Why Can't We Worship Idols?

Private collection
Private collection

The Hebrew Bible contains no prohibition on atheism, but is filled with prohibitions against idolatry. The Torah teaches that it is safer to worship no God than to worship the wrong one. So it is worth asking why? What exactly is the point of prohibiting idolatry?

The conventional answer is to emphasize that God has no image. Therefore it is sacrilege to fashion any kind of image and call it "God." Idolatry is an insult to the Almighty. Well, it is possible, one supposes, that we refrain from idolatry to spare God the insult. But after all, God is omnipotent and can presumably endure our insults. Jewish law presumes that all these rules are for our benefit, not for God's. What benefit is there in avoiding idolatry? In one interpretation at least it is precisely the opposite of what we might assume.

Often we hear that the ban on idolatry is to ensure that we do not worship the results of our own labor. When we fashion something of stone and call it "god," it is an oblique way of saying we are capable of creating the divine and giving ourselves far too much credit.

But what if idolatry was really about giving ourselves too little credit? Abraham Joshua Heschel had a beautiful and compelling answer to explain why we should not worship idols. Idols are forbidden, explains Heschel, because there already exists an image of God in this world: it is found in every human being. Therefore there is only one medium in which one may fashion an image of God, and that is the medium of one's life. To create an idol of wood or stone and call it "God" is less an insult to God than it is an insult to ourselves, to human dignity. And that is not permitted. The message of the Torah is to make oneself a worthy image of God, and not to seek images of God in that which we create.

As images of God we are given a sacred task. The task is to reflect that image in our lives each day. A mitzvah is a brushstroke; a well-lived life an ephemeral yet indelible work of art. An idol is the work of our hands. A divine image begins in the work of one's heart.

In the Israelites' wanderings through the desert they constantly confront the majesty of the natural world. It is a place where the constructions of human beings have no place. Yet when Moses disappears the world suddenly appears not majestic, but desolate. They build the Golden Calf, as if in substitution. Moses is no longer there to represent God so they seek to replace him with a statue. But when Moses returns it is with the message that God wishes the Israelites to fashion something sacred not of gold, but of goodness, not from their jewels but their lives.

Rabbi Akiva taught that God's love is not only that we were made in the Divine image, but that God told us that we were made in the Divine image. With such a privilege, why fashion idols? Instead, we learn to see each other as individual sparks of the One who fashioned us all.