The most primitive instinct in mankind is the veneration and deification of humans, the need to make ordinary men and women into gods. The prohibition against this idolatry is, therefore, the most important of the Ten Commandments and the most central teaching of the Bible. There is only one G-d. Don't elevate anyone else to that level. Learn to find G-d in all his mysteriousness behind the veil of nature and transcend the primeval human need to make G-d tangible in human form. And yet it's an area where mankind has singularly failed till the present day.
Christianity is a global force for good, but its veneration of Jesus as deity directly violates the Bible's emphatic declaration, "You saw no form of any kind the day the Lord spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire" (Duet. 4:15) as well as the prophet's insistence "for He is not a man" (1 Sam 15:29). In my upcoming book on the Jewish Jesus I discuss the possibility of Jews and Christians cementing their new political rapprochement over Israel with a theological underpinning that focuses on the humanity of Jesus and his profound ethical teachings to the exclusion of divine status.
Likewise, the quick rush to canonize the great Pope John Paul II is another example of a beautiful human life declared not sufficiently inspiring unless it is coated in veneration and sainthood.
But secular society can't live without its gods either. In the United States it comes in the form of celebrity worship -- the most home-grown of all American religions -- with People magazine being our new Bible and US Weekly and OK Magazine serving as the books of prophets.
But most curious of all is the survival of royalty into the modern era, even in sophisticated and highly educated nations like Britain. The United States threw out the baby with the bathwater, discarding not only the British royal family but all titles of nobility some 235 years ago. George III was dismissed as the anointed of G-d and declared instead to be a tyrant. But that didn't stop all the major American news anchors traveling to London to fawn over Prince William and Kate Middleton -- obsessing endlessly over her dress and the romantic kiss -- while Americans were being wiped off the face of the earth literally in tornadoes across the South (only Brian Williams of NBC News flew back from London to cover the deaths, missing the royal wedding).
And while British atheists like Richard Dawkins rip apart religion for its 'unproven myths', they are curiously silent about the political system under which they live which is the greatest myth of all, namely, that certain people are born royal while others are born common. At an ideas exchange between me and Dawkins a few summers ago at the University of Toronto, the video of which is available on YouTube, I made the point to Dawkins that he has always said that he doesn't care if religion has a useful social function. If it's a lie it ought to be discarded. Would that not also apply to any benefit of tradition or social order provided by the royal family?
Truth be told, institutions that make humans into objects of veneration end up consuming the poor souls who have to live up to these impossibly lofty standards. Maureen Dowd of The New York Times recently criticized Pope John Paul II for allowing pedophile priests to harm children. Pope Benedict has been savaged for the same. I had the pleasure of meeting Pope Benedict in Rome last year and he came across not only as a loving friend of the Jewish people but a man of humility and warmth who couldn't hurt a fly. But he and his predecessor are hamstrung by a doctrine, established only 1870 at the First Vatican Council, that in matters of doctrine Popes are infallible, which severely hinders their ability to admit error.
The Royal Family suffers even more under these fetters. Has anyone ever seen the queen smile? For all her billions and her palaces, does she look happy? On the Jewish holiday of Shavuot in the early 90's, I was walking back from services at our student center in Oxford with my daughter Mushki when I saw that a line was forming outside one of the Colleges to greet Princess Diana. The line was short and, not being completely immune to this veneration myself, I joined it with my daughter. When Diana warmly took my daughter's hand in hers, I said, "Look Mushki, a real life princess." Diana responded, "No, not really. I'm not a real princess." As we walked away my daughter asked me what she meant and, since this was before her marriage and life publicly imploded, I confessed that I had no idea.
I saw how the deification of Michael Jackson and his need to always live up to the utterly unrealistic expectations of his fans to be superhuman slowly undid his life. Once, we were walking into a reception that I had arranged with a group of journalists so that Michael could have better relations with the press. As we exited his van, Michael put on the signature black mask which he never once wore around me. I asked him to put it away and simply show his human side, something he always feared would make him too ordinary but without which he would never win over the untold number of critics who dismissed him as just plain weird.
Indeed, when, in my book The Michael Jackson Tapes Michael confessed to being so lonely that he would wander the streets of Encino, California, asking complete strangers to be his friend, his fans largely rejected the book -- even though it was Michael, verbatim, in his own words - as impossibly incongruous with the deity they followed and revered. A decade later a doctor who couldn't say no to the king's constant demands for medication that would take away his pain is on trial for having allegedly become his pusher. If convicted, Conrad Murray deserves to be locked up so that the rest of us humans get the message that our need to venerate other ordinary people is not only a barrier to a real relationship with G-d but is literally killing all the pretenders that we foist upon us in order that we have tangible idols to worship.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the author of 'Judaism for Everyone: Renewing Your Life through the Vibrant Lessons of the Jewish Faith' and many other books that seek to bring universal Jewish values to the mainstream culture, and is founder of This World: The Values Network, that seeks to do the same. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.