Like I said earlier, this blog is going to showcase what Northwestern students are thinking about faith. Our first guestpost comes from Ben Goldberg, a Weinberg junior. Ben is involved with Hillel and worked on a taskforce with the University Chaplain’s Office to define the rights and roles of religious groups on campus. In this post he discusses what role he thinks the teachings of Judaism play in today’s world. Without further ado, here’s Ben!

This week, Jews around the world read the Torah portion of Lech L’cha (Genesis 12-17), which tells the story of Abraham’s journey to the Land of Israel and the covenant God makes with him.

Associated with this narrative is a midrash that I think speaks to the very heart of what it means to be a Jew. (A midrash is a rabbinic commentary on a Biblical text, usually in a narrative form.) The question this midrash answers is why Abraham was chosen to have a special relationship with God.

Abraham’s father, Terach was an idol-manufacturer. Once he had to travel, so he left Abraham to manage the shop. People would come in and ask to buy idols…One time a woman came with a basket of bread. She said to Abraham, “Take this and offer it to the gods”.

Abraham got up, took a hammer in his hand, broke all the idols to pieces, and then put the hammer in the hand of the biggest idol among them.

When his father came back and saw the broken idols, he was appalled. “Who did this?” he cried. “How can I hide anything from you?” replied Abraham calmly. “A woman came with a basket of bread and told me to offer it to them. I brought it in front of them, and each one said, “I’m going to eat first.” Then the biggest one got up, took the hammer and broke all the others to pieces.”

“What are you trying to pull on me?” asked Terach, “Do they have minds?”

Said Abraham: “Listen to what your own mouth is saying! They have no power at all! Why worship idols?” (Genesis Rabba, a fifth century CE midrashic collection).

This midrash places Abraham at the very center of the icon-based religious culture of his day. Put in charge of his father’s idol store, he takes the opportunity to demonstrate the futility putting one’s trust in objects of clay and stone, objects made by human hands.  He forces his father to admit that the idols he makes are powerless to actually operate in the world, that at the end of the day worshiping man-made objects is fundamentally foolish. The true Master of the Universe, the ultimate creator and shaper of human destiny, the healer of broken hearts, could not exhibit the same selfishness as their human creators or be destroyed by a few whacks of a hammer. The true God would have to be found elsewhere.

This story articulates the fundamental Jewish critique of the  surrounding religious culture from which it emerged: when you worship the work of your own hands, what you are really worshipping is yourself. As Psalm 115 says, “Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak; eyes, but cannot see…those who fashion them, all who trust in them, shall become like them.”

Even though most people today do not practice idolatry in the Biblical sense, this story nonetheless remains the foundational narrative of Judaism. For me, Judaism is fundamentally about smashing idols: the idols of materialism and self-aggrandizement; the idols of complacency and selfishness; the idols who say that injustice is acceptable and the world just can’t become a better place. Our iconoclastic tradition demands that, like Abraham our ancestor, we take a critical look at the world around us and correct these human follies with the ideals of ethical monotheism: mutual responsibility, humility, kindness, justice and, most importantly, an obligation to repair the world as God’s partner in creation.

May we all have the strength of Abraham to smash the idols of our day and help ourselves and our fellow people learn to put our trust in the eternal ideas and sacred obligations that bind us one to another.

– Ben Goldberg

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