Monday, March 25, 2024

Politics Without Problems


The Golden Calf, Old Testament series, gouache on board,, circa 1896–1902 by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French 1836-1902)

Interpretations of the golden calf have always been fraught with controversy. Christian polemics, beginning in the 2nd century Epistle of Barnabas, argued that the Jews annulled their covenant with God when they created the Golden Calf; worshiping an idol right at the foot of Mount Sinai was an irreversible declaration of disloyalty. Jewish commentaries struggled to fend off this attack, but at the same time, struggled with the narrative itself. How was it possible that the Jews turned their backs on God so quickly?

As a result of these questions, two interpretive strategies arise. One point of view says yes, the Golden Calf was an idol; and even if betraying God under the Midrash’s metaphorical “marriage canopy” seems surprising, well, surprises happen. People can be very fickle in their commitments. Others mitigate the issue of betrayal by casting the “mixed multitude,” who accompanied the Jews from Egypt, as the villains of the story. They argue it was these outsiders who made the Golden Calf, not the former Jewish slaves. The mixed multitude were simply reverting to their previous idolatrous ways.


Another school of interpretation argues that the Golden Calf wasn't an idol at all. Yehuda Halevi says the Golden Calf was just a physical representation of the one, invisible God, a tangible object to help bring a greater sense of connection to the divine. Or, perhaps the Jews were simply looking for a new leader; as the Ramban puts it, They wanted another Moses.” The Golden Calf would be an oracle to guide them, and it would step into the newly opened leadership position.


The textual evidence on this is ambiguous. On the one hand, the Jews asked for the Golden Calf in order to replace Moses. Later, after creating the Golden Calf, they call to have a holiday for God, which seems to indicate that they remained loyal to God. But there is compelling evidence for the other view; the Jews refer to the Golden Calf as “your gods, that brought you up out of Egypt.” And they stood at the ready to worship it.


It seems like the Golden Calf was supposed to be both a god and a leader.


But perhaps that's precisely it; the Golden Calf is a hybrid. If we take a step back and reconsider the purpose of the Golden Calf, we can reach an unusual conclusion. The Golden Calf wasn't meant to replace Moses; they could have picked another person for that. And it wasn’t meant as a replacement for God; they didn’t have to wait for a forty-day delay in Moses’ return to switch to idol worship. Instead, the Golden Calf was meant to be a Jewish Pharaoh. The Pharaohs were demigods, political leaders who at the same time were divine figures, monarchs who were at the same time the close family of the gods.


Having a demigod as your leader changes the political order. As Joshua Berman explains in his book Created Equal, in the pagan culture of the ancient world, the common man was ignored by God; he was created to serve the gods, nothing more. A demigod as king meant that the entire population was subservient, and there at the beck and call of the king. Once we recognize this, it becomes clear that slavery was not just a feature of ancient Egypt, it was its organizing principle. Everyone could potentially be a slave.


The covenantal order in Judaism is dramatically different. God raises man up to be His partner, accepting human beings as worthy associates who are created in the image of God. This view offers human beings greater dignity, but at the same, is far more demanding.


One must recognize the transaction between the Pharaoh and his constituents is not one-sided. Some people prefer autocracy. Yes, in Pharaoh’s Egypt, being a mere human meant you must endure a lack of rights; but at the same time, one has far fewer worries. After all, you have a god in charge, what could go wrong? A demigod is by definition a perfect leader.


And that is what the Jews are choosing with the Golden Calf.


One of the fascinating details in the text is that the Jews rejected Moses because he was late. It should be mentioned that Ibn Ezra takes a more plausible approach to this lateness; he writes that the Jews had no idea when Moses was supposed to return, and on day forty, finally lost their patience. Rashi, however, takes an approach based on the Talmud, and says that Moses was just an hour late when the Jews decided to turn to the Golden Calf.


This behavior seems strange: Had the Jews never seen anyone be late before? More importantly, why didn't the Jews send out a search party to look for Moses?


Clearly, the Jews weren’t just rejecting Moses, they were rejecting human leadership. Human beings are flawed, fragile, and eventually die. Demigods are flawless; and the Pharaohs conveyed the image of being invulnerable. (This had to have been a lot of work. The Midrash mockingly says that Pharaoh would go for a regular swim, and only then would he take care of his bodily needs, hidden away from the prying eyes of others. Such is the task of a fake demigod.) For a people used to the image of an invulnerable demigod, a leader who shows up even a few minutes late is frightening. Moses simply is all too human, all too vulnerable. And all too disposable.


A Pharaoh offers the allure of a political order without problems. A demigod runs everything, and no one else must worry, content that they are in good hands. All they need to do is live a servile life.


The covenantal order is quite different. Humans are full partners with God, and bring to the relationship all the messiness of being a human. Tablets can be broken. Leaders might be late, or even disappear. Problems are everywhere, and you always have to worry about them.


But the power of a covenantal order is that with patience all can be restored. It is about a great partnership, one that goes from person to person and generation to generation. Occasionally partners will fall short of their obligations; but every covenant carries with it the possibility of forgiveness and the optimism of renewal.


This is why the worthless broken tablets will eventually have more power than a grandiose Pharaoh. Covenants can always be reborn and rebuilt.


Israel is at a moment when covenantal patience is needed more than ever. Some commentators have even asked whether this war proves that the Zionist dream is futile; wasn't the entire point of the State of Israel the ensure a safe haven for the Jews? They argue if Israel is no longer safe, it no longer has a purpose.


This a significant challenge, and needs to be taken seriously. After October 7th, everyone is unsure about what will happen to the Israeli dream; and we recognize that this horrible conflict may last a long time. A heartbroken nation is searching again for a missing Moses.


The unwillingness to accept problems patiently is no different today than in the times of the Golden Calf. Some still hope for quick and easy solutions. We think if we get a few experts to write position papers, all problems will be solved; this is what one former Israeli chief of staff called “solutionism.” This attitude makes sense to us, because we live at a time of powerful demigods as well; most of our problems are solved with technology and wealth. But not all of them. And we are confounded when some problems don’t seem to go away.


It takes courage to hold on to the covenant when you have to wait, uncertain of what will follow. That is why we should be particularly proud of those who move forward despite this uncertainty.


In the past few weeks, Israeli media has reported on communities that are slowly returning to the Gaza envelope; one such report was headlined “between joy and fear.” These returning residents are coming back to an uncertain reality, with the sounds of a war that is still going on in the not-too-distant background. They explained to reporters that yes, the nightmares of October 7th play over and over again in their heads. They can point to neighboring houses, and say who is returning, and who is not. They completely understand why some of their friends will never come back. But they are choosing to come home anyway.


They know there are no easy solutions; but they are not going to give up. They are patient with the present, and have hope for a better future.


It is about them that Yehuda Halevi wrote in his Kinnah, Tzion Haloh Tishali. He describes those Jews who were steadfast in their love for Zion and declares:


Blessed is he who waits, and arrives to see the rising sun of your dawn, and is there for daybreak…and rejoices in happiness of your return to the days of your youth.


May God bless these returning residents, and protect them. May they, too, see their communities return to the days of their youth, and the glory of their past.

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