I accuse Donald Trump of something that I believe no one has accused him of—idolatry. No, I don’t mean idolatry in the sense he worships himself. The truth is those running for President need to have a lot of confidence in themselves. I am using the term idolatry as the Bible uses it— worshipping a false notion/image of God. Let me explain.
A few weeks before the Republican convention, we read in synagogue the story of Korah, who leads a rebellion against Moses. On the surface, the complaints of Korah seem legitimate. He questions the nepotism of Aaron, Moses brother, being given the leadership of the religious cult and calls for input from more people. The commentators struggle to understand the problem of Korah’s rebellion. In Ethics of our Sages (5:19), we are told that conflict for the sake of heaven will have a lasting effect, but conflict that is not for the sake of heaven will not. The text defines the rebellion of Korah as the latter kind of conflict.
The question of course is how do we know whether a conflict is for the sake of heaven or not? The Sefat Emet, a 19th century Hasidic rebbe, teaches on the story of Korah the following: We live in a world of conflict where everyone looks out for his or her own good. However, to truly serve God people need to be willing to move beyond their individual needs and join together for the common good. When you do that you understand there is no difference between you and your fellow human being. According to tradition, Aaron was someone “who loved peace and pursued the making of peace” between his fellow human beings, while Korah was only interested in dividing people.
But what does this have to do with idolatry?
The purpose of religion in general and Judaism specifically is to struggle against the obvious way to see the world. As individuals we see the world as about ourselves. It is a world of separation. Existentially we experience the world alone. A belief in God is to remind us of what unites us instead of what separates us. Judaism’s most fundamental teaching enjoins us to “love your neighbor as yourself “(Lev. 19:18). Why? Because we are told at the moment of creation that all human beings are created in the image of God. If you disparage other people you are disparaging an image of God. To call someone little Marco or lazy Jeb or corrupt Hillary is to disparage God. The rabbis teach that making fun of someone is not funny. If you publically humiliate someone it is considered as though you have murdered him or her.
The purpose of God and religion is to offer a vision of wholeness and unity in a world that seems fractured. God is what unites us not separates us.
Idolatry isn’t the worship of a statue. Idolatry is the worship of a partial notion of God rather than the full notion of God. If God created everything and is everywhere, if all human beings are images of God, then denying the humanity of some people is to deny God. When the Israelites pointed to the Golden Calf and said “Israel—this is your God,” it was idolatry because they had limited God to one image and one understanding. Idolatry was the great sin in the Bible and it still remains the great sin. This is more than saying worshipping money or fame are contemporary forms of idolatry. It is taking the limitless nature of God and defining God in a limited way. To believe you have the only truth and deny the truth of how others believe in God is an act of hubris, rejecting the unknowable nature of God.
This does not mean that if only we are nice to each other everything would be fine. America has real enemies. We have seemingly intractable social problems. What it does mean is that police who have a dangerous and difficult job and blacks who are humiliated by police are both the images of God? To deny one part of that truth is to deny God.
This is not some liberal vision of Judaism invented in the last decades. It is the Sefat Emet quoting Rabbi Akiva and Lev. 19. The Sefat Emet concludes by saying that we come to love our neighbor by loving God, our Neighbor. God and our neighbor are one. This is Judaism’s deepest vision of a unity working for the common good.
The rabbis taught that the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed because of the sin of idolatry. The second Temple was destroyed because of sinat hinam—baseless hate. I want to suggest that encouraging hatred among people is the same as idolatry. The result is the same—the destruction of everything that is holy and valued.
Korah is about dividing people. Aaron is about uniting them. Trump is about building walls. Abraham is about running to welcome the stranger. Trump is about making idols of distrust and disparagement. Abraham is a breaker of idols. And we are Abraham’s descendants.
This story "Why Donald Trump is a Big Time Idolator" was written by Michael Strassfeld.