A Note on Idolatry & Anthropomorphism (Super-Organic Phallocentric)


I’m reading Lewis Mumford’s Technics & Civilization and he makes this claim  about the kinds of organic images and figures suppressed by Christianity, a suppression that will later make its mark in the technics of monastic discipline, which following Nietzsche (?) he finds anti-organic and anti-body.

“Sometimes, in being imaginatively projected, the body may be displaced symbolically by the parts or organs of another animal, as in the Egyptian Horus: but the substitution made is made for the sake of intensifying some organic quality, the power of muscle, eye, genitals. The phalluses that were carried in religious procession were greater and more powerful, by representation, than the actual human organs: so, too, the image of the gods might attain heroic size, to accentuate their visuality” (p.35).

For Mumford this intensification of the corporeal contributes to the feel for the organic in pagan, pre-Christian religious cultures, but I’m not sure. I don’t think the Egyptian horus or the Roman “fascinus” is all that organic. Indeed, Mumford’s own description suggests why others might have recoiled from such cultic, super-sized, super-organic body parts.

In modern and contemporary Jewish philosophy, there’s an idea that gets floated around that “the Jews” rejected idolatry because the idol was too natural, too mimetic, as opposed to supernatural or spiritual, mimetic as opposed to non-mimetic. Hence the need in Judaism either to abstract or distort physical attribution to God, and to prohibit, in particular, graphic representation of God. We see this point made by Steven Schwarzschild in his seminal essay on Jewish art from sometime in the 1960s (?) very much under the influence of modernism. In his “Note on Anthropomorphism,” Rosenzweig makes a similar claim according to which that Hebrew Scripture never represents, even poetically, the entire body of God, just this part or that part, like an eye, nose, or arm, avoiding any one complete vision and thereby any mimetic fallacy as to the divine.

Overinvested in the idea or the spiritual, maybe the German Jewish philosophers got it all wrong. Perhaps the problem with the idolatrous image was not that it was too natural, but that it was too unnatural, not natural enough; and that’s why Christians such as Augustine reacted against Roman idolatry with such severity, perhaps in the case of Christianity, such unnatural severity. I’m guessing here that maybe Judaism and Christianity in their aversion to idolatry sought to suppress in some profound way the phallocentrism of the big, competing local and imperial powers that they came up against and suffered.

I’m not betting on this. It’s just speculation. We tend to think of and to see monotheistic religions as women hating, for which, indeed, there is ample evidence in Scripture, usually relating to the image of prostitution, about which prophetic writers expressed the kind of great fury born of shame. It’s all too hard to sort through. Today, synthetic images of mostly synthesized women’s bodies, usually breasts, saturate contemporary culture, and this saturation affects and distorts the way we think about the history of religion, patriarchy, and misogyny. But in ancient Rome (and in other ancient times and places?) it was the male phallus that dominated the visual-cultural field, and I’m wondering if there is any theory of monotheism out there that takes this into account.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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2 Responses to A Note on Idolatry & Anthropomorphism (Super-Organic Phallocentric)

  1. evanstonjew says:

    Yes, the Zohar starting with the sefirah of yesod which represents the phallus, through all the zivugim of male and female , whether God is marked as male and the human as female, or the human as male and the shechinah as female, or as some suggest there is a Sabbatean lirterature where the imagined connection is male-male. Maybe the anti-anthropomorphic imagination Maimonidean people have problems, but there are thousands of seforim dwelling on these connections. Eliott Wolfson can’t stop writing about this.

    • zjb says:

      This then is a chiddush on Scholem’s claim about the return of myth in Kabbalah, now seen as having to do with the return of the phallus. But it’s one thing, I’ll still say, to imagine a phallus, even God’s. It’s another to place graphic simulacra in the public sphere.

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