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When the Golden Calf meets the TikTok Daf

At the heart of the Tabernacle lies the Golden Calf, for all divine worship involving creativity and human interpretation holds the potential for idolatry
'Adoration of the Golden Calf,' by Nicolas Poussin, 17th century.
'Adoration of the Golden Calf,' by Nicolas Poussin, 17th century.

Thinking about the Torah reading this week may help frame a discussion that has been on my mind more sharply. Let’s put it in the simplest way possible: What is between the Mishkan (Divine tabernacle) and the Egel (the Golden Calf)? Ostensibly, not very much. Both are made from donations given by the people, both are created from gold, both are crafted through talented workmanship, both contain material images (the calf, and the cherubim — childlike figures that sit on the top of the ark), and both aim at some form of Divine worship. So why is one the quintessential  expression of Divine sanctity and worship and the other the paradigmatic manifestation of idol worship?

Not to draw too fine a comparison, but Miriam Anzovin has caused waves on social media over the last few weeks. From those who are vehemently against, you may even say repulsed, by her TikTok/Instagram daf yomi videos to those who are labeling her as the most creative and compelling talmudic commentary for the last hundred years. Sacrilege or sacred, crass or craftily creative? Her perfectly honed image together with her TikTok effects and a fair share of curse words take Rav Hisda and Rav Huna to whole new level, making her the subject of hundreds of conversations in the Modern Orthodox Jewish world of late. A bit like the old British spread, marmite – you either love it or hate it. There’s no real place for in-betweeners: you’re not going to be pareve on this one.

Let me be clear from the start: Anzovin is brilliant. She has clearly learned the daf, thought carefully about how to present it in the most tantalizing, relevant, and concise way possible. Of that there is no doubt. I do not learn daf yomi, I cannot commit to studying the daf every day through a detailed study of the text in the way I would ideally want to. But I get it. I get that we live in an age of Twitter-length information and short attention spans. I also realize that Anzovin’s 90-second videos appeal to many who would not open or even listen to anything related to the Talmud. I get that they are engaging and provocative and make you remember the information and personalities. And I even identify with the claim that it provides a balm for religious anachronism and patriarchalism.

And yet. Watching the videos I have a simmering ambivalence that makes me ask: At what price should we engage people? How many concessions do we need to make to popular culture to ensure our ancient text remains appealing and “sellable”? At what point does creativity go too far? If reverence is lost and only information remains, can there still be edifying content (as compared to the concise, informative, and reverential pieces published by, for example, the 929 project that just began its new cycle)? One thing Anzovin has done for certain is to generate conversation about these things — and that is always a positive thing.

* * *

Parshiot Terumah and Tetzaveh describe the commands and instructions to build the Mishkan. Parshiot Vayakhel and Pekudei describe its formation. In the middle is Parshat Ki Tisa, which describes the incident of the Golden Calf. In other words, at the heart of the Mishkan lies the Golden Calf. Any manifestation of Divine worship that contains elements of creativity, innovation, and human interpretation or subjectivity holds the potential for idol worship. The Divine is absolute; our experience of Him is subjective. Hence, in the gap between the two always lies the possibility of egregious misrepresentation.

There is a perennial tension between creativity that fills a void with random content and pure worship that is infused with Divine awe and reverence. When done correctly, within limits (and note how many instructions, commands and details the builders of the tabernacle are given), and with holy intent, creative worship really is the quintessential expression of Divine service. The question is whether we can always detect the difference.

What we read in this week’s parsha is the prime model of that dissonance and an example of what happens when we go wrong.

The careful reader will notice that there are two accounts of the creation of the Golden Calf: the Torah’s account and Aaron’s account. In the Torah’s account (Exodus 32:1-7), Moses tarries in coming down — the people are impatient; they are lost and afraid and do not know where to turn. They gather against Aaron, who encourages them bring their golden jewelry from which he laboriously carves out an exquisite work of art — the people watch and marvel at this incredible human creation. Their intention is to worship the God who took them out of Egypt, but they are so infatuated with the beauty of their own creation that they very soon forget about worshiping God, and begin to worship the object of their own creativity. They are no longer thinking about their Creator, but instead about their creation. Their attention, much like our own modern consciousness, has swiftly shifted focus, resulting in an orgy of sexual misconduct and radical idol worship. They become overwhelmed by the sway of tangible and evocative sensations. In God’s words: “סָ֣רוּ מַהֵ֗ר מִן־הַדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר צִוִּיתִ֔ם – they have been quick to turn away from the path I commanded them” (Exodus 32:8). They were thinking fast instead of slow, and they could no longer rule over their passions.

The second narrative is the personal account of Aaron (Exodus 32:23-24). In this account, Aaron paints a slightly different turn of events. In his version, the people bring their jewelry, which he throws into a fire, out of which, somewhat miraculously, the  golden calf emerges. There is no process of human creativity, instead an impulsive frenzy and an instant result. The image of the fire – much akin to the “foreign fire” that kills Aaron’s sons — invites the binary of danger and comfort, proximity and distance. Aaron, as opposed to Moses, is a people’s person. He is empathetic, and passionate. He feels the needs and the desires of the nation and is ready to act on those sentiments. Moses, on the other hand, from the start, is a man of strict justice and Divine service. He thinks with his head and not his heart. That is why Aaron was the central protagonist in the creative process of the Golden Calf. He felt the people, he understood the “fire” of their passion and he followed their lead. His sons, Nadav and Avihu, later on during the dedication of the Tabernacle, in a strikingly similar act, follow their hearts, rather than their heads, and in a passionate moment of Divine ecstasy offer a “foreign fire that was not commanded” (Leviticus 10), resulting in their immediate death.

What makes a sacrificial offering one that is “foreign” or “not commanded”? When is creativity and spontaneity in our Divine worship mandated, even desired, and when must we respect the boundaries and be stringent with the expression of our subjective interpretation and aspirations? A challenging path to navigate indeed.

The two narratives illustrate that the primary difference between the account of the Torah and Aaron’s account is in the description of the how the Golden Calf comes to fruition. Aaron’s commentary is less a personal evasion of responsibility, and more an observation of human nature. And the central differentiating motif: fire. When uncontrolled and invested, foreign elements[i], even pure intention, can quickly and unwittingly spiral into a frenzy of unrelenting idol worship. Does that mean we should create strict boundaries that obtrude or even worse impede any ingenuity? Absolutely not. If that were the case, we would not have almost a book and half of the Torah dedicated to describing in an exhaustive, but exquisite manner the construction of the Tabernacle. Furthermore, we would not have been given the Oral Law that requires, in fact mandates, human interpretation and innovation, demands subjective creativity, and human insight.

What it does mean, however, is that when we embark on our journey towards the creative act in the name of the Torah or God, we need to step with extreme caution. We need to ask at every stage what we are sacrificing in achieving our goals, what our intentions are, are we making a kiddush Hashem (sanctifying God’s name) or chillul Hashem (desecrating God’s name)? Are we promoting Torah values or societal ones? Are we are mirroring foreign gods (modern sensibilities, futile items of worship) or creating tabernacles of holiness? Does our creativity promote reverence or is it sensationalism?

In a post-truth world that is plagued by instrumentalism, consumerism, and excessive commercialism, it is perhaps even more difficult for us to discern what may be the “holy tabernacle” and what may be the “golden calf.” Furthermore, much like the slave nation that came out of Egypt, we too are lost, many of  us searching for something – foundations or meaning, inspiration or connection. In periods of extreme uncertainty and existential angst, we are more inclined towards our passion, our fire, rather than our logic or rationale (nomos/law).

As humans we need both. However, when we side with our passionate creative side, our moral compass at times may become unanchored adulating some improper methods that are radically antithetical to the bedrock of our assumed morality. Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and rider serves as the perfect example of this phenomenon.[ii] He gives the example of an elephant and a rider, which represent two different kinds of cognition: intuition and reasoning. The rider is reasoning — controlled process of thought. The elephant is intuition — automatic process, including emotion, intuition, and desire. The rider can see further into the future, s/he can made balanced and rational decisions. But s/he can also be swayed by the elephant, and, in doing so, will fabricate sound justifications for what the elephant desires to do next. Ultimately, the elephant rules: in most cases, intuition and passion champion reasoning. In many instances, controlled reasoning (rider) will be hijacked to justify our intuitions (elephant), and not the other way round. Reasoning can take us to almost any place we want to go.

And yet, intuition is still at the heart of our moral choices. Without our instinctive moral proclivities, we would be, in Haidt’s assessment at least, psychopaths who reason, but do not feel. In other words, we need the rider to lead the elephant — to expose our instincts and intuitions to a reasoned and clear process, that includes strategic long term assessments. In creating the Golden Calf, the people, argues Aaron, were being driven by the elephant rather than rider. They were following their intuitions, or, in the words of Daniel Kahneman, they were thinking fast, rather than thinking slow. Just as we saw – God says, “You were quick to turn away from me.” Rather than totally extinguish the fire of creativity, God channels it towards a Divine goal. He tells the people that the craftsmen who are to form the Tabernacle must possesses certain character traits:

וְעָשָׂה֩ בְצַלְאֵ֨ל וְאָהֳלִיאָ֜ב וְכֹ֣ל ׀ אִ֣ישׁ חֲכַם־לֵ֗ב אֲשֶׁר֩ נָתַ֨ן יְהוָ֜ה חָכְמָ֤ה וּתְבוּנָה֙ בָּהֵ֔מָּה לָדַ֣עַת לַעֲשֹׂ֔ת אֶֽת־כָּל־מְלֶ֖אכֶת עֲבֹדַ֣ת הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ לְכֹ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֖ה יְהוָֽה׃

Let, then, Bezalel and Oholiab and all the skilled persons whom God has endowed with skill and ability to perform expertly all the tasks connected with the service of the sanctuary carry out all that God has commanded.

Betzalel and Oholiab are indeed gifted. And they are gifted by God. They have been endowed with human creativity in order to channel this passion and intuition to Divine ends. The term “chacham lev” — wise of heart — is repeated numerous times throughout the Tabernacle narratives. Only someone who is able to ride the elephant — who is able to balance controlled reasoning and intuitive passion — is worthy of Divine creativity.

Creativity must be central in our Divine worship, in our religious personality, in our stake in the human narrative. Without it we are just empty vessels — more animalistic than Divine. However, because it is often piloted by our passions, intuition, and innovation, it must be controlled by the rider, it must be treated to coherent and deliberate reasoning, or its fire may produce a golden calf, instead of a Divine tabernacle.

So, to return to where we began: this debate over the daf and TikTok encompasses some central questions we must ask ourselves in relation to the social media trends, modern techniques of disseminating information, and how this relates to our deep-seated Torah values. Whether you love or hate Miriam’s videos, one thing we can acknowledge she has done is to open up this conversation, to show us that the gap between the Golden Calf and the Mishkan is perhaps more relevant today than ever. Whether we choose to frame her creativity as Divine service or misdirected worship, she has certainly encouraged and generated thought around the means, methods and motives that lie at the heart of our relationship to Torah learning and generally to achieving our moral and ethical ends in a frighteningly relativist and morally bankrupt world.

[i] According to many commentators (exodus 12:38 Rashi)  it was the erev rav  – Egyptian outcasts who had tagged along in the exodus – who initiated the uprising and hence the formation of the golden calf that replicated an Egyptian Deity.

[ii] See Jonathan Haidt: The Happiness Hypothesis  and The Righteous Mind

About the Author
Tanya White is an International lecturer, writer and educator with a focus on Tanach and Contemporary Jewish Thought. She is currently completing her doctorate in Jewish Philosophy at Bar Ilan University and is the recipient of Schupf Fellowship for outstanding students. Tanya has published numerous articles in books and on social media. A collection of her thoughts can be viewed on her blog-page: www.contemplatingtorah.wordpress.com.
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