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The New Idolatry

I want to tell  you a story about a long-time friend of my parents.  I will refer to him as Joe.  They have known each other for many decades.  Practically grew up together.  He’s in his eighties now.  He has survived lots of health crises, including many years of respiratory problems, Type 2 Diabetes, and triple bypass surgery.  Several years ago, my family was visiting with his family.  We had a wonderful time all together.  We ate  out at different restaurants a few times. And Joe loved a good meal.  Time and again, he ordered truly, decadent meals:  grilled cheese done to perfection for lunch. Deep fried chicken for dinner.  Lasagna another night.  For breakfast he ordered gooey cinnamon buns heaping with cream-cheese icing.  And when he got the most amazing donuts for us all, and then ate half the box, followed later by cheese fries, I finally felt the need to say something to good old Joe.

“Hey, Joe,” I said.  “I really hope I’m not out of line here, but you know all these wonderful fried rich foods can kill you, right?”
“Yeah, I know.” He laughed.
“So why are you eating it?  I’m just really worried about your health.”
He sighed and looked down.  He nodded slowly.
I continued. “Joe, you have a beautiful family.  Beautiful grandchildren.  Don’t you want to be here for them as long as you can?”
Still looking down at the floor, still nodding, Joe spoke:  “Well, I guess that’s why I’m eating this way.”
“What?”  I asked. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
There was a long pause.  Finally Joe added. “Well, since you asked.  I have been noticing that lately I have been losing weight.”
“Losing weight?”
“Yeah.  Losing.  I guess that kind of scared me.  I guess I’ve been worried that I might have cancer.”
I was confused and a little alarmed. “Wait.  You’ve been eating fried foods that are bad for your heart so you won’t think you have cancer?
“I guess I wanted to eat a lot more so I wouldn’t be able to tell if I was losing weight, so I wouldn’t have to think and worry about the cancer,” he said.

I was completely incredulous.  This man, who had always seemed so reasonable to me, was engaging in an extraordinary act of self-deception.  The real possibility of cancer was so terrifying to him that he was willing to risk his health and his life by overeating, rather than face the truth.  

P.S. that story is from at least a decade ago, and Joe is still alive.  He actually didn’t have cancer. Whatever that weight loss was about, it wasn’t what he feared it was.  Joe’s a good guy.  He worked hard all his life.  He wasn’t as financially successful as he had hoped to be when he was younger.  But still, he was proud of his family.  As the years went by, Joe became more stuck in his ways.  After retirement, he stayed home and watched a lot of TV news--one cable channel, in particular.  He began, like so many Americans, to watch the news and read the on-line articles that only matched his world-view.  Over the years, his opinions became more rigid and angry.  He voted for candidates who reflected his increasingly angry, fearful, xenophobic worldview.

Time and again, I couldn’t stop thinking about Joe.  Why did he vote the way he did?  How could a nice, good man like Joe eventually come to support bigots, misogynists, racists, transphobes in office?  The Joe I remember from when I was younger wasn’t so extreme in his views!  Joe is also a Jewish guy.  How, I wondered, could he go against the interests of our own Jewish community by supporting leaders who refuse to recognize the unique moral depravity the KKK and Neo-Nazis?  What kind of madness could rob Joe, and so many people like Joe, of reasonable ideas and choices?  

...And then I remembered the fried and fatty foods story.  This was the man who would rather eat, stuff his stomach and clog his very own veins rather than face the possibility that he may have cancer.  His choices today are actually the same choices he made over a decade ago.   Today, as then, he surrounds himself with the reassuring, with only those whose ideas and opinions reflect his own, that assuage his concerns, that don’t make him face things he would rather not look at in his life.

The story of Joe seems to be the story of America these days.  So many people have come to me and said ‘Rabbi, please help us make sense of what’s happening in our country and our world.’  Today I’m going to do that.  I will talk about why facing the truth is so hard.  Today I will talk about how facing the truth, no matter how difficult it may be, is the most important thing we can do if we are to have hope for our lives and for our futures.

In the Talmud, in Masechet Shabbat (119b), Rav said “Lo Charva Yerushalayim eleh bishvil shepasku mimena anshei emunah…”  “Jerusalem was destroyed only because people of emunah could no longer be found there.”  The Hebrew word, emunah, translates into English as “faithful”.

On the surface, this sounds like a standard-issue biblical assertion:  not enough people of faith results in an angry God who retaliates and destroys Jerusalem.  But this is not a biblical text, it’s rabbinic, from centuries later.  When Rav teaches this, we must look a little more closely at this text:  the word “emunah” or faith is related to the word “Amen” that we say after we hear a brachah recited.  Etymologically speaking, the words ‘emunah’ and ‘amen’ are related to the Hebrew word Emet, which means Truth.  So in Judaism, whenever we talk about “anshei emunah”, we don’t simply mean “faithful people”.  What we really mean is people who are devoted to the truth; people of integrity.  

This is very important in helping us understand the uniquely Jewish notion of faith.  Unlike other religions, the Jewish notion of being “faithful” is not about believing what the Bible says, even if what the text says runs counter to our own experience.  Of course as Jews, we should be faithful to the teachings and values of our textual tradition.  But Emunah is also being faithful to the truth as we experience it.  Faithful Jews are people who find a way to make the text of Torah applicable in the real world that we live in.

So when Rav makes his assertion about Jerusalem, the holy city, being destroyed by the lack of people of Emunah, he is saying something very profound.  He is asserting that in all of Jerusalem, people were no longer seeking the truth, discerning the truth, living for the truth. In other words, they may have been faithful to the text as they understood it, but not to their own experience, not to their own humanity; or they were faithful only to experience and the people they associates with, without the wisdom of the text.  In other words, their worlds were too narrow and they lost a sense of the whole truth.

So, without true Emunah, what did we have, instead, in Jerusalem?  Polarization.  Petty fighting. Jews fracturing into smaller and smaller bands of similarly minded Jews, echoing only each other’s opinions. Betrayal of our cherished values.  Jews selling other Jews out to the Roman authorities in pursuit of power.  Sinat Chinam, baseless hatreds between Jew and Jew.  We had fallen away from Emunah, our faithfulness to the whole truth--that we were to be a noble people, a people of justice, a people inspired by our Torah to make the world a more loving place.  Does any of this sound kind of familiar?

I can’t begin, nor do I need to recount, all the ways in which our society today has lost its Emunah--it’s faithfulness to the whole truth.  We are living in a society in which our very top leaders lie boldly, brazenly, and pay no price for those lies.  We live in a country that officially rejects policies that respond to climate change, that abandons children of illegal immigrants, that seeks to strip away rights of lgbt citizens, that turns a blind eye to Jew-haters and racists.  Centuries of amassed scientific knowledge, psychological insight, and ethical advances are being deconstructed and rejected by newly emboldened voters who find things like scientific evidence to be inconvenient, incomprehensible and uncomfortable. We have elected officials believe that If you take a societal problem off the government website, it doesn’t exist, and we should all go back to being comfortable, since there is no problem.

We are living in a society that is rejecting the truth.

Reb Gedalia of Lunietz, a Hasidic master of 200 years ago, talked about the vital importance of truth in Judaism.  “Emet hu klal yitborach,” “Truth is the common denominator of all God’s qualities,” he wrote.  To prove his point, he pointed out that the middle word of the 13 attributes of God that we recite on the High Holy Days is “v’emet”:  Adonai Adonai El Rachum v’Chanun, Erech-Apayim, v’rav Chesed V’Emet…” R. Gedalia explains that it says “v’Emet” “AND truth” to indicate that truth is the linchpin of everything else:  all the six Divine attributes that precede it and the six Divine attributes that come after the word Emet, are, in fact, all not possible without truth itself.  In other words, the entire universe cannot exist without the quality of Truth.  To deny truth is to deny the essential quality of God.  

Moses learned about the undeniable truth when he encountered the Burning Bush.  No matter how much he avoided, no matter how desperately he came up with excuses, his path was to go speak truth to power.  When he protested and expressed his lack of emunah--trust in the truth itself--God spoke timeless words in response:  Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh:  I am that I am.  This response harkens to God’s ineffable name:  Y-H-V-H.  Really that name is a strange form of the Hebrew verb “Hoveh”, which means ‘to be’.  There are two ways that I like to translate that ineffable name into speakable English:  YHVH simply means “What is”; it means “Reality”.

Reality in my opinion, is the best possible word for God.  When we say ‘Baruch Atah Adonai,’ in my mind I am expressing that reality itself is blessed and sanctified.  Why am I blessing Reality?  Because it is ‘Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam” Reality is what rules the universe!  I once heard the great spiritual teacher, Byron Katie, teach the following concept:  How do I know that Reality/God rules the universe?  Well, have you ever noticed that Reality rules, whether you like it or not?  Have you ever noticed that in Reality, you don’t get a vote on what happens to you in life?  What is, is.  Adonai Eloheichem Emet, we say in the Shema, which means, The Lord God is Truth.  Every time you wake up and perceive Reality, you are, in truth, looking right into the face of God.

You may have noticed that the Torah is obsessed with wiping out idolatry and idolaters.  Judaism has everything from Abraham smashing his father’s idols to God commanding us to decimate every idol and every idolater from the land of Israel.  The reason for this is NOT that God doesn’t like statues.  It’s not about the literal idols at all.  Idolatry is a state of mind.  It’s a state of mind where we fall out of sync with reality.  It’s a state of mind where we worship our own ideas.  In ancient times, we projected our own ideas onto statues.  Today, we no longer need statues.  We worship ideas as ideas themselves.  I’m reminded of a an amazing line I heard from the Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron:  “Don’t believe everything you think.”  To believe everything you think--that’s idolatry!  

As we look around our world today, more and more people are adopting a victim narrative about a reality that is beyond their control. In their victimhood they cling to ideas that validate their sense of persecution and create an understanding of reality which entitles them to deny any other understanding of  the truth.  Denial of truth is the root of idolatry. When people worship the idea that science is a political tool of the liberal elites, that’s idolatry. When people worship the idea of white supremacy, that’s idolatry.  When people worship the idea that guns are a sacred right not to be regulated, that’s idolatry. When some people decide that their ideas are superior to others and they attempt to silence opposing opinions and free discussion, that’s idolatry.  When people worship every inch of the Land of Israel as sacred and indivisible, taking precedence over the sanctity and dignity of life, justice and peace , that’s idolatry. When people worship the idea that the bible must be followed literally, that’s idolatry too.  What all these things have in common is that they are thoughts and ideas that are out of sync with reality.

The whole Talmud, as well, is really all about wiping out all idolatries of the mind.  The talmudic rabbis are constantly testing reality against our understanding of the Torah.  Why?  Because God forbid we should believe everything we think about what the Torah says.  For the Jews, to be God-fearing is to be reality-fearing:  it’s to have a frame of mind so humble that we understand that our own thoughts and ideas are nothing compared to the miraculous unfolding of reality, moment to moment.

In the Midrash (PR 24:3), Rabbi Shmuel ben Nachmani said:  “We find that the Holy One created everything in this world; only the stuff of falsehood God did not create, only the measure of falsehood God did not fashion.  Human beings conceived false words out of their own hearts, as is said in Isaiah,”Horo v’hogo milev divrei shaker”,  “Conceiving and uttering from their own hearts words of falsehood” (59:13)

Fake news.  Alternative facts.  Racism. Xenophobia. Homophobia.  Anti-Semitism. Climate-denial.  All of these ideas are at war with reality.  To be at war with reality is to be at war with God.  Welcome to the new idolatry.  

This is not a struggle of one set of ideas against another set of ideas.  It’s a struggle between truth and lies. This is not an easy struggle.  I understand that it is often so hard to distinguish between truth and untruths.  But without a commitment to finding and living by the truth, we lose our connection to being moral individuals and a moral society.  When leaders promulgate lies, it’s wrong.  But when they try to obliterate the existence of essential truths, that the truth doesn’t matter--as is happening in our society today--then that’s a catastrophe, a category 5 Hurricane, a 7.1 earthquake of the soul in our society:  it’s really an attack on the possibility for true justice or even basic morality in our country and in the world.

With the rise in hate crimes, the emboldening of haters, with the cowardice of politicians, with the rise in natural disasters all over the world, Reality, God, is calling to us to rise up for everything Judaism has taught us over thousands of years.  Like Moses, we must go before Pharaoh and speak truth to power.   As the Torah says, “Lo tuchal lehit’alem,” “You must not remain indifferent.”  We must not remain indifferent when there is a war against reality happening all around us. The Talmud teaches, “Shtikah k’hoda’ah”, silence is consent. Silence is complicity. We must speak up and speak out for the truth.

Our liturgy says, “Adonai oz l’amo yitein,” “God/Reality will give strength to the people.”  Let us see what kind of strength we will have when we act and march for truth, for reality, and justice, acting from our deepest place of Jewish spiritual strength.  Adonai oz l’amo yitein, may reality give us strength; Adonai yivarech et amo bashalom:  May God, bless us--through the power of our tradition, our humility, and our praying feet--may God bless us with peace.  Amen.


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