Torah Commentary- Ki Tissa: "Strong Leaders" and the Golden Calf

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I. “Strong Leadership” as Communal Failure
These days, much of the world is surprised by the ascendance of extreme demagoguery within the US political process. We are shocked by the ascendance of a disruptive “strong leader” who wishes to make “America great again” through force, violence, and hate speech. It seems like another age, the return of a malevolence that we thought was suppressed many decades ago. In contemplating this week’s texts, which deal with the flawed demands of the recently liberated people for a new form of leadership (in this case a golden calf), we can see parallels to the current situation and a response.
When dealing with the repetitions of the mishkan (tabernacle) narrative in the book of Shemot (Exodus), 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. In his discussion of these texts, R. Zadok Hacohen makes the following comment, which would be incredibly radical except that the source of the quote is the Talmud (BT Nedarim 22b)

“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 ofLuhot (tablets received by Moses at Sinai) not the first set smashed because of the golden calf, that we were given 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.
Had this episode of the golden calf not occurred, 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 in Eden 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 Maimonides saw as symbolizing empirical, objective knowledge, as in science (science as a medieval thinker would have seen it, which included theology).
According to the biblical text, Moses’s absence is taken to mean that he is dead and the people demand a new leadership, this time in the form of a golden idol in the shape of a calf. Our thematic question is, what was the ‘allure’ of the golden calf, what kind of leadership were they looking for, and why would that error lead to a divine recognition that suddenly the five books of the Torah are no longer adequate, and that supplementation with a vast 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 a “strong leader”, an authority figure.
The Meor V’Shemesh posits that the whole point of the exodus and the ensuing commandments was to reach for humankind to reach the mystical state of ‘awe’, of recognition of God’s greatness and grandeur, referred to in the classical literature asyirat 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 alwaysb’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, recognizing the reality of transcendence dialectically tempered with a sense of immediate closeness and concern ).
The way by which the people were to progress through these levels of understanding was by observing Moses and by a 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 as they were in “awe” of him. Through this fear they became able to analogize the requisite ‘awe’ meant for a mature 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’gabeithe term used in the Talmud, can mean for or in the presence of) it is not a big leap from experiencing the awe one has in Moses’s presence, to understanding the greater form of awe one must have before God. One could learn by immediate example and extrapolate from within.
What the people were afraid of losing, when Moses was delayed and feared dead on Sinai, was an leader who inspired fear, at this early point in their growth as a people, they were afraid they had lost their “authority figure” which would keep them in a state of awe (awe-thority perhaps?). This is what the people demanded that Aaron forge for them, and what they got as a result was the golden calf, a false direction, a cognitive step backward which requires much work to undo.
The parallels to the current situation are obvious, in a time when moderation and rebuilding is necessary, the temptation to seek for easy external answers from “strong leaders” becomes too great and is inevitably destructive.
II. Analytic Theory and the Strong Leader.
There is a paradox of this demand by the people noted by the text. If strong leadership which they could fear was what the people were seeking, why was their initial response once the golden calf was presented as vayakumu l’ssachek, “they got up to party” (verse 32:6)?
When reactions in the public space appear discordant with an assumed normal behavior, we may be in the world of psychoanalysis, and one useful model to explain the relationship between awe and play in both healthy and pathologic states is that of Jacques Lacan. So here’s a little background on Lacan’s theory of individuation:
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 realize 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 realizes 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?”

In other words, individuation is bittersweet, in that we only learn who are supposed to be by seeing how our actions are reflected in the “mirror’ of societal judgement, even knowing how to love needs to be societally learned. On the other hand, 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, no longer one with the nurturing unity she experienced previously, but on the other hand, the infant now sees herself as a unique individual, a differentiated selfamong other ‘self’s.
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 ofdesire, 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, isle 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.
Let us apply this to our paradox here, of the craving for a “strong leader”, the “play” that accompanied it, and the divine response. The people, newly released from the un-individuated state of slavery, still crave the presence of a “strong” authority figure, the Name of the Father. When Moses disappeared, they took this as a threat to identity, to their incomplete 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). The desire for a “strong leader” was a childish regression to a not yet mature internalised sense of identity.
This maladaptive encounter with the real, reflected in the immature response of “play”, as in the text “vayakumu l’ssachek“, was “neurotic” and regressive. The way to overcome it and achieve mature development was through an expanded process leading to internalization of guidelines for social and spiritual behavior; that of a divine will manifested within the hearts of the people by way of text, language, and moral reason. The desired goal for the redemption of the people of Israel was not having external “strong leaders” but an internalized set of guidelines, through text and commandments, or to borrow Buddhist terminology, the vehicle 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- all of the extra text would have been unnecessary for this purpose had there not been this regression. The Talmud specifically links the sin of the calf to the creation of Oral Law, a law arising from spoken language, requiring continued discussion and dialogue rather than the more immediate message of text. Perhaps the idea is that had without this disruptive event in development, had normal development proceeded without the neurotic challenge as seen in the calf episode, then the encounter of Sinai, meant to signify a direct state of understanding (the midrash states that all that was uttered at Sinai was the silent letter Aleph, undifferentiated sound like that of the shofar), not the more indirect form of understanding obtained through the ‘mirror stage’ of social interaction and the distance of language.
In fact, R. Zadok in his work Mahshevet Harutz, chapter 16, explains this same Talmudic teaching by linking it to a an earlier biblical failure, the sin of Adam as described at the beginning of Genesis. He explains (following the Lurianic readings of history as repeated failures in universal transformation) that had Adam not sinned by ‘eating the fruit’, had he not succumbed to his “desire” and disobeyed the “word”, Adam could have transformed the universe right there without any further text or history. Sinai was to be the therapy for this failure, a second attempt at world transformation. 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 with the book of Joshua, which, dealing as it does with boundaries (the ancient boundaries of the Land of Israel), which would have rectified the local failure of Adam and Eve within a different set of boundaries and circumstances. However, due to the failure of the encounter as seen in the golden calf episode, the second giving of the Torah demonstrated the need for an even more gradual route to the immediacy of the written word, via the more extensive social language known as the oral law, a law concerned with civil interactions and social behaviors, a set of laws seemingly so cold, distant, and clinical but really meant as a means towards which all members of society can, mirrored by one another, achieve mature individuation and relationship with one another, both of which are necessary for a truly functional great society.
This then is consistent with the Lurianic concept of the ideal society and the “messiah”, in which society is rectified first, true justice is achieved and only then the moshiach appears as a sign of this achievement, as Kafka put it:

The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary; he will come only on the day after his arrival; he will come, not on the last day, but on the very last.

Suffice it to say, that the desire for a “strong leader” based on increasing societal injustice and hatred would be more akin to the regressive nature of society as portrayed in the golden calf narrative.

  1. Postscript on the Judicial

Given the current related controversy over the political goals behind nominating a Supreme Court justice, it is worth noting what was once considered the Hebraic model for the separation of the religious and the judicial.
Schama deals with the assumption of the Hebraic history as a model for the destiny of the new Dutch nation, referring to this painting found at .
Here is Schama pp116- 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?
There is a wonderful work, woefully unknown, calledMishpat Hamelucha B’Yisrael, by R. Shimon Federbush (Mossad Harav Kook press) which R. Aharon Lichtenstein frequently recommended for his students. Federbush argues that all through Jewish history there was always a sharp separation maintained between the religious and the civil lawmakers, between the Sanhedrin and the priesthood, through the crisis of the Hashmonean era, through the Talmudic era. This work needs to be translated into English, and widely circulated, as these lessons are as critical today as they were two thousand years ago. Let us hope this potential regressive step backwards in our society is rapidly overcome.