What is the Modern Equivilant to Idolatry?

            April/May 2012    
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Is Today's Idolatry: Sex, Money, and Video Games?

By Walter D. Levy

"There's more to it than just images, objects and symbols," the rabbi said. "There is also distraction," he continued. "Distraction," I repeated. "Yes, distraction," the rabbi reiterated. Well, just then, the chapel door opened. The tenth member needed to form our morning minyan had arrived. The rabbi then proceeded to move in front of the Aron Kodesh. He was now ready to lead us in the shacharit service.

I had, that morning, been speaking to our rabbi about idols and idolatry. It's a topic that had always interested me. I had first learned about idols in my cheder class when our teacher discussed the story of "The Golden Calf" in the Book of Exodus (Shemot). Over the years, my thoughts on this topic had broadened. The rabbi's comments that morning had only served to pique my interest; it prompted me to search for a deeper meaning.

Well, as I drove home from shul that day, I thought about what the rabbi had just said. I was particularly intrigued with the rebbe's use of the word "distraction". What did he mean by distraction? What part did distraction play with regard to idolatry? The more I thought about it, the more I absorbed I became. I decided to take a closer look at the question of idols as distractions.

The first thing I did was to make a mental list of items that had been - or could be classified - as idols. Oh, of course, there was "The Golden Calf" and other Biblical references, but what about modern-day idols? I started with sex. As I understood my Jewish teachings, sex is a mitzvah when engaged in by a loving husband and wife. And even when couples abstain (for reasons such as menstruation), that lull may give rise to Freudian sublimation (spiritual redirection of the libido) that leads to creations, such as poetry, literature, artistic works, inventions, etc. Yet, according to Jewish law, when it comes to sex, there must be both a "knowing," and an "understanding" - a mutual respect and appreciation for one another - before the couple can have what would be labeled: a meaningful sexual relationship. In Judaism, sex entails commitment and responsibility. In Judaism, sex for personal satisfaction is wrong. Sex becomes a problem when it becomes an all-consuming preoccupation. When it regresses into a selfish, power-driven, manipulative act.

Well then, I thought about money. I felt a sense of ambivalence. Oh, I said to myself, "Isn't money often referred to as 'the root of all evil'?" But then I posited, "We need money to live. In addition, we can do so much good for others with money." Yet, I thought, "There is and has been, for centuries, a preoccupation with money." To a greater or lesser degree, the accumulation of money appears to pervade much of what we do in the modern world. But, when does that pursuit become idolatrous behavior? When does money rule us, instead of us ruling it? Well, as I finished pondering the possible idolatrous nature of money, I remembered one of the lines from the lyrics of Fiddler on the Roof's "If I Were A Rich Man". It goes (as it relates to a long staircase): "And one more leading nowhere, just for show."

Yes, even today's younger generation have their own obsessions. One of the most prevalent is the youthful preoccupation with video games. There are, in today's world, so many games (new ones come on the market every day) that young people are becoming consumed with buying and playing them. To make things even more complicated, there exists a variety of different platforms and genres. There are even "virtual pet" games where one can feed, take a walk with, groom, and even play frisbee with your "virtual pet". I believe that the playing of video games - when it becomes limiting, all-captivating and pervasive - could be labeled as idolatrous.

As I thought further about this topic, I came up with other examples of possible modern-day idols: drugs, gambling, narcissism, gluttony, materialism, even recreation and leisure.

Well, after I had completed my list , I then asked myself, "When do these pursuits - sex, money, video games, etc. - become distractions?" I theorized that all these quests become distractions when we become so obsessed with their acquisition that it crowds out everything else in our lives. These factors become a substitute for all that we should be holding most dear, including our families and our Judaic beliefs. At this time, I began to refer to these "idols" as "The Great Deceivers". They are "deceivers" because we become so preoccupied with them that they divert our attention. They deflect our minds away from more important pursuits. They have become - as the rabbi stated - a "distraction". But, distractions from what? They are, I concluded, a distraction from G-d Himself. They are a distraction from our oneness with G-d. These distractions turn us away from G-d's beliefs and values They come between us and our Jewish teachings and heritage.

Yes, G-d has created us. He's chosen us. We are His people. He's given us freedom to make choices, but He also has high expectations for us. G-d is a loving G-d. He loves His people, but He wants their obedience. He wants His people to follow His Commandments. He has put us on earth for a purpose. He wants His people to do good deeds. He wants them to "repair the world" (tikkun olam). Although he is loving and forgiving, He can become angry and frustrated with us. If we ignore Him, we do so at our own peril. He wants His people's undivided attention. His hope is that we, His people, will love Him and honor him by following His Commandments.

Furthermore, although G-d is slow to anger, even His understanding and kindness can wear thin. Yet, even when we've gone astray, He gives us every opportunity to find oneness with Him. However, despite His loving kindness, there can be just so many reprieves before we must accept the consequences for ignoring Him. Doesn't G-d say in the First Commandment of the "Aseret Hadiberot" ("Ten Commandments"), "I am the Lord your G-d." He is calling upon us to obey the glorious truth that He is our G-d. His Second Commandment states: "Thou shalt have no other gods before Me." He says this because his is a "jealous G-d". He watches over us lovingly. He's committed to our relationship with Him.

Well, just then, I began pulling into my driveway. As I walked from my car to the house, I recalled what the rabbi had said just as I was leaving the chapel: "We can gain uncommon benefits. We can find true happiness. We can achieve inner peace. If only we are willing to avoid distractions."


from the April 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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