Another one of those periodic crises of authority that tend to erupt in the Orthodox world recently captured the attention of the greater community. In this episode, two Orthodox day schools allowed girls who wished to put on tephillin, the ritual prayer boxes traditionally worn by men, the right to put on tephillin during school prayer time. A salvo from the traditionalist camp was quick to follow, focusing not on the question at hand but on the question of authority, with the central argument being that decisions of this sort can’t be made at the local level, but rather require the input from those recognized as long standing authorities. In particular, in this response, the specific argument was that while everyone now has equal access to the full corpus of Jewish legal texts, by way of the internet and the Bar-Ilan database, it doesn’t mean that everyone had the rights of “authority”. I am not going to take sides in this argument, but I believe we get some insight into the problems of a concept like “authority” in both its presence and absence.

The central story of this week’s reading is the well known story of the Golden Calf. Just after all the miracles of the exodus, Moses goes up to Sinai to receive the Torah, and when he is delayed in returning, the people assume he’s dead, have a major freak out, and create an idol of a calf out of gold, which they proclaim the new god and leader of the people. When Moses makes his way back down the mountain with the tablets of the law, the “luhot”, he literally loses it, smashing the tablets. God reveals to Moses that the plan is to wipe out the people and start again, to which Moses regains his composure and advocates for the people. God accepts the appeal and Moses gets a second set of luhot. So was there any lingering result of the sin? We discussed one possible ramification, the idea of a dwelling place, which may have come about as a result of the people’s tragic error. This week we will look at another repercussion of the event, which may give us some insight into the motivations for what appears to us to be a very odd sin by the people given everything they had recently experienced. In other words, why did they make a golden idol of a calf?

It is in the writings of R. Zadok Hacohen that we find a very striking 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 Moses received, that we were given the Oral Law, that extended set of teachings that lead to the Mishna, Talmud, and legal system that tradition tells us emanate equally from Sinai. 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.

According to the position, our understanding of the Torah would have been akin to what Maimonides describes of Adam before his sin, that we would have had a pure objective relationship with God undistorted by subjectivity (Maimonides explains that the forbidden Tree was known as that of “good and bad”, good and bad being subjective categories, what one likes is “good” and what one “dislikes” is bad, whereas the Tree of ‘Life’ symbolizes empirical, objective knowledge, as in science, even theological positions would be empirical and objectively verifiable like scientific data).

So what was it about the sin of the golden calf, what did it tell us about the deficiencies of the people that as a result the five books of the Torah are rendered no longer adequate as a statement of God’s will and all that commentary, debate, studying and writing becomes necessary?

The Meor V’shemesh asks the obvious question. After all they’ve seen and been through, what was it that the people wanted from an idol made from their own possessions? His response is that it wasn’t a “god” the people were looking for at all, but rather an authority figure. In essence, after all that they had experienced and seen from the plagues and onward, the people had internalized a state of awe, a life lived in an acute state of awareness of God’s greatness and grandeur, a state referred to in the classical literature as yirat haromemut, literally ‘reverence through awe’. This state, in the kabbalistic literature, is the highest level of understanding that can be attained, a state that is higher than even love (the highest love evolves into this kind of reverent awe). For example, in the prayerbook of R. Shalom Sharabi, the meditative contemplation before any act is recited so that the act proceeds 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 a basal type of fear, (for example, of punishment), upward through ever higher forms of love, to reach a state of ‘reverent awe’ (an awe and respect akin to the mysterium tremendum, no longer the same fear as related to punishment).

According to the Meor V’Shemesh, 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 told in Exodus 34:30, the people were afraid to approach him. Through this fear of Moshe, they could 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) :

“What does God require from one, only to fear God!”

The Talmud then comments that the “only” implies that for Moses awe is a ‘little thing’ (l’gabei moshe milta zutrata hi), it was not a “big” challenge for Moses to fear God. The Meor V’Shemesh rereads the Talmudic phrase to mean that ‘in the presence of Moses’ (l’gabei the term used in the Talmud, can mean for or in the presence of) reverence is no big challenge, extrapolating from the reverence felt in Moses’ presence, made it easy to comprehend 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 the “authority figure” which would keep them in a state of awe. The idol was thus a tragic false attempt to create something which would create the same experience of fear and reverence amongst the people as did Moses’ presence.

There is one seeming flow in this attempt at explanation by the Meor V’Shemesh. If the purposed of creating a state of fear is what the people were seeking, why was the people’s immediate response upon receiving the idol described as vayakumu l’tsachek, “they got up to party” (verse 32:6)? Instead of reverence they collectively went wild in exactly the opposite direction. So how can this work?

I will suggest that there is an “analytic” truth to the Meor V’Shemesh’s approach in this opposite reaction, and to try to understand this traumatic moment, we will turn to a concept in Jacques Lacan’s analytic theory.

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 she is a separate entity, unified in her 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 ‘him’, that all those different feeling he or she has been experiencing, which constituted a sort of undifferentiated universe for the baby, are embodied in this one body, this one unit that can be seen as an individual in the mirror. What is critical for us, here, is that in this model the attainment of individuation is always external, in that way the child learns of their own individuality is via a reflection,  an external objectified image. That image in the mirror, which I see outside of myself, is “me”. In fact, the entire outside world, in which the individual really only comes to know his/herself by virtue of a reflection in the “mirror” of other people’s views and opinions, this world, which Lacan refers to as L’Imaginaire, is also recognized by the child as being in some way secondary. The “me” that the child recognizes is an external image, as opposed to ‘la Reelle’, the total uncategorized Real made up of the sensations thought and feelings within the child before they were concentrated in an image of a particular body.  We learn to sublimate our own deepest feelings and instincts and substitute an alternative set of emotions and feelings, one formed by the demands of the many mirrors we see ourselves in, that is our reflection in the eyes of our  parents, friends, teachers, bosses, 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?”

We would not allow ourselves to believe in our own sensations without seeing these emotions accepted by external censors and judges. Our behaviour patterns are very much the result of an evolved self perception, which is driven by the way we see ourselves, or they way we want to be seen as reflected in the view of the Other.

However, Lacan notes, the baby, when she first sees herself in the mirror, always laughs! That is because there is a kind of dialectic in process with two parallel outcomes at this moment. 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, with their own view and ability to see others. The attainment of being a 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). This is how Lacan reads the Oedipal/castration model of Freud, not as a sexual matter, but as an identity matter.

What cuts us off, so to speak, from this dreamy desirable presymbolic Real, what evolves from the mirror moment, is the categorized signifying world of language (what Lacan calls le nom du pere, the ‘name of the Father’), that our emotions and feelings have to be translated into, and conform with language that can be shared with those outside of one’s self. Once there is language, we are cut off (hence the castration) from the ineffable set of internal feelings and desires, that which is “prior” to language.

So, in summary, our formation as distinct individuals is linked from the start to a sense of loss, a loss of connection to our deepest pre-individuated feelings at the root of our encounter with the world of other people, which is why certain feelings of “desire” can never be filled, that there is a continual searching for something “beyond”, an emptiness that cannot always be articulated nor satisfied.

Yet, to remain intact as individuals among other individuals, we require this distance from ourselves, we need the ability to relate to others through the strictures and regulations of language. The way we experience this encounter with the external world, at every developmental stage, the balance between these contrasting worlds of internal and external, is what determines our health or neurosis.

Let’s return to the crisis symbolized by the desire for the golden calf idolatry.

The newly released slave people, not yet fully individuated after redemption from the un-individuated state of slavery, still crave the presence of an authority figure, that would instruct them how to develop their feelings and emotions. When Moses disappeared, with the apparent loss of a clear authority figure, there was a serious threat to identity, to individuation, and the people were reduced to an infantilizing state of wanting anything that would restore a sense of an external authority (Lacan often said that the reason there are so many self-help books and teachers is that people find it comforting to be told what to do by an “authority figure”).

Perhaps, this is also symbolized in the Midrashim which state that Aaron threw the gold collected from the people into the fire,  which emerged on its own as an image of a calf. This Midrash contains within it a metaphor of birth and self individuation, and if the metaphor is one of the individuation of an infant, it makes sense that the idol was the image of a calf rather than  that of a full grown cow or bull.

However, this maladaptive encounter with the external world (reflected in the excess of “play” by the people, as in the verse cited above, “vayakumu l’tzachek“), was “neurotic” and regressive. The only cure for it is through the gradual internalization of an alternative, positive authority figure, that of God manifested to the nation as language, an internalizable mirror by which every individual can fashion a meaningful life with growth-promoting guidelines, through an external mirror of text and commandments, the vehicles of Torah towards individuation and growth.

Thus R. Zadok Hacohen’s radical sounding comment, that the volume of Torah given after the sin was much greater than was originally intended before the sin. The Talmud specifically links the creation of the Oral Law to the sin, specifically a law that requires communicable language and discussion. The disruptive event in the people’s development was in relation to the formation of the external boundaries, a flaw in development of the appropriate dialectical relationship to “authority” and would be healed by the inception of long term communal dialogue with the text.

In his work Mahshevet Harutz, chapter 16, R. Zadok similarly uses this Talmudic teaching in a discussion of an earlier similar failure, the initial sin of Adam as described in Genesis. R. Zadok explains that Adam could have transformed the whole world right at the outset,  had he not failed by inverting the balance between inner “desire” and the external “word” commanding him to resist temptation. According to the mystics, the therapy for Adam’s failure was meant to be accomplished at Sinai. As the Talmud states, the original intent was the transmission of the Written Law at Sinai,  the five books of the Torah, along with the book of Joshua, which, was included because the Book of Joshua is very concerned with the setting of boundaries (the ancient boundaries of the Land of Israel)!  The original failure of Adam and Eve was the failure to internalize the boundaries and rules of the garden of Eden (paralleling, developmentally, human childhood). However, this second attempt at Sinai was also a failure, and demonstrated the need for a more gradual and progressive approach to the dialectical question of boundaries and internal desire, one created by continuous development through a social language known as the Oral Law, a language built upon creating a balanced form of civil interactions and social behaviors, a language with which humanity was meant to erect a just society.

This balance is one that is still a work in progress, the balance between externally imposed “authority” and autonomous feelings and aspirations. Perhaps this can be summarized by the Kotzker’s take on the two givings of the Torah, pre and post the sin. The Kotzker says that the first luhot failed because the first giving was so external, so overpowering, that it could never be fully internalized by the people. However, the lesson of the failure was to give the Torah in a more ‘modest’ manner by which the people are involved in a continued process of reception and development of the Law, in a balanced interaction by which the Text and the will of the people come to reflect one another, over time, in a fair and just manner. Hopefully in the current controversy as well, there will be a reconciliation of the evolving needs of “the people” and the “authorities” that will lead to a more progressive and just society.


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