Saturday, June 30, 2012

On Idolatry and Metonymy: Parts of a Whole*

As the daughter of an English teacher, I find myself drawn to linguistic devices; you know, metaphor, simile, alliteration and allegory, onomatopoeia and parallelism – so many clever structures and techniques for expressing ourselves and our ideas in ways that go beyond the basic: "subject + verb = sentence" equation.  As such, let's start out with a literary device that we use all the time in common parlance but for which you likely don't know the name.

The Metonymy.  Ever heard of it? A metonymy is when “a characteristic or important part is used to stand for its corresponding whole.”

Here’s an example:
"Ouch - there goes my back!"  That phrase does not mean that the speaker’s entire back literally went away, but rather "back" there refers to the pain the person feels in their back. 

Or a famous one:
The pen is mightier than the sword.  Which, of course, isn’t about a duel with one person brandishing a Bic and the other a samurai weapon, but rather that writing is more powerful than warfare.

The metonymy is a great device that, generally speaking, adds flair and interest to any message.  But only when the listener understands that the part is being used to describe a greater whole.  If the part is confused with the actual whole, a whole different problem arises, and the metonymy can become quite treacherous. And it just so happens that there is one major Jewish "no-no" that proves a great example of this device and the danger it can pose.

So, hold that thought and see if you can answer this question:
According to Jewish tradition, what is the greatest sin a person can commit?
The answer is idolatry**. Not murder, not abuse, or any other offense – but idolatry. 

And why does idolatry trump the other offenses?  Not because those others aren’t bad, but because idolatry is the gateway to all those other offenses, as its practice can take someone along a path removed from morality and ethical behavior, leading them to more easily turn against God and against humanity in any number of ways. 

In its traditional sense, idolatry refers to the worshipping of other gods.  We know this from Torah, which spends a pretty significant amount of time trying to teach our ancestors about how problematic worshipping another god is; after all, the injunction against it ranks at the top of our most famous top ten list, detailed in the top two: "I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage: you shall have no other gods besides me.   You shall not make for yourself a sculpted image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.  You shall not bow down to or serve them."

But for the average Jew today, it doesn’t seem that hard to avoid the practice of idolatry.  Generally speaking, we don’t see an enormous amount of people in our Jewish community who are literally worshipping other gods on the side.  Yet, idolatry continues to be a modern and relevant threat, not only to our Jewish community today, but to our overall world as well.  And that is because the practice of idolatry isn’t just about worshipping or even sculpting images of other gods.  Idolatry is actually an enacted metonymy!

Think about the most famous idolatry story in Torah: the Golden Calf.  When our ancestors constructed it, they weren’t building an image of some other ancient near-eastern bovine divinity; they were actually making an image of what they felt they needed our God to look like.  From the time they left Egypt, the ancient Israelites’ visually saw the presence of God at all times: whether in the form of a cloud or the form of fire, guiding them as they went.  When Moses ascended Mt. Sinai for 40 days to receive the law, all of their visual connection to God disappeared.  Their complete dependence on the necessity of seeing God led them to grow insecure. To satiate their perceived need for “seeing” the Divine, they built a visible image of God, in an attempt to sum up all that God was in one finite expression.  Afterall, there’s nothing really that offensive about a gold cow.  What is sinful is that their construction and worship of it messaged that God could be summed up in one image. They made the part the whole – enacting a metonymy. 

The Talmud and its commentators repeatedly lift up examples of our ancestors’ noting the majesty of the sun, moon, and stars, and in seeking to honor God’s creation, actually bowing and praying to these celestial beings themselves.  It isn't that they didn’t believe in God, they simply became confused between the part and the Whole.  (See Hilchot Avodah Zarah 1:1-2 for example.) Now we might ask, what’s so wrong with that – admiring that which God has created?  Think of it this way: it is a matter of faith to pray the words: Blessed are you Adonai our God, Creator of the sun, moon and stars. It is a matter of idolatry to pray the words: Blessed are you Sun, Moon, and Stars for being created.

And so idolatry isn’t solely about worshipping another god or even about worshipping something that is harmful or evil.  It is about distorting the importance of our goals and values, assigning them Ultimate meaning.  And why is that so problematic? Because it turns our goals into gods - a real problem.

Think of anything we value or strive for:  financial and professional success, physical fitness, love, fulfillment.  These things in and of themselves are not problematic, and are generally desirable pursuits, Jewish pursuits no less.  In fact, there are myriad teachings that urge us to strive for such aims.  What we must understand is that being Jewish demands we see those aims not as a final goal, but rather as a means by which each of us can enact God’s presence in the world. 

If we seek to acquire as much money as possible because we see it as a way to support our communities, those in need, and as a source of real tikun – repair for our world, that is one thing.  If seek to acquire money because we view money as the end-line goal, that is something entirely different.

If we seek out good health as a way improving our physical condition so that we might live longer, be better, and do more in our families, our community and our world, that is one thing.  If we seek out so called good health to meet the needs of our own vanities, then that is something else.

On one level, when the part is a means to the whole, we will likely find our needs met and find ourselves feeling fulfilled as we journey along our path. But when the part is made into the whole, we likely find ourselves experiencing just the opposite: feeling empty with our needs unmet, trapped in an unending cycle of self-absorption, obscuring our perspective on what is really important. 

And on a deeper, spiritual level, when we see the part as a means to the whole, it is much more likely that we will find ourselves on a path where our Divine purpose can be fulfilled and an imbued holiness made manifest in our lives and in our world.  But when the part is made into the whole, we actually deny our Divine potential and negate the holiness we are all charged to bring – a most dangerous form of idolatry.

The truth is, any number of pursuits have the potential to lead us down paths of fulfillment or distraction, wholeness or fragmentation: all depending on the values with which we choose to anchor ourselves and the Purpose we seek to achieve. 

May we be among those who are strong enough to see that the only end-all-be-all, the only whole for which we should strive is that of the Shalom that our tradition envisions will come when each of us fulfills our unique and Divine purpose in making God’s presence manifest in each and every part of our world.

And that is no metonymy – no literary device at all. 

*Much credit to my teacher and friend Rabbi David Stern for introducing me to this concept in a sermon a few years back!

**Note - this is not unanimously agreed upon by the commentators.  Some assert violating Shabbat is worse than idolatry, among other opinions as well.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I Told Myself I Would Never Say That! or Parenting Confessions and the Prophet Malachi

A Parenting Confession: I have dabbled in overprotectiveness,  irrationality, and dictatorship of and over my children. These are just a few of the "lesser" qualities for which I gave my mother a very hard time when I was the child.  In fact, I find myself regularly doing and saying things* to my kids that I vividly recall swearing to myself that I would NEVER EVER do/say to my children when I became a parent.   
In keeping with the prime purpose of parenting (the dictionary defines it as “the methods, techniques, etc., used or required in the rearing of children”), I think many of us often see it as a future-focused sort of opportunity -  to follow in our own parents’ footsteps in passing on positive qualities and at the same time, improving upon the short-comings of our own parents as another generation of a family unfolds. 
But perhaps parenting has an additional purpose that moves us in the opposite direction: empathy for and sometimes forgiveness of our own parents. I now have a greater understanding of how my mother must have been feeling in any number of situations when she was raising me.  I see how hard it is to inculcate patience and perspective when losing my temper proves so much more instinctual; I know the deep fear that sets in when one of my children does anything that I just “know” will place him/her in imminent danger; I understand how sometimes what seems to be the best choice in a given moment really only demonstrates a complete lack of rationality; I even value the right to throw in the “Because I told you so” card from time to time because sometimes it is just about the only thing I can think of.  And I see already, as I demonstrate these same "offenses" against my children, they are saying to themselves: “I will NEVER EVER do/say that to my kids when I am a parent!”

In a powerful passage from the second collection of books in the Hebrew Bible called Neviim/Prophets, the prophet Malachi prophesies the conditions that will indicate the fulfillment of God's vision for a perfect world (put more traditionally, the conditions that will immediately precede the Messiah's coming): that the hearts of parents will turn to their children and the hearts of children will turn to their parents. (3:24)  I can't imagine that Malachi was referring to only two generations relating to each other, but rather, that such a condition might more likely include three (and if one is truly lucky, four generations.)  If so, it serves as a powerful antidote to the traditional notion that the sins of the parents essentially carry to their children and even grandchildren to the third or fourth generation. (see Exodus 34:7)  Understanding our own role as parents as an opportunity to not only to impact the lives of our own children but to transform negative feelings of the past toward our own parents into positive ones might serve as profound treatment for the very real world condition of grudge holding that so many people hold against their own parents, even when they are no longer children themselves. 

Perhaps if those of us who are blessed to become parents are able to turn our hearts not only toward our own children but also to our own parents at once, we really will create a chain of parents and children, connecting  past, present, and future throughout the continuum of generations, and indeed, such a reality might truly stand as a measure for when our world might be fully imbued with wholeness and love.

*I refer here to a cadre of general parenting habits/choices within a range of normative parenting -- this is in no way meant to address patterns of sickness and/or abuse that some people may experience or perpetuate.  If you are seeking resources on breaking the chain of violence or abuse, please click here for some helpful resources.