Now, I know it might not seem this way to the orthopraxic, but I take the prohibition on idolatry quite seriously. Sometimes, I think, significantly more seriously than they do. I feel like a lot of mainstream Judaism (in my experience) is somewhat more Small-Face-oriented than is healthy. The "Small Face" is the "manifest" aspect of the Infinite One. Think of it as the demiurge, and you're not too far off. My paternal grandmother called it "little g god", a nomenclature picked up by my Jewish mother and atheist father. Or, sometimes, Grandma called it "Jesus", because that's how she rolled. I had a complicated interfaithless upbringing.
It's not that Small Face is bad. At the end of the day, the Small Face is still actually Ein Soph (or, as Grandma would have said "big G God", and then you wave your hands around), but I think it's dangerous to focus too much on that face. A lot of people get stuck there, worshiping a small, petty, anthropomorphic god who is very much "of the world". I think the real danger of that is that when you make G-d small, you don't give yourself much room to "grow in spirit" before you hit the ceiling. When I was in my early 20s, I lived for a while with a tantric monk. He once told me that when you imagine your lover to be G-d, you're engaged in the highest form of worship, and when you imagine G-d to be your lover, you're doing it wrong. Wisdom, that.
Here is a related joke that the Baal Shem Tov once told me in a dream:
Once, a Mystic and a Kabbalist were neighbors. Each morning, at dawn, they each went out to walk and contemplate. After some time, they began to walk together, in silent companionship. After their walk was complete, they would sit in the kabbalist's kitchen to talk. One morning, the mystic said to the kabbalist, "The Universe is so vast and beautiful and; in the face of such a thing, our human lives are truly nothing." The kabbalist agreed, "Compared to the Holy One, blessed be He, all of us are as nothing." They continued like this for some time. All the while, the kabbalist's wife was listening, while she scrubbed the kitchen floor. She began to pray under her breath, "Oh Lord, you are everything and I am nothing." The kabbalist saw her, and nudged the mystic. "Look who think's she's nothing now!"
Here, he told me, was where the joke used to end, when he was a young man. But, he said, for me, it could have a different ending. And he continued with his story:
Silent tears fell into the water the woman scrubbed with, and the floor she cleaned with her tears began to shine like gold. The mystic, seeing this, went over the the woman, drew her up to her feet, and kissed her on the forehead, which scandalized the woman. And then he said to her "Beloved daughter, truly Nothing is greater than the Holy One."
The Besht wept like a little child after he told me this story; it was heartbreaking. I think, if I was a good person, I probably would have kissed him on the forehead, but I didn't. Instead, I stole his hat. He turned into a giant grey rabbit, and hopped away. Because dreams are like that.
I guess the moral of this story is probably that I'm supposed to forgive Orthodoxy for its arrogant, oppressive, misogynistic bullying, but fuck that noise. Repentance needs to precede forgiveness.
Anyhow, I am again a little off topic. Another name for "Small Face" is "the Face that looks up", and that's really important. By looking up, the Small Face is showing you that you too should look past it. Tipheret gazes up, adoringly, awe-struck, simultaneously enlightened and warmed by the Light of Keter, just like we on Earth look up at the Sun, but the Sun looks up into space. At least, that's how it seems to me. Now, I'm going to tell you a secret though; Keter looks up too. The Ancient of Days is still "of days" and Ein Soph isn't. Probably Ein Soph looks up too, but I don't really know (yet).
If the Divine to which you aspire is just a big, powerful, person, then I don't really understand what the point is. I mean, really; once you think that G-d cares more about how long it's been since you ate dairy than He does about whether or not everyone has enough to eat, your god is just an asshole. At the end of the day, it's hard for me to fathom how someone can think they're being "a good Jew" while obviously turning their back on klal Israel. But, I'm getting a little sidetracked again.
My point is this, I'm really quite leery about idolatry. I think it's better to refrain from worshiping anything at all, if you can, than risk idolatry. Trust me, when you find yourself in the presence of the Holy ONE, you'll end up on your knees whether you want to or not.
Not only that, but this whole idolatry shit comes up in my life in a way it doesn't in many people's. I literally watched someone pour out libations to a statue last night. Now, I've seen lots of Wiccans and Heathens do that kind of thing. It's surely not wrong (although it often seems kind of silly).
I've poured out my fair share of offerings to angels and demons and gods of all stripes as well. But something about this was different. This wasn't inviting the spirits to a meal. It wasn't hospitality, and it wasn't relationship building or "teleconferencing" with a statue. This dude worshipped a statue. And it squicked me out a little.
It's not that I've never seen this. I've been to Hindu temples, and those idols are POWERFUL. I've been in circles of standing stones and called quarters with Wiccans. I've felt Shekhina descend when she's called Isis or Mary or even, weirdly, in a way I don't quite get, Titania. This was not that. This was personal. This was a statue transubstantiated into Hermes, my beloved teacher, the light of my Mind.
Here is a story I recall hearing, but I don't remember where. Maybe Talmud; it's got that kind of vibe to it. For all I know, it might have been a parable Jesus told. It doesn't really matter who told it. Here's the story:
Once, a young man went, all in consternation and confusion, to his teacher with a burning question. "Teacher," says he, "Today I saw a lame man go into the temple of that pagan god and come out dancing! If the pagan gods are all false, how can this be?"
His teacher replied "It was that man's time for healing. Should G-d withhold his healing because he happened to be in a pagan temple? No!! The reason for this is because our G-d is not a petty, racist asshole."
(Update: The source for the story is Midrash Asheret Dibrot. Crowdsourcing FTW! Full disclosure: the midrash phrases it a little differently.)
So, as I've said, I've seen plenty of people healed while in a pagan temple. But, last night was very different. A very new friend, but someone whose Work I respect very much worshiped a statue with me last night. He's among the most impressive magician/priests I have ever met. This is a man whose connection to the Eternal, Infinite, and Unitary Divine shines in his eyes and his words, and the room lit up with the hovering Presence when he did it. The light of Hermes he spoke to WAS the Shekhina. This guy definitely believes Hermes to be, not just "among the circle of the eternal stars", but rather a true and eternal face of Ein Soph, and he produced some incredibly convincing evidence to back that shit up. I know what the presence of the LORD feels like, and this was the real deal. There is no doubt in my mind that he has a real, abiding, loving relationship with the Holy ONE in the form of Hermes. Watching him do it, feeling him do it, I understood that he wasn't worshiping an idol; he was worshiping the ONE through an idol. And yet, and yet... the statue still kind of squicked me out a little.
And that wouldn't have been a problem. To each their own. There's nothing wrong with him using a statue.
The thing is, afterward, he gave me the statue, which is beautiful and powerful and which he hand-painted with fixed quicksilver. It's so REAL.
It's a statue of Hermes Kriophoros, the good shepherd, the angelic savior of Isaac, who turns aside harsh judgement, Jacob walking Rachael and her sheep home from the well. It's a face of Hermes whom you all know I adore. I'm really, really conflicted about this. I keep an altar to Hermes. I pour out libations in his name. I adore him. I initiate children into his mysteries. I've spent the greater part of my life in his employ, as a mathematician and a magician and a magician. (Didn't know that? Go read this.) And yet, and yet...that statue. I think I'm going to have to pray on it.