afraid to follow his values and break those things which needed breaking. He did not follow the crowd and was described in the Torah as ‘ha-ivri’ – the Hebrew, or more literally, the one who crosses boundaries.

Along with our phones, social media becoming potential idols, and the idol of Being Right anf Fitting In we are also at risk, as Jews, of idolising Judaism. Perhaps this idol is linked to the idol of Being Right as we find, across the Jewish communities, a false idea that there is one way to be Jewish. We know that there is no authentic Judaism. The Jewish lives we live today are relatively modern. Our religious and way of life has adapted and evolved since its inception – it has never stood still and has always had room for a plethora of beliefs and practices. Yet, all too often, we end up believing that there is an authentic Judaism and we create a box which we must all squeeze into. The danger of separating ourselves from the innovative and radical nature of Judaism, from the teachings of the Torah, is that we create the Proper Jew and exclude those who we don’t see as fitting in – they don’t dress right, sound right, marry right, eat right.

Our synagogue building can sometimes manifest this thinking and we idolise the building and the practices and ‘traditions’ within it rather than focus on the spirit of Torah and how we behave and act towards each other and the wider world. In so doing our synagogues being museums rather than homes for a living Judaism, our books become dusty as dialogue is silenced and we lose the diversity and vibrancy of community as we only see ourselves mirrored around us. And, as Reform Jews, we risk becoming Reformed rather than Reforming. We exclude rather than include. Throughout time Judaism has been transported from one home to another and that is only because it has not remained stationery or been idolised. It must evolve, stretch and adapt. That is our challenge this Yom Kippur – to not only watch the idols we are tempted to worship individually but to break the idol of Authentic Judaism and of Being Right and have the courage to leave this building with what is truly important.

Whilst idol smashing may feel quite far from the Judaism we each practise and maybe not the language you would use, the Torah stresses its primacy. We need not look further than the shameful episode of the golden calf when the Israelites panic, unable to deal with the uncertainty before them and their seemingly absent God, and, with Aaron as their leader, make a golden calf. Moses and God were so angry that a plague wiped out many involved and Moses threw the first set of tablets down onto the ground, shattering them into pieces. (We spoke about Moses’ anger issues yesterday!).

Here we’ve seen the Israelites act as one – no dissent and no questioning. They attempt to build something which they worship as the real thing and God clearly states it is not ok. As a reminder of this shocking event, the broken shards of the first set of tablets are placed in the portable ark the Israelites carry with them throughout their wilderness journey.

In addition to the golden calf episode, we can also find the commandment to smash idols here on Yom Kippur. Each year, for our second Torah reading, we read from chapter 19 of Leviticus/Vayikra, part of a section of the Torah known as the Holiness Code. These chapters lay out how the Israelites should act for they are holy, because God is holy and they/we have been made in God’s image. As the opening verses of our portion reads: ‘Speak to the whole of the Israelite community and say to them: You shall be holy, for I, your God Adonai, am holy.’ Straight after the commandment about honouring your parents and keeping Shabbat (two central mitzvot) the verse reads – ‘do not turn to idols or make molten gods for yourselves: I Adonai am your God.’ What then follows are a number of ethical commandments – don’t insult the deaf, or put a stumbling block before the blind, judge your neighbour kindly, pay your employees on time, love your neighbour as yourself.

This central mitzvah is foundational for our practise as Jews and essential in ensuring that our society functions fairly and justly.

The broken shards of the first sets of the ten commandments (which ironically include the commandment against creating idols), kept in the portable tabernacle, are indeed a reminder to us all - we are all at risk of idol worship – of either a thought that we carry as being the only truth, or an item, like our phones which blocks out the rest of the world and encounters with others. We, as Jews, are commanded to be idol-smashers, not idol makers. We are tasked with smashing those constructs which draw us away from divinity and each other. Instead of worshipping the idols of Conforming, Fitting In and Being Right – instead of bringing our gold and silver forward to create today’s idol of the Proper Jew – we join Abraham and seek to connect with the core of Judaism. To value and prioritise questioning and study so we can explore all the different interpretations and opinions before us. To talk and listen and to be open to have our minds changed and transformed. To speak out even when it is not comfortable to do so.

May we follow in Abraham’s footsteps and challenge and smash that which does not serve us.

Ken Yehi Ratzon – May this be God’s Will. And let us say, amen.

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