Idolatry and Politics

Cynthia Ozick famously defines idolatry as setting up anything as the ultimate value, more precious than life itself. Once we come to love any physical object, or any concept, or any abstract idea, anything, as more precious than life, we quickly pass to permitting murder. Abandoning the second commandment leads to abandoning the sixth.

Worship something as the highest value, and one realizes, perhaps reluctantly, that the thing can rightly demand martyrdom. Accept that one should die for one’s beliefs, and one then can justify, perhaps a little more enthusiastically, killing others in service of those beliefs. Ozick writes: “The Second commandment is more explicit than the Sixth, which tells us simply that we must not kill; the Second Commandment tells us we must resist especially that killing which serves our belief. In this sense there are no innocent idols.”

Ozick acknowledges one exception: You can safely love God with “all your heart, your soul, and your strength” (Deut. 6:5) Love of God the Creator, who cares for the creatures as an artist cares for her works, or as a mother cares for her children, should not logically lead to killing the creatures. History defies this logic—believers certainly have killed for love of God, and continue to do so — but the logic remains. It makes no sense to honor God by killing God’s beloved creatures.

On January 6, 2021, legislators of the United States of America hid from an angry mob, and cowered under their desks, or escaped from the mob by following their protectors through secret passageways. The members of the mob, the insurrectionists, knowingly risked their lives to try to overturn the presidential election, ready to become martyrs out of love for the President. Some died. Some of the insurrectionists brought weapons, apparently prepared to kill. Many police officers were injured in the attack, and one died. No legislators were killed.

The President, in an effort to overturn the election, had proclaimed the voting fraudulent for weeks, and on that morning had whipped the mob into a fury, ordering them to attack the Capital to stop the certification. The insurrection endangered the lives of the legislators.

Later that day, the House and Senate certified the results of the election, although 147 Republican legislators (eight Senators and 139 Representatives) voted to object to the results.

Then the House impeached the President for inciting the insurrectionist riot. Ten Republican Representatives voted to impeach; the other 197 voted not to impeach. Now the trial comes to the Senate. As seem likely, the vast majority of the Republican Senators would not vote to convict. The same legislators whose lives seemed at risk, though, continued to do the President’s bidding.

Job proclaims, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him” (Job 13:15). Truly, the Republican legislators can say the same, only, of course, with their loyalty directed at the former President. This, in Cynthia Ozick’s terminology, amounts to idolatry.

Before the insurrection, one of the organizers of Stop the Steal, Ali Alexander, tweeted, “I am willing to give my life for this fight.”

The Arizona GOP responded, “He is. Are you?”

This illustrates Ozick’s observation about the path from idolatry to martyrdom and murder.

Louis Finkelman
February 14, 2021

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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