On Raising Idols and Razing Statues

Next Thursday marks the 17th of Tammuz on the Jewish calendar.  The Jewish tradition ascribes five tragedies to the 17th of Tammuz, though the first one sets the leitmotif for the day and a lesson for our contemporary moment in the United States.

On the 17th of Tammuz, Moses smashed the Tablets upon which God inscribed the Ten Commandments.  Moses was commended for his action: “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses…for all the great might and awesome power that Moses displayed before all Israel.” His great might and awesome power refers to how his heart inspired him to shatter the Tablets before the eyes of the people.  So, it is not the shattering of the Tablets that evokes mourning and a sense of loss.

The tragedies that the day memorializes – and the potential tragedy of our current moment – is our continual focus on the power of objects at the expense of the power of people who are committed to uphold ideals.

Let me set the scene. Moses has been in communion with God for forty days and forty nights.  Forty days prior, the people witnessed the Divine with their own eyes. They are reminded of how His outstretched arm and mighty hand protected them as a parent protects a vulnerable infant from harm.  In return, they are asked only to heed the Divine word and put their trust in the shepherd who has been appointed to oversee God’s flock.

After forty days, the people cannot wait any longer.  They act in haste and lose almost everything.  They are like the impetuous child of the famous marshmallow experiment.  In the experiment, an adult sets a marshmallow in front of different children and tells them that if they only wait a little while, they can enjoy both the marshmallow they see and another one that they don’t.

Of course, they do not have to wait.  They can eat the first marshmallow right away.  They are told that by not waiting they will only lose the marshmallow that they don’t even know exists for sure.  Yet what they are told does not reflect the reality of what they are lacking.

The test reveals something profound.  Those who are able to wait demonstrate the ability to delay gratification, a skill that shows fortitude and that correlates with future success in life.  The loss of the impetuous children is not only the loss of the second marshmallow – it is the loss of self-control and the future rewards that restraint can bring forth.

After waiting almost forty complete days, the people are unable to delay even a moment longer.  They gather around Aaron, Moses’s brother, and demand that he make a god to lead their way.  This idol will replace Moses, who brought them out of Egypt.

When judging the situation as an outside observer, it is easy to see the foolishness of the request.  In their desperation to be led, they demand a concrete symbol to lead them.  It is easier for them to devote themselves to what they can hold in their hands than it is for them to invest in a future that they cannot yet see.   In their frenzy, the people not only divest themselves of all their gold; they also forsake their ideals for the sake of false security.

In seeing the choice the Israelites had made, Moses breaks the tablets of the law.  However, they are only tablets at this point – nothing more than stone, the message they held no longer relevant.  The actions of the Israelites had already shown that the tablets no longer represented the Divine call.  The Israelites had forgotten that they even heard it.

In its juxtaposition of raising an idol and smashing the tablets, the story demonstrates the root cause of idolatry and the essential ways that it diminishes us.  Idolatry always arises out of confusion and builds itself up through frenzy, but its root cause is frustration and fear.

The fear is a personal feeling of insecurity, leading people to project their own lack of commitment onto what they reject.  Frustration provides justification for that rejection.  Past ideals are deemed wrong.  They must be abandoned.  Though, at heart, denunciation is not justified because of the ideals’ lack of worth.  Rather, the ones who had held those ideals no longer finds themselves worthy of them.  Better to have the immediate satisfaction of security (even if it is false) than the patience and fortitude to aspire for more, since the way to get there is not clear.  Better to eat the marshmallow in front of us that to try to create a world where there are two.

Feeling as if they have lost their footing, the idolatrous impulse is like grasping at whatever may stop the sense of falling.  In a word, idolatry is the propping up of idols instead of ideals.

This is not the only time in the Bible when the people turn to a golden calf.  Yet, the second time they do so, the calf does not arise from a collective sense of fear.  Jeroboam, the king of the recently seceded Kingdom of Israel intentionally constructs golden calves for the political purpose of securing power.  When he builds these golden statues, he declares about them that they are the gods of Israel, “that brought you out of the land of Egypt.”

These are the same words that Aaron used in describing the first golden calf – and it is not a coincidence.  Jeroboam sought to idolize history as a way to force the people of the Kingdom of Israel to feel fear and frustration.  He purposely erected idols to distract the people so that they would forsake their ideals.  Their loss would be his personal gain.

In both cases, whether originating from a distraught people or from a Machiavellian prince, the consequence of idolatry lies in giving objects power that should be held by the people.  This power is not simply political power – it is an empowerment to pursue truth and justice through commitment to greater ideals.

Symbols are not idols, though they can become idols.  The difference between the two lies in the purposes they serve.  Symbols remind us of what we can become through our own efforts.  Idols control us by taking away the belief in our own efficacy.

We give importance to symbols when we choose them to represent our beliefs and our experiences.  Symbols only have the power we give them – both for good and for bad.  When they no longer serve their purpose, they no longer symbolize – they simply remain statues.

When symbols become idols – when they are made, by us or by previous generations, to disempower people, the only option may be to raze them to the ground.  Yet, in razing those statues, we risk losing power rather than taking it back.  We risk getting lost in the success of destroying the symbol-turned-idol, focusing on the statue at hand rather than the changes in the world that we could effect.

The goal is not to remove harmful symbols of the past but to create a better future.  Let us not forget that the past does not control what we ultimately can become, but we will never be able to choose who that is without first recognizing where we stand and from where we came.  Not every statue must remain, but it is hard to learn from a history that one forgets or that one purposely removes from view.  Old statues need not become idols to be destroyed, future success may come through vesting them with new significance – as reminders of past failures.

Auschwitz has become such a symbol.  Once seen as the pride of the Final Solution, it now conveys its shame.  In effect, the harm that Auschwitz, the symbol, portrays no longer defeats its viewers; rather, it gives meaning to the need for a better future.  Through changing its message, Auschwitz did not become an idol.  It has become a symbol (albeit a dark one).

There is a story in the Jewish tradition of the time when Terah, Abraham’s father, left Abraham in charge of the idol shop that he owned.  While Terah was out, Abraham smashed all the idols in the store except for one – the largest and most imposing idol.  In that idol’s hand, Abraham placed a large stick.  When Terah returned, Abraham told him that a woman came in to make an offering to the idols, who subsequently argued over who should enjoy it.  At one point, the largest idol took the stick and smashed all the other idols.  Terah, in disbelief, tells his son that his story is a fabrication.  The store’s idols are only statues.  To this Abraham responds, “You deny their ability, yet you worship them?”

Abraham kept one statue standing.  If he destroyed them all, he would not have been able to make his point.

The point of this story is not in Abraham’s realization of the truth of ethical monotheism.  It is also not that smashing idols is good policy.  The point of the story is that even those who profit from creating idols recognize that their power is not real.  It is only an apparent power based on the real power that people give away.  Rather than destroy the idol, Abraham turned it into a symbol.  He showed Terah – and the rest of humanity – how silly it is to think that statues can harm each other – or us – unless we let them.

The 17th of Tammuz commemorates tragedy, but it is tragedy of the people’s own making. Recognition of one’s place in history gives a foothold to pivot and change course.  Commemorating rather than forgetting what occurred – what the people did – forces Jews as their descendants to consider how the past shapes our view of the present and future.  We don’t simply mourn the loss, we resolve to improve in order to create a different future.

So too, in our present moment in the United States, we must look upon the statues of our past with resolve to change our course.  We should not simply raze our statues, thinking that putting them out of sight will put the harm or their power out of mind. At the same time, we should also be careful not to raise false idols.  We must not move forward in a state of confusion, stemming from frustration and fear. We must be patient but not passive.  We must consider how to live by our own ideals rather than be swayed by the idols that still subjugate us.

About the Author
Ira Bedzow, Ph.D. is the Director of the MirYam Institute Project in International Ethics and Leadership and Head of the Unit of the International Chair in Bioethics (World Medical Association Cooperation Centre) at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, Emory University.
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