As we move from Passover to Shavuot, we relive the mythic story of movement from slavery to the freedom necessary to experience revelation. Egypt is often equated with slavery – in the first commandment, God tells Israel “I have taken you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage (avadim).”
The Hebrew word avadim could also mean idol-worship, and understanding the Exodus as freedom from idolatry intrigues me. What is the significance of idol-worship for today? Idolatry seems so….biblical. No one really worships little stone figures anymore, right? And anyway, isn’t religious intolerance a major contributing factor to many of the ills in the world?
For many years, I assumed the term “idolatry” was more or less retired from active duty on the theological dream team. However, I came across an understanding of idolatry that has now convinced me that my appreciation of the state of Israel hinges precisely on an ongoing struggle against idolatry.
Erich Fromm defines idolatry as alienation from self. When we give up our power and locate it outside of ourselves – by placing athletes and stars on pedestals, by blaming others for our circumstances, etc. – we are practicing idolatry. Idolatry means giving up the freedom of choice; idolatry means quieting our creativity until we are static and powerless.
The modern state of Israel is in my humble opinion a magnificent case study on this understanding of idolatry. On the one hand, Israel represents the best of the struggle against idolatry: It was founded on a premise of locating power within the Jewish people, instead of in external governments. In so many ways Israel has required and inspired tremendous creativity, in the arts, literature, technology, and more. Yet there are ways in which choice is constricted, where religious creativity is seen as illegitimate, when power becomes its own excuse and thus enslaves those who think they wield it.
For me, Israel represents the ongoing journey out of Egypt – out of a land of static bonds that hold back the creative free spirit.
Jay LeVine recently earned his Masters of Jewish Education at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, where he will be continuing for his fourth year of rabbinical school in the fall. He grew up in southeastern Arizona and graduated from the University of Arizona with bachelor’s degrees in Finance and Judaic Studies. Among his passions are Hebrew poetry, indie music, and Jewish books. Check out his blog at jayasherlevine.com.