Religious people seem increasingly to treat God as an idol while being totally unaware of doing so. They violate the most severe prohibition—not to worship other gods—yet are fully confident that they genuinely serve God.
And these people are none other than you and me.
Religion as an insurance policy
Many of us are religious because we believe it is the best insurance policy to guarantee relatively easy lives without too many bumps along the way. To achieve this goal we make a deal with God: I will observe Your commandments, and You will do what I want You to do for me. We believe that this is the best policy to avoid calamities and to ensure a content and beautiful life. Instead of us serving God because He is God, God has been manipulated to serve us, not because He is our God but because He is our servant. That is idol worship.
This tragic development is the result of a major misconception of what religion is all about. Religious observance has nothing to do with receiving rewards or God granting us anything. The purpose of religion is to make us realize that we are living in the presence of God, to help us to become better people, to make us more sensitive, and show us the miracles surrounding us at every moment. These are the real rewards. The goal is not that God changes His behavior towards us, but that we change our behavior towards Him and other human beings.
To believe that reward is to be expected is like believing that once I know how to drive my car it will also start flying. But the reward for learning how to drive a car is that I now know how to drive a car. This is what the sages meant when they declared that the reward for fulfilling a mitzvah (commandment) is the mitzvah.
The long view of religious rewards
It is true that the Torah promises rewards when we observe the commandments. However, we should realize that these rewards are not promised to the individual but rather to the Jewish people, or even the world at large. Also, these promises are merely incentives to make people want to observe the commandments, even for the wrong reasons, so that they will eventually start living by them for the right reasons. Once one experiences the intrinsic beauty of a mitzvah, one will realize that the mitzvah, and not any external reward, is the objective. In other words, external promises, such as health and a good life, are almost meaningless in the realm of genuine religiosity. The purpose of these promises, then, is to eventually make them obsolete as far as the goal of our religious observance is concerned.
The enormous tragedy behind the belief that one can make a deal with God is that many religious people do not see any intrinsic value in being religious, but rather see it as an insurance policy which they need to pay in order to see favorable results. If they were certain that such results would not follow, they would abandon their religious commitment and live a secular, perhaps even, immoral life. What keeps them religious is the fear of losing the good life, their health or the health of a dear one. They have transformed the very reasons for not keeping the commandments into the very motives for their religiosity. This, to put it plainly, is idol worship.
Religion as Das ding as sich
Indeed, many of us do not realize that we are, in fact, living a completely secular life while hiding behind religious observance. But this type of life is empty of genuine religion. Were we truly to live a religious life, we would not look for extra rewards. Religion would be “Das ding an sich”—the thing itself. We must admit that a secular person is at least honest in his secularism while many religious people cannot claim the same authenticity in their religiosity.
One should surely pray for security, health and happiness, but never should the desire for these important matters be the motive for one’s being religious. One should live a religious life committed to the belief that there is no reward other than the intrinsic worth of being religious.
It’s high time that we who consider ourselves religious have an honest look in the mirror and ask ourselves what brought us to this lifestyle. Was it a genuine longing for religion and mitzvah observance, or was it an insurance policy? This is a question many of us cannot face.
True, we may continue to convince ourselves that we are religious for the right reasons, but deep down in our hearts we know this is not true. We are idol worshipers while serving God. We had better wake up and realize who we are.
After all, one cannot blackmail God.
Lenny Koegel says