Idols and iconoclasts, truths and legends
Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin explores the legend of Abraham the shatterer
From the beginning our ancestors were idol worshipers,” the Haggada tells us.
And while the Haggada continues that God “brought us close” to his worship, many of us know a more dramatic story of the Jewish path to monotheism. That story tells how Abraham’s father, Terach, was an idol merchant and how in his father’s absence Abraham smashes all but the largest idol in the shop and puts the stick in the hand of the remaining statue.
When Terach returns, he asked what happened.
Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin tells the story in his new book, The Gods Are Broken! The Hidden Legacy of Abraham:
“‘Oh, father, it was terrible,’ Abraham said. ‘The small idols got hungry and they started fighting for food, and finally the large idol got angry and he broke them into little pieces.’
“‘Idols don’t get hungry, said Terach. They don’t get angry, they don’t speak — they’re just idols.’
“Upon hearing this, Abraham smiled and said: ‘Oh, father, if only your ears could hear what your mouth is saying. Why, then, do you worship them?’”
This story is at the heart of the new book by Salkin, who began his writing career in 1992 with Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Subsequent books explored such topics as spirituality in the workplace and what it means to be a Jewish man.
Salkin, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey office, recently announced he is leaving that post to become religious leader at a Bayonne synagogue (see page 7).
He had been fascinated with the story of Abraham and the idols since he first read it as a youngster in an illustrated children’s book. After teaching it for many years, he said, he decided to make an “all-out inquiry into its origins and implications.”
One basic point about the story’s origin: It’s not actually found in the Torah.
Instead, its earliest version crops up in the Book of Jubilees — a once-popular retelling of the Torah written by an unknown Jewish author, probably around 150 BCE, which was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
While the Book of Jubilees was not preserved by Jews, the legend appeared in the Talmud, in Bereishit Rabbah.
And it appears in the Koran. Salkin has taught the story to groups of Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
“Imagine the power of men wearing kipot, women wearing hijabs, men wearing Islamic headgear, Christians bareheaded — all studying together,” he said. “A Muslim woman from Bosnia sent me an e-mail afterward. She said it was the most powerful spiritual experience.”
Salkin said the story of Abraham smashing the idols is at the core of “what it means to be an heir of Abraham and an heir of the prophet. Judaism should not be the affirmation of what we already believe; it should challenge us in some way.
“I’d always suspected and had always known that we Jews are a people that have rejected easy truths and accepted wisdom. What I found surprising was how that pattern of thinking has resonated throughout Jewish history,” he said.
One area that The Gods Are Broken! examines is the origins of anti-Semitism. Salkin argues that “Judaism’s moral excellence” and “ability to say no to the dominant ideology” have been provocative factors throughout the centuries.
“Remember that the Israelites before departing Egypt are told to acquire a lamb and then to slaughter it. Remember that the lamb is one of the principal gods of Egypt. So they are in effect slaughtering one of the gods of Egypt. Not only were they getting out of Egypt, but Egypt was getting out of them.
“Fast forward to the Christian anti-Semitic accusation that the Jews killed God. Anti-Semitic kids used to yell that at me when I was a child. I confess I don’t know how anyone can kill a god, but the charge of deicide stung,” he said.
“I’m grateful for the reforms in the Catholic church that led to the charge being both baseless and passe,” he added.
Salkin looks at idolatry broadly. “The worship of false gods is part and parcel of the worship of false values within a culture. For example, the legend — which has Terach as an idol merchant — implies a consumerist culture, where we are what we buy, and we are what we are able to create. In our time, this is a very powerful lesson,” he said.
“It’s also important to note that Abraham in the legend was 13 years old when he shattered the idols. It becomes one of the rabbinic tradition’s bases for bar mitzva. We celebrate coming of age by remembering Abraham’s rejecting the idolatrous truths of his father.”
In the course of the book, Salkin explores what such a rejection means.
He concludes, “We have our work cut out for us: to be careful about what we worship, for truly what we worship is what we become.”