In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

65 5 | The Primal Trauma of the Jewish People For many years rabbis, Jewish educators, and parents have been recounting the legend of Abraham and the broken idols. The story has made numerous guest appearances in sermons and Jewish textbooks . Rabbi Marc Gellman of Melville, New York, even created a miniature Jewish “holiday” around the story. Every year on the Sabbath when Jews read the text in Genesis about God’s call to Abraham (Lekh Lekha), Gellman issues an “Idolater of the Year” award to a public figure who had demonstrated a propensity for bad values. But, as we now know, we have traditionally retold only the “official ” part of the broken idols tale. No one really knows how the story begins: as an episode in an idol store. Similarly, most don’t know how the story ends: Terah . brings Abraham to stand trial before King Nimrod. Nimrod throws Abraham into a fiery furnace, but his brother, Haran, instead dies in his place. What Jewish educator would have told that last piece of the story even had he or she known it? It is a horrific tale: a father brings a young boy to a capricious tyrannical despot and allows the king to throw his son into a fiery furnace, all in the name of an ancient, obscure religion—and then watches as his other son is burned to death. It is a great story to tell in a synagogue religious school assembly—that is, if your goal is to produce nightmares among impressionable children and have a line of Jewish parents waiting outside your office door to complain. Judaism is not supposed to be like a Stephen King novel. But, let us now imagine something utterly outrageous. 66 THE PRIMAL TRAUMA OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE Imagining that the Midrash “Really” Happened Let us imagine, mischievously, that the entire story of the breaking of the idols “really” happened. As we read in chapter 2, the first source of the “ancestors as idolaters” theme appeared at the end of the biblical book of Joshua. There, at Shechem, the Israelites renewed the covenant. Joshua, Moses’s successor, reminded them of their idolatrous past—a speech, says scholar Israel Knohl, that might have served as the reawakening of a long-ago repressed tribal memory. We read as well that the first rumblings of the “broken idols” story appeared in the post-biblical work of Jubilees, which was composed just a few centuries after the canonization of the Torah. Considering how long it takes a nation’s lore to develop, a few centuries are a mere drop in the bucket of time. So, for the sake of argument, let’s imagine the following alternative scenario—an ancient Jewish “counter-history.” Yes, the story of the broken idols is “true.” Yes, the ancestors of the Israelites were idolaters. Joshua knew that, and he reminded the Israelites of that. The suppressed, idolatrous Israelite past kept resurfacing. It came back in the form of numerous Torah and prophetic injunctions against idolatry. After all, the Israelites lived in the land of Israel, which was the land of Canaan, home to the idolatrous Canaanites. Couldn’t they have imagined that the presumably “dead” idols would have crawled out of the ground where they were buried, to taunt the Israelites: “Here we are! We’re back! Worship us! You know you want to!” Yes, the temptation to idolatry was always there, and the archeologist’s spade makes it clear that the idols were there as well. As we have said before, there is always a distinction between “official” religion and “folk” religion. “Official” Judaism is Torah study, worship, synagogue life, and mitzvot. “Folk” religion (which might be fading with the passing of the generations) comes in the form of the bubbe meise, the “grandmother’s story” of various superstitions and food customs. THE PRIMAL TRAUMA OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE 67 So, too, in medieval and late medieval Europe, the widespread fear of witchcraft—a fear that was exported to the New England colonies—was most likely the remnant of old Celtic customs that had merely gone “underground” after the advent of Christianity.1 For the ancient Israelites, the “official” religion was what we might call “Mosaim”: the observance of the commandments that Moses had first imparted to them. But that was just the official religion. The folk religion would have contained the seductive elements of idolatry, or some kind of fetishistic attachment to cultic objects. Any accurate reading of the...


Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.