Idolatry & Iconoclasm (was Re: Some aspects of the technic ofVisual Realism, the persona, a cult persona etc.)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at
Wed Dec 27 12:44:42 MST 2000

Doyle wrote:

>A persona is a visual image that embodies some aspects of those forms of
>visual communication to which I allude to above.  Words written that include
>things like emoticons ;-) for example are using some aspect of constructing
>a persona.  A persona is the accompaniment to speech acts that we expect of
>emotions, and gesture to add meaning to language.  Personas can be distinct
>cartoon like images like Bugs Bunny, or Albert Einstein.
>Personas appear in religions as the figure of God (which indicates the
>limitations that the neo-cortext imposes upon what personas transmit).
>  Personas have an important contribution to make in the clarification of
>the crucial content of emotions in language like conversations.  They show
>exactly what we mean by how we feel in the moment to moment flow of language
>which is impossible to replicate by typing emoticons with every word.  Since
>the persona can be removed from specific people they can be thought of as
>not so much the personality of the cult leader but as the necessary aspect
>of body related features of language transmission which clarifies the
>central cognitive functions of organizing language itself in the neo-cortex.
>     My remarks are meant to dispel the concept of the quasi-religious
>concept of personality 'worship' as is often directed toward left leaders.
>While the use of personas is primitive they will grow in importance as the
>conversational features of computing communications grow.

The following essay posted by Reid Heller is interesting in that it
raises the question of idolatry & iconoclasm (= illusions & attempts
to overcome them & grasp truths) as a political question of how to
forge a proper relation between leaders & masses.

*****   On the Persistence of Idolatry
...Posted by Reid Heller on June 14, 19100 at 14:47:57:

An essay in honor of Professor Eugene Kullman



Avodah Zara, or idolatry, is a central theme of Torah and a synonym
for both folly and evil.  For the Torah, idolatry is characterized by
the worship of 'false' gods or, alternatively, forbidden 'images' of
God (Exodus 20): Christianity and Islam have adopted the Torah's
prohibition, although interpreting it, with greater or lesser rigor,
in accordance with their own imperatives.

Normative Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all, from time to
time, been charged with engaging in idolatry.  Throughout the period
of the First Temple, the Jewish prophets charged nobility and
commoners alike with that sin.  Moreover, early Christians attacked
Jews for making an idol of the law.  A millenium later, the
Protestant Reformation attacked the Catholic Church as an idolatrous
institution, in particular emphasizing its worldliness and its
complicity with tyranny.  Similarly, the Almoravid and Almohad
movements in 12th century North Africa attacked conventional Sunni
Islam as impious and idolatrous.  On the other hand, Jewish
authorities have held that both Islam and Christianity are, for Jews,
'avodah zara' (ie idolatries).  Likewise both Christianity and Islam
accuse Jews, if not Judaism, of being inherently idolatrous on a
variety of grounds, citing the testimony of the biblical prophets,
and most commonly, the narrative of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32.

The early enlightenment also adopted the biblical language of
iconoclasm for its own purposes.  In the first years of the 17th
century, Francis Bacon coined the phrases: 'idols of the marketplace'
(controversies about the definitions of words and names ) and 'idols
of the theatre' (conventional prejudices and dogmatic systems).  He
argued that the truth claims of his new philosophy possessed
spiritual and political claims no less profound and iconoclastic than
that of the Protestant Reformation.  Less than 70 years following
Bacon's essays on idolatry, Spinoza reinterpreted the Bible's polemic
against idolatry as reason's first struggle against superstition.
The enlightenment heirs of Bacon and Spinoza who sought to break
decisively with the western legacy of revelation and biblical
authority, transformed idolatry from a sin against God into a sin
against reason.  The great political/moral works of the
enlightenment, Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico et Politicus,
Rousseau's Emile and Kant's Critique of Practical Reason, can be
seen, in part, as an enlightenment program to redefine idolatry in
terms of modern rationality and decisively overcome it.  Those books
and the political/moral views associated with them, particularly
liberal democracy, represent the most recent entries in the ancient
western search for a permanent solution to the problem of idolatry in
political life.

If we can assume that the enlightenment program to rationalize the
moral and political realm is not wholly reducible to atheism, then
perhaps it is worth puzzling over certain assumptions that underlie
our modern identification of idolatry with unreason....


...The narrative of the Golden Calf follows the Revelation at Sinai,
while Moses is absent from the camp, and the people are agitated by
their leader's prolonged absence.  They literally: 'gang up on' Aaron
and say to him:

"Arise, make us elohim that will walk before (lead) us, for This Man
Moses, the one who raised us up from the Land of Egypt, we don't know
what's  become of him".

In the midst of a leadership crisis, with the people arrayed against
him, Aaron consents, but he imposes two obstacles to the people's
demand for an idol.  First, he imposes an idolatry tax requiring the
people to turn over to him their gold jewelry.  But far from
discouraging them, he no sooner instructs the people to remove their
gold then "all the people" do so (Ex. 32:3).  Second, Aaron requires
each person to place her gold jewelry directly into his hand.  One
imagines 600,000 souls queued around Mt. Sinai, moving silently,
methodically as, one by one, each item of jewelry is commended into
the hands of the Priest.  This tedious procedure bought additional
time, but it failed to dissuade a single person in the camp from
public support for the idolatrous project.  More important than
buying time, however, the public nature of the donations undermined
the possibility of 'plausible deniability' when Moses returns.  The
community acted as one in making their new God.  But what laws did
they break in making them?

Ex. 20:3, the first of the Ten Utterances, reads as follows:

"Thou shall have no other elohim before Me".

The language of Ex 32:1, using the words 'elohim' and 'before me' is
evocative of precisely what is forbidden in Ex 20:3.  Exodus 20:4,
the second commandment, is considerably more detailed:

"Thou shalt not make for yourself a statue (pesel), nor any image
(t'munah)  of what is in the heavens above nor in the earth below nor
in the waters beneath the earth.  Thou shalt not serve them; for I
the Lord your God, am  a passionate GodŠ."

These are three distinct prohibitions here: one regarding the primacy
of God over other gods; two, a prohibition against the making of
statues or images; and three, a prohibition against serving them....


According to Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam, 1135-1204), Guide of the
Perplexed 1:36 (Pines, University of Chicago 1963), the relevance of
these two distinct commandments requires an understanding of the
religious phenomenology of idol worship. He observes the following:

Now you know that whoever performs idolatrous worship does not do it
on the assumption that there is no deity except the idol.  In fact,
no human being of the past has ever imagined on any day, and no human
being of the future will ever imagine, that the form that he fashions
either from cast metal or from stone and wood has created and governs
the heavens and the earth.  Rather it is worshipped in respect of its
being an image of a thing that is an intermediary between ourselves
and God....No one among the people of our Law disputes this.
However, in spite of the fact that those infidels believe in the
existence of the deity, their idolatrous worship entails their
deserving destruction; for the reason that their infidelity bears
upon a prerogative reserved to God alone, may He be exalted -- I mean
the prerogative of being worshipped and magnified....This is ordained
in order that God's existence may be firmly established in the belief
of the multitude.  Now the idolators thought that this prerogative
belonged to that which was other than God; and this led to the
disappearance of the belief in His existence, may He be exalted, from
among the multitude.  For the multitude grasp only the actions of
worship, not their meanings or the true reality of the Being
worshipped through them.

In Maimonides view, idolatry should not to be confused with defective
faith or an irreligious bent.  Instead it should be seen as an error
in the political aspects of religion: liturgy, ritual and worship.
Its defects are defects of outward form and expression, which are
prone to misteach the multitude who do not know of God directly, but
only through the forms of worship.  We will return to the
relationship of misteaching and politics when considering the
Kuzari's teaching on idolatry.

Yehudah Halevi (1075- 1141) drew attention to the problem of the
golden calf in his masterpiece of Jewish apologetics entitled
'Kuzari'.  The Kuzari purports to be an account of an eighth century
debate among a Rabbi, a philosopher, a Christian Priest and a Muslim
scholar, convened at the request of a pagan Khazar King.  The King
convenes the debate because he is instructed by God, in a dream, to
worship and serve Him.  The Khazar King, though a pagan, is fully
open to the possibility that Judaism is superior to the other
monotheisms.  But Halevi knows that Judaism is vulnerable to the
charge of idolatry and therefore feels compelled to address that
charge early in the dialogue.  In particular he must address the
charge that, despite the Jews' distinguished lineage, the sin of the
golden calf in some way degrades the Jewish People. .

The Khazar King (Book 1:96) asks:

"But what of this privilege (ie, the Jews' esteemed genealogy) at the
time when that sin (golden calf) was committed?"

The Rabbi responds by placing the event of the golden calf in the
context of universal idolatry:

"All nations were given to idolatry at that time.  Even had they been
philosophers, discoursing on the unity and government of God, they
would have been unable to dispense with images, and would have taught
the masses that a divine influence hovered over this image which was
distinguished by some miraculous feature.  Some of them ascribed this
to God, even as we today treat some particular spots with reverence,
going so far as to believe ourselves blessed by their dust and
stones.  Others ascribed it to the spiritual influence of some star
of constellation or of a talisman, or to other things of that kind.
The people did not pay so much attention to a single law as to a
tangible image in which they believed...."

Just as Maimonides has taught that idolators cannot be said to be
ignorant of God simply by virtue of idolatry, Halevi teaches that
monotheists cannot be free from idolatry simply by virtue of their
monotheism.  Images are indispensable to instill belief in most human
beings.  The People were led to belief and confirmed in belief by
virtue of images, not law.  Thus Halevi teaches that idolatry is not
the opposite of monotheism, but is, in fact, a necessary aspect of
the human condition including monotheistic societies.  The Jews are
the first but by no means the last monotheists who will wrestle with
the persistence of idolatry.

Halevi does not leave the matter at the philosophical level.  He next
directs the Kings attention to the political challenges that led the
Jewish people to demand idols (Exodus 32), and how deeply
conventional idolatry is, even in monotheisms.

"An evil spirit overpowered a portion of the people, and they began
to divide into parties and factions.  Many views and opinions were
expressed til at last some decided to do like the other nations and
seek an object in which they could have faith without, however,
prejudicing the supremacy of him who had brought them out of Egypt.
On the contrary, this was to be something to which they could point
when relating the wonders of God, as the Philistines did with the ark
when they said that God dwelt within it.  We do the same with the sky
and over other object concerning which we know that it is set in
motion by the divine will exclusively, and not by any accident or
desire of man or nature."

Finally, Halevi assesses the sin of the golden calf.  But he chooses
a philosophical ground for assessing the sin and only mentions Jewish
law in passing.  The sin, as he describes it, is identical to the
Guide's later assessment of idolatry.  It is a political sin, a
usurpation of the prerogative of worship in a manner not expressly
commanded by God.  Aaron, the political leader at the time, is the
one responsible for the usurpation.  But when examined with respect
to all the prevailing conditions, Aaron's behavior appears
statesmanlike.  He delayed the sin for as long as possible, insures
that the sin unites the People rather than divides them and repents
when it is politically possible to do so without creating civil war.
By implicitly arguing for Aaron's political wisdom, Halevi appeals to
the King's political understanding, without hypocrisy or flattery.
The pagan King's situation, so close to Aaron's, will inevitably lead
him to identify with Aaron's political wisdom.  Halevi's argument
makes clear that the only means of avoiding idolatry, whether pagan
or monotheist, is through obedience to Divine Law, which returns the
King to the subject matter of his dream.

Their sin consisted in the manufacture of an image of a forbidden
thing and in attributing divine power to a creation of their own,
something chosen by themselves without the guidance of God.  Some
excuse may be found for them in the dissension, which had broken out
among  them, and in the fact that out of six hundred thousand souls
and the number of those who worshipped the calf was below three
thousand....This sin was not on a par with an entire lapse from all
obedience to Him who had led them out of Egypt as only one of His
commands was violated by them.  God had forbidden images, and in
spite of this they made one.  They should have waited and not have
assumed power, have arranged a place of worship an altar and
sacrifices.  This had been done by the advice of the astrologers and
the magicians among them who were of opinion that their actions based
on their ideas would be more correct than the true ones.  They
resembled the fool of whom we spoke, who entered the surgery of a
physician and dealt out death instead of healing to those who came
there.  At the same time the people did not intend  to give up their
allegiance to God.  On the contrary, they were, in theory, more
zealous in their devotion.  They therefore approached Aaron and he
desiring to make their plan public assisted them in their
undertaking.  For this reason he is to be blamed for changing their
theoretical disobedience into a reality.

...Houses of worship other than the Temple in Jerusalem were
prohibited in the times of the First Temple, however in Halevi's day
synagogues had become thoroughly conventional.  They were permitted
because, in the absence of a temple, a synagogue makes possible the
survival of a community devoted to the cultivation and practice of
the Divine Law.  Halevi concludes his defense with the implicit
acknowledgment that idolatry, being a permanent part of the human
condition, is under certain circumstances tolerated if necessary for
the perpetuation of Torah.

"The whole affair is repulsive to us, because in this age the
majority of nations have abandoned the worship of images.  It
appeared less objectionable at that time, because all nations were
then idolaters.  Had their sin consisted in constructing a house of
worship of their own, and making a place of prayer, offering and
veneration, the matter would not have been so grave, because nowadays
we also build our houses of worship, hold them in great respect and
seek blessing their means.  We even say that God dwells in them, and
that they are surrounded by angels.  If this were not essential for
the gathering of our community, it would be unknown as it was at the
time of the kings, when the people were forbidden to erect places of
worship called 'heights'.  The pious kings destroyed them lest they
be venerated  beside the house chosen by God in which He was to be
worshipped according to His own  ordinances."

The political realm for Maimonides and Halevi is a realm of images.
All knowledge of the Divine is mediated by images, and except for
certain virtuosos, members of a community know of the existence of
God only through wisely legislated norms of life and worship.  What
constitutes wise norms of worship?  The Bible's doctrine of idolatry
argues that wise norms are those that are fully aware of their own
idolatrous potential....All other religious doctrines, he implicitly
argues, will ultimately be unmasked as illusion.  And as Maimonides
observes about the idolatrous society, its members are bound at some
point to unmask its illusions and cease to believe, consequently 'it
merits destruction'.

Idolatry and illusion are among the permanent problems in every human
collective.  The political task has been and remains the wise
balancing of idolatrous tendencies with the means of overcoming them.
The Torah shows us a path for living in a world of illusion without
succumbing to it.  It teaches us that overcoming idolatry, like
redemption, itself, is an unending human task.  It is the most
essential human work.  Or, to put this in Torah's own language, the
persistence of idolatry should be seen as an extended response to
Korach's unanswered question 'Is not the entire People, holy?'  No,
the People is not holy, but it may become holy, each of them.

Reid Heller
March 2000

<>   *****


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