Tag Archives: idolatry

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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.”

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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;

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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.

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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.

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“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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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—

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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:

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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

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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

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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.

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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.]

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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.]

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“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.]

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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)

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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]

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“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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Filed under Bible, divine birth, divine right, feminism, Hebrew, immaculate conception, Israel, Judaism, monotheism, Religion, Rosh Hashannah, social commentary, Torah, women's rights, yom kippur

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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