I was about eight years old when I started refusing to do the pledge of allegiance at school. At the Jewish day school in Houston I attended growing up, the American flag was raised daily, we were asked to place our hands over our hearts and recite the pledge. As a generally well behaved student, my teacher was not angry at my refusal, but nevertheless somewhat confused. She simply wanted to know why I would not participate. ‘It’s idol worship,’ I told her. ‘Shh,’ she said, ‘stand in the back of the class and don’t tell any of the other children.’
It is an amusing (hopefully), but nevertheless telling anecdote. While the pledge of allegiance may not strictly qualify as idolatry, idolatrous behaviour did not cease at the end of the biblical canon. We are warned of the dangers of idolatry precisely because of the seemingly endless human inclination to resort to it, which is why this week’s haftarah makes such salutary reading.
This week we read from Jeremiah 2: 1-28 & 3: 4, the second of the t’lat d’fur’anuta, the three [haftarot] of affliction, that precede Tisha B’Av. Here Jeremiah exhorts the people to take notice of the mortal peril they face as a result of their spiritual and religious failures. For if the people fail to repent of their wrongdoings, Jeremiah prophesies the destruction not merely of Jerusalem but of their very way of life. There is no triumphalism in his voice, only a despondent rebuke. The people are the architects of their own demise when they exchange worship of the one true God for the worship of false gods carved from wood and hewn from stone.
The prophet demands, ‘Has a nation ever exchanged its gods even though they were unreal gods? Yet my people has exchanged its glory for what has no use!’ [Jeremiah 2:11] God freed the people from slavery in Egypt, yet when settled prosperity under Israelite self-rule arrives, the people become faithless, turning to gods in which there is no reality. Without the anvil of bondage to tie the people to God, they drift away into idol worship. And the end result will be the complete and utter destruction of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom and a serious rupture in the covenantal relationship.
But we are not the Israelites of the biblical text. Wood carvings and hewn stone would never tempt us. We are cleverer than that. Even an eight year old can recognise idol worship when it comes in the form of undue attention to an inanimate object. And yet, modernity still holds out the temptations of idolatry if we know how to look out for it.
Our idols are no longer wood or stone, but they are no less idols. Faith in market economies, the worship of material goods, the ways in which the high street (or the shopping centre) and its flagship shops have become temples to an economic god are a few examples of our own modern idolatry. Our idols are formed from the tears of child labour, clothed in polyester and granted a sense of reality through our insatiable desire to own more than we will ever need. Consumption without constraints is an idolatry perhaps unknown to our ancestors but idolatry all the same. When our ethical and moral values and behaviours are supplanted by ‘things that have no use’ [Jeremiah 2: 8], we, too, are in mortal peril.
Tisha B’Av and its message of despair and hopelessness in the face of destruction are not trendy in our communities. In my years as a congregational rabbi, we always struggled to get a minyan. I think the real reason we do not embrace the festival is because it makes us uncomfortable. Tisha B’Av commemorates the worst of our fears – that God has truly deserted us, whether we deserved it or not. It is an anxiety that reverberates throughout Jewish history and culminates in the theological crisis that is the result of the Shoah.
In the face of the Shoah, which is to us what the destruction of Jerusalem and its inhabitants was to our biblical ancestors, the stern warnings of Jeremiah seem offensive. Can we truly blame the victims for the crime perpetrated against them? Of course not. The slaughter of children can never be justified regardless of the perceived sins of the parents may be.
And yet when it comes to global economic disasters and environmental degradation, we cannot simply blame an overzealous, jealous God. In these matters Jeremiah has a point when he asks: “And where are those gods you made for yourself? Let them arise and save you, if they can…” [Jeremiah 2:28] Relying on deregulation, free markets and the other great economic shibboleths of our day to save our children from what will come if we do not curb our material desires is nothing short of idolatry. Our children and grandchildren will not deserve the world they will inherit, but they will live with the results of our sins in these areas nonetheless.
As progressive Jews we oft reflect on matters of social and economic justice, but less commonly do we see our material culture for what it so often can become – nothing short of idolatrous. As we move towards Tisha B’Av, we could do well to take Jeremiah’s words to heart and change our behaviours today, while there is still time to avert disaster.
Rabbi Deborah Kahn-Harris
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.