In the Name of the One True God

Parashat Ki Tissa 
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz 

In the Name of the One True God 

I don’t know how many of you have seen the recent footage of ISIS – Islamic State – destroying antiquities in the Iraqi cities Mosul and Nimrud. Of course, we’ve been confronted with a lot of shocking footage of ISIS indiscriminately murdering civilians, committing genocide and other atrocities.
Of course, as Progressive Jews we want to focus on building bridges between religions. We stand in solidarity with Muslim citizens in creating tolerant and open faith communities wherever we live. And so, we have to confront evil when we face it.

One of the most powerfully redemptive messages of both Purim and Pesach is that we can resist evil. It also seems a bizarre coincidence that we see ISIS smashing ancient treasures while we just read about the beauty of Achashverosh’ royal palace in the Megillah. Now those beautiful Assyrian and Babylonian artefacts, of deities and lamassu’s, (mythical winged guardians with lion bodies and human heads), together the walls of Nineveh and the tombs of the prophets Daniel and Jonah have been destroyed forever. As Irina Bokova, the head of Unesco, said, cited in The Guardian:

“I condemn with the strongest force the destruction of the site at Nimrud. We cannot remain silent. The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime. I call on all political and religious leaders in the region to stand up and remind everyone that there is absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage.” 

ISIS, of course, would contend that they are acting in the spirit of true monotheism and smashing the instruments of idolatry. The ‘One True God’ requires unwavering loyalty. Radical Islam’s stark monotheism does not only claim to find its inspiration in the Qur’an but also points towards the dark heritage in our own tradition.

Parashat Ki Tissa is filled with parallelisms of darkness and light. We read of communal sharing of the half-shekel and the works of the Tabernacle as well as the divine creativity of Bezalel and his craftsmen and –women. But we also read of the building of the Golden Calf and its fall-out; the ire of God and Moses and a call to destroy the seven nations of Canaan in the Name of the One True God. God is willing to obliterate the Israelites in divine wrath.
With the images of ISIS fresh on our retinae, how is this different? Whether it is the Yezidis or Shi’a Muslims facing annihilation or the Jebusites and Hittites? Unfortunately, the metaphors have become all-too-poignant realities.

The Torah states:

“I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites… you must tear down their altars, smash their pillars, and cut down their sacred posts; for you must not worship any other god, because the Eternal whose name is jealous, is an jealous God. [‘Adonai kana shemo, El kana Hu’]” Ex. 34: 11-14. 

Perhaps the only way to save the moral claim of monotheism is to critically look at what ‘avodah zarah’, idolatry actually is. Is it really about puritanical zealotry towards graven images and non-Abrahamic faith traditions? Or is there something far deeper and far more meaningful there? The Hebrew Prophets have railed against idolatry for centuries but they approached the concept with subtlety. (Making it all the more ironic that ISIS destroyed the tomb of the Prophet Jonah – the bringer of the monotheist message to the pagan city of Nineveh). Was the Prophetic concern based on people placing their stock in statues whose ‘eyes cannot see, ears cannot hear and hands that cannot do’, as Psalm 115 in Hallel insists? We find the prophet Isaiah delineating a more nuanced approach in his riveting address:

“To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare Him to? The image perhaps, which the craftsman has melted, and the goldsmith spread over with gold, the silversmith casting silver chains? Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood the foundations of the earth? It is He Who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are as grasshoppers; Who stretches out the heavens as a curtain, and spreads them out as a tent to dwell in; Who brings princes to nothing; He makes the judges of the earth as a thing of nought… Behold, all of them, their works are vanity and nought; their molten images are wind and confusion. …I the Eternal have called you in righteousness, and have taken hold of your hand, and kept you, and set you for a covenant of the people, for a light of the nations; to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison-house. I am the Eternal, that is My name; and My glory will I not give to another, neither My praise to graven images.” Isaiah 40:18 – 23, 41:29, 42:6-8 

In short, true idolatry is about placing too much stock in our human ambitions and material possessions. It’s about embracing a fragmented worldview where we forget our fundamental unity, the God’s Eye Perspective and our own vulnerability, where we celebrate power for its own sake and where we forget the great moral imperative and the stirring mission of ethical monotheism: to be bearers of the Divine image in humankind and to be the guardians of a religious humanism that ennobles and redeems the world and brings justice to the oppressed.

Idolatry is far more existential than the caricatures of zealots. True idolatry, then, is what ISIS (and other ‘po’alei avon’, ‘workers of iniquity’) does; to violate the Divine image of humanity.

In Midrash Genesis Rabbah (chapter 38), sounding like a clever Jewish joke, Abraham our Father is portrayed as smashing the idols in his father Terach’s idol shop and letting one of the idols survive with the stick at its feet. When Terach confronts him, Abraham states that it was the last remaining idol that picked up the stick and smashed the others. ‘How can this be?’ Terach said, ‘an idol cannot do such a thing!’ To which Abraham says, ‘then, why worship them?’

This witty and insightful story is shared by our Muslim brethren in the Qur’an (Chapter 21:51-9) and in this shared heritage of wise and compassionate monotheism lies our hope. Both Ki Tissa and the Quran tell us of God’s ‘rachamim’, compassion and forgiveness (‘Adonai, Adonai el Rachum v’Chanun’ – the Eternal, the Eternal, the Merciful and Gracious God’ – Ex. 34:6, ‘Rachmanir Rachim’ – ‘Most Gracious, Most Merciful’, Surat al-Faticha 1:1).
If we can only see ourselves as God sees us and as we could see God, then the true idolatry of cruelty, murder and dehumanisation shall be no more.

Ken yehi ratzon, may it be God’s will.


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