Sunday, June 26, 2005

We Love Tom Cruise! - Veneration of Culture

Thousands of years ago, before the religious expression and philosophy of monotheism was introduced to the world, the different forms of polytheism were the world's forms of spirituality. Each peoples or nation was defined by its deity or deities; Marduk, Tiamat, Ba'alzevuv, Asherah, Molech, Rah, and Osiris, just to name a few. As cultures and peoples developed, deities were passed on from one culture to another, usually going through some form of transformation to make it more applicable to the peoples adopting it. For example, Asherah was a Babylonian goddess that the Assyrians later adopted and renamed "Astarte." Some historians of ancient cultures believe that the Greeks adopted Astarte under the name "Isis," their goddess of love. As cultures adopted deities from previous peoples, they also altered their physical appearance to conform to their specific notion of beauty.

We Shall Make gods in our Images

For example, when statues or two dimensional portrayals of the deities were made, they were shown wearing the contemporary clothing and possessing the body type that the culture associated with beauty; such as certain type of vestments, facial structure, curvy bodies, height, weight, and musculature. Their bodily and facial gestures, as well as their behaviors, indicating values and morals, were also taken into account, be they warlike, peaceful, lustful, or nurturing. In short, the people portrayed their values through artistically presented works of art. The physical world, be in natural or societal (man-made) provided the different sculptors with plenty of models by which to create the images of their deities.

Other religious systems believed in deities that were the rulers of certain natural elements that they depended on for survival, such as the Nile River (Egyptian religion) and proper weather in its due course (many religions). Assyrian, Babylonian, and Egyptian religion were especially concerned about procreation, pregnancy, and birth, and all of them therefore believed in goddesses of fertility. These religions venerated the figure of the woman - an act indicative of the the importance of life.

We can also imagine the correlation between sexual arousal and the physical act of forming the statues of the deities. Consider the statue of the Egyptian god Osiris sporting a huge erection; did a human hand not pass over the length of the member, replicating the erotic act of masturbation? Today we can digitally and electronically create erotic artworks on our computers, and in a way, they are worshipped.

Let Us Make Man in our Image...

Monotheism, starting with Avraham, presented a new concept - that Hashem, the One G-d, has no body or physical presence, and that humanity can gain knowledge of Him by adhering to given instructions that are based in morality and value judgments. We did not make Him, He made us. It is based on the notion that the source of all existence; life, death, sustainability, joy, war, peace, etc., are not scattered all over nature in different forms, but come from one Source, and that Source is Hashem. Therefore, one need not make statues that replicate nature and then venerate them, but rather to direct his or her needs to the Maker of Creation in the form of a plea, question, or statement. This means that Hashem has no figure, all of which are products of the world around them and are therefore value statements of their own. Since He has no figure, and His nature cannot be perceived by casting one's eyes upon anything, physical appearance ceases to be the pinnacle of importance. In this tradition, the human body is not venerated, nor the figure of animals, nor the physical appearance of plants, trees, cosmic bodies, or forces of nature. Physicality takes a backseat, and meaning, purpose, essence, and action take a front seat. Jewish artwork reflects this value; the majority of Jewish (Biblical) artwork tends not to portray biblical figures, such as Avraham, Sarah, Yitzchak, or Moshe (Moses), but rather a scene, nature, a building, or an artistically-rendered verse from the Torah. The importance of the message surpasses the imagery.

*Note: before the Talmud was written down sometime in 1st century Common Era, matters of Jewish law and explanation were entirely oral in nature. The prophets of the Tanakh were most likely excellent orators.

Interaction with Hashem is therefore fundamentally different than the way that a believer in a specific deity (or deities) found communion with them. The value statements of monotheism are instructions, the commandments of the Torah - are independent from the cultural values of the world around them. They stand in opposition to the belief systems and thought-patterns of the surrounding cultures. They have no "color" of their own, but instead are transparent, like water. Like them, their Maker has no color or shape or physically imaginable Presence, He is something that exists outside the normal run of the mill. In fact, He is its Creator. His gender is a human way of talking about Him, and the Kabbalah delves deeper into the understanding of the nature of Hashem with regards to the feminine and masculine aspects. He is not the product of what a particular culture depended on to survive, such as the Nile River or rain in its due course, but He is its source.

Today, one cannot necessarily jeer at the belief systems of the polytheistic religions, but can understand their shortcomings in their veneration of physicality, of the body, and of appearance; thought-processes that failed to yield a holistic understanding of reality, a slice of eternity. This is what monotheism (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) strive for. Throughout human history, the deities and the values surrounding them have always been recycled through popular forms of expression. Asherah became Astarte became Isis, the erotic statue of the Greek goddess of love cupping her breasts, became the pornstar of the same name. Poseidon's muscular body and courageous appearance is Marvel's Hulk or Arnold Schwarzenegger's killer jaw bone, inflated arms, and bulging six-pack; another porn star. And when these two people have sex, it is when the deities had sex with each other. These are the images that portray our culture's idea of what defines beauty; they are the luxurious material deities of today's secular religion, our society builds monuments to them and worships them. The poster in your room or the picture in the hallway is your household god. What was once a statue of the Egyptian god Osiris, sporting a huge erection, given its shape by a human hand, is now a picture of a naked body on the page of a magazine in your local K-Mart pickup line, touched up by an expensive graphics program. We seek strange forms of spirituality by pushing our sweaty, tightly-covered bodies up against strangers in clubs that encourage the expensive and temporary loss of consciousness, and the end of the night we leave with nothing, sometimes with less than what we came with.

Veneration of Value

We humans are quite sophisticated beings. We are brilliantly-designed enough that we have the capability not only to venerate bodies, appearances, etc., but are able to exalt behavior, attitudes, atmosphere, ambience; this is the absolute wonder of the human being. We can choose to be enamored by values such as sexual exploits, aggression, manipulation, and popularity, but our infinite value as human beings created by Hashem is expressed by our ability to be equally enamored by a just human being, truthfulness, compassion, courage, and overwhelming joy - each of these things come together to form a particular type of lifestyle. If we are going to venerate values, let us find a way to venerate the right ones.