by: Mark Kirschbaum on March 1st, 2013 | 3 Comments »
In previous essays, in dealing with the dull repetitions of the mishkan (tabernacle) narrative, we discussed the idea of boundaries, of distance introduced as a result of the sin of the golden calf. The mishkan structure itself, and the garments of the priests, act as signifiers of, and simultaneously as a means of overcoming the boundaries and distance introduced by the sin of the golden calf. R. Zadok Hacohen adds an interesting comment, which would be incredibly radical except that the source of the quote is the Talmud (BT Nedarim 22: )
“If it weren’t for the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jews would only have received the Five Books of the Torah and the Book of Joshua”.
It was only with the second set of Luhot, not the first set smashed because of the golden calf, that we also received the Oral law. R. Zadok understands this to mean that had there not been the distance introduced by sin, our relation with the Torah text would have been an unmediated one, one that would not have required the supplemental hermeneutics of the commentaries and supercommentaries familiar to the student of Jewish studies. Our understanding of the Torah would have been akin to what Maimonides describes of Adam before his sin, that he would have had a pure objective relationship with God undistorted by subjectivity (which is why the forbidden Tree was known as that of “good and bad”, good and bad being purely subjective categories, liking something or not liking something, as opposed to the Tree of ‘Life’, which he reads as symbolizing empirical, objective knowledge, as in science (science as a medieval thinker would have seen it, including theological speculation).
The question, then, is, what was the ‘allure’ of the golden calf, what was implicit within that error that suddenly the five books of the Torah are no longer adequate and all that commentary is necessary?
The Meor V’shemesh has difficulty comprehending how a generation that experienced what it experienced could lapse so crudely into idolatry of the most primitive sort. What was it that the people wanted from this idol? His response is that it wasn’t a “god” they were looking for at all, but rather an authority figure. In essence, they understood that the whole point of the exodus and the ensuing commandments was to reach a stage of awe, of recognition of God’s greatness and grandeur, referred to in the classical literature as yirat haromemut, literally ‘reverence through awe’. This is the highest level of understanding recognized in the kabbalistic literature, higher than love. For example, in the prayerbook of R. Shalom Sharabi, the meditative introduction is always b’dichilu u’richimu, u’richimu v’dichilu, “with awe and love, with love and awe”. The adept proceeds to higher levels of mystical consciousness beginning with raw fear, (for example, of punishment), upward through ever higher forms of love, to reach a state of ‘reverent awe’ (an awe akin to the mysterium tremendum, not a fear related to punishment).
The way by which the people learned to progress through these steps was by observing Moses and by a sort of transference from their experience with him. When Moses appeared in public, as we are taught in Exodus 34:30, the people feared to approach him. So through this fear they became able to analogize the requisite awe in their relationship with God.
On the basis of this model of learning levels of awe from the example of respecting Moses, the Meor v’Shemesh rereads the Talmudic teaching in Berachot 33:, (based on the verse in Deuteronomy 10:12) which reads- “What does God require from one, only to fear God!” The Talmud then comments that for Moses awe is a ‘little thing’ (l’gabei moshe milta zutrata hi), it was not a big challenge to fear God. The Meor V’Shemesh explains that the Talmud means, in the presence of Moses (l’gabei the term used in the Talmud, can mean for or in the presence of) it is no big deal, experiencing the awe one has in Moses’s presence, made it easy to sense the awe one must have before God.
So in essence, what the people were afraid of losing when Moses was delayed and feared dead on Sinai, was an object to fear, they were afraid they had lost their “authority figure” which would keep them in a state of awe. This is what the people demanded from Aaron, and what they got as a result was the golden calf, a false direction, which required much work to undo.
What struck me about this reading was the relationship to the ensuing “play” that the text describes once the golden calf was presented to the people. If it was something to fear they were seeking,why was the people’s response upon receiving the idol described asvayakumu l’tsachek, “they got up to party” (verse 32:6)?
When one thing seems to work emotionally exactly opposite to common sense, we may be in the world of psychoanalysis, and to try to understand this traumatic moment, we will turn to Jacques Lacan.
Lacan (following Melanie Klein) explains how at birth, the infant exists in a perceived state of totality with his needs and surroundings. There is no differentiation between the infant and his hunger, his mother, the breast that feeds him, and his sense of satiety. These are all within him, so to speak. Somewhere down the line, at about six months, the child begins to realise that he is a separate entity, unified in his individual person.
This is accomplished by what Lacan calls the mirror stage. The child sees his reflection in the mirror, and realises that the image he sees is his individuated being. What is critical for us, here, is that in this model the attainment of individuation is always external, in that what the child sees is a reflected, objectified image, rather than some total complete entity. That image is “me”, the child learns. In fact, this world, in which the individual really only comes to know his/herself by virtue of a reflection in others, this world, which Lacan refers to as L’Imaginaire, is also recognized as being in some way false. The me the child knows is an external image, as opposed to ‘la reelle’, the total uncategorized Real that was present before. What we are, what we live, is a state which is primary in the other, the way we are reflected in society, the way we teach ourselves to think of ourselves based on the demands of those around us, parents, friends, teachers, etc. As Lacan states in “The Four Fundamental Concepts”:
“Really, is there not something here more profound than La Rochefoucauld’s remark that few would experience love if they had not had its ways and means explained to them?”
All these behaviour patterns are the result of our self perception, which is driven by the way we see ourselves reflected in the other. However, the baby, when he sees himself in the mirror, always laughs. That is because there is a kind of dialectic in process. On the one hand, the baby is suddenly cut off from the Real, this state of self-based unity with its surroundings, but on the other hand, the infant now sees herself as an individual, a self among other selfs.
Lacan reads the Oedipal/castration model of Freud in a non-sexual derived manner, and as this is relevant, I will attempt another oversimplified explanation. The attainment of being self, of individuality, comes at the cost of the Real, and the return to this Real, which is intimately connected to the mother, is at the root of desire, that sense that there is more to existence than what we are conscious of. The world makes demands on “us”, yet we feel that somehow those demands are not “us”. The “us” we still residually know of ourselves from before the mirror stage, this presymbolic world is linked to the mother, and specifically to her capacity to create and to feed. This Lacan calls the “desir de la mere“, the desire of the mother (or for the mother).
What cuts us off, so to speak, from this dreamy desirable presymbolic Real, is le nom du pere, the ‘name of the Father’, the categorized signifying world of Language. Once there is language, we are cut off (hence the castration) from the ineffable, that which is “prior” to language. So, in summary, our formation as individuals is linked from the outset to a sense of loss, at the root of our encounter with the real, which is why “desire” can never be filled, that there is a continual searching for something “beyond”, that cannot be articulated, cannot be satisfied.
Yet, to remain intact as individuals, we require the authoritative presence of the Father, of the ability to relate to others through the strictures and regulations of language. The way we experience this encounter with the real (Lacan borrows a term from Aristotle and labels this “tuche“), at every developmental stage, is what determines our health or neurosis.
I would suggest that reading in this manner, we can tie together the teachings summarized above. The people, newly released from the un-individuated state of slavery, still crave the presence of an authority figure, the Name of the Father. When Moses disappeared, there was a threat to identity, to individuation. Perhaps, this is also symbolized in the Midrashim in which they threw the gold into the fire which then came out as a calf, a Midrash which contains within it several metaphors of birth and creation, as well as a metaphor of childishness (a calf rather than a full grown cow or bull). However, this maladaptive encounter with the real (reflected in the excess of “play”, this “vayakumu l’tzachek“), was “neurotic” and regressive. The only cure for it is through theinternalization of thetrue authority figure, that of God manifested to the nation as language,not an external “leader” but an internalized set of decisionsto livea life with guidelines, through text and commandments, the vehicles of Torah.
This brings us back to R. Zadok Hacohen’s surprising comment that the corpus of Torah would have been far shorter had it not been for the sin of the calf. The Talmud specifically links the sin to the creation of Oral Law, the law of spoken language rather than text. Perhaps the idea is that had without this disruptive event in development, had normal development proceded without the neurotic challenge, then our encounter with thenormal state of individuation, i.e. the attainment of language, would have been healthier.
In fact, in his work Mahshevet Harutz, chapter 16, R. Zadok explains this Talmudic teaching by linking it to yet an earlier failure of this sort, the sin of Adam as described in Bereishit. He says that initially, Adam could have transformed the whole world right at the outset had he not succumbed to his “desire” and disobeyed the “word”. The therapy for this failure was meant to be accomplished at Sinai. There, the word would have been non-neurotically encountered by the people’s reception of the Written Law, that is, the five books of Moshe, along withthe book ofJoshua, which, dealing as it does with boundaries (the ancient boundaries of the Land of Israel), which would havecorrected thelocal failure of Adam and Eve within a different set of boundaries and rules in the garden of Eden (a sort of metaphorical transferance). However, due to the failure of the encounter as seen in the golden calf episode, the second giving of the Torahdemonstrated a need fora more gradual route to the written word, via the more extensive social language known as the oral law, so concerned with civil interactions and social behaviors, a set of laws seemingly so cold, distant, and clinical.
As long as the tension between desire and the needs of the other remains, as long as there are border/boundary disputes at the personal and national levels,there remains a need for constant direction and guidance, at all levels. This need may be most necessary particularly where the worlds of religion and reality need to coexist…
In the spirit of never missing good material no matter where one finds it, I would like to present arelevant conceptfrom the historian Simon Schama, in his The Embarrassment of Riches, on the Dutch golden age. I even managed to track down a web copy of the painting under discussion, so that you can all see it http://www.pubhist.com/works/10/large/10246.jpg
Schama deals with the assumption of the Hebraic history as a model for the destiny of the new Dutch nation. Here begins the edited quote, from pages 116- 120:
It is, then, all the more extraordinary that the most striking instance of Mosaic iconography at the heart of Amsterdam’s town hall, should have represented, not the ascendancy of the Calvinist zealots, but the polemical ingenuity of their pliant adversaries in the Amsterdam patriciate. Ferdinand Bol’s Moses with the Tablets of Law (1661-62) is best known to art historians as the stilted and ungainly alternative to what might have been one of Rembrandt’s most powerful late history paintings, executed in 1659, but what passes for second rate may qualify as first rate historical evidence, and Bol’s Moses, in all its histrionic glory provides a grandiloquent demonstration of how the Exodus scripture had become a battleground for disputing views of the relationship between church and state. (the book then continues to describe the tense situation between the severe Calvinist clergy linked with the Orange loyalists versus the humanist magistrates). It was against this background that the moderate regents, savoring the magnificence of their new town hall, decided to offer an iconographic reproof to theocracy where it most counted: in their seat of law. Uytenbogaert had used the Old Testament to insist on the division of governance between lay and spititual spheres, with the former ultimately responsible for the administration of the commonwealth. It had been Moses, not Aaron, he argued, who had been awarded the godly leadership of the Children of Israel, and after Moses’ death, that leadership had passed first to judges and then to kings. The priests and prophets had served as the moral consciences of the state, set apart in a special caste, but never entrusted with the role of government. The mantelpiece painting for the Chamber of the Magistrates (the painting by Bol) was to show the one occasion when government had been placed in the hands of the priests, with demonstrably calamitous consequences. Bol’s Moses descends from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the law in his arms, only to witness the scenes of profane iniquity and chaos in the camp of the Israelites. Acknowledging their sins, they kneel before him for forgiveness- the figure in left profile, perhaps dressed as to embody the contrition of the priestly caste?
I would like to point out that there is an important work which makes this very argument, called Mishpat Hamelucha B’Yisrael, by R. Shimon Federbush, (Mossad Harav Kook press). Federbush argues that all through Jewish history there was always a sharp separation maintained between the religious and the civil lawmakers, the Sanhedrin and the priesthood. Perhaps this work needs to be translated into English. Perhaps we need to think about this kind of separation today in Jewish political life.