Idols and iconoclasts

Idols and iconoclasts

The obligation - and price - of smashing idols

When I was growing up in a working class community in New York, I was often bullied and taunted with the epithet: “You killed our God!” This happened several years after Pope John XXIII exonerated the Jewish people for the crime of having killed Jesus of Nazareth, but that message seemed to have reached my community a little later than most.

But: Perhaps the real “crime” is not that the Jews “killed our God.”

Perhaps, paradoxically, the real “crime” is that the Jews “created” God, and that the Jews essentially created the idea that the ethical is holy, and that the Jews had the massive chutzpah to be the people to bring such an exalted ideal to the world.

In the words of Father Edward H. Flannery: “The hubris in the human heart cannot forgive the Jew for bringing into the world of a transcendent God and a divinely-sanctioned moral law binding on everyone… Jews have suffered so long because they bear the burden of God in history. Anti-Semitism is symptomatic of an animus against God, an animus deeply lodged in every person.”

Consider the French Jewish writer Bernard Lazare, who lived from 1865 to 1903. He was the author of the first serious history of anti-Semitism, written in French and completed in 1894 on the eve of the Dreyfus affair.

Why is it, Lazare wondered aloud, that people have always hated the Jews?

Lazare noticed that Jewish history began with the patriarch Abraham, who broke his father’s idols.

Lazare understood that when Abraham’s first idol toppled to the floor, the idols never stopped falling and they never stopped breaking.

That was the birth of the revolutionary spirit of Judaism, and that revolutionary spirit had been a major factor in anti-Semitism through the ages. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Karl Marx: all had smashed the idols of their time.

Despite the contention of many historians, the Shoah was not “the war against the Jews,” to quote the title of Lucy Davidowicz’s famous book. Nor was it even a war against Judaism. On many levels, the Shoah was a war against God.

Consider the savage glee with which Nazis destroyed synagogues, arks, and Torah scrolls. At the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., an exhibit of the material remnants of Kristallnacht features the ark of the synagogue in Essen, Germany. It bears the traditional words that appear before the ark in a sanctuary: “Know before Whom you stand.”

But Nazi thugs scratched those words off the defaced, desecrated ark. In the midst of the chaos of those events, they took the time to do so. It is as if they were saying: “There is no one before Whom you stand, or before Whom we stand, or before Whom the world stands.”

According to literary critic George Steiner, the Jewish mission is to be a “moral irritant and insomniac.” We don’t sleep and we don’t let other people sleep either. The Jew represents the uncompromising demand for universal morality. The Jew represents the intoxicating idea that human beings can actually overcome their selfish impulses. This vision is Judaism’s great contribution to humanity. The establishment of an inescapable divine Conscience, of an uncompromising demand for moral elevation, for unconditional love, and for total altruism-this is the great legacy of the Jewish people, through which it has irrevocably changed the moral face of mankind.

And this, of course, came with a price. Steiner suggests that the invention of monotheism was, in fact, responsible for the hatred of the people who invented it. The ancient rabbis themselves understood this when they chose to found the pun between Sinai and sinah, hatred.

Consider Steiner’s novel, “The Portage To San Cristobal of A.H.,” which he wrote in 1981. Steiner imagines that Israeli agents had found the aged Adolph Hitler in the jungles of South America. They arrest him and bring him to trial, where he is allowed to take the stand in his own defense.

Hitler says that he had to do what he did because the Jews invented not only conscience, but God: “Was there ever a crueler invention, a contrivance more calculated to harrow human existence, than that of an omnipotent, all-seeing, yet invisible, inconceivable God?… The Jew invented conscience.”

The hatred continues, and we might say that it has simply donned the mask of anti-Zionism and anti-Israelism. It is part and parcel of the European penchant for labeling Zionism as a new Nazism. Such labeling expunges guilt from the contemporary European psyche, as if to say, “We are tired of hearing about the Holocaust; tired of hearing about what our grandparents did or failed to do. Don’t call them Nazis ““ you Jews are the true Nazis!”

In one deft move, the modern European simultaneously cleanses his or her own inherited conscience and morally contaminates the Jewish people.

Several years ago, I shared a cup of coffee with the New Testament scholar Leander Keck at his home near New Haven. This is what he said to me: “I have always admired the way that the Jews have refused to allow themselves to become lost in a generalized humanity.” What was it he admired most about the Jews? Our ability to stand apart from the world.

And finally, consider the words of the historian Paul Johnson – the final words of his magisterial history of the Jews:

“The Jews believed themselves created and commanded to be a light to the gentiles and they have obeyed to the best of their considerable powers. The results, whether considered in religious or in secular terms, have been remarkable. The Jews gave to the world ethical monotheism, which might be described as the application of reason to divinity. In a more secular age, they applied the principles of rationality to the whole range of human activities, often in advance of the rest of mankind. The light they thus shed disturbed as well as illuminated, for it revealed painful truths about the human spirit as well as the means to uplift it. The Jews have been great truth-tellers, and that is one reason they have been so much hated.”

The late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai put it this way:

“We are all children of Abraham

But we are also the grandchildren of Terach

And now perhaps, it’s the time for the grandchildren to do

To their father what he did to his father

Who broke his household gods and idols, his religion and his belief.

But that will also be the beginning of a new faith.”

Amichai believed that Judaism requires a constant act of iconoclasm, a repeat performance of the pattern that Abraham first initiated millennia ago.

Are the Jews still idol-smashers?

We can only hope so. The future of Judaism, and of the world, depends on it.

Reprinted by permission from “The Gods are Broken! The Hidden Legacy of Abraham,” published by the Jewish Publication Society.

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