Q. When I was younger I took great care of my car. One day my grandfather saw me kneeling next to my car waxing it and told me that what I was doing was akin to idol worship. Today’s youth think nothing of spending the night in front of an Apple store to pick up the latest iPhone. Is this akin to idolatry?
A. Any material obsession has its dangers. Our sages say, “Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot.” (Avot 4:1). New and better items, be they cars, clothes, games, iPods, etc., may offer momentary satisfaction, but they cannot provide sustained meaning and fulfillment in life.
However, having said this, material things can – in many circumstances – be harnessed for positive self-growth. Judaism is not a religion that believes in eschewing physicality, living like a hermit or joining a monastery. Nor does it believe spiritual thoughts and religious expression should be confined to the synagogue. To the contrary, the world is there for us to engage with, for us to bring Godliness into all aspects of our lives.
A story is told of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who was the great defender of his people, able to see the good in every Jew and in every situation. He once saw a man greasing the wheels of his cart whilst wearing tallit and t’fillin. “Master of the World!,” he said, “What a wonderful people we are! Even when greasing his wheels, a Jew still thinks of God!”
The verse in Proverbs says, “In all your ways know Him” (Prov. 3:6), and even material things like cars and technological gadgets can be part of your religious journey. Next time you take your car for a drive, think to yourself: What mitzvot opportunities does my car present me with? Can I use it to offer a ride to someone else? Can I use it to take me to a shiur? Similarly, when next using your iPhone, think about the applications on offer. Is there a Torah text I can download to read on my train journey home? Is there a call I can make to a friend who is in need? And how about listening to Jewish music and singing along?
So the issue is not one of idolatry. It is how the material item fits in to your entire world-view.