Image: A collection of idols: Egyptian gods, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, Israeli fighter jet, smartphone, Greek demi-god, Kardashians, U.S. Twenty dollar bill, Andrew Jackson, Child sacrifice, Moloch. Collage from public domain photos by R. Ruth Adar.
Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
You shall not set up a sacred post—any kind of pole beside the altar of the LORD your God that you may make— or erect a stone pillar; for such the LORD your God detests. – Deuteronomy 16:20-22
The first verse above is one of the most famous in all the Torah. “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!”
it commands with mighty emphasis. It sits right at the beginning of Parashat Shoftim,
The follow-up to“Tzedek, tzedek tirdof!” seems like a non sequitur. It is a commandment against idolatry via the Asherah pole or a stone pillar, either of which is an idol. So we might ask: what’s the connection?
God detests idolatry. It’s one of the major themes of Deuteronomy: don’t make idols, don’t hang out with idolaters, don’t even think about idols. In the historical period when this book was written, that meant, don’t worship any god other than the one named Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey who brought you, Israelites, out of Egypt.
Archaeologists tell us that in fact there was a lot
of other-god-worshiping happening in the Land of Israel at the time. The goddess Asherah, wife of El,
was particularly popular – hence all the commandments against setting up Asherah-poles, as in the verse above.
So we have first, a famous verse commanding the pursuit of justice. Following it, there is a commandment against idolatry.
We now live in a different time. Our idols are usually not made of stone, and we don’t usually call them “gods.”
Only a year ago, a group of people gathered in Charlottesville, VA, because they loved the statue of a dead man and they wanted to preserve it. It was so important to them that they put on a show of weapons and violence. They marched with torches, with weapons, and chanting angry slogans.
They were there for a more complex set of reasons than a statue of Robert E. Lee. They felt that a respectful memory of the Confederacy is important. They feel their way of life changing, and they don’t like it.
Other people – many of the local citizens of Charlottesville – felt that it was time for that way of life to change, because that way of life, to them, is called racism. That’s why their city government had taken steps to get rid of the statue.
Now I ask you: is it not idolatry to take a statue so seriously that it is worth a show of violence? Is it not idolatry that a woman was killed by someone who felt he was defending the statue?
Racism is in fact a modern brand of idolatry. It insists that some human lives are rightly privileged above others. It contradicts the Jewish concept of B’Tzelem Elohim, that all human beings are made in the image of God.
Now, lest my readers think this is just an exercise in pointing out where other people are messing up, let’s turn this insight upon ourselves.
When we decide to pursue justice, we need to ask ourselves about idolatry. Not “Whom do I worship?” but “What or whom do I prioritize above all else?” Specifically, when I think I’m doing justice work, I need to examine and reexamine my priorities: for whom am I doing this work? Who benefits? What’s my payoff for doing the work?
- If I fight for justice when “justice” will also keep people I don’t like out of my face or my neighborhood – what am I really worshiping?
- If I fight for justice, but only if it won’t cost me a dime – what am I really worshiping?
- If I fight for justice, but only if I always get credit for what I do – what am I really worshiping?
We can be idolaters in the 21st century. If I want to know what I worship, all I really need to do is to take a hard look at what’s most important to me. What am I willing to defend with my reputation, with my money, with my life?
Whether we call them “gods” or we call them “priorities,” every person alive has them. Even those who say “I don’t believe in God” have something that concerns them above all else. The Christian theologian Paul Tillich
wrote at great length about a concept of God he called “Ultimate Concern.”
We all have something that is more important than anything else to us. Whatever that may be, it is the thing we worship.
Whom or what do you prioritize above all else? Don’t tell me in the comments – tell yourself. Then decide if that’s really the worshiper you want to be.
(This is a variation and expansion on a post from 2017.)