I still remember the day when, over the tea and biscuits that were served after my invited lecture on the problem of idolatry, a woman edged away from me as if I were about to advance on her, or her city’s artworks, with a hammer.
It was not long after Isis had begun their wanton destruction of some of the world’s most important antiquities, so perhaps her disquiet was understandable.
But our verse does not advocate the vandalisation of other people’s sacra. The molten gods are not “theirs”, but “ours”: according to Chizkuni and Ibn Ezra, the verse refers to the Golden Calf, which was not an image of a “foreign” god but an egregious misrepresentation of our own God. “ ‘This is your god, O Israel’, exclaim the people, ‘who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’” (Exodus 32: 4, 8).
The Torah teaches us that the problem of idolatry respects no national or historical borders. Indeed, far from disappearing in modern technocracies, after the “death of God”, idolatry has intensified. Secularisation has licensed man to play God in God’s very absence.
Arguably, among modernity’s molten gods are its nuclear warheads. Power is measured by the number of these production-line gods a country has at its disposal, and how many times over these can destroy God’s world. With trust placed in the power of missiles, not love, these molten gods are wheeled out to adulatory applause on parade grounds in tyrannies the world over.
Yet the psalmist warns us that people who fashion idols and place their trust in them - rather than God, who is their true help and their shield - will become like their idols (Psalm 115: 8). False gods are never made only for ourselves, they become images of ourselves.
Other molten gods are late modernity’s ultimate hollow men: lightless inside, AI-controlled “lethal autonomous weapons” or “killer robots” are programmed to target and kill people. And eventually, perhaps, like other golems, they will turn their firepower on their own creators.
Judaism, though, countermands alienation. True power is with, not over, others; it is in the commanded love that raises its banner and its song over the deafening clang and clash of molten gods.
Power must have a heart of flesh. The human future depends on it.
Melissa Raphael is Professor Emerita, Jewish Theology, University of Gloucestershire