Friday, May 23, 2003

Mesopotamian Idol (Jewish Week)

The Jewish Week, May 23, 2003

Idols have been in the news lately.

Naturally there is “American Idol,” which, on the positive side, helped my kids to appreciate some of the old standards written eons ago by ancient artifacts like Billy Joel and Cher. If the show had been called “American Talent Show,” it would have been harmless. But the underside of “American Idol” reveals a dangerous cult of celebrity that has turned into a national obsession. “American Idol” is less about the joy of singing than the allure of a record contract.

Check out what teens are seeing at the movies these days and compare it to the folktales of yore. “Happily ever after” used to mean crossing the threshold into blissful privacy with the one you love. Now it means you get to hold a press conference. And you get to be envied, emulated -- and worshipped. No modern-day Cinderella story is complete without fawning agents and paparazzi. In the Bible, Aaron thought the Golden Calf would be harmless too, and we know how wrong he turned out to be.

We all know that eventually idols crumble and turn to dust (except for the marvelously preserved Cher). We saw it happen in Iraq only a few weeks ago -- twice, in fact, on the same day. First there was the great statue of Saddam Hussein being yanked down by the Yanks. Within minutes, Iraqi children turned Saddam’s head into a soccer ball, smashing it with their shoes and rolling it along the streets of Baghdad. We all cheered at the spectacle of yet another earthly pretender to divine status meeting his humble demise.

Our collective mood turned sour, however, when we saw what was going on at precisely the same time across town at the Baghdad Museum, where thousands of priceless ancient artifacts were being smashed and stolen. We are still not certain how much of the ancient Mesopotamian heritage was lost during that chaotic week, or in the looting that continues in archaeological sites throughout Iraq, but the image of the ransacked museum stunned the world.

I was shocked too, until I experienced what one might call a Jungian déjà vu. The same image that we saw from Baghdad that day is also embedded deep in our collective Jewish subconscious. Somehow, we’ve been here before. Join me as we journey back...

We are walking into that same shattered chamber, eyeing pieces of smashed idols strewn about everywhere: there the arm of Tiamat, there the voluptuous but decapitated body of Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. And over there, I can swear I see the head of Cher, the ancient Babylonian deity of outrageous fashion.

Suddenly, in walks our father, Terach.

The man is steaming hot. He screams at us for all the damage we’ve done. We try to explain that we had nothing to do with it, that the biggest gods chopped off the heads of the smallest ones, and anyway, aren’t the American soldiers in charge now? Terach cannot be appeased. For the first time, we contemplate leaving our father’s house and making aliyah – to a land that the One Boundless God will show us.

Now, journey with me ahead to the time of Abraham’s grandchildren, to the first recorded heist of Mesopotamian gods. We are Rachel, escaping with our favorite household idols, only to be nabbed by father Laban, just this side of the Syrian border.

Jews have been struggling with idolatry since our people’s infancy. Isn’t it ironic that the very place Abraham went to in order to escape the veneration of the finite, the Land of Israel, has itself become an idol to some? The greatest irony of all is that, of all the revered spots in that Land, the places that have achieved the most iconic status are the burial spots of Abraham and Rachel.

The widespread looting in Baghdad was tragic; but we can’t forget that those items stolen from the antiquities museum were the very same artifacts that Abraham chose to leave behind. Like Abraham, we need to shed all the ballast that would weigh us down in our sojourn through the wilderness. He remains the model for the iconoclasm that has defined our faith from the start. How fitting that it was an Abrams tank that brought down the statue of Saddam that historic afternoon in Baghdad and that the first meeting of Iraq’s post dictatorial leadership took place in Ur, Abraham’s home town.

Shavuot is the perfect time to remember that we need to shed all the false gods in our midst, including our American and Mesopotamian idols. We read the Ten Commandments, including that annoying prohibition of idolatry. Also, Shavuot is the only festival without an associated ritual object (unless you count the blintz). Nothing finite gets in the way of our contemplation of the infinite. The Torah is celebrated not as the embodiment of divinity, but as a blueprint for our sacred quest. When a written Torah becomes unreadable, it is buried, like Moses (and, alas, unlike Abraham and Rachel), in an unspecified grave. The words live eternally, but the artifact is kept out of the limelight. In that way, the Torah can never become an idol.

Once when I was walking through the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, I was stunned by a sight of extraordinary normalcy. A group of teenagers were kicking a soccer ball, using an ancient Roman-era column as one of the goal posts. Undoubtedly, this pillar had once stood in the courtyard of the Second Temple, only to be tossed to the valley below following the Temple’s destruction. In the end, this sacred pillar was being treated no more reverently than Saddam’s head.

If a column from the Temple itself can become a soccer goal, is nothing sacred? Precisely. No thing is sacred. And, Jim Carrey and Ruben Studdard notwithstanding, no person is God.

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