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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

"If God created us in his own image, we have more than reciprocated."  --  Voltaire

Kabbalah teaches that anything positive, taken to excess, becomes a negative.  When we achieve the self-awareness needed to become an observer, we acquire knowledge of everything we observe.  Knowledge is power, and it enables the observer to achieve dominion over the observed.  This is the dominion that God promised in Gen. 1:26 and 1:28.  However, when this is misdirected and taken to excess, it leads to narcissism, arrogance and idolatry.

This is demonstrated by the events after Eden.  First, there was Cain who murdered his brother in a fit of narcissistic rage.  He blamed his brother for his own faults.  Nobody had the right to be better than him.  Then, there was the generation of Noah whose arrogance gave them the right to take whatever they deemed theirs. 

Finally, there were the people of Babel who choose to elevate themselves to the status of gods.  They brought about the ultimate denial of God - idolatry.  Then we become so self-engaged that we see everything as an extension of ourselves.  We cease to be an observer.  We create a barrier between ourselves and the acquisition of knowledge of God, and trivialize our purpose in creation.

What is idolatry?  For the answer, we need only turn to the second Commandment:  "You shall not make for yourself a graven image or any likeness (underline mine) which is in the heavens above, which is on the earth below, or which is in the water beneath the earth" (Ex.20:4).  We normally think of idolatry as having to do with graven images, but the second commandment includes a second category: "any likeness" that exists in all of creation.  That includes the likeness we create in our imagination. 

This theme is echoed across the history of religion.  It appears as Ishvara in the ancient Hindu Taittiriya Upanishad.  "He created all this, whatever is here. Having created it, into it, indeed, he entered. Having entered it, he became both the actual and the beyond, the defined and the undefined, both the founded and the unfounded".

Maimonides argued that God was beyond human conception, and that any effort to conceive of God in material terms was idolatry.  He conceded that very few humans had the capacity to think in the abstract and they required concrete representations of God.  For this reason, he agreed with the Sages that the Torah was "written in the language of man".   However, he warned that accepting these representations as actual descriptions of God was idolatry.  This thinking was the same as that which brought idolaters to their belief by false imaginations and ideas.  John Calvin summed up these ideas in stating: "Man's mind is like a store of idolatry and superstition; so much so that if a man believes his own mind it is certain that he will forsake God and forge some idol in his own brain."

The Hebrew root of the word for sin means deviation or departure.  Sin is then departure from the ways of God or God's creation.  Idolatry is the absolute departure from God.  As Calvin asserted, if we accept the false images of our minds, then we replace God with gods of our own making.  This is why Maimonides insisted that the source of all evil is idolatry.

This particular example of how a positive can be transformed into a negative also provides insight into freedom of choice.  We obtained the opportunity to become an observer and acquire knowledge of God's creation and, ultimately, of God.  However, we chose to create our own god.  Perhaps this is the warning of Deut. 30:19, "This day, I call upon the heaven and the earth as witnesses [that I have warned] you: I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. You shall choose life".

It might be worthwhile to consider the idolatry that pervades our own lives.


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