Someone asked a question the other week that really got me thinking: is it possible that idol worship is worse than murder? The question seems ridiculous on its face – after all, we believe in Free Will and in the freedom to make one’s own mistakes, so why should worshipping idols be such a problem? But murder… murder is something uniquely and especially evil, snuffing out a life and all that it might yet achieve (not to mention the damage to the murderer). We all know that murder is a major crime, while people who have wrongheaded notions about Gaia or pantheistic tendencies are just harmless fools. … Right?
Actually, once the question was asked, I started thinking it through, and I came to the opposite conclusion: murder, as bad as it is, is not the worst crime. Idol worship is actually worse, and if you’ll keep reading, I’ll explain why.
All lives end. Everything that is alive now will be dead, sooner or later. Whether you want to say that death was created by Adam or by G-d, it is the central fact of life itself: we are mortal.
All we have to decide, as Gandalf said, is what to do with the time that is given us. And this is where idol worship becomes most dangerous, most insidious. Last week my future daughter in law @ishottheserif quoted Invictus: “I am the master of my fate.” And she is, because she believes herself to be so.
But the vast majority of people in the world, including in the United States, do not believe themselves to be the masters of their own fate. In primitive societies, the gods of nature rule all, with men as nothing more than leaves being tossed about in the storm. In neo-pagan science fiction ideas like “The Force” lead to thoughts of Destiny, of unavoidable fates, indelibly written in the scrolls. And, ever-present in our modern world, we have the twin Idols of Nature and Nurture, a false dichotomy if ever there was one, for deterministic predictors of a man’s future.
The culmination in America today is the cult of the victim: people who decide that the Master of their fate is their membership within an oppressed or wronged class. They outsource everything that happens to them, and in the stories of their lives, they are always the hapless passenger, never the driver.
When we outsource our lives, we willingly enslave ourselves and our futures to comfortable bromides and the kind of deliciously self-indulgent wallowing at which moody teenagers excel. There is a reason why the Torah takes it so seriously.
The failure to take responsibility for one’s own life is at the core of the classic Torah understanding of idol worship. And this is why the founding text of Western Civilization spends so much time and so much ink forbidding idol worship in all its forms, leaving murder to relatively few lines. After all, murder ultimately burns itself out as a practice in any civil society (or it is commonly practiced only by a few ruling elite). But idol worship is a debilitating disease of the mind, one that infects and spreads more effectively than any virus. Murder kills a few people, here and there. But a widespread epidemic of blaming other people for one’s own misfortunes can be the fatal rot in the pillars of civilization itself.