The Cult of Man
When I traveled in India I realized that the Torah’s concerns regarding idolatry, and its warnings against it, are not as divorced from reality as I had previously thought. I understood that the depth of a given religion is no insurance against it becoming tainted with such practices. I suspect that were it nor for our adherence to the prohibition of idolatry, our synagogues, like the temples in present-day India, would be filled with idols as the focal point of Jewish worship.
The great concern regarding idolatry always emanated from a fear that humans would be deified and worshiped. That has indeed been the fate of many spiritual teachers in the East and West. People tend to idolize the personalities they admire. In the film The Life of Brian, a satire on the life of Jesus, the protagonist does everything in his power to prevent the people from deifying him, and fails. Thus, rather than sanctify his message, they apotheosize him and his image, something that often has disastrous repercussions.
From God to the Image of God
But even if deifying a man did not necessarily lead to idolatry, Judaism would still be firmly opposed to it. Counterintuitively, this stems from the very belief that human beings are created in the image of God. If every person is cast in the image of the divine, then there is indeed an expression of God in each of us. Yet, the idea that the divine is revealed in the human requires us to believe, as well, that there is an infinite divinity beyond us. A single, transcendent God can be an ever-present constant that unifies all of humanity and the entire universe. When an individual person is deified, it not only diminishes the concept of God; it also debases the very idea of God’s revelation in the human – for what is the significance of individuals being created in His image when He is Himself human?
Moses and God
So Moses the servant of the Lord died there…. And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face; in all the signs and the wonders, which the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh, and to all his servants, and to all his land; and in all the mighty hand, and in all the great terror, which Moses wrought in the sight of all Israel. (Deut. 34:5, 10–12)
The Torah ends with Moses and his death. After forty years of dedication to God and His people, Moses is prevented from bringing the Israelites into the Promised Land, all due to a single sin. The passage in which Moses, who had previously refrained from asking for anything for himself, begs God to let him enter the land (Deut. 3:23–25), saying that God “hearkened not unto me,” is among the saddest in the Torah – and the most puzzling. How could God, who so often forgave the people their sins, refuse Moses, of all people?
It seems that the reason has more to do with Moses than with the people – specifically, with the danger that the people would worship him as a god. Moses performed miracles and ascended to God, and his face emitted beams of light (Ex. 34:30). It does not take much to imagine “Moses the man of God” (Deut. 33:1) turning into “Moses is God.” Were that to have happened, we would probably be adherents of the “Mosesist” religion, bowing down to his image and worshiping his visage. That is why Moses has to sin and why he is denied atonement. His sin was etched in the Jewish collective memory as a reminder that even he was ultimately human.
Moses’ sin is emblematic of this idea, in that he is commanded to speak to the rock but strikes it instead, implying that the water gushes from it due to his action, which could lead the people to think that it is his power – not God’s – at work (Num. 20:11–12). According to the Midrash, the reason the Torah says the location of Moses’ burial remains unknown “unto this day” (Deut. 34:6) is the fear that the gravesite would become a place of worship: “Why, then, has his sepulcher remained unknown? To prevent the people of Israel from going and erecting the Temple there, and bringing sacrifices there” (Midrash Lekaĥ Tov on Vezot Haberakha).
That concern did not abate in subsequent generations, which is why Moses goes almost unmentioned in the Passover Haggada – the one time he is mentioned, it is firmly in the context of God’s glory, proving the rule: “And Israel saw the great work which the Lord did upon the Egyptians, and the people feared the Lord; and they believed in the Lord, and in His servant Moses” (Ex. 14:31). (I am grateful to Rabbi Emanuel Gettinger for pointing this out).
From Perfection to Greatness
The danger inherent in worshiping and deifying human beings is relevant not only to past figures, but also to present-day charismatic personalities. These include, in addition to spiritual teachers and cultural icons, athletes and politicians. Blind adulation divorced of critical thinking idolizes not only what is positive about such figures, but also their shortcomings – and these are easier to imitate. Furthermore, as the Tao Te Ching, the foundational text of Chinese philosophy, says, when there is too much adoration for the great people, the regular people lose their significance.
But there is also an opposite danger. When we have appreciation for truly great people, we gain an idea of our own potential, and are motivated to learn from them and grow. But we must acknowledge the greatness of each and every individual. Such awareness can protect us from the pull of narcissism and damaging solipsistic thought patterns.
How are we to strike a balance between deifying humanity, on one hand, and denigrating it, on the other? A famous quote by Mark Twain is helpful in this context: “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” At first, we think that a great person is utterly flawless. Such idealizations are bound to shatter when the person’s shortcomings emerge. But we also have the capacity for a second innocence, in which, having come to grips with life’s complexities, we can recognize and understand that even great people are only “people.” Though they are imperfect, they are great, and as such they deserve our respect – even our admiration.