by Emily Cobert
I returned to the United States at the end of May from studying abroad in Israel. Part of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s (JTS) rabbinical school curriculum includes sending second year students to study in Israel for the year. This was my third time going to Israel, but it was the first time I truly felt like I lived there. Most of our days were spent studying in the Beit Midrash (place of study) reading through our classical Jewish texts and watching the words on the page come to life. It was such an incredible feeling to engage with these ancient texts in the land that most of the ancient rabbis dreamed about journeying to someday. I felt a stronger connection to Judaism while I was studying in Israel. Maybe because Israel is alive with culture, history, religion, community and so much more.
In my Talmud class during the Spring semester, we studied Tractate Avodah Zarah where we learned about idol worship. We examined how the rabbis define “idol worship,” what to do with the idols and how to interact with them if we come across them. One biblical source the rabbis learn from regarding what to do with idols can be found in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Re’eh.
We learn that, “You must [surely] destroy all the sites at which the nations you are to dispossess worshiped their gods, whether on lofty mountains and on hills or under any luxuriant tree” (Deuteronomy 12:2). According to this verse, we are to destroy all of the places in which the idolaters worshiped their gods, even if that includes mountains, hills or aesthetically pleasing trees. My question is how are the Jewish people supposed to live in the world around them when these natural objects exist? Are they supposed to isolate themselves in their homes and not venture outside? What does it mean to “surely destroy” all of the places of idol worship?
It would be ridiculous for the Jewish people to isolate themselves completely from the outside world. They would not be able to go to the market in order to buy food or go to their jobs to make money. One rabbi helps to answer the aforementioned questions – Chizkuni, a French rabbi from the 13th century, suggests that when the Torah says to “…destroy all sites…” it is only talking about the vessels used in sacred worship, not about destroying the earth. Chizkuni also suggests that if one destroys the surface of the earth, then the idol worshipers could turn all the surfaces of the earth into places of worship. This could potentially lead the Jewish people to isolate themselves completely.
It is fascinating to me that this is still an issue we are dealing with today. It was amusing to learn what images the rabbis considered to be part of idol worship (i.e., stars, moon, the constellation, etc.), and yet those images are so prevalent in our modern life. The rabbis found ways to work around this issue to allow the Jewish people to interact with the world around them.
When I was in Israel, it was so easy to be Jewish and to live almost a completely traditional Jewish lifestyle. My return to the United States has tested that due to the distribution of Jewish people around the country, especially in Texas. However, I appreciate the challenge since it allows me to be mindful of my Judaism and how I interact with the world around me. In Israel, it feels like people live, eat and breathe Judaism because the State abides by Jewish law for lifestyle customs, there is less of a concern about coming across forbidden images (i.e., a statue of a person) in Israel. In contrast, one way Americans commemorate important historical figures is through statues of them. Rabbis have found ways for us to abide by Jewish law while also living in the world around us. I am more conscious of my Judaism here in the United States, which I feel helps me connect more with my Jewish community as well as living side by side people of other faith traditions.