Smashing Idols in the Jewish Community

by Rabbi Laura Baum

Last Monday I had the privilege of being one of the keynote speakers at the Jewish Futures Conference in New York. The Jewish Futures Conference “brings together visionary thinkers, passionate individuals, and inspiring presentation in a conference designed to shift the horizon of our thinking in Jewish education.”

The conference organizers asked me to share a text study. I chose to present the midrash (Jewish legend) of Abraham smashing the idols. In case you’re not familiar with this story, here’s the quick version: it takes place before Judaism comes into existence. Young Abraham (AKA Abram) is working in his father’s idol shop, and stages a “riot” among the idols, smashing all of them to pieces except for one. When Abraham’s father returns, the son says that one of the idols smashed the others to pieces. Terach says that’s “impossible – since idols are lifeless creations.” Abraham now makes his point to his father: “if you know they are just works of your hands, why do you worship them?”

In this and other legends about Abraham, he comes across as smart and unafraid to challenge authority. Abraham’s actions in the idol shop call into question the religious claims of his culture.

Okay, now that we have the background out of the way – here’s the point of my talk.

Abraham was courageous! Of course, when we look back at this story we likely conclude that Abraham made the right decision to smash the idols and create something entirely new and amazing – i.e. Judaism. But Abraham would not have known at the time where his choices would lead. He took a risk, challenging his and his family’s livelihood and his relationship with his family and his community – because he had the courage to imagine something different.

So what I asked the participants at the Conference to consider was what it would be like for each of us to consider following in Abraham’s path – thinking about modern idols in our communities.

I made it clear that I wasn’t looking to entirely get rid of the past – I certainly wasn’t looking to get rid of one religion and create another. I wasn’t even entirely looking to smash everything to pieces and get rid of it – but rather to change, disrupt, and reshape in order to create something more open and bright.

Perhaps it’s easy to think of these idols like “sacred cows.” As my friend Esther Kustanowitz said, this exercise could be called “sacred cow tipping!” These cows are the things that seem so essential to the fabric of our own lives – or so intrinsic to the institutions we function in – that we generally can’t imagine living without them. But I’m asking you to imagine changing them, scary as the thought may be.

Idols are generally not easy to recognize (unless we are tipping other people’s idols!), but I asked the group to make a list of idols, and they did an astounding job, naming sacred cows such as denominations, rabbis, Bar Mitzvah training, Federations, membership dues, and many many others.

I then asked them how smashing an idol might help their Jewish community move forward. For the Jewish professionals in the room, I encouraged them to say whatever came to mind and not self-censor. In my experience, Jewish professionals are often willing to say things behind closed doors that they are not willing to say publicly. They are bolder and more interesting when they don’t feel there’s risk in putting themselves on the line.

The next step in the process was to think about resources that would help people and organizations smash their idols. Perhaps they would need time, staff, money, consensus, board approval, partnerships. And they probably will. But Abraham didn’t worry about those things – he was willing to put himself at risk for something he believed in.

This is in contrast to Abraham’s father Terach who knew on some level that the idols were a sham – but wouldn’t admit it or do anything about it until his son came along to make the point.

I then projected the following words on the screen: mission, vision, values, and passion. I wasn’t asking people to blindly smash idols – but rather to have passion and courage inspired by vision and thoughtfulness. Smashing idols is certainly not something we do for its own sake – but rather because it opens the possibility of something new.

We can consider smashing and rebuilding and then smashing and rebuilding again – and we do this because we are committed to meeting the evolving needs of our community.

Idolatry is problematic because it mistakes form for substance. In essence, I was asking the participants in the conversation to focus on the substance of their values, and not keep the form for its own sake.

As we smash certain idols, we also think a great deal about that which we will preserve.

The reality is that the world is changing at an incredibly rapid rate. Lots of “idols” are already shifting, disintegrating, and being smashed. For example, many people said synagogue membership is a possible idol to smash. The reality is synagogue membership is already spiraling to lower levels. For some, synagogue membership continues to be very meaningful – and that is wonderful – they should always have the opportunity to affiliate. But other people are already voting with their feet – they are choosing not to affiliate for a variety of reasons.

When my community and I noticed that various idols were already collapsing around us, we began to smash several idols. Through creating, we have smashed idols of synagogues needing walls, of rabbis having the only voice, of community needing to happen in person, of the past dictating the future. We have done this in order to create new access points for people for whom traditional idols don’t work.

As I said at the Conference, if what I said in my presentation and what I’ve done with makes some people completely uncomfortable – that’s fine. I acknowledge and embrace the diversity in this conversation. The idols you smash won’t be the idols I’ll smash and vice versa. My commitment, still, is that I will support others who smash idols.

Being at the Jewish Futures Conference means we don’t just care about the past, but also the possibility of what may be. It means we stand with one another to courageously explore smashing and rebuilding – thoughtfully.

In the words of Rabbi Hillel, “if not now, when?”

In the words of “Rabbi” (just kidding!) Steve Jobs: “Everyone here has the sense that right now is one of those moments when we are influencing the future.”

To influence the future, we don’t just break the past, we break it open. Let’s go! Now!

( If you would like to see a video of my talk, click here and then click where it says “Smashing Idols.”)

Rabbi Laura Baum serves as rabbi at Congregation Beth Adam, an independent congregation in Cincinnati, Ohio, and is a founding rabbi of In 2010, Laura was named by the Forward as one of the 50 most influential female rabbis in America.

cross-posted at Baum’s Blog