I often make fun of (or, have fun made of) how often I quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (in fairness, if you’re going to quote one Rabbi, he’s really one of the obvious choices!). So, when I was perusing a colleagues blog (which I just came across), I was amused, but not at all surprised, that the most interesting, challenging and inspiring post was about something that Heschel said:
"Why are graven images forbidden by the Torah?" I once heard 20th century Jewish thinker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel ask. Why is the Torah so concerned with idolatry? You might think (per Rabbi Moses Maimonides) that it is because God has no image, and any image of God is therefore a distortion. But Heschel read the commandment differently. "No," he said, "it is precisely because God has an image that idols are forbidden. You are the image of God. But the only medium in which you can shape that image is that of your entire life. To take anything less than a full, living, breathing human being and try to create God's image out of it-that diminishes the divine and is considered idolatry." You can't make God's image; you can only be God's image.
If you think about it – why the heck would God care if we made a statue? I mean, sure, in ancient times, people were likely to worship those statues, and to think that they were, truly and literally, gods. But, not so much anymore. Is there really any chance that many people in, say, my synagogue are going to start worshiping a statue which looks like a person?
Of course, there are other ways to understand the prohibition against idolatry. Even though few of us will throw stones at Mercury’s statue (that’s what the Talmud says that pagans used to do), it is possible to find someone who thinks that touching a mezuzah will bring them luck. Or that a Rabbi’s prayer will mean more than their own. Or that money will bring them happiness. These are all idolatry, of a sort.
But, as always, Heschel reveals a totally different way to think about things. The problem with idolatry isn’t what it says about God. It’s what it says about us.
You can’t make God’s image; you can only be God’s image.