I get the Economist each week and usually, Hebrew-style, read it from the back forward. First the Obituary, then books, then science and technology and sometimes I even make it to the front of the magazine to see what they think editorially.
A recent edition had an obit for a man who had been dead for two years already. I’ve never seen one like it:
AS RECENTLY as July 15th Mullah Muhammad Omar, the one-eyed leader of the Taliban, reassured his followers... It was a message from beyond the grave. On July 29th the Afghan government confirmed ... that the mysterious leader had in fact died in April 2013.
In 2001, before 9/11, when he was very much alive in March of that year, his followers executed his edict to destroy all idolatrous sculptures in Afghanistan, specifically two enormous statues of Buddha carved into a cliff-face. Using tanks and rocket launchers they began to destroy works which had survived Genghis Khan, since the second century CE, from 1,000 years before the arrival of Islam. But they finally met their match in the Taliban.
The newsworthiness of Mullah Omar’s iconoclasm has now been overshadowed by ISIS and its animosity towards ancient artifacts. The Torah portion this week animates those edicts upon which such annihilation is based. Deuteronomy 12:2-4: Destroy all the sites where the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains, the hills or under any luxuriant tree. Tear down their altars, smash their pillars, put their sacred posts to the fire, their statues cut down and obliterate their names from that site. Don’t worship the Lord Your God in this way.
Extremist Islam, when it acts like ISIS and the Taliban, is simply acting Biblically. These commands may have made sense and even been minimally justifiable when the Israelite faith was in its infancy and thus in a state of flux and insecurely rooted.
There are two lessons I glean from the Omar Obit and the Torah portion: 1. Religious Insecurity leads to destruction. 2. Power is often correlated with a leader’s invisibility. Mullah Omar’s secret identity allowed him to influence his followers even 2 years after his death!
The final verse of the section I quoted hints at the power of invisibility. Don’t do thus to the Lord your God. The contextual meaning is, Don’t allow there to be competition for the Lord your God but I choose to read it differently for the 21st Century: Don’t allow the Lord your God to be vulnerable to destruction like a post, altar or statue.
The ancient Temples had neither a statue that was God nor one that represented God. The Holy of Holies held an ark with the evidence of God’s verbal communication with us, the ten commandments, a record of invisible vibrations in the air, vibrations that are still pulsing among the Jewish people millennia after they were spoken. Only the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies one day a year on Yom Kippur and pronounce God’s name, a name we haven’t heard in 2000 years.
Perhaps it’s God’s hiddenness that has allowed Biblical literalism to be superceded even among the majority of our most orthodox of co-religionists. Maimonides himself said that if we ever got the Temple mount back we wouldn’t need to rebuild the Temple itself since the sacrificial system was no longer necessary to worship God. God gave us a verbal message. Even 800 years ago we were responding to God verbally in return.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, God’s new abode is Shabbat, a palace of time, a palace of relationship creation and nurturing. May this new Temple of Time reverberate with words of love, may it provide respite from the world of work, may it provide opportunity for good food and conversation, a space for relationships to be nurtured and cemented, giving us no reason for the kind of insecurity that leads us to the destruction of ancient works of art, remnants of faiths that no longer threaten us.