When a revered value becomes all-important, it can become like an idol.
Reprinted with permission from "After the War--Another Look at Pacifism and Selective Conscientious Objection," in Judaism, volume 10, number 4 (1971).
[P]acifism absolutizes the concept of peace. In Judaism no value is considered absolute. Only God is absolute--He is Almighty and All-Wise and the Creator of all. Everything else in the world is relative to the absolute that we call God. When we transform a relative into an absolute, we create an idol.
When the ancients worshipped the stars rather than the Creator of the stars, or the Nile River rather than Him who made the river flow, they made a relative object into an absolute. They were worshipping an idol.
Idols, obviously, are not only the fetishes that were worshipped by the primitives. Even concepts and values, when they are transformed from the relative to the absolute, become idols.
Generally, from the primitive totem to the latest concept, the items that are absolutized and made into idols, are, for the most part, not evil things but good ones. Thus, we find in the Midrash that the elders of Rome placed the question before the rabbis: "Why, if God detests idols, does He not destroy them?" Their response was that the idols which the ancients worshipped were mountains and trees and stars and rivers. Should God destroy the good simply because it is worshipped? If He does so, would He not have to destroy the world?
It is clear that even the highest of values are not absolute. For example, life is a primary value. Yet who doubts that a loving mother standing by her sick and dying child would not wish that she, rather than her child, would be dying? A mother is willing to sacrifice her life for an ideal higher even than the value of life itself.
Freedom, too, is a value, but not an absolute. A part of it must be surrendered in order to achieve social cohesiveness. If people were free to do everything they wished, they would have no orderly society--only anarchy. Even truth, which surely ranks high in any hierarchy of values, must sometimes be modified into the "white lie" even if only for the sake of frictionless social intercourse.
Interestingly, Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk interpreted the verse "Take heed…lest you make a graven image, even the likeness of anything which the Lord thy God hath commanded thee" (Deuteronomy 4:23), to imply "do not make an image, an idol, out of any mitzvah [commandment] which God commanded you." No mitzvahshould be considered absolute unto itself, but relative to the God who commanded it.
Not only do absolutized good concepts become idols, they can become positively demonic.