Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Conversations on Shemot: Revelation, the Golden Calf & the Talmudic Tale of Passion, Pagans & Procreation

How could the Jewish people worship a golden calf a mere forty days after the powerful experience of revelation?

This week we looked at different commentators on the story of the Golden Calf. Whereas Rashi feels the Israelites were guilty of serious idolatry, Yehuda HaLevi argues that the people didn't intend to commit idolatry but imagined they were striving to worship the true God.

We then looked at one of my favorite Sugyot - an enigmatic passage from Yoma 69b in which the Jewish people succeed in capturing the inclination for avoda zara (idolatry). The Gemara relates that this inclination comes out from the Holy of Holies, and has such an alluring voice that – similar to Ulysses in the story of the Sirens – it needs to blocked out in order for people not be driven into oblivion.

Continuing in their requests from heaven, the Jewish people then capture the yetzer / inclination for forbidden sexuality, only to find that without it, the world stops functioning (the Gemara explains that with the yetzer in captivity, there was not one egg to be found in the whole country). Because 'heaven doesn’t do halves' the Jews ultimately release it, but not before blinding it, which diminishes its power very slightly.

We looked at a series of issues:

  • The origins of idolatry and why it comes from the Holy of Holies;

  • What the yetzer actually is (my favorite explanation being creative energy or the libido)

  • The potential advantages and disadvantages of putting difficult, potentially painful challenges (modernity, relationships) in a lead box rather than dealing with them head on (with mention of Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind);

  • Why heaven doesn’t do halves;

  • What we potentially lost when the yetzer for idolatry all but disappeared (the Or HaChayim argues that we lost passion in serving God. Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin claims that we lost prophecy)

  • How the story signals a transition from the primacy of prophecy and passion, to the primacy of sages and reason.

In returning to the question of why so soon after revelation the Jewish people worship idols. Some say that it shows how solitary religious experiences don't affect faith, as true belief and practice need to be built up over time.

However, maybe its not coincidental that these stories come so soon after one another. Maybe the aspect of deeply encountering God (at Sinai) inherently possesses the seeds that can lead people to committing avoda zara / idolatry / strange worship (with the Golden Calf).

The question we didn’t manage to answer was whether they made the right decision in 'muting' these urges, or whether we'd have been better off in a world with greater dangers but with a greater ability to experience.

Click here for source sheet.

Click here for audio recording (in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem)

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