Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now
In the last post, I argued that a culture of idolatry is built on relative values, which is in contrast to the idea of a single creator who taught a single set of universal, absolute values that do not change with circumstance. This is the first in a series of posts to define a set of universal values.
According to Thomas Cahil, in his books The Gift of the Jews, the Ten Commandments are a great place to start when looking for a universal set of values. The last eight “commandments “reflect a tendency that is already there,” a set of ideas that at a high level are fairly uncontroversial. But what about the first two commandments? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that twenty percent of the Ten Commandments concern idolatry. (In fact as a marketer, 20% of anything will get my attention.)
The first commandment affirms the supremacy and unity of God, and the second forbids the worship of other gods. But one need not be a believer to benefit from a universal set of values. From a humanist standpoint, the first commandment (I am the Lord your God) can be interpreted as “Follow this set of universal values”. The second commandment (You shall worship no other God but me) can be interpreted as “Accept no substitutes.”
Value systems matter – they impact how we make decisions, and what we do in life. And the first two commandments together argue that there is a single set of values that does not change with circumstance. This stands in stark contrast to the sensibilities of the Ancient world, with many gods each with its own set of values. But what is that set of unchanging values?
I discovered as I studied further, that The Ten Commandments don’t hold any special place in Judaism. They are but 10 of 613 commandments in the Torah. (The Torah is the Hebrew word for the five books of Moses in the first half of the Old Testament, which is the foundation of Jewish law and tradition.) This was going in the wrong direction – as much as I like the idea of a set of universal values, it would be impractical and career-limiting to walk around with a Torah Scroll under my arm. I needed a way to summarize the entire Torah in three bullets. Moreover, if the values are truly universal, they should exist in other religions and philosophies from around the world.
The answer for me came once again from the Talmud, a collection of stories and Rabbinic commentary that was compiled ~ 200 C.E.
It happened that a heathen came before [Rabbi] Shammai and said to him “Take me as a proselyte, but on the condition that you teach me the entire Torah, all of it, while I stand on one foot.” Shammai instantly drove him away with a builder’s measuring rod he happened to have in his hand. When the heathen came before [Rabbi] Hillel, Hillel said to him “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man. This is the entire Torah, all of it; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.”[i]
“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man” is the Jewish version of The Golden Rule. The heathen in the story is by definition an idol worshiper (the only monotheistic religion at the time was Judaism.) So therefore the only thing needed to escape idolatry was the Golden Rule. And as we shall see in the next post, the Golden Rule is found in more than a dozen religions and philosophies worldwide.