A Murderous God Committed to Ethnic Cleansing
This week’s portion of the Torah goes from the mundane to the absurd. After describing a method of taking a census while also raising money, and then the appointment of two architects and the instructions for completing the Mishkan, we encounter the infamous story of the Golden Calf. When Moses sees the wanton state of his tribe worshipping an idol when he was late coming down from Mount Sinai, he breaks the tablets, kills 3000 men, and then receives a new copy of the tablets. I want to explore the targeted slaughter of 3000 men without due process or proof of their wrongdoing. I will then ask why God subsequently insisted on ethnic cleansing? My focus will be on these two actions.
TNK Exodus 32:26
26 Moses stood up in the gate of the camp and said, "Whoever is for the LORD, come here!" And all the Levites rallied to him.
27 He said to them, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Each of you put sword on thigh, go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay brother, neighbor, and kin."
28 The Levites did as Moses had bidden; and some three thousand of the people fell that day.
29 And Moses said, "Dedicate yourselves to the LORD this day — for each of you has been against son and brother — that He may bestow a blessing upon you today."
30 The next day Moses said to the people, "You have been guilty of a great sin. Yet I will now go up to the LORD; perhaps I may win forgiveness for your sin."
31 Moses went back to the LORD and said, "Alas, this people is guilty of a great sin in making for themselves a god of gold.
32 Now, if You will forgive their sin well and good; but if not, erase me from the record which You have written!"
33 But the LORD said to Moses, "He who has sinned against Me, him only will I erase from My record.
34 Go now, lead the people where I told you. See, My angel shall go before you. But when I make an accounting, I will bring them to account for their sins."
35 Then the LORD sent a plague upon the people, for what they did with the calf that Aaron made.
TNK Exodus 33:1 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Set out from here, you and the people that you have brought up from the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring will I give it’ —
2 I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites —
3 a land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go in your midst, since you are a stiffnecked people, lest I destroy you on the way."
15 And he said to Him, "Unless You go in the lead, do not make us leave this place.
16 For how shall it be known that Your people have gained Your favor unless You go with us, so that we may be distinguished, Your people and I, from every people on the face of the earth?"
17 And the LORD said to Moses, "I will also do this thing that you have asked; for you have truly gained My favor and I have singled you out by name."
18 He said, "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!"
19 And He answered, "I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name LORD, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show.
20 But," He said, "you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live."
21 And the LORD said, "See, there is a place near Me. Station yourself on the rock
22 and, as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft of the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by.
23 Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen."
11 Observe thou that which I am commanding thee this day; behold, I am driving out before thee the Amorite, and the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite.
12 Beware of making a covenant with the inhabitants of the land against which you are advancing, lest they be a snare in your midst.
The Slaughter of the Three Thousand
The cold blooded murder of the same number of innocent civilians in the Twin Towers by al Qaeda provoked two wars and a radical transformation in America and the world. Making the golden calf and the consequent orgiastic licentiousness of the Israelites in the desert provoked a crisis of leadership and the murder of the 3000. Moshe David Herr, a professor at Hebrew University, wrote a commentary on this section of the Torah, and interpreted it as a paeon to great leadership. (http://www.netivot-shalom.org.il/parshaeng/ki-tissa2.php) In his account, even though Moses was the younger brother and a stutterer, Moses proved to be a great leader because he assumed responsibility and took decisive action. Aaron, by contrast, was an appeaser and compromiser who tried to indulge populist cries to still the uncertainties of the Israelites by first stalling and temporizing (32:1), then indulging their fears, but lost control and never confronted the masses when they fell back on a form of depraved idolatry.
Moses is a stark contrast in leadership styles. God tells Moses what had happened in his absence, of the orgiastic backsliding of the nation God had chosen and rescued from slavery in Egypt, and threatens to consume the people with His divine wrath. "Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them." (32:10) While Aaron was unable to stop the passions of the people, Moses confronts God. Do you want, Moses says, the Egyptians to say all your efforts were for naught? God just brought forth evil from Egypt and ended up having to exterminate them all. Moses says to God, "Turn thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against Thy people." (32:12) Besides, You made a promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Having forestalled God’s hand, Moses takes the matter into his own. He goes down from the mountain carrying the two tablets of the divinely inscribed laws and directly confronts the vision of his people’s orgiastic dancing and behaviour around the golden calf. Moses blew his stack, No cool Obama there. Moses was so furious he even broke the two tablets which were the work of and inscribed by God. These were not just inspired documents but sacred extensions of God Himself and the basis of the rule of law. What is worse – engaging in some hedonistic idol worship or physically breaking what God hath wrought and, if that were not enough, after burning the golden calf, mixing its ashes and forcing his own people to drink the foul mixture? Moses gathers his loyal Levites orders them into the camp to "slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour." (32:27) No trial! No due process! Just mayhem and vengeful murder!
Moses then goes back to God and asks God to forgive the people even if it means he, Moses, will be wiped out of the history books and left without a legacy. (32:32) God’s reply? He kills all the sinners. (32:35) In taking the law into his own hands, in killing 3000, likely the top and mid-level leadership of the hedonistic idolatrous movement, God’s wrath was not stilled. Moses had failed to save the sinners but did save the remnant of the people and God’s promise to make them a mighty people and deliver them to the promised land.
For Professor Herr, Moses is the exemplary leader. He decides. He acts. He does not delegate but takes personal responsibility and initiates each action in turn. He is bold and daring and does not mumble excuses. He takes painful and unpopular decisions. "This is a characteristic of a superb leader, and such was Moses. A true leader is someone who makes decisions based on careful consideration, and who always keeps in mind the needs of the public and what is good for them. Not only is his own good not a priority, he is even willing if necessary to sacrifice his own life for the public. Thus, it is clear why Moses was chosen to lead G-d’s people." If that was the case, one might say the same thing of Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin.
Decisiveness, yes! Based on careful consideration, no! Moses is just enraged. Where is there any sign that he is governed by the people’s needs? All the ones who strayed from God’s chosen path were either killed by Moses (presumably the 3,000 leaders) or by God. Why is a leader great because he decides what is good for others? Abraham Lincoln was a great leader because he did what the law and what justice demanded and not what he preferred. The Torah becomes hagiography if one simply takes what is described and assumes that we are being offered an ideal example of behaviour.
Let me offer an example of a different type of leader, one who is not dictated by his rages but by cool reasoning, one who does not despise the people as sinners but respects and empowers them, that forms networks of connection with and among them rather than relying on a praetorian guard to enforce his authority. All leaders reveal their true colours in times of crises. Moses, whatever his great abilities in rescuing the Israelites from Egypt, is a failure as a transformative leader, and, though partially successful, is a failure in his ability to forestall God’s wrath, and in his failure to ensure that the people can be responsible without his tyrannical presence. Moses’ dictates came from on high and not through mobilization and inspiration of the people to take responsibility for themselves. Moses never reflects and understands that his own style of leadership may be responsible for the Israelites wanting a substitute idol in his absence. Moses had led by the cult of personality and not the cultivation of reflection, deliberation and responsible collective decision-making.
But that would require making tolerance a central feature of a leadership style – understanding and reconciling differences and not trying to get everyone to toe the party line. But intolerance was the state of development of the divine spirit at that time and Moses was Its reflection. God sent an angel to guide the Israelites because He did not want to be contaminated by the Israelites who had a proneness to fall into sin. In order to ensure that purity, he claimed to cleanse Canaan of the other non-monotheistic tribes
If Moses had been a great leader in the desert, then the minorities the Israelites faced en route to the promised land – the Canaanite and the Amorite, the Hittite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite – would not have had to be ethnically cleansed without any evidence they did anything wrong. Feared that they would be a fifth column, intolerant of their ways and multi-gods, the Israelites had to find a scapegoat for their own failings. The Israelites themselves, indeed Moses himself, would have had to take responsibility for the Israelites’ resort to hedonistic idolatry.
Though Moses confronted God over his intention to kill all the Israelites and had the sentence reduced to target just the sinners other than the 3000 Moses and his Praetorian guard killed, Moses never challenged God over God’s jealousy, intolerance and wrath. To be a great leader, one must come face to face with God and even confront God’s evil. When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, his face was radiant and he had to put a veil over his face (Exodus 34:29-34), was that because it radiated the reflected glory of being in God’s presence as is generally interpreted and believed, or was Moses red-faced, beet red and embarrassed, shame-faced at his failure?
My daughter, Rachel, and I have opposites takes on this passage and, more generally, on the interpretation of the story of the Golden Calf. She has written a shiur entitled "The Radiance of Moshe’s Face," and begins with a quote by Rav Nahman. "When the student receives his teacher’s wisdom, he ‘receives his face’. For this reason, he should look into his teacher’s face as he receives his wisdom, as it is written: "And your eyes shall see your teacher." (Isaiah 3) This makes the student passive in relationship to the teacher and a reflection of the teacher’s glory. Your eyes should see your teacher and be willing to look into and through them. A student should look into a teacher’s face and be willing to confront him, and even confront Him on pain of death. Failure to do so will doom you to inadequacy as a student no matter how great your achievements may be. One does not learn best in passive reflected glory; one learns by discovering the shortcomings of the Other and confronting that Other face to face. A great teacher, which God had yet to become, will not hide his face behind his glory.