Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, March 9, 2023
In This Moment: How the Bible is Everything, Everywhere and All At Once - What if Fox News covered the Golden Calf?
How the Bible is Everything, Everywhere and All At Once
What if Fox News Covered the Golden Calf?
This week's portion of Ki Tisa contains the climactic Golden Calf incident, or, as Tucker Carlson might describe it, "an afternoon tea party. No Big Deal. No debauchery. No idolatry. Just a sweet pastoral scene. A few baby cows, a few baby sheep. A few tourists in a lovely Yorkshire setting looking for landmarks from All Creatures, Great and Small. No fire and brimstone. No quaking mountain. No smashed tablets or windows. Nothing to see here."
"Totally innocent! He didn't make the calf. Antifa did."
And where was Moses this whole time?
"That's the crux of the problem. Mo is AWOL, nowhere to be found! That's what happens when you pick a leader who's 80 years old! And who chose him, anyway? The process was rigged!"
I could go on, but mercifully, I won't. However, this little parody raises a crucial question about the nature of transmitted truth. There is really only one documented way to understand what happened on January 6, 2021, and it's supported by a mountain of evidence and a cattle call of convictions. Yet some still choose to deliberately lie to further their own political and - in Fox's case, more to the point, commercial - agendas. How Fox
News could still be doing this at the very time they're being exposed by the Dominion
lawsuit revelations is the height of chutzpah. Fortunately, the attempt to whitewash what happened on the 6th will likely fail, especially in light of the growing desire of Republican leaders to finally let the lie go - to their credit.
But, if we turn our attention back to the Golden Calf, how can we be sure that the Torah's account of this sinful debauchery, and particularly Aaron's role in it, are to be accepted as the only possible version of events? The text and commentaries jostle over the relative guilt of Aaron in collecting the jewelry and constructing the idol. Some say was simply trying to stall for time. And the entire group present, all the people, are the true guilty party. After all, the punishment did not go to Aaron alone. Each individual Israelite was held responsible by God for this idolatry. Their donations of jewelry and participation in the idol worship rendered them all complicit.
Maybe not ALL.
On this day after International Women's Day, this juicy bit of Midrash is just perfect.
While the Hebrew verb for “they took off (their jewelry),” is masculine plural, it is typically seen as applying to a mixed-gender group of Israelites. But Bamidbar Rabbah 21:10 chooses to read the phrase literally: “They (the men) took” asserts that it was only the Israelite men who opted to participate and give over their gold. The Israelite women, says the midrash, refused to donate their valuables or to participate in idolatry.
And because of that, the women weregranted aspecial gift, their own holiday, Rosh Hodesh (the New Month).
Is all of this "true," in the historical sense? If you look at the chart below (click on it to enlarge), you'll see that Conservative and Reform Judaism don't necessarily take the Torah literally. That should come as no surprise to those who know me. I've been shouting that message from the rooftops for the past four decades. To quote the Broadway version of Book of Mormon, "It's a metaphor."
But there is a difference between literal fact and a broader truth.
"...half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions… are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies."
It is clear that Jewish sources stand on the side of deeper truth, rather than historical literalism, or as some call it, fundamentalism. The Talmud states that God's very signature is truth. We can debate precisely what truth is, but we know clearly what it isn't - you need look no further than the Dominion case depositions to find that.
"The Holy One, blessed be God, hates a person which says one thing with his mouth and another in his heart."
That's how you define a liar. Clean and simple.
The sages understood the fragility of the trust that people place in those who recount the stories, and who make the laws based on those stories.
As we read and retell our sacred stories again and again, year after year, there is a certain trust that accompanies that reading, a faith that these events were initially communicated, and later interpreted, in good faith, however subjectively, Not by an agenda-driven cynical egomaniac out to hold onto power and make a few billion bucks for his media empire. We've got to believe that the editors and story tellers who passed the Torah stories down to us believed, on some level, that what they were telling was "true."
The same is true for all faith traditions. I may have serious questions as to the historicity of the Red Sea parting, just as a Christian might question the events on Golgotha. But with these stories, like the Golden Calf, there is an internal integrity that makes them timeless and able to yield priceless truths. The Golden Calf midrash about the courageous women lays bare so many lies and stereotypes. There are myths to explode and moral lessons to explore, so many in just one brief story.
But it all depends on the integrity of the teller. For me to accept the Bible as "true" and divine, I need to place my faith in the authors, scribes, bards and redactors who developed and transmitted the stories for all these centuries. Because these stories passed through so many hands - and mouths - they have survived a vetting process unlike any other in history. The Hebrew Bible was possibly the world's first - and still best - crowdsourced document, written in the original Multiverse, a mishmash of "everything, everywhere and all at once." John Riches wrote in The Bible: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press):
"The biblical texts were produced over a period in which the living conditions of the writers – political, cultural, economic, and ecological – varied enormously. There are texts which reflect a nomadic existence, texts from people with an established monarchy and Temple cult, texts from exile, texts born out of fierce oppression by foreign rulers, courtly texts, texts from wandering charismatic preachers, texts from those who give themselves the airs of sophisticated Hellenistic writers."
Over those centuries, the process of editing, re-editing, translating, and interpreting, left us with a document richly layered in the (often contradictory) truths of the human experience.
If any of it was written with Tucker Carlsonesque malevolence, millions of proofreaders could question, cajole and tug at the text and bring forth new fruit. But they can tug and comment and remaster all they want; still, the Golden Calf will never become a jolly holiday in the Yorkshire countryside. You can put lipstick on this golden calf and it will still be an idol. You can put lipstick on January 6, 2021 and the purveyor of falsehood will still be a liar. And now, a deposed one, sworn to tell the truth, whatever that means to an entrenched liar.
In this week of great parody, from Purim masks to Fox News unmasked to Mel Brooks' long awaited sequel to his "History of the World, Part One," we need to believe that our sacred stories come to us relatively untarnished - but rather, varnished to a deep shine by the eyes of a billion readers spanning hundreds of generations. There can be truth in numbers.
What Fox News continues to do in spreading such devastating lies about the 2020 Election is a sin that is downright biblical in nature, with consequences bordering on apocalyptic. We've only seen a glimpse of what the world can be like when it is run by power hungry manipulators who have no respect for the people they supposedly serve. At some point, the greatest casualty will become truth itself. But before that happens, Dominion will go to trial, more truths will emerge - and the verdict will await God's signature.
This Week's Hebrew Headlines
...see today's Israeli front pages on the bottom of this email
The front page headline from Yediot says, "Protest Spreading Among Reserves." That is below the smaller headline that states that a quarter of a million hit the streets in protest last Saturday night. The Purim photo on the bottom right, captioned "A grand holiday for children, echoing the lyrics of the song "Hag Purim," is strangely comforting.
When an Israeli reserve fighter announced why he is not reporting for training, that was greeted by accusations by the Information Minister Galit Distel that he and his comrades are "pathetic deserters." He responded with this unbelievable letter.
You, who were appointed as a minister thanks to your proclivity for lying and gossip, ought to read the following carefully:
“A pathetic bunch of deserters,” you called them. They are the people thanks to whom you can get into bed at night. While you continue to search for more sick ways of spreading your lies, “they” fly at night on stealth missions around the Middle East.
You don’t have the tools, intelligence, or ability to understand what it’s like to climb into the cockpit in the dead of night, take off with a plane loaded with fuel and bombs and fly to an enemy country.
Try to get this into your head—one engine, hundreds of kilometers of flight in enemy territory to reach the target, missiles are fired at you, and you can find yourself, in seconds, dangling from your parachute on your way to captivity.
You, Distel, will never understand what it is to love the country for which you are willing to sacrifice your life, and you do not have the tools to understand the devoted friendship on the part of that helicopter pilot who is willing to risk his life at an absurd altitude, in order to rescue a group from Sayeret Matkal [an elite commando unit], wounded Golani soldiers or a fallen pilot.
Those very same “treasonous leftists” and the “pathetic group of deserters” are the ones who destroyed the air forces of Egypt, Syria and Jordan in 1967, saved (yes, saved) the State of Israel from destruction, defended its borders in 1973, brought the troops to Entebbe, brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel, destroyed the nuclear reactors in Baghdad in 1981 and in Syria in 2007, and continue steadily and unceasingly in their secret work every day.
Thirteen young men from my [pilots’] course have fallen in their roles as pilot—
and you will not tarnish their memory.
Go, Distel, speak with the sickening government of which you are a part, a government that relies on draft dodgers, crooks, liars and thieves, and explain to them that here in this country there will be democracy, and that we will fight for it—at any cost.
This article below from Ha'aretz (in Hebrew and then in the English edition), which seems like good news, gives us just one example of an individual freedom that will undoubtedly be ripped away if the judiciary coup succeeds and the radical right wing government is allowed to run roughshod over human rights. It is easy to imagine Conservative and Reform synagogues being forced to close. Pluralism at the Kotel will become a pipe dream and LGBTQ persecution will go far beyond being denied wedding cakes. With nothing to restrain them, they've already telegraphed what they will do. As Thomas Friedman wrote this week in the NYT,now is the time for American Jews to choose sides.Who's side are you on? The government's? Or the "pathetic deserters?"
'A History of the World, Part II’ Is a Triumph of Jewish Comedy (Kveller) -What does it mean to have something so laugh-out-loud funny, and so comfortably Jewish, in a year like this?...If we had only gotten a sketch about a character from the Torah? Dayenu! If we had only gotten that and a funny “Fiddler” parody that extends over several episodes? Dayenu! If we had only had those and the much-anticipated “Hitler on Ice” that was promised in the ending credits of Part I? Dayenu! But we have so, so much more. There are jokes about kashrut, antisemitism, an onslaught of Yiddishisms, and mentions of every Jewish food staple from lox to celery soda.
‘Purimfest 1946!’ (Jeff Jacoby)- Streicher imagined that Hitler and Germany would succeed where Haman had failed; in the end, approaching the gallows, he knew it was a “Purimfest” all over again. But the defeat of anti-Semitism is never permanent. The hatred of Jews is again on the march, even in America, where for so long it was banished from respectable society. Purim is a joyous holiday, but more and more Jews are watching their backs.