Even two is too many: The Second Commandment

The Ten Commandments: A Series

Jewish Family Identity Forum

By Candace R. Kwiatek, The Dayton Jewish Observer

April 2010

Ba’al. Moloch. Ra. Aphrodite.  Zeus. In ancient days, people worshipped multiple gods who, they believed, controlled what they could see in the natural world around them: the sun, the seasons, childbirth, love, war.

Idols of clay and stone, popular artifacts in today’s museums, were once venerated as if they were the very gods themselves.

Candace R. Kwiatek

This reality is the origin of the Midrash in which Abraham, recognizing that there is only God, smashes the idols in his father’s workshop. But these gods don’t have anything to do with us today. Or do they?

In the opening statement of the Ten Commandments, God asserts his singularity. So doesn’t that make the Second Commandment — “You shall have no other gods besides Me” — superfluous?

On the other hand, its emphasis may be to avoid making physical idols, as the Commandment continues: “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.”

But if that’s all the Second Commandment means, then isn’t it essentially irrelevant?

After all, while we do make representational artwork, its images certainly aren’t viewed or treated as gods.

On the contrary, the Second Commandment has always been relevant. Even in ancient times, idolatry wasn’t limited to physical idol worship, according to biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufman and others.

Early peoples worshipped gods, spirits, even ideas — fate, love, power — independent of physical statues or holy spaces.

Furthermore, over time the “understanding of idolatry has changed considerably as social conditions and intellectual currents have changed,” writes Kenneth Seeskin in No Other Gods. He explains that the ancient idolatry of graven images changed in the rabbinic period, when “…idolatry came to mean drunkenness, sexual license, or other immoral practices associated with the Greco-Roman world.”

In the medieval era of Maimonides, idolatry shifted yet again to “believing in an image of God that you have concocted in your mind.”

So, if idolatry isn’t limited to the polytheism, immoral practices, or anthropomorphism of yesteryear, what does it mean?

What are the elohim acherim – the “other gods” of the Second Commandment? What do we idolize today? Money. Power.  Work. Fame.

These are some of the most frequent and obvious responses to the question. By themselves these values are not idols: they can be pursued in a moral manner and can produce great good.

However, when they compete with or undermine God-given morality — as when their pursuit causes the individual to start defining right and wrong for himself, or when their achievement results in the individual viewing himself as a god — the sole author of his success — then they have crossed the line into idolatry.

What about Education? Reason? Law? We worship the intellectual (the more education, the better), accepting the scholar’s pronouncements as truth.

We worship reason; after all, through reason we can determine what is good and what is evil, can’t we? We worship the law, because it has the power to define right and wrong.

Yet, the highly educated professor and philosopher Peter Singer of Princeton advocates ethics based on utility: the ethical is that which is useful.

Reasoning that violence was the only way to oppose tax increases, a pilot recently crashed his plane into a Texas IRS building.

Lauded by its perpetrators, the Final Solution was completely legal in Nazi Germany.
Yes, these are extremes. But when we spend more time encouraging our children to pursue an Ivy League education than goodness, we’re worshipping idols.

When we reason that taxes already take care of the poor so we don’t need to give tzedakah, we’re worshipping idols.

When we keep the extra change from a cashier, thinking, “She made the mistake. Legally, I can keep it,” we are worshipping idols.

By themselves, education, reason, and law are unobjectionable. But they have become the gods of our time, replacing God as the source of morality.

Haven’t we done the same with art? Progress? Psychology?  When these worldly ventures become valued above the quest for God-defined goodness, they turn us into idolaters.

Daily we see examples, such as Maplethorpe’s art exhibit, ethnic cleansing, and the “Officer Krupke defense” of criminals: “Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke, You gotta understand, It’s just our bringin’ up-ke, That gets us out of hand (Stephen Sondheim, West Side Story).”

Even love, compassion, and kindness — all God-like values we are to emulate — have become idols.

The Italian mystic Elijah Benamozegh explains this transformation best when he defines polytheism as “the worship of one or several attributes of God to the exclusion of all others.”

Love to the exclusion of hatred, compassion to the exclusion of justice, kindness to the exclusion of anger are all forms of idol-worship.

It was not enough for the Commandments or for us today to simply assert that God is one.  What the Second Commandment teaches is that we should beware of elevating anything in the universe — objects, behaviors, ideas, feelings — to the level of a god.

That includes ourselves, for the Commandment can also be read, “Don’t make yourself a hewn statue,” do not presume to think of yourself as a god, either.

In the words of Dennis Prager in his essay collection Think a Second Time, “The most fundamental teaching of ethical monotheism is that any value, no matter how meaningful or beautiful, when divorced from goodness and God, can easily lead to evil. Put in theological terms, any value that becomes an end in itself can easily become a false god.”

In future columns, I will continue to explore the significance of each of the Commandments, their influence on us and on our communities today, and their usefulness as guides in our everyday lives.

Family Discussion: What is the meaning of the following statement: “Whoever acknowledges idolatry disavows the whole Torah, and whoever disavows idolatry acknowledges the whole Torah (Sifre Deuteronomy 28).” What significance does it have for how you live your life?


Literature to share

Jewish Stories from Heaven and Earth, Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, editor: If you love to explore Jewish values through stories, this is the book for you. Story authors include the famous — Elie Wiesel and Peninnah Schram — and the not-so-famous “person next door,” who share experiences of courage, wonder, and achievement. Inspirational!

The Bedtime Sh’ma by Sarah Gershman: In simple words and serene artwork, this magical picture book captures some of the basic ideas in the end-of-the-day prayer. Winner of the Sydney Taylor Award for Jewish literature, The Bedtime Sh’ma is perfect for the ritual of “one last story” for young children.

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