Idols and Shabbat

Idols and Shabbat


Howard Adelman

א  לֹא-תַעֲשׂוּ לָכֶם אֱלִילִם, וּפֶסֶל וּמַצֵּבָה לֹא-תָקִימוּ לָכֶם, וְאֶבֶן מַשְׂכִּית לֹא תִתְּנוּ בְּאַרְצְכֶם, לְהִשְׁתַּחֲוֺת עָלֶיהָ:  כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. 1 Ye shall make you no idols, neither shall ye rear you up a graven image, or a pillar, neither shall ye place any figured stone in your land, to bow down unto it; for I am the LORD your God.
ב  אֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ, וּמִקְדָּשִׁי תִּירָאוּ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה.  {פ} 2 Ye shall keep My sabbaths, and reverence My sanctuary: I am the LORD.

Leviticus 26:1-2

A graven image, an English phrase dating back to the fourteenth century, is defined as a carving used as an idol. The injunction instructs the Israelites neither to make idols nor to raise up such an idol, or, for that matter, any pillar or any “figured stone,” that is, a statue, in your land. At least, do not do any of these activities in order to bow down to it. In other words, do not bend your upper body forward as a sign of respect to a carved stone or statue or idol.

Why not? Because an idol, a graven image in the midst of a community or a carved statue, should not be viewed as a source of commands, that is, as a person who tells you what to do. The people can only bow down before their Lord, their God, that which has neither a visible presence nor any fixed place of abode or, for that matter, any fixed character.

The answer to “Why not?’ seems counter-intuitive. Not the description of that which you can bow down before, but that the Lord, the Israelite God, is defined as opposite to an idol or a carved statue without a visible presence or fixed abode or fixed character. Is that correct? Look at the contrast between the divine voice and the golden calf, a clear example of a graven image.

Graven Image The God of the Israelites
Raised above the people Lives among the people
Image Voice
Carved image of the Natural Super-natural that cannot be imaged
Once completed, it is I shall be whom I shall be
In the beginning or a point in time In the beginning of God’s creating
Fixed in time Time in a process of change
Being and Fixity Becoming
Inert Shape shifting without a shape
Above relationships Defined in relationships
No shared memories A shared narrative
No covenant Bound by a covenant
Stable Dynamic & tumultuous
Constant Inconstant
Balanced Tempestuous
Earth-bound Heavenly directed – take flight
Fate Hope
Determined Freedom
Rule of Men Rule of Law
Prioritizes the insider Prioritizes the outsider
Indigenous God as a refugee from elsewhere
Agreement Disputation
Emphasis on Is Emphasis on Ought
Questions of fact & empirical proof Questions of significance & justice
Uniformity Diversity
Homogenized Pluralism
Regimented Clashing interests
Prioritize habits Prioritize innovation
Prioritize the collective Prioritize the individual
Communitarian Liberal
Thick – shared values Thin – rules and regulations
The good Rights based

By far the majority of polities revere stability and desire a fixed and stable system of governance, while the Torah describes a polity in the process of creation. The contrast is startling but it is not severe. One cannot imagine a dynamic history-bound society without some core reverence for stability. Nor, on the other hand, can one imagine a relatively very stable society like ancient Egypt that lacks dynamism and change. The issue is whether the right or the left column is given priority. Which is regarded as aspirational?

Thus, Aristotle in his book on Rhetoric, includes the four elements in the last row, but the two in the left-hand column, fact and empirical proof, always precede issues of significance and justice. Similarly, in his Politics, stasis only refers to the exclusion of sedition and civil war in order to ensure room for disputes and political rivalry. Thus, although stasis is always temporally prior, the dynamic elements of a society are logically prior.  

A common categorization of different postures in ethics is the following:

  Means Ends
Ideals Intention & deontology Virtue & the good life
Actuality Situational Ethics Consequentialism

Mapping this onto the stability/dynamism or being/becoming dualism in the first table above creates a seemingly perverse picture. Ethics defined in terms of ends, in the second column above, has more to do with the first column in the representation of the dualism in polities in the first table. In turn, the emphasis on means has more to do with the second column in the two political sides of a society. There is a second seeming anomaly. If a contrast is drawn between a Jewish ethos and a non-Jewish one, in the quadrants of ethical positions, a Jewish society seems more focused on actions and results than on intentions and utopian ideals, that is, on the lower rather than the upper row.  

The criss-crossing is even more complicated. The initial categories depicting a society in the first table on the right-hand column are very clearly identifiable with the classical Israelite society. However, as one descends the column, the descriptors seem to characterize Jewish society less and less and there is an inclination to shift to the left column as one descends to capture the character of Jewish life. Rather than helping, the dualisms and contrasts seem to begin to get in the way of an accurate representation.

Moving to the second verse and the commandment to keep shabbat, to keep it as a day that forbids work and brackets creativity, the command extolls rest and reverence. We find a contrast between the six days of the week and the seventh day. It is shabbat that is identified with stasis, with stability, with repetition, while the other six days embody dynamic creativity. Was shabbat created in order to give creativity 6/7ths of the apportioned time while stasis was restricted to 1/7th of a time period? The reverence for shabbat can be read as a mechanism for restricting the emphases in the left-hand column of descriptors to ensure that creativity dominates the other six days of the week.

Take that notion a step further. Hegel introduced the notion of aufheben. It meant three things, preservation, raising up and putting away. Elements in a polity that had outgrown their utility or relevance, like the Cohanim, descendants of the priestly class, are revered, given special honours and highly respected roles, but in terms of the functioning of a society and the dynamic issues of authority and power, they have been retired and put away on an upper shelf to be remembered in ritual but removed from the dynamic drama of the politics of everyday life.  

Further, the more reverent one becomes, the more shabbat will creep in and take up time in the balance of the week and allow the atemporal to rule over history. Thus, the more ultra-orthodox a Jew is, the less in common that Jew has with the priorities of ancient Israel with its emphasis on dynamism and creativity. The ultra-orthodox with their rigidity, with their obsessive-compulsive reverence for preservation, would seem to possess the qualities opposite to those stressed in the narrative of the Torah. Instead of God’s voice coming from the empty space between the two birds of flight in the portable mishkan, more and more emphasis is placed on stabilizing that voice by vesting that it in the throat of a spiritual leader.

The interesting element is that Moses lacked such a voice and instead Aaron was delegated to articulate the position of stasis. Aaron became the high priest. But it was also Aaron who came up with the idea of the golden calf and went through the process of collecting the gold, melting it down and giving shape to the idol. Moses was left with the task of reversing this shift and re-emphasizing the task of creating a national polity, fighting off enemies and ensuring that Israel remained and enhanced its character as a dynamic society creating itself.

The irony is that such a reading is and must remain problematic, must remain challengeable and re-interpreted. The paradox is that any emphasis on becoming and dynamism must itself give rise to the query whether that stress, that priority, is, in fact, the core emphasis of what being Jewish means.

Thus, in the end, it is you the reader that will have to do the interpreting.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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