Friday, February 18, 2011

Ki Tisa (Individual & Community)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to this blog at 2006_02_20_archive.html, as well as March 2007 (scroll down), February 2008, March 2009, and March 2010.

In loving memory of my mother, Fannie Gallant Chipman, on her one-hundredth birthday.

The Golden Calf and Mob Behavior

Some readers may have gained the impression that everything I have written this year has been intended exclusively to deride the importance of the individual and to celebrate the value of the community. If so, I would like to correct that notion: my central thesis is that there is a constant tension in human life between community and individual, and that the desired end is to find the correct balance, the elusive Archimedean point, between the two. If I have unduly emphasized the value of community, it is only because at this moment in history Western culture has moved too far in the direction of individualism, elevating it to the level of a regnant ideology. (I hope in the near future to write an essay on “individualism and individuality,” to clarify and critique what I see as the philosophical core of the contemporary emphasis on the individual) I believe that one of the areas in which the genius of Judaism as an approach to the human condition manifests itself is in its ability to draw a proper balance between these two. My aim this year has been to bring out some of these ideas, which are implicit in every page of the Torah. This week’s reading, with its focus on the episode of the Golden Calf, invites a discussion of the potential dangers of the group or, if you wish, the mob.

The story of the Golden Calf is a simple one: the people, newly freed from slavery, were impatient when Moses “tarried” on the mountain. Left, for the first time in many months, without their awe-inspiring, powerful and charismatic leader, they panicked. Turning to Aaron, Moses’ brother, who was so to speak, his second-in-command, they asked him: “Come, make us a god who will go before us, for we do not know what has become of this man Moses!” (Exod 32:1). Aaron, faced with a frightened, tumultuous mob, asks them to bring him their golden ornaments, which he shapes into the form of a calf; he tells them to build an altar before it; and finally declares, “tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord!” The people, after bringing offerings and after eating and drinking, “rise up to play”—a phrase suggestive of an orgiastic dance, perhaps like the pagan rituals they knew from neighboring peoples, in which religiosity and sensuality were easily combined. Moses, once he descends from the mountain, is infuriated at the sight and, throwing the tablets of the Law from his hands, smashes them. The Levites, the one group who had remained faithful, go among the people slaying those who has worshipped the calf. Thereafter, there begins a slow, painful process of beseeching God for forgiveness and patching together some kind of reconciliation. (On all this, see my essay from the very first year of Hitzei Yehonatan: HY I: Ki Tisa = Torah).

The question most usually asked about this story is: How could the people, who had stood at Sinai, so readily slip back into what seems like a primitive, idolatrous mentality? My answer is simple: while the experience at Sinai was an overwhelmingly powerful one— the people had been charged by Moses with a sense of mission, of a purpose and direction for their new-found national existence, of a covenant with the Almighty—the impression it left proved, in the end, to be superficial, shallow. The people remained; the individuals had not internalized a deep inner sense of the holy, of the fear and awe of God. What really made them “tick” was their relationship to Moses—their leader, their prophet, their teacher, the one who channeled the word of God to them. Moses was a unique figure, a person with a profound inner awareness, whose own spiritual consciousness was light years beyond anything they could begin to fathom. To them, he was a frightening, awe-inspiring mystery, no less so than God Himself; the feelings of awe, of the holy and numinous, of the all-powerful, demanding but loving and nurturing God of whom he spoke was, in their own minds, doubtless mixed with his own image. Hence, when he was not there for them—the midrash says he was only six hours late!—they were bewildered and confused as to where to turn. Satan showed them a vision of Moses’ dead body floating in the heavens—one which they were all too ready to believe.

What we see here, then, is a classic example of a mob, a crowd, who have formed a symbiosis with the leader—not with his teaching, not with his values, not with what was important to him, but with his personality, with his physical presence. Thus, when he seemed to be gone, they immediately sought a substitute—if not another leader, than a symbol, a fetish. The Calf, more than being a substitute for God—of whom they really understood nothing—was a substitute for Moses, in whom the human and the holy were inextricably mixed.

But what about Aaron? Why did he cooperate with their sudden craze? Was he a demagogue? A charlatan? Or when he said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who took you out of the land of Egypt,” was he speaking sarcastically? Or perhaps—and this seems most likely to me—was the leadership task that had suddenly been thrust upon him too much for him—a task for which he had had no real preparation—so that he “improvised” as he went along. For, when all is said and done, Aaron had neither the spiritual depth nor the talent for leadership as did his younger brother Moses. Until then he had been Moses’ “mouth” (Exod 4:16) or navi (literally: “prophet,” but in the sense of spokesman—7:1); he was soon to be invested with the task of priesthood. But, as Ahad Haam wrote famously, there is a profound difference between prophet and priest; indeed, the two represent diametrically opposed modes of being. The tasks of the latter, which are essentially ritual ones, may be learned; they do not require an infusion of the spirit. The former involves God utilizing capabilities that are already inherent in the person, possibly even from birth (see, e.g., Jeremiah 1:5) or early childhood (1 Samuel 3:1-10); the prophet is a conduit for God’s words, but to be so he must have a deep spiritual vision and understanding of his own.

To return to the people: God is shown here using a strange phrase to describe their faithlessness, one which, to my mind, does not stand up under scrutiny. We find here, for the first time in the Torah, the phrase עם קשה עורף—a “stiff-necked” or stubborn people (Exod 32:9; 33:3, 5; 34:9). But their real problem was, as I read it, the exact opposite. A stubborn person is one who adheres to certain ideas or behaviors no matter what; he is the enemy of all change, he adheres to outmoded ideas, he is impervious to either reason or moral appeal. Here, the people were anything but stubborn: they were unstable, inconsistent, fickle, changing their loyalty with every passing mood. Frightened and insecure, they abandoned their old attachment to Moses in search of some new object, however insubstantial, in which to place their trust. Two phrases particularly reflect this: in 32:25, Moses saw that the people were פרעה—“out of control,” wild, unstable, undisciplined—that is, entirely subject to momentary moods and emotions. Similarly, in the conversation between Moses and Joshua as they descend from the mountain and hear distant sounds of shouting, Joshua thinks that these are sounds of war. But Moses answers: “It is neither the sound of triumph, nor the sounds of defeat, but [merely hollow / empty] voices that I hear” (32:17-18)—that is, the shouts of hysterical revelry. Their sin was ultimately the result of flightiness, instability, a loss of faith in the future, an unwillingness to tolerate uncertainty for even a few hours: if you will, what psychologist-philosopher Erich Fromm called the “escape from freedom.”

And indeed, this is the essence of the mentality of idolatry, or of its minor sibling, superstition: a quest for something concrete, tangible, to hold onto—because the belief in an abstract, transcendent God, who demands first of all and foremost ethical behavior, is too hard. This is characteristic of what might be called the “mob mentality”: large groups tend to seek simple solutions to difficult problems. They are particularly susceptible to demagogues, to simple solutions to complex problems. This may be expressed in the religious context in fundamentalism, in superstitions, in fetishistic attachment to “magical” objects (we see this even in nominally monotheistic religions, such as Judaism: where on the folk level people attribute supernatural powers to amulets, to visits to the graves of holy men, to the holy men themselves, or to such things as red strings supposedly from Rachel’s Tomb. (I recently read that one group of Hasidim make a custom of “pursuing” their rebbe during his nocturnal visits to the graves of tzaddikim in the Galilee, driving along curvy narrow back roads at hair-raising speeds, ignoring traffic lights, stop signs and speed limits, and generally endangering the lives of themselves and others—all to raise their adrenalin in a holy purpose.) Or, on the more political plane, mob behavior may be expressed in lynchings, in militarism, in fascism, in xenophobia and hatred of “the other”—and the things are well known.

* * * * *

Due to lack of time, I shall postpone my discussion of the dramatic and tumultuous events in Egypt and throughout our region, important as they are, for another time.


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