Helping the Chronically Overworked Find Life Balance

Is the Sacrifice Of Family Time For Work Idolatry?

Moloch Was Worshiped by Burning Children Alive

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then and Now Part 1

Each Chapter begins with a personal story from my life to set the tone.  Here is the story for Chapter 2.

Until a few years ago, the last I had thought about idolatry was in Sunday school when I heard the story of Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop.  As a precocious, independent-minded boy in grade school, I loved a story that combined sticking it to your dad with smashing things. On a deeper level, I was very impressed with Abraham’s cleverness.  He found a simple way to reveal a deeper truth about the world that his father was unable to deny. 

A common question I get goes something like this “Dude, idolawhat?  I’m trying to get my life together, don’t go to church, and you are dropping the Old Testament on me.

Ok, I hear you.  If you want to go on vacation for a few weeks and come back after I’ve covered the section on Idolatry, I won’t hold it against you.  But, you may be surprised at how strongly the age-old conflict against idolatry resonates today.

The term idolatry is both loaded and complex.  In fact, some people have told me that the term “idolatry” has too much religious baggage, and is something they are uncomfortable having associated with their work life.  I understand that too.  The word idolatry does carry judgmental and religious connotations, and rightly so as it was first introduced to the world to contrast the first monotheistic religion with the polytheistic practices of the time.

Let me be clear that I am referring to polytheism as it was practiced in the ancient world, and not to modern day pagan or polytheistic religions.  In ancient civilizations like Canaan, Babylon and Greece, people worshipped multiple gods via statues know as idols.  And much of it was barbaric – the most egregious of which was child sacrifice to Moloch.

Moloch, which was made of brass; and they heated him from his lower parts; and his hands being stretched out, and made hot, they put the child between his hands, and it was burnt, when it vehemently cried out; but the priests beat a drum, that the father might not hear the voice of his son, and his heart might not be moved. [1. Rashi commenting on Jeremiah 7:31]

Over time, the view of idolatry has changed from statue worship to human behavior.  For example, The thirteenth century Rabbi Menahem Ha-Meiri wrote that idolatry is characterized by a lawless and amoral lifestyle, and not by number of gods or issues of theological doctrine per se[i].

I have come to believe that idolatry is the adoption of a value system that conflicts with certain universal, people-first values.  Over the course of this chapter, I will explain why I believe this, through stories and a sampling of philosophical thought from the last few thousand years.  This definition steps outside the bounds of religious doctrine, and into the realm of human behavior and psychology.  Since the days of the clay statues, idolatry keeps coming back in new forms, because it is something that grows out of the human heart.

Corporate Idolatry is the adoption of a value system that prioritizes the company over the people in your life.  Have you ever made a personal sacrifice for the company, a sacrifice that came at the expense of  your family?

_________

[i] Idolatry by Moshe Habertal and Avishai Margali.  Translated by Naomi Goldblum.  Harvard University Press.  P. 212.

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Three Stories About Abraham Leading Change

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Post 2

The story of idolatry begins with Abraham, who is revered in the Judeo/Christian/Islamic faiths as the person who first believed in God.  But the biblical account of Abraham starts with his life as an adult, following God’s direction.  In Judaism, there is a wide collection of additional stories and commentary about Abrhams life.  In this story that I first learned as a child, Abraham elegantly shows that the statues people worshiped were false gods.

Abraham’s father Terah made and sold clay idols that the people of ancient Sumeria worshipped as gods.  One day when Abraham was left to watch the shop, he put a plate of food in the middle of room and smashed all the idols except the largest one.  “There was a fight over the food,” he explained,” and the largest one smashed the others.”[i]  This claim was absurd, and Terah called Abraham on his bold-faced lie.  “Statues cannot move.  I made them with my own hands.”  To which Abraham replied “Then why do you worship them?”

Abraham’s father was in an untenable position.  To tolerate the challenge to idolatry was to risk the wrath of the king, for the king was a godlike figure himself and thus a challenge to idolatry was indirectly a challenge to the king’s authority.

The Talmud tells another story of Abraham in his father’s shop[ii], in which people asked for idols that reflected their self-image.  For example, a man asked for an idol that reflected his high station, and was happy to be given an idol from the top shelf.  “The one who sits above all the others is the mightiest of all.”  Conversely, a poor woman was satisfied to be given an idol from the lowest shelf.  This story in exaggerated form shows the pervasive role idols played in everyday life. (For the record, both people demanded their money back after Abraham started mocking them for giving devotion to a piece of clay.)

On another occasion, The Talmud says that Abraham put a noose around the neck of two idols, and dragged them face down through the street calling “Who wishes to buy an idol good for nothing?  It has a mouth but cannot speak, eyes but cannot see, and ears but cannot hear? Who wishes to waste his money on dumb things made of wood and stone?” [iii]  

Now that is what I call Social Media Sumarian Style.  I guess it worked, because Abraham certainly built a following!  Of course like all advertising, the message was only as good as the underlying product. I think Abraham reached people who were already conflicted or unhappy about the social order, and were ready for a change.

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[i] The Classic Tales 4,000 years of Jewish Lore by Ellen Frankel.  Jason Aronson Inc 1993. p. 50

[ii] Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah Legends from the Talmud and Midrash. Edited by Hayim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravinitzky.  Translated by William Braude.  Schoken books 1992. p. 32:8

[iii] The Classic Tales 4,000 Years of Jewish Lore by Ellen Frankel  Jason Aronson Inc p. 51

Early History Of Idolatry

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 3

Abraham lived in Sumer, the ancient civilization that some scholars estimate began around 5,000 BC.  People there lived largely an agrarian existence, and were at the mercy of forces beyond their control or understanding – floods, famine, war.  Politically, Sumer was a collection of city states, each ruled by a god/king or a god/priest.  Imagine a world with hundreds of gods, both great and minor, that existed in a complex hierarchy. At the top were major gods like Anu the god of heaven, and Enlil god of the sky. There was also a regional god for each city state, who in theory owned all of the land, and was thought to live in the ziggurat, the giant structure that sat in the middle of a Sumerian city.  There were gods of cattle, water, land.  There were household gods, plus an array of amulets and charms that people wore to ward off evil spirits.

What this meant was that values were relative.  Right and wrong depended on where you lived, and where you sat in the hierarchy.  If you sat at the top, you were one of the gods, or a god’s emissary, and had little restraints on power.  It was a might makes right world.

Abraham introduced something different, a single supreme creator of the world that offered a single set of values that applied equally to everyone.  This did in fact earn Abraham the wrath of the king, a story I will return to in Chapter 7, Secure Your Identity.  In the next post, we’ll look at the values introduced by Judaism (e.g. The Ten Commandments), as a starting point in the search for universal values.

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The Search For Universal Values I: The Ten Commandments

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now

The Search For Universal Values I: The Ten Commandments

20% of the Ten Commandments Concern Idolatry

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.  “The Search For Universal Values I: The Ten Commandments” 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.

Note: This post is an excerpt from Busting Your Corporate Idol: Self Help for the Chronically Overworked, a 5 Star Amazon Best Seller in the Work Life Balance Category. Learn more.


[i]  Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah Legends from the Talmud and Midrash. Edited by Hayim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravinitzky.  Translated by William Braude.  Schoken books 1992. p 207

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The Search For Universal Values II: The Golden Rule.

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 5

In the last few posts, I have been contrasting idolatry as a system of relative values with a set of universal values that do not change with circumstance. And what are those universal values? I argued that the Ten Commandments are a good place to start, but are insufficient in part because ten is too many values to keep track of.  Then, I discovered The Golden Rule – found in over 15 religions and philosophies worldwide.

In 1993, 300 representatives of the world’s religions met in Chicago in an attempt to define a Global Ethic – a set of universal ethical principles.[i]  The cornerstone of this Global ethic was determined to be the Ethic of Reciprocity, aka the Golden Rule, because it is found in so many different religions and philosophies worldwide.

The Golden Rule In World Religions

Religion Statement
Old Testament Love thy neighbor as thyself

Leviticus 19:18[39]

Judaism That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation.  Talmud
Christianity Do to others as you would have them do to you.  Luke 6:31
Buddhism Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.    Udana-Varga 5,1
Islam No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.   Sunnah
Hinduism This is the sum of duty; do naught onto others what you would not have them do unto you.  Mahabharata 5,1517
Confucianism Never impose on others what you would not choose for yourself. Analects 12:2
Jainism Just as pain is not agreeable to you, it is so with others. Knowing this principle of equality, treat the other with compassion.
Taoism Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.
Humanism Ethic of reciprocity: people should aim to treat each other as they would like to be treated themselves – with tolerance, consideration and compassion.
Pima Indians (Arizona) Do not wrong or hate your neighbor. For it is not he who you wrong but yourself.
The Yoruba people of Nigeria One going to take a pointed stick to pinch a baby bird should first try it on himself to feel how it hurts.
The Ba-Congo people of Angola O Man, O woman, what you do not like, do not do to your fellows. 
The Platinum Rule Treat others the way they want to be treated

Amazingly, babies as young as six months show a strong preference for puppets who shared with other puppets over puppets who did not.  [ii] Yale professor Paul Bloom, discusses his resultsWhen looking across the versions of the Golden rule in the table, the bottom line seems to be: consider the needs of other people before you take an action.  Language is imperfect and I am convinced that these versions of the Golden Rule are all expressing the same core idea that is a fundamental part of human nature.

These findings constitute evidence that preverbal infants assess individuals on the basis of their behavior towards others. This capacity may serve as the foundation for moral thought and action, and its early developmental emergence supports the view that social evaluation is a biological adaptation.[iii]

In summary, the first universal value is The Golden Rule, because it is found in numerous cultures and religions world wide, and it seems to be build on an innate human ability to assess how individuals treat one another. But as we shall see in the next post, following The Golden Rule is not sufficient, because in the real world there are people who will take advantage of those who are too giving.


[i] Scarboro Missions Golden Rule and Golden Ethic – https://www.scarboromissions.ca/Golden_rule/global_ethic.php retrieved July 5, 2012

[ii] The Moral Life of Babies Paul Bloom May 5, 2010 New York Times

[iii] Social evaluation by preverbal infants. Hamlin JK, Wynn K, Bloom P. Nature. 2007 Nov 22;450(7169):557-9.

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Protect Yourself From a Sociopath in the Office

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 6

In the last post, I argued that The Golden Rule, which states that we should consider and incorporate the needs of other people before we take action, is a universal value.  But in my opinion, the Golden Rule is not sufficient as a guideline.  If we only consider the needs of other people, we risk losing sight of the needs of the most important person, oneself.  What is more, not everyone follows the Golden Rule, which can be a surprise to those who do.  “Simon,” a director at a mid-sized corporation in the Midwest, shared his experience with me.

“I was at a management offsite, a touchy feely thing.  I brought up the Golden Rule, [as a model for how to interact with others.] One guy said ‘that doesn’t work for me, because I don’t care how I am treated.’ He was almost sociopathic about it.  He would do what it took to get ahead. It wasn’t like he was even trying to hide it. That just amazed me that there were people out there like that.”   Simon discovered that he had been operating according to a different set of values than some of his coworkers.  Could the person he was referring to actually have been a sociopath?

A sociopath is someone who does not have a conscience, and according to Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, up to 4% the population could fit the clinical definition of a sociopath.  And treating a sociopath “as you would like to be treated” is a recipe to be taken advantage of at best, and inviting disaster at worst.

Ok, maybe talking about sociopaths is a bit extreme, but I am trying to illustrate a point: while The Golden Rule is a universal value, it is not sufficient to cover every circumstance.  So I have another rule I live by – the “Don’t Be a Doormat Rule.”  I also call it the Rule of Self-Preservation.  Simply put, it says that you have a duty to look out for your own welfare, because if you don’t, who will?  In the next chapter, we will begin to examine corporations and company-first values.  And sometimes, putting the company first runs counter to the Rule of Self-Preservation.

What do you think of the Rule of Self-Preservation?  Here is a table of quotes that support the position.

Quotes that support The Rule of Self Preservation

Natural law includes our right to self-preservation and forbids humans from taking actions destructive to their own lives. Thomas HobbesLeviathan
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. Declaration of Independence
Chi pensa per se, pensa per tre.Anyone who thinks for himself things for three. Italian proverb, similar to He who looks after himself will be able to look after his/her family.
Put on your [oxygen] mask before assisting others Airline safety instruction
If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun. Not at the head, where a fatal wound might result. But at some other body part, such as a leg.[i] The Dali Lama, answering a question about self defense.
“Pray for what you want, but work for the things you need.”“What is done for you – allow it to be done.
What you must do yourself – make sure you do it.”
Essential Sufism http://www.katinkahesselink.net/sufi/quotes.html retrieved 3/21/2012
Keep five yards from a carriage, ten yards from a horse, and a hundred yards from an elephant; but the distance one should keep from a wicked man cannot be measured. Indian Proverb


[i] Bernton, Hal (15 May 2001). “Dalai Lama urges students to shape the world”. Archives.seattletimes.nwsource.com. Retrieved 29 Feb 2012.

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Idolatry, Duality, and Free Will

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 8

Judaism teaches that God created man with two competing impulses, the good impulse and the evil impulse.  But this translation from the Hebrew is imperfect, as explained by Jeffrey Spitzer, Chairman of the Department of Rabbinic Literature at the Gann Academy.  “[The evil impulse] is not a demonic force that pushes a person to do evil, but rather a drive toward pleasure or property or security, which if left unlimited, can lead to evil (cf. Genesis Rabbah 9:7). When properly controlled by the [good impulse, the evil impulse] leads to many socially desirable results, including marriage, business, and community.[i]

This description of the struggle between the good and evil impulses are very consistent with current theories about the brain and human psychology today.  Our base drives and instincts derive from the more primitive parts of the brain (the so-called Reptilian Brain) whereas our social, cooperative, and compassionate traits come from the more evolved regions of the brain like the frontal cortex.  And often the different regions of the brain are in conflict.  (For a detailed discussion, check out Paul Gilbert’s Compassionate Mind Foundation here).

Here are two additional descriptions of the evil impulse from the Talmud that I find illuminating, especially with respect to idolatry.

“The first impulse to evil is as thin as a spider’s gossamer, but in the end it is as think as a cart rope.[ii]

“Such is the nature of the impulse to evil: One day it bids a man ‘Do this’; the next day “do that”; until finally it says to him Go worship idols.  And he goes and worships them.[iii]

What do these teach us?  The first teaches that once we begin to compromise our values, we begin to compromise them more frequently, and to a larger degree.  The new values become ingrained, and a habit.  (Which by the way, is entirely consistent with contemporary neurobiology research showing that repeated actions reinforce certain neural pathways.)

The second teaches that idolatry is not a single act.  It is a pattern that develops over time.  And both point to a view of idolatry as something that arises from basic human nature.  If we give in to the base drives, and lose sight of people-first values, we begin to practice idolatry. If this is true, we would expect the battle against idolatry to be an ongoing one, and we would see idolatry recurring again and again throughout history.  Which in fact we do.

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[i] The Birth of the Good Inclination by Jeffrey Spitzer. From myjewishlearning.com.   Retrieved July 11, 2012.

[ii] Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah Legends from the Talmud and Midrash. Edited by Hayim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravinitzky.  Translated by William Braude.  Schoken books 1992. p. 537:7

[iii] Book of Legends, Sefer Ha-Aggadah Legends from the Talmud and Midrash. Edited by Hayim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravinitzky.  Translated by William Braude.  Schoken books 1992. p. 537:8

 

Penn State & Idolatry Part I

“I hope they write I made Penn State a better place, not just that I was a good football coach.” Modified Flickr CC image

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 9

This week we will be wrapping up the chapter on idolatry, by tying the traditional concepts to the modern day as a preference to the next chapter on corporate culture. 

In both 1998, and 2001, the top officials at Penn State University decided not to report assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky for child abuse, who in 2012 was convicted of 45 counts, including crimes that happened after 2001.

Why did this happen?  Because Penn State University propagated a culture of idolatry, a value system that put the interests of the institution, (its football program in particular) ahead of the welfare of people.

According to the report by former FBI Director Louis Freeh, Penn State had a “reverence for football program ingrained at all levels of the university.” This started from the top, with a “president who discouraged discussion and dissent,” and included the person who switched off CNN on the TV in the Penn State student center just before the Freeh Report was released.

Outside of Penn State, the reaction against Joe Paterno, the former coach who more than anyone else could have acted to stop Sandusky, has been swift.  Nike removed Paterno’s name from a child developmemt center on its Beaverton Oregon Campus.  Artist Michael Pilato painted over the halo over Joe Paterno’s head on the mural he painted in downtown State College PA.

 

2 pictures of PSU Graduation via Flickr CC

And now, the latest wrinkle says it all.  Should the 7 foot tall statue of Joe Paterno be taken down?  According to a recent article in the LA Times, university officials are unsure, and the community is divided.

Anyone care to guess what I think?

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The Penn State Tragedy Illustrates Four Reasons Why People Practice Idolatry

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 10

In the last post, I said that Penn State University has a culture of idolatry because the value system of the culture prioritizes football over the safety of children.  Does this mean that I think everyone associated with the university are a bunch of idolators?  Not at all.  But everyone at PSU is potentially touched by it’s pervasive football-first value system.  Here are four reasons that people practice idolatry.

1. For personal advantage. Former coach Joe Paterno and former president Graham Spanier seemed to embrace the culture of idolatry, because it gave them perks, power, and wealth.  According to the Freeh report, these men  “exhibited a striking lack of empathy for Sandusky’s victims by failing to inquire as to their safety and well-being.” Further, they exposed one child to additional harm by alerting Sandusky[i].

2. Out of habit. Timothy Curley practiced idolatry out of blind obedience.  Curley is described as “a State College native with a long family history at Penn State.” Some at PSU referred to Curley “Paterno’s errand boy”, and still another characterized him as “loyal to a fault to university management and the chain of command, someone who followed instruction regardless of the consequences.[ii]

3. Out of fear.  In the fall of 2000, a janitor saw Sandusky with a boy in the shower.  By all accounts, the man was devastated by what he had seen, but was afraid he would lose his job if he spoke up.  He said the following to investigators, “I know Paterno has so  much  power, [and] if he wanted to get rid of someone, I would have been gone… football runs this University, and the University would have closed ranks to protect the football program at all costs.[iii]

4. By error.  On November 9, 2011 Joe Paterno was fired from Penn State, and thousands of students rioted, chanting “One more game.”  This constitutes is what philosophers call “Idolatry by Error.”  Idolatry by error is a behavior that persist due to cultural traditions whose foundation is based on incorrect information.  These kids were raised on the notion that Paterno was not only a great coach, but a great leader who taught his players how to be great men.  In other words, these kids thought that Paterno had been scapegoated, and that they were standing up against a great injustice.

Not everyone who works for Penn State buys in to the football-first value system, but not going along can come with a price.  For example, former VP of Student Affairs Vicky Triponey “butted heads with Paterno and his football supporters,[iv]”, and according to the Daily Beast, was fired for investigating players for sexual assaults.  Ironically, Triponey’s boss, former PSU president Graham Spanier, gave her poor performance reviews because she “wasn’t fitting in with the “Penn State way.[v]”   Kudos to Triponey for keeping her moral compass in the face of an alternate value system.

In the next post, we will discuss how the practice of idolatry often rests on self-deception and illusions.

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[i] Report of the Special Investigative Counsel  Regarding the Actions of The  Pennsylvania State University Related to  the Child Sexual Abuse Committed by  Gerald A. Sandusky.  Freeh Sporkin & Sullivan, LLP  July 12, 2012 p. 14

[ii] Freeh report p. 75

[iii] Freeh report p. 65

[iv] Sexism played role in Penn St. horror by Jason Whitlock.  Foxsports.com July 14, 2012 retrieved July 16, 2012

[v] Meet Penn State’s New Whistleblower, Vicky Triponey by Jessica Bennett , Jacob Bernstein. The Daily Beast Nov 23, 2011. Retrieved July 15, 2012

Why Idolatry? For the Sex Of Course

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 11 

 In the previous post, I discussed idolatry by error.  Here is one of my favorite stories that illustrates idolatry by error.

“During the 40 years after the Exodus from Egypt, a young Israelite solder went to the marketplace of a newly conquered tribe of idol worshipers. He regularly went to see a beautiful girl with dark eyes who sold cloth from a tent in the market center.  At first he went for the low price, but after a few days he was invited in to sit and drink wine.  Flush with wine and conquest, the soldier pulled her close and murmured in her ear.  She pulled out an image of the idol Pe’or from her bodice and said to him “If you want me to do your bidding, bow down to this.”

He flung her back, eyes burning. ‘I will never bow to your trinket!’

She answered ‘What do you care if you only expose yourself to it?’ Since he had to disrobe anyway, what harm? As it turns out, exposing oneself was a way to worship Pe’or.  His face burned with shame, but the sex was beyond fantastic.”  – adopted from Babylonian Talmud[i]  I like this story because it illustrates the allure of idolatry, the gradual way it can creep up on you, and the not uncommon discovery that one has already committed idolatry without even knowing it.  And while giving reverence to a statue may not seem like a big deal today, in biblical times it was punishable by death.  Seem harsh?  Yes, but those were harsh times.  But even then, the death penalty was reserved for the most serious crimes.  And I think idolatry carried such a harsh penalty because it is so alluring.

And what is the problem with idolatry today?  For the religious of course, idolatry remains a mortal sin.  For the non-religious, I think of it this way.  Modern psychology is clear that lasting happiness comes from connections to other people and not from possessions.  A lifestyle of idolatry puts people second, and elevates the importance of something else which results in weaker interpersonal relationships, which in turn means less happiness.  So, for a happier life, put people first.

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[i] adopted from the Babylonian Talmud Sifrei on Numbers, sec 131;  Idolatry by Moshe Habertal and Avishai Margali.  Translated by Naomi Goldblum.  Harvard University Press p 24-25.

How Do You Know What You Don’t See?

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 12

   We perceive the world as a movie, but the reality is millions of disparate data points that we weave together.  One unfortunate side effect of this skill is that we sometimes shoehorn facts into our preexisting perception of the world.  Ever seen this video?  It is a test of your power of observation. Watch and then read on. [Read more…]

Do You Recognize These Ten Signs Of Corporate Idolatry?

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 13

Corporate idolatry is the adoption of a company-first value system instead of a people-first value system.  Here are ten warning signs that you may be practicing corporate idolatry.

  1. You find yourself doing “what is best for the company” instead of “what is best.” What is best for the company is not necessarily what is best for customers, employees or the public.  Further, what is best for the company is subjective, and need not adhere in any way to people-first values.
  2. You joke that you are “married to the company.”  Both Hosea and Ezekiel portray idolatry as the betrayal of a marriage relationship, where one partner (God) has supported and nurtured the other (the people of Israel) who betray the relationship by worshipping other gods.  And in Ezekiel, why does the spouse take on other lovers?  In Hosea, the wife betrays the relationship for money; in Ezekiel it is for the pleasure of having another lover. “For Ezekiel, the motifs of losing control and forgetting are central to the sin of idolatry.[i]
  3. Persistent feedback from your spouse or partner that you are working too many hours. There can only be one top priority.  It can’t be both work and family.
  4. You are experiencing mental health and stress-related illnesses. Taking a company-first attitude means that personal health comes second or later.
  5. You work more than 60 hours per week and make a six-figure salary.  Productivity significantly decreases above 40 hours per week.  In my opinion, working 60 hours is beyond what is needed for survival and has become a habit or a hobby.
  6. You don’t care how you treat people at work.
  7. You are considered “successful” in your career, but are often feel unfulfilled in a way that you cannot define.  To go new age for a moment, this is your spiritual side talking to you.  True happiness comes from connections to other people, and for some, a spiritual connection to something larger than themselves.
  8. Someone says that you are “drinking the cool aid.”  This phrase comes from the terrible events of the Jonestown massacre, when people committed ritual suicide at the behest of their cult leader.  This type of intermediary worship is forbidden by the Second Commandment.
  9. Your boss skips key political meetings, asking you can handle them on your own.  This dynamic is another form of blind obedience.  In some cases, the boss may be setting you up to take the fall.  See Chapter 4 for more.
  10. Feeling indispensible to the company and above politics.  From the interviews I conducted, people who were caught up in a company-first attitude often felt that the company depended on them, which served as a rationalization for working longer hours and the sacrifice of family and personal time.

When I was caught up in corporate idolatry, my life featured eight things on this list. Remember that idolatry is a lifestyle, not an isolated mistake. I found a way to quickly change my life, and as you continue to read, so will you.


[i] Idolatry by Moshe Habertal and Avishai Margali.  Translated by Naomi Goldblum.  Harvard University Press.  (1992) p12-17.

A Mistake You Can’t Afford To Make

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 14

There was a time when I thought my work in the genomics industry was going to revolutionize medicine.  The products I managed were going to help scientists find all the genetic predispositions for disease, and usher in an era of personalized medicine, where an individual would be prescribed the most appropriate medicine based on his or her genetic makeup.  My mistake, however, was thinking that anything the company asked me to do was in service of this laudable goal.  In other words, I had made an idol of my company, in that I let it be the mediator of my altruistic aims.

The Rambam, one of the great medieval Jewish philosophers, explained the origin of pagan idolatry as a similar error. “At first men believed in one God who governed the world through intermediary forces” like the stars and other heavenly bodies.  They worshipped the intermediaries as a way of bringing honor to the creator, and then made statues to give their worship a point of focus.  After a few generations, people forgot that the statues and heavenly bodies were only intermediates, and thus began to worship the idols outright. [i]  And the values associated with the statues began to drift and diverge from God’s values.

Intermediaries distort the original message.  This can be an innocuous process, like a child’s game of telephone, or may constitute deliberate manipulation by unscrupulous individuals.  Karen Armstrong, international expert on comparative religion and TED Prize winner gave the following example “Often when people talk about God, we attribute to Him the thoughts and feelings and opinions we have ourselves.  … It is often noticeable that the opinions of the deity coincide with those of the speaker.  This is a form of idolatry because what you are doing is worshipping a deity in your own image.”[ii]

Take a moment to reflect on your values, goals, and passions.  Now, reflect on how you are spending you time.  What is the biggest influence on how you spend you time?

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[i] Maimonides: Torah and Philosophic Quest  by David Hartman the Jewish Publication Society (1976) p 54-56

[ii] NPR Talk Of The Nation: Interview with Karen Armstrong January 10, 2011 about her book Twelve Steps To a Compassionate Life. Listen here.

Idolatry Then & Now Conclusion

Chapter 2: Idolatry Then & Now Part 15 (conclusion)

In Chapter 1, My Corporate Idolatry, I shared the story of the day I recognized that idolatry lives on in the 21st century.  The realization started with skepticism.  I initially though “isn’t idolatry statue worship, and didn’t that go away thousands of years ago?”  Idolatry is much more, and in this final installment of Chapter 2  how often Idolatry has periodicly come to dominate the very institutions that arose to combat it.

According to the book of Jeremiah, God ordered the destruction of the First Temple (aka Solomon’s Temple) because the Israelites had fallen into idolatry.  In the following passage, from Jeremiah Chapter 7, notice the behaviors associated with idolatry.

4 Don’t trust the lies that some people say. They say, “This is the Temple of the LORD.”  [The commentary explains that many people in Jerusalem thought the Lord would always protect the city no matter what, so it didn’t matter how evil they were.]   5 If you change your lives and do good things, I will let you live in this place. You must be fair to each other. 6 You must be fair to strangers. You must help widows and orphans. Don’t kill innocent people! And don’t follow other gods, because they will only ruin your lives8 “‘But you are trusting lies that are worthless. 9 Will you steal and murder? Will you commit adultery? Will you falsely accuse other people? Will you worship the false god Baal and follow other gods that you have not known? 10 If you commit these sins, do you think that you can stand before me in this house … and say, “We are safe,” just so you can do all these terrible things?”

The lesson for me is that any institution can fall into idolatry.  And Jeremiah 10:31 explains why. “The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority, and my people love it this way.”  http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Jeremiah%205&version=NIV  In other words, the priestly hierarchy and leaders are preaching a different set of values than what God teaches.  (Which we summarized by the Golden Rule earlier in the chapter.)  Chapter 5 further elaborates:

5:26 For wicked men are found in My people; they lie in wait as a trap bites; they station an ambush, they catch people.

5:27 As a cage is full, so are their houses full of deceit; therefore, they have become great and they have become rich.

This dynamic seems to happen over and over again throughout history.  In my opinion, the rise of Christianity ~500 years was in part a reaction against the corruption/idolatry of the Second Temple.  And 1,500 years after that, Martin Luther started the Protestant Reformation as a reaction against the corruption/idolatry of the Catholic Hierarchy.  And in his widely popular YouTube Video Why I Hate Religion and But Love Jesus, poet Jefferson Bethke advocates a direct connection to Jesus, bypassing religion because religions sometimes advocate views that he finds counter to Jesus’ central, people-first teachings.

What institutions influence your life?  Do they encourage people-first values?

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