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.