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Parashat Ki Tisa: Give ideas a chance

Science teaches that we are subject to our hormones and neurotransmitters, but we are more than the sum of our biological parts when it comes to truth and wisdom

Parashat Ki Tisa centers around the crisis of the Golden Calf, and the Mishnah has a perplexing teaching about how we encounter that story. It was common practice at that time (about 1,800 years ago) to read the Torah in the synagogue aloud in Hebrew as we do, and then translate it out loud into the vernacular as well. About this week’s reading the Mishnah teaches (Megillah 4:10): the first story of the Calf is read and translated, and the second is read but not translated.

There is something the rabbis want to hold back. Some part of the Golden Calf narrative that has to be read because it’s in the Torah, but should not be breezed past quickly in ritual – only engaged more carefully in study. So what is it about “the second Golden Calf”?

In the “first story of the Calf,” the Torah’s narrator unflinchingly describes the idolatry of the people: their misrepresentation of the divine, their underlying fears, their manufacture of an image, and the celebration that follows. In the “second story of the Calf,” Aharon remixes the first, using many of the same words – but also weaving in his self- justification for cooperating, and a much more ambiguous explanation of how the Golden Calf came to be formed: “I threw it into the fire and out came this calf.”

Here is my hunch about what the Mishnah is getting at: the narrator’s story looks at the idea of idolatry, and Aharon’s account clouds our view of the idea by centering emotion and political context. My hunch is that the Mishnah wants to focus people’s attention as long as possible on ideas, rather than on the context of those ideas. And what could be a more important idea in Torah than the question of Divine singularity vs. idolatry?

Ideas and the life guided by ideas have taken a beating, for at least a century and a half and especially recently. Intellectual has become a term of scorn, a label for a naïve or incomplete understanding of human life. We have come to doubt whether it is ever possible to live according to ideas, or to understand them on their own terms independent of the context that generates or situates them. 

The whole idea of ideas has been subject to two kinds of critique. To vastly oversimplify: during the Enlightenment, big ideas enjoyed a comeback. They seemed to have a power independent of custom and authority; “self-evident truths” redefined monarchies and even overthrew them. In the 19th century, Karl Marx articulated the first critique: that ideas serve as a mostly invisible buttress to social and political interests. The idea of free contract, for instance – the core of the theory behind liberal democracy and market economies — promotes the advance of bourgeoisie and the suffering of the working class. What masquerade as independent ideas are in fact pieces of an ideology – ideas interlocking not intellectually but politically. Our minds are hijacked or just seduced by group or class interests to think certain thoughts. A powerful example recently in Jewish life is the critique of Jewish demography offered by Drs. Ronit Stahl, Kate Rosenblatt, and Lila Corwin Berman.

In the 20th century came a second critique of ideas, from science itself. Things we might have once considered ideas about social responsibility, human happiness, and even spirituality are rooted in our biology. This kind of analysis goes back to the ancients, but in the past century and especially the past quarter-century it has accelerated. The most unsentimental critique of ideas from this angle – such as the exciting and quite entertaining work of Daniel Kahneman – holds that ideas are after-the-fact justifications our brain uses to explain and justify our own behavior to ourselves. Behavior generated often by the preconscious brain; behavior that serves our own interests or that of our in-group. Even what we think of as intellectual processes cut corners to be less taxing on the physical brain.

There is a friendlier version too of the scientific interpretation of ideas, which celebrates generosity, gratitude, and hope as core features of human biology and neuropsychology. But this “biologization” of ideas tends to flatten and homogenize them into broad and universal themes, rather than nuanced teachings with local or cultural variety. Hormones and neurotransmitters displace ethical philosophies as the measure of truth and wisdom.

No doubt the Marxian and scientific critiques of ideas have substantial validity. We delude ourselves if we think that most of the time we are consciously choosing beings, assessing truth and acting accordingly. The Torah itself knows this. Just look at Eve, who integrated into her first decision about the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge the input of other beings, the pleasure in her senses, and the thoughts in her mind. And look at Aharon in the story of the Golden Calf, as the Torah allows him to present himself.

Yet the rabbis in the Mishnah push back against completely reducing ideas to their social and biological functions. Their tweak on the way the Golden Calf story is presented in the synagogue is their way of saying we need to hold up the importance of ideas in their own right, and the importance of a life where we try to stop, consider, and apply Jewish ideas. Our understanding of ideas is enriched by what social and scientific analyses contribute, but not defined only in those terms.

Translating the first story of the Golden Calf but not the second is the Mishnah’s way of saying think about the ideas here first, and their context second.

Idolatry is too weighty to avoid dealing with on the level of ideas. For the Torah, idolatry is a dangerous set of ideas that are enticing and deserve their due as ideas to argue with. Aharon’s retelling of the story clouds the ideas, and in particular adds a layer of emotion and social dynamics that gets in the way of the presentation of the big ideas. His own excuses tempt us to see idolatry as just about spectacle and the most raw human fears, and to see the Oneness of the Divine as a mere abstraction. 

The “first story of the Golden Calf” tells us much more. How important theology is to people’s sense of groundedness and protection. How easy it is to fetishize a human leader. How a conceptual mistake about divinity can unleash material consequences in the realms of wealth and sexuality. Indeed, the Bible’s broad critique of idolatry is that the belief in many independent divine powers leads to a lack of faith in the coherence of the world, to the instrumentalization and exploitation of women and the expropriation of the poor and weak.

These are social and psychological analyses of the ideas of Echad and idolatry, to be sure. Those ideas don’t just refer to themselves conceptually; they are situated in society. But to get there we have to go back and forth between ideas on their own terms and context. Aharon’s telling of the story too quickly pushes us toward a reductionism, to a focus only on the social pressure in the moment or his individual psychology as an explanation.

So many unique Jewish ideas deserve their due as ideas. Gratitude and spirituality are more than ways of regulating our bodies, to reduce stress on them and lengthen our lives perhaps. (Though – dayenu!) We may be wired for gratitude or spirituality – but we need ideas to take us beyond that starting point. 

Tzedakah may be rooted in a fundamental human urge to care, or perhaps to invest in our group out of some sophisticated reciprocity. But that is just the starting line. Tzedakah is most definitely a set of ideas that are not obvious, worked out in Torah and Talmudic tradition. Tzedakah is about giving in relation to other ideas about covenant and justice and definitions of human need. It’s a unique set of ideas, distinct from the charitable concepts of other faiths or the ethics of distribution in secular political philosophies. We have to study and discuss tzedakah ideas on their own, and that intellectual engagement will potentially shape how we give money or engage in politics. 

Teshuvah may be powered by an innate drive for growth, but questions about the purposes of change or how much perfection we should strive for are ideas. There are ideas about what human possibility is, but they are not defined only by the science of us as humans. Studying the ideas of teshuvah can shape how we go about our own change and growth, when and how we approach reconciliation with others.

Commenting on this one aspect of retelling the Golden Calf story, the rabbis are reminding us to leave ourselves room to think about ideas. Of course, ideas can be manipulated and of course ideas can be part of how we are manipulated by others. But Jewish ideas are powerful in their own right, and an antidote to those conscious and hidden manipulations.

At the end of the Golden Calf story, we learn that Moshe comes back to the people with his face aglow from his encounters with the Divine, so bright that other people cannot look at him. In one midrash, that shining light comes to his face from the ideas Moshe discusses with the Divine. So as Moshe comes and goes between the people and the Divine, he wears a special face covering to modulate that light. Sometimes he adjusts the covering to shine his face less, to leave more room for people to consider ideas in the “light” of their own context. Sometimes he moves the covering aside, inviting people to toward ideas.

We’re very good at critiquing ideas as ideology, or being fascinated by their roots in our physical nature. We need room as well to give ideas a chance. To remind ourselves there is such a thing as a life guided by ideas.

About the Author
Rabbi Jonathan Spira-Savett serves the Jewish community of southern New Hampshire and nearby Massachusetts through Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. He is co-host of "Tov! A Podcast About 'The Good Place' and Jewish Ideas", available on podcast apps and tovgoodplace.com. He blogs at rabbijon.net and Rabbi Jon’s Podcasts are available through Apple and Podbean. He is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and the organizer of howtobepresident.org, an initiative to transform how we choose a president by asking better questions.
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