The Idolatry Of Preconceived Notions

Dear Friends,

I’m sure that everyone here knows the expression, “Nice work if you can get it.” It’s a saying that often pops into my mind when I think of something that’s easy to say but not so easy to do. Like, for example, “Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today.” Yes, nice work if you can get it. Although, the deceased father of a member of our congregation used to like to say, “Why put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the day after tomorrow?”

“Nice work if you can get it” also applies to many noble sounding, high-minded platitudes that nobody will disagree with in principle, things that make us feel good about ourselves when we say them, even though acting on them is much harder.

For example, one of the very first things that the Torah says about human beings, in the very first chapter of Genesis, in fact, is that we are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. It’s a beautiful thought, that we are created in the divine image. But, honestly, what does it mean? And, more important in a tradition like ours that requires sacred action, what does it mean to put the concept of “the image of God” into practice in our lives?

There is a legal text from the Mishna, from a section on jurisprudence known as Sanhedrin. The text talks about how a witness in a capital murder case was “intimidated” by the judge before offering testimony. The judge would say, to paraphrase, “Look, if this case were about financial damages, and you lied about it, and we later found out, we would go after you to make financial restitution. But given that false testimony on your part would cause somebody to be wrongly put to death, this is a much bigger deal.”

The text then cites part of the story of Cain and Abel, in which God says to Cain, “Hark! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the earth!” The word for blood - d’may - looks, in the Hebrew, like a plural form – literally, “bloods.” And the text from the Mishnah says that this “plural” form, “bloods,” is to remind us that Cain not only shed the blood of Abel, but also the blood of all of the unborn descendants of Abel, who would now never come into the world.

Having now established the gravity of giving false testimony in a capital murder case, the Mishnah Sanhedrin text asks, “Why, in the creation story, does the Torah tell us in the language of the singular, that “God created the human being,” when in the case of all the other creatures the language is plural: “God created creatures that swarm, God created creatures that fly through the air,”and so on?

According to Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a great modern Orthodox rabbi with whom I’ve had the opportunity to study on two occasions, the way the rabbis respond to that question of the first human being created “alone” constitutes their definition of what it means to be created in God’s image.

First, they say, when a human king has new currency minted in honor of his ascending to the throne, he stamps his image on those coins, and every coin looks alike. But, when God stamps God’s image on us, we all come out looking different. Thus, Rabbi Greenberg taught, being created in God’s image means that each of us is unique.

Second, the Rabbis say, a single human being was created first so that no person might ever be able to say to another, “My lineage is more distinguished than yours.” So, Rabbi Greenberg taught, we learned that being created in God’s image means understanding that all people are equal.

Finally, the Rabbis say, a single human being was created first to teach you that “Whoever destroys a single life, it is as if they have destroyed the entire world. And whoever saves a single life, it is as if they have saved the life of the entire world.” Thus, taught Rabbi Irving Greenberg, being created in God’s image means being a creature of infinite value.

This brings us back to “nice work if you can get it.” What would it actually mean to treat every person that we encounter as An Image of God? What kind of behavior would we manifest if we understood that each person we encounter is unique, equal and of infinite worth?

I want to suggest that it would have something to do with being fully awake to each human counter, not trapped in preconceived notions we think that person is. It’s a point made by Rabbi Mordechai of Ishbitz, an early and somewhat controversial Hasidic teacher.

The part of the Torah that Rabbi Mordechai draws upon comes right after the dramatic story of the Israelites creating an idol, The Golden Calf, out of molten gold. Moses pleads with God not to destroy the Israelites, but to give them another chance. God finally agrees, and part of the agreement is a renewed emphasis on the laws surrounding idolatry, including, “Molten gods you shall not make for yourself,” in Chapter 34, verse 17.

Rabbi Mordechai’s interpretation is startling. He teaches, “Molten – this refers to generalizations. And concerning this, Scripture is saying that when you have the explicit understanding of the heart, you must not look to generalizations to determine your behavior, but with the understanding of the heart you will know how to behave in each specific case…”

We all depend on certain generalizations to maintain our sanity and our safety in many situations. Living in complete openness, without any expectations at all is also “nice work if you can get it.” But I think Rabbi Mordechai’s teaching, when applied to the way we encounter other human beings, might suggest that our generalizations diminish that image of God. Our generalizations become idolatrous, telling us that we really “have a handle on” this person is, we know how they will behave and what they will say and what they will want. And that kind of approach, filtered through generalizations and expectations, blinds us to their uniqueness, value and equality.

Let me give you one quick and interesting example.

As many of you know, last weekend Sarah Avner and I went to Washington, DC, for a Reform Judaism and social justice weekend at our movement’s Religious Action Center. There, they were among 420 Reform Jewish teenagers from all over the United States. After a weekend of learning about Reform Jewish movement positions on all sorts of social justice challenges and various, current legislation pending in Congress and relevant to those issues, they carefully and laboriously prepared presentations to make in the offices of their Senators and Representatives – presentations on a single issue that mattered most to them.

I posted a bunch of photos on Facebook throughout the weekend, and one of them showed our students sitting in the office waiting room of Sen. Ted Cruz, waiting to go into a conference room and speak with one of his Legislative Assistants.

As you might guess, lots of people posted comments giving their opinions of Sen. Cruise and also offering tongue in cheek “condolences” on the task of being in that particular Senator’s office.

Well, guess what? Perfectly illustrating Rabbi Menachem’s teaching about the idolatry of generalizations, it was the single best lobbying experience that we had, and that in spite of the fact that every position that the students presented on issues like reproductive rights and GLBT equality were hopelessly at odds, as far as I know, with any policies that Sen. Cruz has ever supported.

The first generalization and expectation was demolished when we were ushered into Sen. Cruz’ conference room by a clean-cut, 26-year-old Legislative Aide who introduced himself as David Milstein, a “member of the tribe” from Virginia. (And, for what it’s worth, the Legislative Aide for Congressman Michael McCaul was a recent college graduate and alumna of her Temple’s NFTY program who was “super excited” to meet with a group from the Religious Action Center teen program.)

The second generalization and expectation – that nobody in Sen. Cruise’s office would have the energy to even feign interest in what our kids had to say – was also laid to rest as David, the Legislative Assistant, paid careful attention to everything our students had to say, engaged them in conversation and asked them to email the text of their presentations to him so that he could share them with staff. This, by the way, stood in chart contrast to a few of the other legislative aides who just sat there and didn’t even bother pretending to take notes.

And then, there was the generalization and expectation-shattering experience, at least for our kids, of having a conversation with a staunchly politically conservative Jew, someone who specifically aspired to work in Sen. Ted Cruz’s office and believed he would make “a great president.”

I should also add that young Mr. Milstein, when one of the students asked him how one gets as a Legislative Assistant went into great detail and concluded by saying, “Whatever your political views, this is a great thing to do with your life, a great way to make a difference.”

So… When we cannot see beyond the “golden calf” of our preconceived notions, are generalizations and expectations about other people, we forget that they are created in God’s image – unique, precious and equal to us. But when we meet them as they are, and not as we believe they are or should be, we may be surprised at just how idolatrous (and laughable) our generalizations can be.

Shabbat Shalom.
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