Idol thoughts

Byond the Graven Image
December 12, 1997

The aim of this book, as given in the author's introduction, is "to expound the Bible's argument against idolatry, in the Bible's own terms, and also in those elaborated by later thinkers, rabbis and philosophers". It should be said at once that the aim is brilliantly achieved: this is an excellent book, to be strongly recommended to anyone who wishes, for religious or academic reasons or both, to learn about the central tenet of Judaism and the relation between religion and psychology. More specifically, the book has three aims: to expound the concept of idolatry (which Lionel Kochan regards as indefinable but explicable), to explain the connection between idolatry and the use of graven images in the literal sense; and to explain how this is worked out in many areas of Jewish theory and practice, in particular with regard to Jewish attitudes to holiness, symbolism, remembrance, art, religious mediators and time and the occult.

It is argued that, though the "idols" of different ages are different, both idolatry itself and the Jewish attitude to it retain particular characteristics, so that the theme can be treated "as though it had no history". Idolatry, as expounded in the first chapter, is the worship of beings other than God, in particular the worship of material things, whether in the form of polytheism, nature worship, power worship, sorcery and so on. It is linked to eroticism and similarly tempting (perhaps its link to bloodshed should also be considered?) It is also the natural state of humanity, and it is completely incompatible with following Torah, while its renunciation is equivalent to the acceptance of Torah or of God's revealed teaching: one could say that the choice is idolatry or spiritual progress. Hence "this world of earthly kings, peopled by occult powers accessible to necromancers, diviners and witches, of household gods and unchastity, is that world from which Torah is to offer Israel the possibility of release". Now the temptation to idolatry comes, as chapter one goes on to explain, essentially via the eye, which focuses on the material: the ear, in contrast, is the medium of instruction and enlightenment, while the eye is the place where seduction begins. This means that more is required than forbidding the making or worshipping of images of other gods. Physical images of God Himself must be forbidden, and the relics of paganism - altars, pillars and sacred posts - all destroyed. Beyond this, nature itself must be "demystified" and "disenchanted".

This does not mean that nature should be "secularised" or treated with less than the utmost respect, but that its religious significance has changed from being an object of worship to being "a means to the fulfilment of the Torah".

These basic principles are worked out in the first chapter. The bulk of the book deals with their theoretical and practical implications. It is shown how the holiness, temporary or permanent, of buildings and places, must be conferred and not intrinsic; how any notion of mediators or intermediaries between God and humanity must be totally rejected; how religious symbolism must work through action and religious remembrance through words, with a rejection of "the material symbol, inert and dumb" and the "static, figurative monument to the past"; how the approach to time is linked to a belief in the openness of the future and the human power to advance and develop, and a rejection of predestination, astrology and the occult. (Presumably the "scientific superstition" of the inevitability of progress should equally be rejected.) Of equal interest is the discussion of art, suggesting that, though apart from the three-dimensional representation of the human face, all art not for the purposes of worship is permitted, there is a Jewish preference for emphasising the fluid, unfixed, incomplete and even distorted. Hence, it is suggested, their Jewishness influences the art not only of Chagall, where it is obvious, but even of Pissarro, Modigliani and Soutine. In a world that is always in a state of unfinished becoming, reification is always suspect, the holy "can embody no fixed, essential value", and, in the words of the book's conclusion, "every end marks no more than a fresh beginning".

Harry Lesser is senior lecturer in philosophy, University of Manchester.

Byond the Graven Image: A Jewish View

Author - Lionel Kochan
ISBN - 0 333 62595 1 and 62596 X
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £42.00 and £15.99
Pages - 223

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