The midrash which resonates the most with me, and has since I was in grade school, is the famous story of Abraham minding his father’s idol shop. Abraham teaches his father a paradigm shifting lesson in theology by taking a shepherd’s staff, smashing all the idols, and placing the staff in the arms of the largest statue. When the father returns to his store he angrily challenges young Abraham to explain the mess. Abraham replied, “A woman came with a plate of flour and asked me to offer it to them. Each one said, ‘I want to eat first.’ The largest one took the staff and broke the others.” His father said, “Why do you mock me; do they possess awareness of things!?!” Abraham replied, “Let your ears hear what your mouth has uttered.” In other words, a mere statue which can’t protect even itself is unworthy to be revered as a deity.
I realize it’s unpopular, but I’m thrilled by the idea of mixing religion and politics. Here you have a quaint, peaceful idol shop, and suddenly an activist using guerrilla theater demolishes the religious “truths” of the day. Contrast this with the contemporary synagogue, where the most exciting moment might be a new tune for Adon Olam. Protests and disagreements over important issues are not only exciting, they are potentially engaging as well.
Back in the Middle Ages, there was an Ashkenazi Jewish practice called “Bittul HaTamid.” This tradition involved aggrieved individuals stepping forward in the midst of synagogue services and calling a halt to them until public indignation was suitably aroused and the interest of justice duly addressed. Imagine if today we were to invite our fellow worshippers to force a communal response, or at least a conversation, about the political, economic, and environmental issues which impact their lives and our communities. It might make shul a bit livelier. And it’s worth noting that low synagogue attendance is a modern lament; not a medieval one.
Rabbi Mitch Levine