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The idolatry of smashing idols

For millennia, Jews have been obsessed with the danger of idols. Monotheism was born in the Chaldean back room where Abraham smashed his father’s figurines, men and women of clay whose favor was courted by those of flesh and blood.

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

Ari Hoffman Image by Noah Lubin

The Bible warns endlessly of idolatry, and its anxious denunciations testify to both the danger and enduring temptation of mindless obedience to wood and stone. Bowing and praying to neon gods that you make yourself is just another strategy for self-worship.

But there is also something visually arresting about an idol — or as we call them nowadays, a “statue” — tumbling down: the mute arrogance of the image, presuming to be there forever, against the seething, pulling, defacing crowd, bent on breaking that presumption into bits and pieces. It’s an excitement that anyone watching last week’s news footage will know well, as the nationwide protests against police brutality have turned their attention not only to the perfidy of the living, but the harm inflicted by the dead. In city after city, statues of Confederate leaders have been felled, and then others, too: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ulysses S. Grant.

Confederate generals are easy targets, and many Americans, this one included, think that the names of traitors have no right to grace the military bases that defend our union. Jews, who know well the horror of living in societies that honor our killers, should be attuned to how moral rot can be enshrined in stone.

But idolatry is dangerous because it morphs so easily. It is to be found wherever nuance and texture is rubbed out by harsh dogma and unthinking assumptions. It brooks no dissent, because it’s right there, so obviously true. Can’t you see it?

And here the images of crowds pulling down statues start to look less like Abraham smashing his way to a new world and more like the Israelites rioting at the foot of Mt. Sinai, impatient for the wisdom and thought that will call them to better things and demanding something to worship right this moment. The mob thinks in bovine.

This is how breaking idols becomes its own kind of idolatry, when the damage is done not only to the rebels who sought to undo America, but to statues of those who founded and protected it. These abundantly flawed men were the builders of our scarred and imperfect but still remarkable Union. It is up to us to claim their promises and borrow from their nobility, not jeer at their failures.

For just as those who erect statues can be guilty of idolatry, so too can those who tear them down. We can prostrate before figurines of the mind just as abjectly as before those cast in bronze. That is because idols, whether physical or theoretical, are peddlers of the absolute.

Sometimes, they immortalize men who enslaved others, whether in manacles of iron or in shackles of famine. But not all idols revere physical violence. Others are less bloodthirsty, and take the form of a jagged and doctrinaire brand of history that traffics only in condemnation, pulled to the easy convenience of denunciation. Instead of whitewashing sin, they highlight it to the exclusion of all else. For example, they might tell a story of a country rotten to its core, defined by 1619 rather than 1776, with race wars eternal and enduring.

We cannot compare the slavery idolized by Confederate statues with the anti-racist ideology of those who tear them down. The former is a diseased perspective whose assumptions about human worth have underwritten the worst crimes ever contemplated. The second rightfully measures the distance between the world as it is from the healing it might find. And yet, the more you look, the more you realize that idols are everywhere. At times of uncertainty and doubt, people flock to bend the knee. They offer racial absolution, or the promise of peace through chaos.

Our political tribes of the right and left are sects, demanding rival strands of cultish devotion. One preaches “law and order” and indulges lawlessness, its gathering places haunted. On the other side, the high priests of culture root out heretics, and their law is merciless.

But here’s the thing: The idols of the mind, just as much as those built from physical materials, have feet of clay. They are rigid and can be toppled with just the slightest push of doubt and nuance, complexity and skepticism.

Their power is in our heads. They tell stories that don’t match the facts, and supply “narratives” that don’t match how people actually live. Their prophets are false not because they aren’t smart, but because they give us the worst versions of ourselves.

What would today’s Abraham look like? He would relentlessly look for grey, rather than pant after black and white. He would have no truck for fetishizing slave owners, but he would wryly note that those who tear down statues are just idolaters of a different sect, on their own misbegotten crusade.

He would understand that the most long-lasting revolutions never stray too far from human scale. And his tent would welcome everyone. Inside of it there would be no guilt and no privilege, only flawed and gorgeous people looking for a place to rest for a bit.

Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist at the Forward, where he writes about politics and culture. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, The New York Observer, Mosaic Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and The Tel Aviv Review of Books. He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford.

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