Tag Archives: idolatry


parshat vayakhel-pekudei – exodus 36

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on March 16th 2023 on Clubhouse. The craftsmen and craftswomen building the Tabernacle are commanded to weave curtains showcasing images of two Cherubs and fashion golden statues to match. We wonder how these winged-creatures differ from the Golden Calf and the forbidden images that the Bible ridicules with such scorn?

Sefaria Source Sheet: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/474160


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse every Thursday and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Vayakhel-Pekudei. The craftsmen and craftswomen building the Tabernacle are commanded to weave curtains showcasing images of two Cherubs and fashion golden statues to match. We wonder how these winged-creatures differ from the Golden Calf and the forbidden images that the Bible ridicules with such scorn? So take out your chisels and your mallets and join us for “Man-Made”


Well, welcome, welcome, welcome, Rabbi, another week of Madlik disruptive Torah.

Adam Mintz  01:01

And we got a double parsha this week. So how could it be bad

Geoffrey Stern  01:04

A double parsha, it gives us more things to pick from. So yes, that is great. And we are building the tabernacle, we’ve talked about it. But the as I said, we’re talking about man-made. Many of the pesukim that we’re going to deal with are literal cut and pastes from previous parshiot where we were commanded to make these things, make the menorah, make the cherubs. But here, we’re actually putting the rubber to the metal. And I think this is the appropriate time to discuss making the idol and how can you do it. So I mean, to give you a sense of how much our parsha really, I would say, celebrates artistry and artifact and the ability of man to make things I’m just going to quote a few verses, but when you read it this Shabbat, you will see that there is a reason that the school in Israel that teaches art is called but Bezalel because this parsha just celebrates artifice in Exodus 35: 21. It says an everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit was moved, came bringing to God and offering for the work of the tent of meeting. And all the skilled woman spun with their own hands and put what they had spun in blue, purple, crimson yards and fine linen, endowing him with a divine spirit of skill, ability and knowledge. ר֣וּחַ אֱלֹקִ֑ים בְּחׇכְמָ֛ה בִּתְבוּנָ֥ה וּבְדַ֖עַת וּבְכׇל־מְלָאכָֽה in Every kind of craft and inspiring him to make designs for work in gold, silver and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood to work in every kind of designer’s craft. So that sets the stage. This parsha is a celebration of artifice. And I can say it right from the beginning. It’s not a secret Jews and making statues and making images. There is a tight dance going on. But I had to give that context. Because if there is a case to be made for human beings; for Jews, expressing their image and the Spirit of God inside of them by creating, this is the Parsha. So now let’s get to the meat of things and to this subject that we are going to discuss in Exodus 36: 8 it says, then all the skilled among those engaged in the work made the tabernacle of ten strips of cloth, which they made a fine twisted linen, blue, purple crimson yarns into these they worked as a design of cherubim שָׁנִ֔י כְּרֻבִ֛ים these are two cherubs. So already before we even get to the iconic gold cherubs that are on top of the ark, even when they are making the tapestries. They are making images in the tapestry of these cherubs Exodus 36: 35. They made the curtain of blue, purple and crimson yarns and fine twisted linen. Working into it a design of the cherubim these two cherubs and then in Exodus 37: 7 we get to those iconic golden statues. He made two cherubim of gold he made them of hammered work at the two ends of the cover, one cherub at one end and the other cherub at the other end. He made the cherubim of one piece with the cover. As its two ends, the cherubim had their wings spread out above shielding the cover with their wings. They faced each other. The faces of the cherubim were turned toward the cover, Rabbi, I mean, maybe you can forget about the tapestry. But have you ever seen this kind of language of building an image besides the golden calf? In the Bible?

Adam Mintz  05:32

And it’s so central to the tabernacle, right? It kind of seems like everything is built up to the ark, and the ark is built up for the Cherubim. So, it here we have an idol on top of the ark that held the tablets, we have an idol. Isn’t that crazy? And the funny thing is that the broken tablets were also in the ark. And the tablets were broken because they built on top of the ark!

Geoffrey Stern  06:00

So I love the fact that you bring up that the broken tablets are inside of the ark. And I was going to mention this later. The first tablets were made by God, but the second tablets were made by man in Exodus 34: 1 it says God said to Moses carve two tablets of stone like the first and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets which you shattered. The word that it used for carve those two tablets is פְּסׇל־לְךָ֛  pesel is literally …. I knew Karl Katz, who used to be the head Bezalel then he came to the Israel Museum. And when he wanted to make a sculpture garden, the Rabbinate was all over him sculptures in Hebrew are “pesalim”.  They said how can you make a garden of Pesalim in Jerusalem? So, we already have this tension between good Pesels and bad pesels, so to speak. It is kind of fascinating. But you’re right. This is the crux this is ground zero.

Adam Mintz  07:18

Yeah, that’s so interesting. You mentioned Karl Katz. Karl Katz and my father grew up together, they went to school together. It’s a small world, everything comes back to Karl Katz. But that’s right. I mean, a sculpture garden is you know, that’s pesalim. I mean, we’re all over it everywhere you see idols, but then at the same time, idols are exactly what is prohibited. And the book of Devarim in the book of Deuteronomy, the entire book tells you about how evil pesalim are. So something crazy is going on? Absolutely. There’s a mystery here. I don’t know if we’re gonna crack it. But we have identified it for sure. So as I said, Before, we were in Exodus 37. And in Exodus 25, literally, it was almost as though paragraph by paragraph word by words. 2518 says make two of them have gold, make them have hammered work. It’s literally the same. I think it’s very appropriate that we’re talking about this tonight, even though this is not the first time it’s mentioned. Because we’re going to focus on the craft, we’re going to focus on the the prohibition but also maybe the requirements that man make them in a certain way they are man-made. And we know that this week, because we have these craftsmen but most of the commentaries that explain these verses, you’ve got to go back into Exodus 25 when it’s first mentioned, so Rashi on Cherubim says they had the form of a child’s face, you know, angelic right? Isn’t that the image that we have so much of cherubim … these little gold children with wings on their back and smiling blissfully at each other. Love it. Yeah, I mean, that is the image we have. I mean, the sources that we’re gonna study tonight are not so sure about that. But that’s the image that we grew up with. Basically, and by the way, the reason we grew up with it is because that was that’s what Rashi says, and you know, Rashi becomes like, you know, as if it’s written in the Torah itself. True, but there’s a higher authority to washi and that is the Bible itself, and the first time we’ve been exposed to two of him. I don’t think they had baby faces. If you remember Genesis 3: 24, after the original sin, it was driven out; and east of the garden of Eden were stationed the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life.  So our first experience with the Cherubim we didn’t picture these two little fluttering babies with wings on them. So it’s not altogether clear, is it? Well, it’s not clear from the beginning of Genesis what they were. All we know is that they were frightened, right? They were protection. So they scared people away somehow

Geoffrey Stern  10:31

and they had a sword ….

Adam Mintz  10:33

Right… I’m saying they scared people. They had a different purpose. I mean, it doesn’t explicitly say they weren’t children. It just doesn’t seem to fit into the mood. Exactly.

Geoffrey Stern  10:43

Yeah. One thing that I think we are seeing is, you know, a cherub is a single cherub and two cherubs are cherubim. I was almost thinking of calling the podcast Cherubim Cherubum!  But, but they do come in pairs, they do come in pairs. That is kind of interesting. But the Talmud, and the rabbinic literature has so many different concepts. And you know, your wife, Sharon should be here because in the illustrated Haggadot that we’re going to use in a few weeks, they’re full of birds, there are those that believe they were a certain type of bird, the Ezekiel and in some of the prophets, we have these Ma’aseh Merkavah… the chariots, and there you have winged creatures that are four footed, the gamut of what these cherubs could be really goes from babies to birds, to large animals. And in the notes, I do, quote, a wonderful survey in thetorah.com, What kind of creatures are the Cherubim, it’s by Dr. Raanan Eichler. And if you’re interested, definitely take a look at the source sheet. But he concludes that ultimately, he really feels that the cherub was a combination of two things. And that’s what unites them all. So no matter whether it was a bird with a human face, or it was an ox with wings, or whatever it was, the he feels that it was this kind of combination. That was what it’s about. But the bottom line is that’s not the subject of tonight’s discussion. Whatever they are, they are real images. This is a three-dimensional figure. And that’s what we’re going to be focused on. But it is kind of fascinating what they were, and how that impacted maybe what was permitted to be shown in illustrated manuscripts and mosaic floors. Who knows, we certainly like to think that we don’t permit any images. But there certainly are a lot of images in our story. So that kind of becomes fascinating. I’m sure you’ve seen some amazing illustrated manuscripts in your day Rabbi.

Adam Mintz  13:31

I have and this is a great, this is great. So let’s, let’s continue that discussion, cuz I think there’s a lot here.

Geoffrey Stern  13:37

So, in one of the sources, I quote, you can all of a sudden see that the rabbi’s themselves was sensitive to the question that we’re raising tonight. So, in the Chizkuni after he says that they were a certain type of bird. And then he goes on to say, an even the Torah, in the second of the 10 commandments has expressly forbidden us to make anything that is like creatures on earth or in the sky. The reason why the making of the cherubs is exempt from this was it was not made to be worshipped, but to remain hidden inside the most inaccessible part of the Temple. So, this touches upon a discussion we had a few weeks ago, which is so much of the Mishkan and the later Temple was putting an enigma into an Enigma was making surrounding barriers so that almost praying outside at the wall became almost a natural thing to do. But it is fascinating that one of the reasons that the rabbi’s felt this was different than your typical graven image was that it was kind of hidden. That’s kind of fascinating.

Adam Mintz  14:54

Yeah, it is kind of fascinating. Yes, it is. That’s really good. Okay, good. And I was just looking Get the article in the toe rough, you know, and the article that you quote here. And that’s also interesting the idea of them being a composite, which is really the point you made. They’re always kerubim. They’re always in the in the plural Cherubim. And the question is why that is exactly. I mean, you’re interested in the fact that the plural of cherub is cherubim rather than cherubs. It should really be cherubs. I never thought, you know, in all my life. I never thought of that before. But you are 100% Right? Where does the word cherubim come from?

Geoffrey Stern  15:33

And is that an English word? I mean, is that how I mean

Adam Mintz  15:36

it looks like I’m just looking in Sefaria. Yeah, it looks like that’s the way they translate it. So I guess that that’s they made it into an English word. So this might be the only English word based on a Hebrew word that is grammatically correct. I mean, it I love it. very fine, very good. This because this, this discussion is worth it just for that. So that his Chizkuni continues, and he’s troubled, he is troubled by the fact that this is going against, oh,  I would say a “befayrusha pasuk” (pasuk mefurash)  it Exodus 20. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image or a likeness of what is in the heavens above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. It doesn’t even talk about worshipping it. And we might make the argument in a few minutes that they never worshipped it. But you can’t make it and it doesn’t apply only it says, לֹֽ֣א־תַֽעֲשֶׂ֨ה־לְךָ֥֣ פֶ֣֙סֶל֙ , which is kind of fascinating. It’s the opposite of פְּסׇל־לְךָ֛. But in any case, you can’t make a pesel but you also can’t make the image. So the woven hangings, wall-hangings that we discussed a second ago, are in the same in the same category. So one of the other answers that he gives, He says that it’s usual in the Torah, that there are exceptions to every rule. He goes, you can’t do everything that was done in the temple on Shabbat, unless you work in the temple, the Cohanim sed to bring sacrifices and kill things [on Shabbat]. We all know that if a baby is born and eight days later, it’s the Brit falls on Shabbat you break the shabbat and do the Brit ritual fringes you can have of linen and wool. So that’s another fascinating thing that it’s not the first time that we’ve seen a commandment that is broken explicitly by the Torah itself. I don’t know whether that gives it you know, a kind of “walk on the wild side” type of extra “stolen waters are sweet” or makes it a higher level of holiness. But certainly, there is precedent there. And this would be one of those exceptions. It’s a great case. Chizkuni. It’s really a good Chizkuni because the Chizkuny basically says that what the Torah is about is rules. And their exceptions. That’s what that I mean, maybe you say that’s what legal systems are about. Every legal system has the rule and its exceptions, but the Torah is like that, too. Everything has its exceptions. So, Shabbos is shabbos but it has its exception and shatnez is shatnez, but it has its exception. And idolatry is idolatry. But it has its exceptions. That’s such a great idea.

Geoffrey Stern  18:20

So in the Talmud in Hagiga, it takes it one step further. And it says it starts by saying that the likeness of their faces, they had the face of a man and the forehead, the face of a lion. Now we’re talking about really the divine chariot in Ezekiel. And then it says Reish Lakish said Ezekiel requested mercy with regard to it the face of the ox. He thought that the cherubim had this this ox and you can see in some Syrian and Iraqi things, they have these gigantic animals that are guarding the temple and they have wings on them. And he said before Him, Reish Lakish said: Ezekiel requested mercy with regard to it, i.e., the face of the ox, and had it turned into a cherub. He said before Him as follows: Master of the Universe. Shall an accuser [kateigor] become a defender [saneigor]? As the face of an ox recalls Israel’s sin of the Golden Calf, it would be preferable for there to be a different face on the Divine Chariot. He says if we have that in the temple, that’s like reminding You of the golden calf every time we come into the Holy of Holies and request mercy. You don’t wear gold on Yom Kippur and the beautiful explanation which is Greek is קָטֵיגוֹר יֵעָשֶׂה סָנֵיגוֹר  the defendant doesn’t become the prosecutor don’t remind God of gold (as in the Golden Calf).  And here we are, we have these golden; according to this interpretation, body of an ox. It is it’s taking this concept of making that which is forbidden permitted in in a fascinating moment and a fascinating day if you if you follow it through to that that it’s not simply a graven image, but it’s a graven image of a graven Ox/Calf so to speak. Fascinating, just fascinating. The Rabbi’s were aware of the issue here, no question about it.

Adam Mintz  20:06

No question about it. The Rabbis were very much aware of the issue. Now, I don’t know if they have a good answer, but they’re aware of the issue.

Geoffrey Stern  20:14

So we already established that that which is forbidden is not simply to worship these graven images, but also to make it. But certainly, the question is, what was the function of these cherubim of these cherubs? And there is no sense I think you’ll agree with me that they were ever worshipped …. we can’t force the question to the point where we say, and they built an idol because they worship these Cherubim. In Exodus 25, it says, There I will meet with you and I will impart to you from above the cover from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Covenant, all that I will command you. In Numbers 7, it says, when Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with God, he would hear the voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the ark of the covenant between the Cherubim. Thus God spoke to him. So, Rashi explains, this verse explains exactly what happened. Moses came into the tabernacle. And as soon as he had passed, the entrance, a voice fell from heaven to the place on the cover, which was between the Cherubim. And from there it issued and was heard by Moses in the tent of meeting outside the Holy of Holies. That’s kind of fascinating. What do you make of that?

Adam Mintz  21:47

You know, what’s great about these discussions? It’s one of those things that you can possibly imagine, right? Like, what was it? How did God communicate through the Holy of Holies, and through the Cherubim, and through the ark, so you love when the commentators kind of paint a picture for us, because it’s really just their imagination, also, and I think we can really relate to that imagination.

Geoffrey Stern  22:11

You know, when you walk into a room and you hear a voice, what’s the first thing you do? You look around, you want to see a source for the voice, you want to find the speaker, you want to find the person?

Adam Mintz  22:22

And the best thing is that there is when there is no source. That’s real, that’s mysterious. You see, it’s interesting that God wants to be mysterious. I don’t know what the right answer is. But you know, it’s just interesting that it’s important that God is mysterious, it’s important that no one is allowed in the Holy of Holies.

Geoffrey Stern  22:43

But what I like is he, on the one hand, he or she wants to be mysterious. But on the other hand, when you move your head from side to side, looking for the source, He’s made it so you can look at the Cherubim, he’s projecting his voice to come through the Cherubim, according to the Numbers that we just quoted, and this Rashi and it’s not so much Rashi. If you look at the verse in in Numbers 7: 89, it literally says, When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God], he would hear the Voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Pact between the two cherubim; thus [God] spoke to him.  I mean, it’s right there. You know, there’s this wonderful expression in the Talmud, when you hear a voice, it’s called a Bat Kol but here is, here’s kind of the source, it’s a daughter, it’s a child of a voice. It emanates from here; you need a place to focus. That’s how I read it, that it’s really, it provides a place to focus clearly nothing to worship, but that you need something like that is kind of fascinating,

Adam Mintz  23:55

Really fascinating, right? I think that right? I think, and this is all that’s what it’s about. Because since they’re just kind of imagining it. But it’s so interesting the way they imagine it, and they need something, you need a way to focus on God, but it needs to be mysterious, and it kind of needs to be secret. It’s kind of our secret code. You know, we have that, by the way, God’s name. We don’t pronounce God’s name, the way it’s spelt. That’s not a mistake. That’s part of the mystery.

Geoffrey Stern  24:27

You know, the next focus that I had was maybe because we’re talking about artifice here. Maybe the something that we have to focus on is how it was made. So, I looked at Exodus 32: 4 with the Golden Calf. And it says this He took from them and cast in a mold and made it into a molten calf וַיָּ֤צַר אֹתוֹ֙ בַּחֶ֔רֶט וַֽיַּעֲשֵׂ֖הוּ עֵ֣גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה  There’s something that’ s beautiful the Rashi on the process is for all of them, he has to old French, French, I guess, because we’re really talking about technology (techniques), how these things are made. And one of the things I was focused on for a little bit was, you know, when you mold an idol, when it’s a molten, an image, maybe that is part because in our verses, I read them quickly. But if you focused, it really did focus on how they were to be made. It says that they should be hammered work מִקְשָׁה֙ עָשָׂ֣ה אֹתָ֔ם , and I thought maybe it’s the process. That is the problem here. When you mold something, you’re clearly making it totally in your image, you’ve got to create the mold, you pour (the metal) into the mold, it is totally man made. And maybe why was thinking when you hammer it, you’re almost exploring what’s inside of it. I didn’t get that too far. But I really felt that there was a focus on all of these explanations that the process mattered.

Adam Mintz  26:23

Yeah, there’s no question that the process matters. That I mean, you know, we can go back to the very beginning. Why does the Torah bother telling us about the building of the tabernacle twice? You pointed out the fact that a lot of these commentaries we’re looking at are from the first time it’s mentioned in Truma. My question is, why do you need it twice? And maybe it’s because it wants to emphasize the fact that the process matters.

Geoffrey Stern  26:49

Allen, what say you?

Alan Yodel  26:51

Well, it’s really fascinating stuff. I love listening to you guys kind of working on this. But where I’m going basically has to do with taking a look at the “kiruv’ of Cherub and relating it to Merkava, Rachav (ride) from Ezekiel. And they’re all related to taking a ride of some sort. You know? So, what is this ride that Hashem is taking, you know, it’s possibly, from the unknowable, to something more knowable in the Mishkan. It says he’s taking this ride, and possibly, that has to do with the Cherub itself. And also, there’s a sense that I get them “on either side”, and they’re facing each other also, and that there’s something significant to me that I feel that the fact that they’re facing Panim el Panim. And thinking of a typewriter. They’re like the margins of a typewriter, finding the space, you know, where the Nevi’im (prophets)  are going to have a prophetic experience in between those Cherubs. So all these kinds of images come to mind.

Adam Mintz  28:09

Let me just say it’s interesting. You connect the word Cherub to Merkava because they’re not actually the same word. But it’s an interesting idea. It’s actually a flip of the letters. The Reish becomes before the Chaf. It’s not actually the same word. But you say that it’s a journey. That’s interesting. Geoffrey, that’s interesting, we all go on a journey, right? It’s part of the journey, God’s journey to us and our journey back to God.

Geoffrey Stern  28:35

Well, I think what Alan made me really focus on which I hadn’t before, is we really haven’t focused on the wing part of it. You know, when God created the world, it says, וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הַמָּֽיִם , he fluttered, he fluttered above the abyss. (see Rashi on Genesis 1:2 “even as a dove hovers over its nest. In old French acoveter.) And then when he took us out of Egypt, he took us on eagle’s wings. עַל־כַּנְפֵ֣י נְשָׁרִ֔ים (Exodus 19: 4) And when Alan, you said something about riding that really conjured up that image to me, that if we are going to use an image, this is an image this (wings) has been there from the beginning. I do think that’s fascinating.

Alan Yodel  29:19

But what what is the ride then. What is the ride, you know?

Adam Mintz  29:23

Yeah, I just love that image of the ride. So, it takes the we said that it was, according to modern day scholarship, maybe the most easy explanation is a combination of two things. But all of those two things seem to have the wings because they have a face and they have wings. And you mentioned both you said face to face, and you also said the ride, and I do find that fascinating and I agree it’s, it’s you know, it’s a permissible image because I think it is a vivid, critical image to the narrative from the first verse of Genesis. Let’s go on a little bit more, because I did want to focus on the crafting pot, because we are in a parsha that literally repeats word for word what’s been said before, but it does it from the perspective of crafting. So this whole concept of a beaten work shall thou make it. מִקְשָׁה֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה אֹתָ֔ם Rashi on Exodus 25: 18 says, lay down a large mass of gold (lit., much gold) when thou beginnest to make the lid and beat upon the middle part of it (the gold) with a hammer or with a mallet, so that its ends will project upward (stand out in relief), and then shape the cherubim out of the projecting edges.  So they literally took this piece of metal, and they hammered it; it had to have been from one piece. And he says in old French, “souder” And it says and in English that means to “solder”.  So there you go. Okay.

Geoffrey Stern  29:50

And I was fascinated by that process, did that process make it something that then became kosher, as opposed to the molten image of pouring it? Just I just think fascinating stuff. The Ibn Ezra, when he says beaten work, he says beaten, כמו שוה  it has to be equal? Well, one of the things that we really haven’t focused on is that you really don’t get just one Cherub, one angel, if you will, they’re always in pairs, and I’m reminded, and you know, we can’t get into all the material right now, we always try to finish on the half hour. But I am reminded, because some of the commentary say that the faces were the faces of a man and a woman looking at each other. And that brought up in my mind the, the commentary and why the first rendering of the creation of man was He created man, and in the second is he created a male and female. And one of the explanations was that when man was single, God was a worried that he would be “like one of us” that he would say, you’re single, I’m single, you’re unitary, you’re self-contained. I am too. And at that time, some of the commentary says he was androgynous. He had everything he could even replicate himself. And then the second part was, he was taken apart to be man, and woman. And that’s what that reminded me of that you’re taking this one piece of metal, and you’re making it in two, and those two are even men and women. I think it is a fascinating area of discussion. If you are fascinated as much as I am with it, you will look into the notes. Because one of the myths that has been broken, is and I’ve mentioned this before, there was a great Israeli scholar named Yehezkel Kaufmann. And he almost was he was impacted by the caricature that the Bible uses to describe idolatry. You know, it’s all based on stuff that you can find in Isaiah that says, How can a person make a god? How can a person a God, who is a piece of stone yesterday become a God today really, really makes fun of the artifice of making an idol? And one of the follow ups to that he has his own solution to the reason why in the Bible, it was a caricature. He argues that the children of Israel had progressed so much that they didn’t understand idolatry. But if you’ll see in the notes, we do now have renderings from Babylonia where they have discussions of the two or three or four days that it takes to make a god. And actually there was much more intentionality to it (and they echo the criticism of fashioning a god similar to the Hebrew prophets).. So, we’re not that far away. I do believe what it focuses on is the intentionality (and process) was critical here. And that’s what makes the whole subject so absolutely fascinating. I think we need to focus less on the image part, and more on the intention part and the lessons that have to be learned, and that will open up new worlds to us.

Adam Mintz  35:11

Great. That is a fascinating conversation today. Thank you, Alan. Thank you, Geoffrey. Next Thursday, I will be in Israel in route back home. So, Geoffrey is going to take Vayikra on his own. We look forward to a great week with everybody. Shabbat Shalom. And enjoy your week. Be Well, everybody.

Geoffrey Stern  35:33

Thank you so much. nesiah tova Rabbi, and we’ll miss you next week….  It’s just very fascinating to me that when we look at the quote unquote taboos, and we look at the quote unquote, things that one religion doesn’t do or ever does, you know, it’s like they always say what unites us is more than what divides us. And this is certainly a case, one of the scholarly articles that I quote, talks about, when Isaiah put down the Babylonians, he was just pissed that they at the temple was destroyed. And it was polemics in the old sense of the word. But we Jews also could breathe life into inanimate objects, make ourselves tablets of the law, and make ourselves Cherubim and spend an evening discussing what those two will be more.

Alan Yodel  36:34

Yeah, Geoffrey. Did he talk about the first instance of Cherubim at the Garden of Eden? because that’s really kind of interesting. I think.

Geoffrey Stern  36:51

Well absolutely. I did mention it in regard to who were the Cherubim. You know, for those who say they were little babies with innocent faces and wings on them. You have to go back to, to Genesis and to say, Well, what about the woods with the swords who were keeping us out of Eden? And I think, when I mentioned that, I used it as a segue to say that modern scholarship really feels that and I quote, an article that kind of surveys all of the literature and comes to this conclusion that it’s as much cherub is almost a generic word for a combination of two creatures. Because there are opinions in the rabbinic literature for sure that they were birds, that they were oxen with wings. I mean, the truth is, they all seem to have wings, because that’s what the verse says. They all seem to have faces, because that’s what the verse says. But what were those faces? Was it an ox? Was it a bird? Was it a guard? And, you know, we talked about the cherubim being kind of a way that God could transmit his voice through, but certainly there’s an aspect of them that guarded the Holy of Holies and guarded the, the Ark of the Covenant (as they guarded Eden).

Alan Yodel  38:22

Yeah, absolutely. So would you be up for taking a look at Genesis 3: 24 just the language of it is really interesting. I find

Geoffrey Stern  38:30

Well absolutely. So I have it here in the notes, and you know, it says וַיְגָ֖רֶשׁ אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֑ם  garash is a wonderful word. It’s the same word as divorce. He exiled the human וַיַּשְׁכֵּן֩ מִקֶּ֨דֶם לְגַן־עֵ֜דֶן , and he was planted in the Garden of Eden and he put V’yashkem is almost planted אֶת־הַכְּרֻבִ֗ים  these cherubim and he put a sword וְאֵ֨ת לַ֤הַט הַחֶ֙רֶב֙ הַמִּתְהַפֶּ֔כֶת I had never noticed that that’s very similar (grammatically) to the wings that I mentioned earlier in Genesis 1: 2, but it says וְר֣וּחַ אֱלֹהִ֔ים מְרַחֶ֖פֶת  it’s fascinating and I had never noticed that before that these turning sword was turning in the same way as wings turn to God the way to the tree of life.

Alan Yodel  39:41

But I’m getting the feeling from the word and I might I might have it wrong הַמִּתְהַפֶּ֔כֶת it’s related to Hephech. (upside down, opposite) I’m getting a sense of motion also. Moving like the ride what we’re talking about basically,

Geoffrey Stern  39:58

well that’s what הַמִּתְהַפֶּ֔כֶת means the was the Spirit of God was hovering. And the whole thing was like a like a, like a winged animal that was like a hummingbird. Yes, yes, that’s my image of that combines both the sword and the wings,

Alan Yodel  40:16

right. הַמִּתְהַפֶּ֔כֶת, I’m getting a sense of movement, remember, we were talking about Cherubim had to do with ride or some movement from one place to another. So, I, you know, I’m just getting that sense of taking a look at Cherubim and in the sense of some kind of movement from one place to another, and then that word הַמִּתְהַפֶּ֔כֶת having to do again with something in movement. And then it says לִשְׁמֹ֕ר אֶת־דֶּ֖רֶךְ עֵ֥ץ הַֽחַיִּֽים  not l’shmor et etz Chaim… so, you know it’s the path, you know, and in a way, the two Cherubim are in a way, watching over and, and protecting and the path, basically, the Derech, you know,

Geoffrey Stern  41:09

yep. And, you know, from that perspective, where they are over the Ark of the Covenant, and the fact that it was only visited once a year is a it’s a very rare path that’s taken very seriously. And there it is. I was struck by the sense that the Bible literally says that the voice of God is kind of projected through the two Cherubim, the it’s kind of given an audible pathway type of type of thing. I think it’s fascinating, but it’s fascinating that here we are Jews talking about an image. It’s just, it’s so counter, and I didn’t have a chance to really see how Islam deals with this. Because of course, you know, Islam when it comes to images, and I and both molten and fixed is Judaism on steroids. They have no flexibility in terms of that, and I give them credit for that. But I wonder how they deal with this, whether the Cherubim feature in the Quran, or in their tradition that I didn’t have time to explore

Alan Yodel  42:26

But in our sense of prophecy from my understanding and study of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s works, that the Cherbim were really a focal point, for the Nev’e’em, prophesy. So they really functioned I think on on that level of direction of prophecy, especially for Moshe Rabbeinu, I think,

Geoffrey Stern  42:50

yeah, and when you talk about focus, you can’t not talk about Kavanaah and direction. And, you know, this is where it comes from. But again, I have argued in prior podcasts and discussions, how I think that we Jews have lost a lot of body language that used to be a part of worship and stuff like that. And here we have physical objects that are a part of worship. And, you know, we’ve kind of so gotten into this cerebral sense of religion, and maybe because we’ve become kind of polemical, and whether it’s Christianity with the bowing, or the imaging that we pulled back from it, but it’s part of us, and there’s no question, you know, when I do yoga, if you want to keep your balance, you need to focus on a particular point space. Otherwise, you’d you fall down.

Alan Yodel  43:53

Absolutely. But also like in, you know, and, and many shuls, like, more kabbalistic type shuls you’re likely to see on the wall a Shiviti, you know, which is a meditation device, you know, it’s clearly a picture, but it’s clearly there to give you focus, you know,

Geoffrey Stern  44:12

yeah, but it’s less it’s less of a picture and it’s more words, but there’s no question about it. There’s merit there, it’s an area that needs further discussion, and further exploration by Jews who are not necessarily comfortable talking about images, not necessarily talking about, you know, body movements and breath and things like that. And I love it when you can’t ignore what the Torah says.

Alan Yodel  44:41


Geoffrey Stern  44:42

Anyway, it was great having you on board cup again. And thank you much so much for your insight, because I love the concept of riding on it. And I love bringing in the Merkava as well, so, Shabbat shalom. and we’ll see you all next week

Sefaria Source Sheet: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/474160

Listen to last year’s vayakhel podcast: Jews with Tools

and last year’s Pekudei podcast: Temples with no cloud-cover

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Re-imagining God and Man for a New Year

In preparation for the Jewish New Year where the kingship of God is proclaimed, we re-explore the essence of the prohibition of Idol Worship and its opposite, the image of God.

Recorded live at TCS, The Conservative Synagogue of Westport Connecticut we come to the surprising conclusion that from the perspective of the earliest biblical texts, the prohibition of Idol worship was less important than the positive injunction for mankind to serve as the Tzelem or Image of God.

Listen to the madlik podcast:

Access Source Sheet in Sefaria here.

If the rejection of idolatry is the essence of the Biblical project, why does it not appear in the Genesis account of the founders?

But Didn’t Abraham destroy his father’s idols?

בראשית רבה ל״ח
(יג) וַיָּמָת הָרָן עַל פְּנֵי תֶּרַח אָבִיו (בראשית יא, כח), רַבִּי חִיָּא בַּר בְּרֵיהּ דְּרַב אַדָא דְּיָפוֹ, תֶּרַח עוֹבֵד צְלָמִים הָיָה, חַד זְמַן נְפֵיק לַאֲתַר, הוֹשִׁיב לְאַבְרָהָם מוֹכֵר תַּחְתָּיו. הֲוָה אָתֵי בַּר אֵינַשׁ בָּעֵי דְּיִזְבַּן, וַהֲוָה אֲמַר לֵהּ בַּר כַּמָּה שְׁנִין אַתְּ, וַהֲוָה אֲמַר לֵיהּ בַּר חַמְשִׁין אוֹ שִׁתִּין, וַהֲוָה אֲמַר לֵיהּ וַי לֵיהּ לְהַהוּא גַבְרָא דַּהֲוָה בַּר שִׁתִּין וּבָעֵי לְמִסְגַּד לְבַר יוֹמֵי, וַהֲוָה מִתְבַּיֵּשׁ וְהוֹלֵךְ לוֹ. חַד זְמַן אֲתָא חַד אִתְּתָא טְעִינָא בִּידָהּ חָדָא פִּינָךְ דְּסֹלֶת, אֲמָרָהּ לֵיהּ הֵא לָךְ קָרֵב קֳדָמֵיהוֹן, קָם נְסֵיב בּוּקְלָסָא בִּידֵיהּ, וְתַבְרִינוּן לְכָלְהוֹן פְּסִילַיָא, וִיהַב בּוּקְלָסָא בִּידָא דְּרַבָּה דַּהֲוָה בֵּינֵיהוֹן. כֵּיוָן דַּאֲתָא אֲבוּהָ אֲמַר לֵיהּ מַאן עָבֵיד לְהוֹן כְּדֵין, אֲמַר לֵיהּ מַה נִּכְפּוּר מִינָךְ אֲתַת חָדָא אִתְּתָא טְעִינָא לָהּ חָדָא פִּינָךְ דְּסֹוֹלֶת, וַאֲמַרַת לִי הֵא לָךְ קָרֵיב קֳדָמֵיהון, קָרֵיבְתְּ לָקֳדָמֵיהוֹן הֲוָה דֵּין אֲמַר אֲנָא אֵיכוֹל קַדְמָאי, וְדֵין אֲמַר אֲנָא אֵיכוֹל קַדְמָאי, קָם הָדֵין רַבָּה דַּהֲוָה בֵּינֵיהוֹן נְסַב בּוּקְלָסָא וְתַבַּרִינוֹן. אֲמַר לֵיהּ מָה אַתָּה מַפְלֶה בִּי, וְיָדְעִין אִינוּן. אֲמַר לֵיהּ וְלֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ אָזְנֶיךָ מַה שֶּׁפִּיךָ אוֹמֵר.

Bereishit Rabbah 38
(13) “And Haran died in the presence of his father Terah” (Gen. 11:28). Rabbi Hiyya the grandson of Rabbi Adda of Yaffo [said]: Terah was a worshiper of idols. One time he had to travel to a place, and he left Abraham in charge of his store. When a man would come in to buy [idols], Abraham would ask: How old are you? They would reply: fifty or sixty. Abraham would then respond: Woe to him who is sixty years old and worships something made today – the customer would be embarrassed, and would leave. A woman entered carrying a dish full of flour. She said to him: this is for you, offer it before them. Abraham took a club in his hands and broke all of the idols, and placed the club in the hands of the biggest idol. When his father returned, he asked: who did all of this? Abraham replied: I can’t hide it from you – a woman came carrying a dish of flour and told me to offer it before them. I did, and one of them said ‘I will eat it first,’ and another said ‘I will eat it first.’ The biggest one rose, took a club, and smashed the rest of them. Terah said: what, do you think you can trick me? They don’t have cognition! Abraham said: Do your ears hear what your mouth is saying?

But Didn’t Rachel steal her father’s idols?

בראשית ל״א:י״ט
(יט) וְלָבָ֣ן הָלַ֔ךְ לִגְזֹ֖ז אֶת־צֹאנ֑וֹ וַתִּגְנֹ֣ב רָחֵ֔ל אֶת־הַתְּרָפִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְאָבִֽיהָ׃

Genesis 31:19
(19) Meanwhile Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole her father’s household idols.

תגנב רחל את התרפים. לְהַפְרִישׁ אֶת אָבִיהָ מֵעֲ”זָ נִתְכַּוְּנָה (בראשית רבה):

AND RACHEL STOLE THE TERAPHIM — her intention was to wean her father from idol-worship (Genesis Rabbah 74:5). quoted by Rashi

בראשית ל״א:ל״ב-ל״ה
(לב) עִ֠ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר תִּמְצָ֣א אֶת־אֱלֹקֶיךָ֮ לֹ֣א יִֽחְיֶה֒ נֶ֣גֶד אַחֵ֧ינוּ הַֽכֶּר־לְךָ֛ מָ֥ה עִמָּדִ֖י וְקַֽח־לָ֑ךְ וְלֹֽא־יָדַ֣ע יַעֲקֹ֔ב כִּ֥י רָחֵ֖ל גְּנָבָֽתַם׃

Genesis 31:32-35
(32) But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive! In the presence of our kinsmen, point out what I have of yours and take it.” Jacob, of course, did not know that Rachel had stolen them.

לא יחיה. וּמֵאוֹתָהּ קְלָלָה מֵתָה רָחֵל בַּדֶּרֶךְ (בראשית רבה)

LET HIM NOT LIVE — In consequence of this curse Rachel died on the journey (Genesis Rabbah 74:9). quoted by Rashi

Rather the only reference to a rejection of false images, is a positive reference to the Image of God – Imago Dei

בראשית א׳:כ״ו-כ״ח
(כו) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֱלֹקִ֔ים נַֽעֲשֶׂ֥ה אָדָ֛ם בְּצַלְמֵ֖נוּ כִּדְמוּתֵ֑נוּ וְיִרְדּוּ֩ בִדְגַ֨ת הַיָּ֜ם וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֗יִם וּבַבְּהֵמָה֙ וּבְכָל־הָאָ֔רֶץ וּבְכָל־הָרֶ֖מֶשׂ הָֽרֹמֵ֥שׂ עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃ (כז) וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹקִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹקִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם׃ (כח) וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֹתָם֮ אֱלֹקִים֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר לָהֶ֜ם אֱלֹקִ֗ים פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Genesis 1:26-28
(26) And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth, and all the creeping things that creep on earth.” (27) And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. (28) God blessed them and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”

בראשית ה׳:א׳
(א) זֶ֣ה סֵ֔פֶר תּוֹלְדֹ֖ת אָדָ֑ם בְּי֗וֹם בְּרֹ֤א אֱלֹקִים֙ אָדָ֔ם בִּדְמ֥וּת אֱלֹקִ֖ים עָשָׂ֥ה אֹתֽוֹ׃

Genesis 5:1
(1) This is the record of Adam’s line.—When God created man, He made him in the likeness of God;

בראשית ט׳:ו׳
(ו) שֹׁפֵךְ֙ דַּ֣ם הָֽאָדָ֔ם בָּֽאָדָ֖ם דָּמ֣וֹ יִשָּׁפֵ֑ךְ כִּ֚י בְּצֶ֣לֶם אֱלֹקִ֔ים עָשָׂ֖ה אֶת־הָאָדָֽם׃

Genesis 9:6
(6) Whoever sheds the blood of man, By man shall his blood be shed; For in His image Did God make man.

במדבר ל״ג:נ״ב
(נב) וְה֨וֹרַשְׁתֶּ֜ם אֶת־כָּל־יֹשְׁבֵ֤י הָאָ֙רֶץ֙ מִפְּנֵיכֶ֔ם וְאִ֨בַּדְתֶּ֔ם אֵ֖ת כָּל־מַשְׂכִּיֹּתָ֑ם וְאֵ֨ת כָּל־צַלְמֵ֤י מַסֵּֽכֹתָם֙ תְּאַבֵּ֔דוּ וְאֵ֥ת כָּל־בָּמֹתָ֖ם תַּשְׁמִֽידוּ׃

Numbers 33:52
(52) you shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their figured objects; you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places.

“any Old Testament scholar worth her salt will tell you that the semantic range of tselem, the Hebrew word for “image” in Genesis 1, typically includes “idol,” which in the common theology of the ancient Near East is precisely a localized, visible, corporeal representation of the divine. A simple word study would thus lead to the preliminary observation that visibility and bodiliness are minimally a necessary condition of being tselem elohim or imago Dei. Based on this usage Walter Kaiser Jr. translates tselem as “carved or hewn statue or copy.” The Liberating Image? Interpreting the Imago Dei in Context By J. Richard Middleton Christian Scholars Review 24.1 (1994) 8-25

מלכים ב י״א:י״ח
(יח) וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ כָל־עַם֩ הָאָ֨רֶץ בֵּית־הַבַּ֜עַל וַֽיִּתְּצֻ֗הוּ אֶת־מזבחתו [מִזְבְּחֹתָ֤יו] וְאֶת־צְלָמָיו֙ שִׁבְּר֣וּ הֵיטֵ֔ב וְאֵ֗ת מַתָּן֙ כֹּהֵ֣ן הַבַּ֔עַל הָרְג֖וּ לִפְנֵ֣י הַֽמִּזְבְּח֑וֹת וַיָּ֧שֶׂם הַכֹּהֵ֛ן פְּקֻדּ֖וֹת עַל־בֵּ֥ית ה’׃

II Kings 11:18
(18) Thereupon all the people of the land went to the temple of Baal. They tore it down and smashed its altars and images to bits, and they slew Mattan, the priest of Baal, in front of the altars. [Jehoiada] the priest then placed guards over the House of the LORD.

דברי הימים ב כ״ג:י״ז
(יז) וַיָּבֹ֨אוּ כָל־הָעָ֤ם בֵּית־הַבַּ֙עַל֙ וַֽיִּתְּצֻ֔הוּ וְאֶת־מִזְבְּחֹתָ֥יו וְאֶת־צְלָמָ֖יו שִׁבֵּ֑רוּ וְאֵ֗ת מַתָּן֙ כֹּהֵ֣ן הַבַּ֔עַל הָרְג֖וּ לִפְנֵ֥י הַֽמִּזְבְּחֽוֹת׃

II Chronicles 23:17
(17) All the people then went to the temple of Baal; they tore it down and smashed its altars and images to bits, and they slew Mattan, the priest of Baal, in front of the altars.

יחזקאל ז׳:כ׳
(כ) וּצְבִ֤י עֶדְיוֹ֙ לְגָא֣וֹן שָׂמָ֔הוּ וְצַלְמֵ֧י תוֹעֲבֹתָ֛ם שִׁקּוּצֵיהֶ֖ם עָ֣שׂוּ ב֑וֹ עַל־כֵּ֛ן נְתַתִּ֥יו לָהֶ֖ם לְנִדָּֽה׃

Ezekiel 7:20
(20) for out of their beautiful adornments, in which they took pride, they made their images and their detestable abominations—therefore I will make them an unclean thing to them.

עמוס ה׳:כ״ו
(כו) וּנְשָׂאתֶ֗ם אֵ֚ת סִכּ֣וּת מַלְכְּכֶ֔ם וְאֵ֖ת כִּיּ֣וּן צַלְמֵיכֶ֑ם כּוֹכַב֙ אֱלֹ֣קֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר עֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם לָכֶֽם׃

Amos 5:26
(26) And you shall carry off your “king”— Sikkuth and Kiyyun, The images you have made for yourselves Of your astral deity—

דניאל ג׳:א׳
(א) נְבוּכַדְנֶצַּ֣ר מַלְכָּ֗א עֲבַד֙ צְלֵ֣ם דִּֽי־דְהַ֔ב רוּמֵהּ֙ אַמִּ֣ין שִׁתִּ֔ין פְּתָיֵ֖הּ אַמִּ֣ין שִׁ֑ת אֲקִימֵהּ֙ בְּבִקְעַ֣ת דּוּרָ֔א בִּמְדִינַ֖ת בָּבֶֽל׃

Daniel 3:1
(1) King Nebuchadnezzar made a statue of gold sixty cubits high and six cubits broad. He set it up in the plain of Dura in the province of Babylon.

The case for demut (“likeness”) is more complicated. Although biblical scholars have often suggested that the physical, concrete connotation of tselem is intentionally modified by the more abstract demut, this latter term is sometimes used within Scripture for concrete, visible representations. [Middleton ibid.]

Tselem and demut are also used with reference to resemblance:

בראשית ה׳:ג׳
(ג) וַֽיְחִ֣י אָדָ֗ם שְׁלֹשִׁ֤ים וּמְאַת֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בִּדְמוּת֖וֹ כְּצַלְמ֑וֹ וַיִּקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמ֖וֹ שֵֽׁת׃

Genesis 5:3
(3) When Adam had lived 130 years, he begot a son in his likeness after his image, and he named him Seth.

“a recent (1979) excavation at Tell Fekheriyeh in Syria unearthed a 9th century statue with a bilingual inscription containing the cognate equivalents of both tselem and demut in Assyrian and Aramaic as parallel terms designating the statue.” [Middleton ibid.]

18 A Statue from Syria

The statue is referred to by two Aramaic words, both with Hebrew cognates. The initial word of the inscription introduces it as dmwt’, “the image.” At the start the second part the word used in the Aramaic is slm “statue,” in the Assyrian its cognate salmu. This is not a means of distinguishing the two parts of the inscription, for dmwt’ reappears three lines later. These two words in their Hebrew dress are the famous “image” and “likeness” in God’s creation of man in Gen 1:26; cf. 5:3. Their clear application to this stone statue, the only ancient occurrence of the words as a pair outside the OT, provides fuel for the debate over the meaning of the clause in Genesis 1 [STATUE FROM SYRIA WITH ASSYRIAN AND ARAMAIC INSCRIPTIONS A. R. Millard and P. Bordreuil, BIBLICAL ARCHEOLOGIST/SUMMER 1982]

20 A Statue from Syria - inscripton

Among Bible scholars one of the most common interpretations is that being created in the image of God means being given the special role of “representing . . . God’s rule in the world.” The Torah’s view is that people are God’s “vice-regents” and “earthly delegates,” appointed by God to rule over the world. One traditional Jewish commentator, R. Saadia Gaon (882–942), anticipated this understanding of Genesis, arguing that being created in the image of God means being assigned to rule over creation (Saadia Gaon, commentary to Gen. 1:26). בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ שליט

The ancient Near Eastern context sheds remarkable light on the audacity of the Torah’s message. In the ancient world, various kings (and sometimes priests) were described as the images of a god. It is the king who is God’s representative or intermediary intermediary on earth, and it is he who mediates God’s blessings to the world. In dramatic contrast to this, the Torah asserts that ordinary human beings—not just kings, but each and every one of us—are mediators of divine blessing. “The entire race collectively stands vis-à-vis God in the same relationship of chosenness and protection that characterizes the god-king relationship in the more ancient civilizations of the Near East.” Genesis 1 thus represents a radical democratization of ancient Near Eastern royal ideology. We are, the Torah insists, all kings and queens.

Shai Held. The Heart of Torah, Volume 1: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Genesis and Exodus . The Jewish Publication Society.

Feminist Objection to the Royal Interpretation of “In the Image of God”

Such a picture, claims McFague, is derived from a patriarchal model of man ruling over woman and serves to enforce and legitimate such rule by its association of male dominance with God’s transcendence. [Sallie McFague, Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), pp. 63-69.]

The Environmental Objection to the Royal Interpretation of “In the Image of God”

Some environmentalists have placed the blame for the modern West’s despoliation of the earth squarely at the Bible’s feet. Thus, for example, one influential writer charges that according to Christian (and by implication, Jewish) thinking, “God planned all of this explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: No item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes.” The environmental crisis, he insists, was rooted in religious “arrogance towards nature” and the only solution, therefore, lay in moving beyond these patently damaging and outdated ideas. [Held, Shai. The Heart of Torah, Volume 1: Essays on the Weekly Torah Portion: Genesis and Exodus . The Jewish Publication Society.]

“ancient Near Eastern society, whether Mesopotamian (that is, Sumerian, Babylonian or Assyrian), West Semitic (that is, Canaanite), or Egyptian, was hierarchically ordered…. Standing between the human realm, on the one hand, and the gods, on the other, was the king, universally viewed in the ancient Near East as the mediator of both social harmony and cosmic fertility from the gods. To contrast the two cultures we know most about, whereas in Egypt the Pharaoh is viewed as the eternally begotten son of the gods, in Mesopotamia the king was but an adopted son. Both, however, are referred to as the image of this or that particular god, whether Re, Amon, Marduk, ‘Shamash or Enlil. [Middleton ibid.]

פסיקתא דרב כהנא כ״ג
(א) פסקא כג אות א ראש השנה: (א) לעולם י”י דברך נצב בשמים (תהלים קיט פט) תני ר’ אליע’ בעשרים וחמשה באלול נברא העולם ואתיא דרב כהדא דתני ר’ אליע’ דתניא בתקיעתא דרב זה היום תחילת מעשיך זכרון ליום ראשון וגו’ כי חק לישראל הוא משפט וג’ (שם פא ה) על המדינות בו יאמר איזו לחרב ואיזו לשלום איזו לרעב ואיזו לשובע איזו למות ואיזו לחיים וביריות בו יפקדו להזכירם חיים ומות נמצאת אומ’ בראש השנה נברא אדם הראשון בשעה ראשונה עלה במחשבה בשנייה נמלך במלאכי השרת בשלישית כינס עפרו ברביעית גיבלו בחמישית ריקמו בשישית העמידו גולם על רגליו בשביעי’ זרק בו נשמה בשמינית הכניסו לגן עדן בתשיעית ציוהו בעשירית עבר על ציוהו באחת עשרה נידון בשתים עשרה יצא בדימוס מלפני הק”ב א’ לו הקב”ה אדם זה סימן לבניך כשם שנכנסתה לפניי בדין ביום הזה ויצאתה בדימוס כך עתידין בניך להיות נכנסין לפניי בדין ביום הזה ויוצאין בדימוס אימתי בחדש השביעי באחד לחדש (ויקרא כג כד

Pesikta D’Rav Kahanna 23
A. Rosh Hashanah. Your word stands firm in heaven (Psalms 119; 89) R. Eliya learnt: On the 25th of Elul the world was created and he cited R. Kehada who learnt that R. Eliya learnt during the blowings of Rav “This is the day, the beginning of your works, is in remembrance of the first day etc. For it is a law for Israel, a ruling of the God of Jacob; etc. (psalms 81:5) on the Nations it was written, who for the sword, who for peace, who for famine who for plenty, who for death, and who for life and with shots he will be selected deserving of life and death as they say On Rosh Hashanah Adam (the first Man) was created.

In the first hour it came into His mind. In the second (hour) he ruled among the heavenly host. In the third he gathered the dirt. In the fourth He kneaded. In the fifth he formed him. In the sixth he raised the Golem onto his feet. In the seventh he threw into him a soul. In the eighth he brought him into the garden of Eden. In the ninth he commanded him (not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge). In the tenth he (Adam) transgressed His command. In the eleventh he was judged. In the twelfth hour he was pardoned by the Holy One Blessed be He. Said to him, God: “Adam, this is a sign for your children. Just as you came in judgement before me on this day and went out pardoned so also in the future your children will come before me in judgement on this day and leave pardoned. When? On the seventh month on the first (day) of the month (Leviticus 23:24)

The Torah’s assertion that every human being is created in the image of God is a repudiation of the idea, so common in the ancient world, that some people are simply meant to rule over others. If everyone is royalty, then on some level, when it comes to the interpersonal and political spheres, no one is.

Assigned the role of God’s delegates, human beings are told to “be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it . . . rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on the earth” (Gen. 1:28).

What’s more, Genesis 1 repeatedly emphasizes and seems to revel in the fact that God created both vegetation and creatures “of every kind.” … then, the biblical . . . creation story is like a hymn to biodiversity, which is seen as unambiguously good in its own right.

If Genesis 1 teaches that human beings are meant to be kings and queens over creation, …“The task of a king is to care for those over whom he rules, especially for the weakest and most helpless. . . . This means that humans are expected to care for the earth and its creatures. Such is the responsibility of royalty.” What we find in Genesis 1, then, is not a license to abuse and exploit but a summons to nurture and protect.

The problem with the notion of human stewardship over creation is not that it authorizes human exploitation of the earth and abuse of the animal kingdom—which, as we have seen, it emphatically does not. The problem is, rather, that we have not really taken it seriously enough to try it. In modern times, amid an almost manic need to produce and consume more and more, we have all too often lost sight of what has been entrusted to us. What we need is not to abandon Genesis 1 but to return to it and to rediscover there what we have forgotten or failed to see altogether. We are created in the image of God and are thus mandated to rule over creation; this is a call to exercise power in the way Tanakh imagines the ideal ruler would, “in obedience to the reign of God and for the sake of all the other creatures whom [our] power affects.” [Held, Shai. ibid]

“Obedience to God is also the negation of submission to man.”

You Shall be as Gods – A Radical Interpretation of the Old Testament and its Tradition, Erich Fromm 1966 p73

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one solution – revolution

Parshat Ki Tissa

There’s nothing like the day after the revolution has been won. You hug strangers and with kid on shoulder you breathe the air as though for the first time. You capture it all in your mind’s eye along with the smell and the very taste of a hard won battle for freedom. When revolutions are fresh, it seems as though nothing will ever be the same again. Everything is possible. This is how it must have felt in Egypt in Tahrir Square last Saturday, when the Egyptian modern-day Pharaoh finally… let his people go.

Soon enough the old problems reappear… you’re still unemployed and your dad is still underpaid. There’s a nagging feeling in your gut that with the military in charge, maybe you’ve just replaced one authoritative regime with another. You know that sooner or later you’ll get an answer. There’ll be a major test, maybe a crisis, maybe an election, and then you’ll know whether the revolution was a paradigm shift or just a power shuffle.

When the Jews left Egypt there was a honeymoon period. Sure, they were tested at the Sea of Reeds and tested God with a few petty complaints about the lack of fresh meat and sweet water, but it was only at the foot of Sinai that the wrapper came off the Israelite revolution.

Worshiping the Golden Calf was the first and arguably biggest communal sin ever perpetrated by the Jewish people. Before the calf, we were to be a holy nation and kingdom of Priests; after the calf we were forever tainted and got what we deserved; our own priestly caste. The Midrash says: “there is no generation that doesn’t take a small portion of the sin of the Golden Calf”. (Shemot Rabba 43, 3).

The common understanding is that the Calf was a momentary theological lapse. The generation of the Exodus replaced their newly adopted transcendent God for an old fashioned idol of molten gold. Theirs was that age-old stumbling block of idol worship. In his search for the infinite, man stops prematurely and settles for a piece of finite stone or wood.

The text suggests, however, that the Calf was not a God-substitute as much as it was a Moses-substitute.

And Aaron said: ‘Let not the anger of my lord wax hot; thou knowest the people that they are set on evil. So they said unto me: Make us a god, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him. (Exodus 32, 22-23)

Like much of the bible, the Golden Calf was not primarily about theology. The new god was to replace Moses, not God. Through the loss of Moses, it became clear to the people that they needed a new Moses. To Aaron, it became clear that the people had previously mistaken Moses for a god, an untouchable, a higher life-form, a singular messenger of God…. It became clear to Aaron and to us; the reader, that by his absence, Moses proved himself to the people to be just another common man. For the people, a common man would not do.

Theirs was not a misconception in the form or role of God, it was rather a misunderstanding in the newly defined purpose and powers of man. Theirs was not a lack of faith in God, rather it was in man that they were short of faith.

If the Calf had only been a mistake in theology, the affront would have been manageable. Rather the Calf showed that the generation of the Exodus Revolution had missed the whole point of the revolution. The Calf represented that day, when the sweet taste of a revolution turns foul.

The Calf was that act that knocks the wind out of you, knots your stomach and buckles your knees. It was at this moment that Aaron, Moses and we can imagine; God, realized that the revolution was over. This was not a paradigm shift. These people just did not get it.

The Exodus Revolution had proclaimed that you serve only one God… and therefore … and this is the punch line… you serve no object and certainly no man or power produced by man. The Exodus Revolution’s credo was that you serve no man, no king, no priest, no angel, no messenger.. You serve only God. You cannot delegate your responsibilities and neither will God. By example, God did not delegate the revolution and neither can you. As it says in the Haggadah:

“The Lord took us out of Egypt,” not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger. The Holy One, blessed be He, did it in His glory by Himself.

Thus it is said: “In that night I will pass through the land of Egypt, and I will smite every first-born in the land of Egypt, from man to beast, and I will carry out judgments against all the gods of Egypt, I the Lord.

 “I will pass through the land of Egypt,” I and not an angel;

“And I will smite every first-born in the land of Egypt,” I and not a seraph;

 “And I will carry out judgments against all the gods of Egypt,” I and not a messenger;

“I the Lord,” it is I, and none other!

These newly liberated Jews had missed the point.  They had replaced Pharaoh’s regime with a new regime to be run by this messenger of God, called Moses.  It wasn’t that these small-minded people were bad
rather they were just trapped in a bad place

These survivors were lacking in faith, not in God but in themselves. It was their misconception that a human being of flesh and blood cannot possibly talk face-to-face with God… the ultimate source of power. They did not believe in the spiritual and political power within man, or better yet, they were not willing to accept the responsibility such a belief created.

In the people’s view, Moses must have been a super-man. When Moshe failed to appear they realized that he too was only a common man. They built themselves another demi-god, not to replace God, rather to replace the common man.

And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: ‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him. (Exodus 32, 1)

The sin of the Golden Calf was ultimately that of giving up in the revolution; it was the counter-revolution par excellence. The people were confused and scared. They had no faith in themselves; they needed a god to follow… another Pharaoh. This was their sin.. the sin of timidity…. Which it turns out, may be the greatest possible crime a human being can commit. Timidity is an evil that every generation; every individual must protect himself from.

The question we continually must ask as individuals and as societies: Do we dare to take control of our own destiny or do we leave such things for others, for others who are; comfortably for us, not quite human? In short, do we want to go back to the Egypt of the past where we were slaves, or do we move on to our promised land with the responsibility of freedom on our shoulders?

By not relating to Moses as a human being; as one of their own, the people deified him. They distanced his role from theirs, which conveniently provided them with an easy way out… just build a calf. We see a similar approach to philanthropy and social services today. Have a problem… delegate it to professionals and build an institution.

Probably the greatest sin of orthodoxy is the sin of authority worship. Whether it be the patriarchs, the sages of the Talmud, the Rishonim, Achronim or current Gedoleh Hador…. The great ones of the generation. The message of the Calf is loud and clear… Our leaders may be greater only in degree, not in kind. They were not angels or messengers of God. We can and must relate to them as fellow men. The moment we begin to remove Torah personalities and leaders from our realm, the Torah becomes irrelevant to us. When we study Torah in this fashion, we do not make it more holy by putting it on a pedestal.. we demean it and make our own Golden Calf..

In the context of the Exodus narrative, this is the ultimate heresy. By making Moses the man, into Moshe the angel we have no Moses at all. Moses remains the man he always was, it is we who have lost our humanity and settled for the comfort of theological servitude.

At the end of the day… the revolution started in ancient Egypt, ended at the foot of Sinai. The Exodus Revolution was short-lived and God accepted the wishes of the people. He had had enough. If they wished for an intermediary angel, an angel they would have.

And now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee; behold, Mine angel shall go before thee; nevertheless in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them. (Exodus 32: 34)

and I will send an angel before thee; and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite– unto a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people; lest I consume thee in the way. (Exodus 33: 2-3)


God challenged the Jewish people by fulfilling their desire. I will keep my promises. You will go to the land of Milk and Honey. You will live happily in your land, and rooted in the land you will remain. My spirit will no longer bother you. You will no longer merit my anger. You will continue to be a stiff necked people, unable to govern yourselves and insensitive to the spirit, to the challenge of growthstiff as a corpse. The fate of the Jewish people was put into their own hands. To be satisfied with “the good life” or to meet the demands of a life worth living.     The generation of the Exodus took the first step.. they recognized the calamity of their mistake:

And when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned; and no man did put on him his ornaments. (Exodus 33:4)

The generation of the Exodus revolution went into mourning and died in the desert. Subsequent generations, up and to the present, have the mandate to learn the lesson of their failure and to keep the revolution alive. Either we continue to revolt against timidity, or we worship graven images.. that is the choice we have, through the generations.

So while the Golden Calf did represent a reversion to idol worship, it is a distinct type of idol worship. Theirs was the idol worship described by Maimonides in his introduction to the laws pertaining to idol worship:

In the days of Enosh, the people fell into gross error, and the counsel of the wise men of the generation became foolish. Enosh himself was among those who erred. Their error was as follows : “Since God,” they said, “created those stars and spheres to guide the world, set them on high and allotted to them honor, and since they are ministers who minister before Him, they deserve to be praised and glorified .. it is the will of God, blessed be He, that men should aggrandize and honor those whom He aggrandized and honored….This was the root of idolatry and this was what the idolaters who knew its fundamentals said. They did not, however, maintain that there was no God except the particular star (which was the object of their worship)… (Mishna Torah, Laws of idol worship, law 1)

The truth is that such benign idol worship is a slippery slope. Once you distance yourself from political and theological power, it is a short step to forget and loose all sense of the source of both political and spiritual power. Maimonides continues:

As time gradually passed, the honored and revered Name of God was forgotten by mankind, vanished from their lips and hearts and was no longer known to them. All the common people and the women and children knew only the figure of wood and stone and the temple edifice in which they had, from their childhood, been trained to prostrate themselves to the figure, worship it, and swear by its name. Even their wise men, such as priests and men of similar standing, also fancied that there was no other god but the stars and spheres, for whose sake and in whose similitude these figures had been made. (ibid. law. 2)

Instead of worshiping God in the spiritual realm, and bowing only to God in the political realm, man worships those objects that are “guiding the world”.

It is so natural, so understandable. The false humility of the timid has its inevitable consequences. Ultimately we become political and spiritual slaves of the false powers we have empowered. This is idol worship. This is the counter-revolution. This is the sin of the Golden Calf which haunts us in every generation.

When I was studying in Yeshivat Be’er Ya’akov, a Mussar Yeshiva under the guidance of HaRav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l I was introduced to the quest for greatness… Gadlut and its opposite; the sin of smallness Katnut.

I also came across the writings of a brilliant Rabbi who tragically died at 34. He combined the best of the 19th century Jewish movements of Mussar and Hasidism and his name was Avrohom Eliyahu Kaplan. In his book: Be’ikvos haYir’ah he writes in poetic terms about the false humility that is idol worship:

It is not pride that holds us back, but rather humility. We are humble and not brash. Our souls are like widows, without anything to lean on or security, without the power of knowledge. A humility not in God’s name is this; rather in the name of laziness that is in despair that is in laziness. It is for the poor who are happy with their portion.. that is, in their spiritual [portion].

It is this same misplaced humility that Nelson Mandela allegedly warned against on the day of his inauguration:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’ We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. (click here for actual source of quote)

In these frightening but exhilarating times, let us all … Jews, Egyptians, Iranians, Yemenis, Americans … Let all human beings have the strength to keep our revolutions on track, to provide support and gather strength from each other and overthrow those who would extinguish our light. Let us not succumb to smallness…let us not be timid. Let us strive for greatness. Let us remember that the struggle never ends, both for individuals and for societies.


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