Idolatry is one of, if not the cardinal sin in Judaism. The ancient world regarded the Jews as atheists because of their refusal to worship visible gods. The ancient world argued that whoever denies idols is called a Jew (Talmud Megilah 13). To statements such as this the Jew responded: “Whosoever recognizes idols has denied the entire Torah; and whosoever denies idols has recognized the entire Torah” (Midrash Sifre, Deut. 54).”
I have been increasingly interested in developing a liberative understanding of idolatry, in the two-fold. One is to provide a liberative critique applying the prohibition of idolatry in Judaism as well as providing a critique of the notion of idolatry itself from a queer perspective.
The queer community is overwhelmingly creative in our capacity to create visual arts. The work we do as queer artists could be applied as idolatry. However, idolatry is necessary to bring into question the very values we hold dear. Accusations of idolatry can, and have been used, to silence people who effectively challenge the system in order to create a better system. By creating idols, we can effectively argue that religion often functions as idolatry, or that it functions as supporting idolatrous ways of life.
I also think that the prohibition of idolatry does “secularize” the values that we hold dear. Idolatry is often understood as idolatry of false gods. I think that this definition of idolatry should still have a prominent presence in the way that we do theology. However, it needs to be expanded to include the very systems we hold dear. It has to include capitalism, nationalism, and militarism. It must also critique readings of the Bible that aid in the oppression of other peoples. Idolatry is not just a religious sin, it is a moral one. The Israelite prophets saw the moral dimensions of this when they made links between idolatry and domination. A refusal to be idolatrous is the refusal to place systems of domination over the human quest for compassion and solidarity. Idolatry as domination means the destruction of human beings and of nature. Idolatry distorts judgment. Religion plays such a large role in this.
But we also forget that idolatry can also mean the false worship of God. The prohibition of idolatry in the ten commandments is intimately linked to God as a liberative power. I think that we have to turn to a God who liberates the oppressed, and the way of doing that is through liberative work. I don’t believe in a God who performs grandiose miracles other than the ones that are achieved through human hands. The smashing of the idol of Jim Crow is a miracle. The smashing of the idol of Apartheid is a miracle. Hopefully, it will be begin the same process with heterosexism. Miracles should point towards the understanding that God’s work is done in human history, through human hands. Judaism believes that God needs human beings and creation. If God is a God of love, then God needs creation. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, ‘The Hebrew Bible records God’s “mighty acts” in history. What is overlooked is that on every page of the Bible we come upon God’s hoping and waiting for man’s mighty acts.’
Perhaps analysis of idolatry should play a greater role in creation of a theology of inclusion. It has the potential to critique the status quo but also point to authentic community. It combines deep love, powerful dissent, painful rebuke, and unwavering hope. At this point, these are all thoughts.