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)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Conversations on Shemot: The Long Walk to Freedom

We know the story well – the Israelites were in such a hurry to leave slavery in Egypt, their dough didn’t even have time to rise and become 'leavened'. Yet there was one thing they DID have time to do before they left…ask the Egyptians for gold and silver.

Putting aside the fact this sounds like the beginning of an anti-Semitic joke, this week we looked at this specific issue, in order to try and understand what it means for us today.

British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that a people driven by hate cannot be fully free. While there is no way of giving back the years spent in servitude, providing a slave with gifts (as is commanded in Devarim) is a way of ensuring that the parting is done with goodwill and some symbolic compensation. According to Sacks, these gifts "allow the former slave to reach emotional closure; to feel that a new chapter is beginning; to leave without anger and a sense of humiliation."

While this is well and good, is it possible that despite Jews having our own sovereign state and the strongest army and economy in the region, we continue to be frightened, continue to view the world with suspicion, continue to hate?

Is it possible we have not fully liberated ourselves from the bonds of slavery?

Might one Bechol Dor VaDor we read in the Haggdah – the one that calls for reach individual to free himself from Egypt – clash with another Bechol Dor VaDor – the one that reminds us that in every generation enemies rise up against us?

Click here for the source sheet and the audio recording

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Conversations on Shemot: The Tragedy of Leadership

The birth of Moshe, the greatest prophet in Judaism, is in many ways an anti-myth. While the stories surrounding the births of Romulus and Oedipus relate to them being biological children of royalty or gods who survive against the odds and are brought up by humble adopted parents before finding out their true identity, Moshe is the biological child of slaves who is brought up by royalty.

As Jonathan Sacks suggests, it seems that it's not power that matters in the Biblical world, but the fight for justice and freedom. In addition, a child of slaves can be greater than a prince.

We then looked at the early life of Moshe, how he fights for justice on three different occasions. However, we also discussed whether there may be a tragic side to this fight for justice. One Midrash – Petirat Moshe – describes an argument between God and Moshe where the latter's killing of the Egyptian taskmaster counts against him in his request to live forever and enter the Promised Land.

The Midrash seems to suggest that there are certain actions which may be necessary, even essential, but that have negative consequences for the individual involved. Moshe is praised for killing the Egyptian and protecting the weak, but that doesn’t mean he leaves the event unaffected.

What might this idea mean for us – both in our personal lives and in the difficult position we find ourselves in within Israel?

Click here for the souce sheet and the audio recording (right click and save target to download)