graven images and caricatures of the prophet

You don’t hear of Jews blowing up giant Buddhas.  It’s not as though their sacred texts don’t rail against such graven images.  In fact, we invented idol smashing.  You remember. It was Abraham, the founder of those so-called monotheistic religions who, when left alone in his father’s idol shop, slashed inventory.

3rd -4th century A.D, 37 meter high,(Shakyamuni) Buddha demolished by Taliban with 50,000 kilograms dynamite on March 12, 2001 in Karachi, Afghanistan.

3rd -4th century A.D, 37 meter high,(Shakyamuni) Buddha demolished by Taliban with 50,000 kilograms dynamite on March 12, 2001 in Karachi, Afghanistan.

The midrash is so well known that most Hebrew-School graduates think it’s part of scripture and not simply a literary fiction of the Midrash (B’reishit Rabbah 38:13).  The Midrash is so well known that it appears in the Quran (Qur’an 21:51-70).  Both renderings have Abraham leaving the largest idol untouched to support his claim that “the big guy did it”. (see comparison of the midrash and Quranic accounts here).

So why don’t Jews smash idols?

It may be that we have bigger problems and it’s just low on our punch list. It may be that smashing idols beloved by billions is not prudent for those whose numbers are counted in decimal points…

It may also be that Jews don’t believe that these images represent real idols and correspondingly, that Jews don’t believe that worship as practiced by Buddhists, Hindus, Taoists etc, corresponds to the idol worship portrayed in the Bible.  This last approach is the one offered by Classical Rabbinic texts. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 102b) which argues that the idolatry referenced in the Bible had a force and efficacy that no longer exists and which we moderns have no way of comprehending. “The drive for idolatry was so strong in my [ancient] time that, had you been there, you yourself would have caught up the skirt of your garment and done the same!” (see)  Mosts Buddhists and Hindus will tell you that they are worshiping the spirit through the lens of a visual image.

A variation on this view is echoed by iconic Hebrew University Biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann (1889 -1963) who argued that the Ancient Hebrew’s paradigm shift to monotheism was so complete that: What idol-worship the Scriptures speak of was only “vestigial fetishistic idolatry,” and not a genuine attachment of the people to such forms of worship… (see)

So why don’t Jews blow up Buddhas?  Is it because they have more pressing matters? Is it because we would prefer not to antagonize billions of believers?  Is it because the worship of images of Buddha, Brahma, Vishnu,  Shiva,  etc do not constitute the Idol worship of ancient Old Testament times?

Or, is it because we actually don’t take our monotheism that seriously?

Let’s face it, Jews (and Christians, for that matter) may wail against graven images, but whether it be widespread reference to God’s human features (outstretched arms, face, image etc.) and emotions (anger, jealousy etc) or calling the Godhead by different names (as in El, Yahweh, Shadai, or respectively; Father, Son, or Holy Ghost).. there are plenty of images in our texts and liturgy to go around.

I admit that in our daily speech, we Jews don’t refer to God by any of His given names.  We use a moniker: “Hashem” in the daily vernacular, but by the familial way we use it, you’d think that “Hashem” was a Jew’s best friend.

If you want to take the no-name approach seriously, you should follow our Abrahamic brothers and sisters in Islam.

Muslims do not use “Allah” the way Jews use the “Hashem”, in fact proper muslim practices suggests that one should use the word “Allah” only when speaking Arabic.  When one speaks English one should use the word “God”.  “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for “God”.. not the name of the Muslim God.

It is surprising to notice that many Muslims do not realise that the word “Allah” is simply the Arabic word for the word “God”.  Many of them believe that “Allah” is the actual name of the Muslim God! They do not realise that it is wrong to “personalise” God as He is not a person. God is much greater than to be confined to a single name.

Neither do they realise that the word “Allah” does not belong exclusively to the Muslims and that it has always been used before (and after) the revelation of the Quran by the Arabic-speaking Jews and Christians when they speak about God.

Talking to English speaking people about God using the word “Allah” is very much the same as speaking to Arabic speaking people about “Allah” using the word “God”. It makes better sense to use the equivalant word of each language. (see)

So if we Jews took our no-name approach more seriously, we would say “The Name” instead of “Hashem” when speaking English.. But let’s face it “Hashem” is so much more personal and Haimish.

So let’s be real….  we Jews don’t take our Monotheism that seriously… Baruch Hashem.

Our’s is a monotheism, full of anthropomorphisms and warmth.  It is what I like to call “Monotheism with a wink”.

As the author of a book on the Big Ideas responded when asked by a NY Times reporter what was the single worst idea in history?

Without question, ethical monotheism. The idea of one true god. The idea that our life and ethical conduct on earth determines how we will go in the next world. This has been responsible for most of the wars and bigotry in history. (see)

Monotheism with a wink, maintains that duality in thought (if not in action) is not only possible, but to be encouraged.  According to the Talmud in Eruvin 13b the Schools of Hillel and Shamai argued the law for three years until a voice from heaven issued announcing, “These and these are the words of the living God … but the practical law follows Hillel

(אלו ואלו דברי א-להים חיים הן, והלכה כבית הילל (ע’ש

Monotheism with a wink supports a radical pluralism of opinions and interpretations.

The Midrash said it this way: there are 70 “faces” to the Torah (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:15 and Talmud Sanhedrin 34a  see)

שבעים פנים לתורה . מה פטיש זה מתחלק לכמה ניצוצות – אף מקרא אחד יוצא לכמה טעמים

Jewish humor summarized it this way:

Max and Isaac come to the Rabbi’s study to settle a dispute.  The Rabbi’s wife is also seated in the room.

Max explains his complaint to the Rabbi:  …. The Rabbi declares, “You’re right, Max.” Next, Isaac presents his side.  He speaks with such passion and persuasion that the Rabbi says to him, “You’re right, Isaac.” After they leave, the Rabbi’s wife is distraught and says to her husband, “..  How can you say that both of them are right?  … The Rabbi thinks long and hard and finally says to his wife, “You know, you’re also right.” (see)

Monotheism without a wink is a most dangerous thing.
But monotheism with a wink leads to humor, caricature, satire, curiosity, experimentation, innovation, invention, accommodation, conciliation, compassion, compromise and probably mixed dancing… and Baruch Hashem for that.

May the memory of those killed in the name of a monotheism without a wink, be forever a blessing.

2 Comments

Filed under art, Bible, humor, monotheism, Religion, Torah

2 responses to “graven images and caricatures of the prophet

  1. Michael Posnick

    Geoffrey, re reading your blog and also reading Kaminetz’ The Jew in the Lotus – do you know it? Definitely worth the read – Jewish insights and Buddhist, esoteric and exoteric, much to be learned. Love to all m

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