The classic Midrashic commentary, Genesis Rabbah, relates the story of Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s shop. Leviticus 19:4 admonishes us not to make idols. But between the two, we encounter the story of Rachel stealing the idols from her father’s house.
We read in Genesis 31:19, “Meanwhile Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s household idols.” The simple language contains within it ample ambiguity in which commentaries, classical and modern, take root. We are compelled to ask why Rachel steals the idols – and what the episode might mean.
Professor Wendy Zierler suggests in her (contemporary) book, And Rachel Stole the Idols: The Emergence of Modern Hebrew Women’s Writing, that this is a key moment for Rachel in which she demonstrates the ability to act apart from either her husband or her father; one in which she uses cunning and wit “to steal across the borders of masculine culture, seize control of her cultural inheritance, and make it her own” (Page 4). Rachel makes the choice to steal the idols without informing her husband, thereby differentiating herself and showing the fullness of agency that she possessed in defiance of cultural and social norms at the time.
The medieval commentator Rashi suggests that Rachel intends to “wean” her father, Laban, from idolatry by absconding the objects of his worship. Abraham Ibn Ezra disagrees with this assessment, instead hypothesizing that Rachel feared that her father could use idols as astrological instruments with which to track her and her family.
What is striking is how few of the interpretations view the theft in a negative light. It seems that stealing idols in the process of stealing away with her family was a moment of spiritual transformation and self-differentiation for Rachel; a half-step on the path towards monotheism, either for herself or her father, or a half-step on the path towards autonomy, either for herself or future biblical heroines.
In contrast to the absolutism that we see today, Rachel provides a bold example of achieving what is possible in a particular moment. Her pragmatism stands as an ethical guidepost for us. If we cannot eschew idolatry or smash the idols in our midst, at least we can lessen their negative impacts on us and others. If we cannot completely liberate the oppressed – including, at times, ourselves – at least we can take significant steps toward freedom.
Idols can be difficult to tear down or do away with altogether. But we are still obligated to take real steps towards abolishing them.
Joshua Stanton is Rabbi of East End Temple in Manhattan and the Director of Leadership Formation at CLAL – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He serves on the Board of Governors of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, which liaises on behalf of Jewish communities worldwide with the Vatican and other international religious bodies.