Totem and Taboo: A Movie Review


Christopher Nolan (2010) Inception

Warren Beatty (2016) Rules Don’t Apply

What do these two films have to do with the series of blogs on the nature of the university? More particularly, what do they have to do with the transformation of the university from a Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method? The overall theme of the essays on the university focuses on power, influence and authority. In my last blog, I used the material from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to explicate his thesis of power, influence and authority when offering a structural analysis of the Book of Exodus.

In his account, Sacks made reference to Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo to insist that in the chiasmic pattern linking the design of the sanctuary with the construction of the sanctuary in Exodus, the story of the Golden Calf was the pivot point. Most importantly, the story of the Golden Calf was not about idolatry, but about the longing for an absent father and, out of this longing, giving one’s allegiance to a tyrant as a substitute. As the reader will see, on this subject, I take a traditionalist stance and argue that the story of the Golden Calf is indeed about idolatry, is about taking a material valuable entity as a substitute for a spiritual entity.

Are the two interpretations mutually exclusive? I will return to answer that question, but I first want to show the link to the two films. I did not choose to watch these films specifically on Saturday night. Inception was just what was on TV when I entered the den. Rules Don’t Apply followed, so I stayed to watch that film as well. As it happens, a dominant plot element in each was about an absent father. A key prop in Inception was explicitly a totem. It is a wonder how serendipity can play a part in the understanding and explication of a position.

In Freud, a totem is a primeval prohibition as well as a protection. In contrast to Inception, a totem for Freud is not self-generated, but is chosen by another or adopted by a whole tribe. The source is characterized as an authentic authority. The totem protects the individual from his or her most powerful longings, but the desire to violate persists in the subconscious. Thus, the totem is both a prohibition against surrendering to temptation and committing a transgression, and a protector that provides boundary conditions.

In both films, at the centre of the plot is a key character who suffers considerably from his relationship with his father. In Inception, he is the son of a very rich man who recently died; the young man is in the process of inheriting the old man’s extensive corporate holdings. This is a psychological heist movie in which a usual heist team, each member with complementary skills, gets together, this time not to rob a physical safe, but a psychological one. The team plans to invade the subconscious of the young heir and influence him to believe that, on his own, he must dismantle his father’s holdings. That will serve the interests of a rival tycoon who hired the heist team because they have developed the techniques for getting inside the safe of memories of an individual in order to manipulate those memories and, thereby, control his mind.

In Rules Don’t Apply, Warren Beatty plays Howard Hughes who is obsessed, not with rosebud (Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, 1941), but with his father, with ensuring the Hughes name is preserved on his father’s company which he inherited, just as bankers and shareholders of TCA close in on him as an eccentric incapable of managing a huge company. A subsequent psychological post-mortem argued that he was not so much driven to his madness by that obsession, but that his anxiety and retreat into isolation were yhe result of a very over-protective mother obsessed with the cleanliness of her child and protecting him from polio. The father is gone. Inception picks up the same theme. Powerful fathers who are absent from the films nevertheless play dominating roles.

Neither plot worked to support Jonathan Sack’s thesis about choosing tyrants to rule over you as a substitute for the longed-for father. In Inception, the son remains under the thumb of his father. The whole effort to “capture his mind” was to plant an idea that will hopefully dominate his conscious life that he needs to free himself from his father at the same time as he remains true to his father. This is to be accomplished by implanting the idea that the father was not disappointed in his son for failing to emerge as a strong leader in the mold of his father, but for failing to emerge as an independent thinker and doer who would not be under the thumb of anyone. With such a new mindset, instead of clinging to the assets he inherited as a way to cling to his father who showed him no affection as a child, he would dissolve the corporate assets to free himself and become an independent man.

Cutting across this theme is another father-child story, that of the role of the leader of the heist team, Cobb, who has mastered the art of penetrating a third level of depth to the unconscious. However, Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is the absent father. He has been cut off from contact with his children as part of his mind remains stuck in the underworld of the unconscious attached and obsessed with his wife and mother of his children whom he used as an experiment to explore the very great depth of the subconscious, but in the experiment was unable to return to earth. Guilt submerges him. The only route back to his children is by going back, both to regain access to the United States, the government of which suspects that he killed his wife, and his children.

According to that narrative, guilt can operate in multiple dimensions and in different directions just as time and experience can. The key always to preserving one’s sanity is by possession of a totem, in this case, a dreidl, a spinning top, that can be grasped and used to prevent being sucked totally into the vortex of the subconscious and to test whether you are in the real world or a world of dreams. In “primitive” societies, a totem defines the perimeter of the tribe and identification with it ensures the protection of the member. In Nolan’s film, the threat is not simply another tribe, but an extinguishing of any spatial and temporal reference points altogether. The totem becomes the the protective marker of a boundary which guards the spirit of the tribe, this time, of the whole human species.

In Beatty’s film, the totem is not explicit, but it is Howard Hughes who serves as the substitute father figure for both Maria Mabrey, a devour Baptist aspiring starlet played by Lily Collins, and her unconsummated knight, Frank Forbes played by Alden Ehrenreich, another repressed Protestant type. Both are in thrall to Harold Hughes. He dictates that there is to be no sexual involvement of his employees. Both are tied to Hughes as the god who will deliver them into stardom or magnificent wealth as an entrepreneur. They reveal themselves to be both consecrated by Hughes but also dangerously passionate about one another. Hughes in the end is right. He does not simply have an obsession with cleanliness and a fear of being defiled. Pollution lurks everywhere.

Both films are about power and the use of wealth, of material influence, to affect the behaviour of others. Power as creative energy, as enterprise and innovation, is expressed through the heist team and particularly the DiCaprio character, who in scene after scene must fight off the apparitions of Cobb’s subconscious who are determined to kill the members of the heist team. Coercive power is used as a defence, but the core tool of the offence is influence, to gain control over the mind, not through drugs, but by entering the subconscious of the other. This is not influence via information, analysis and education. But neither is it simply about tyrannical coercive power, though that is a necessary ingredient in the mix.

The Golden Calf as both a real phenomenon and an idol that dominates the imagination and character identity to promise freedom to and deliver someone from bondage and slavery to a subconscious tyrant, in this case, a father, who controls behaviour even from the grave and reduces the heir to a puppet rather than an independent autonomous being. Warren Beatty’s Citizen Kane as Howard Hughes never achieves that freedom, even though his life appeared to be that of a star lighting up the heavens as it crossed the sky and burnt itself up in the quest for free expression.

The casting couch is not portrayed in Rules Don’t Apply as a fly trap but as a prison of the woman’s own imagination – in this case, a star-struck deeply Christian young lady – driven subconsciously by her own desires to be a star in the firmament.  And for her forlorn lover and satrap of Howard Hughes, it is much more clearly a dream of becoming the author of his own initiatives in wealth accumulation. Tyranny in the case of both films is more a problem of self-identity than one of external coercion, but the desire, the longing, is not narrowly cast as a pursuit simply for a substitute father. The problem in Inception is about cognitive dissonance, is about what is real and what is a product of one’s own imagination, is about what others should be held accountable for and what is your own responsibility. As in Exodus, freedom is only attained when you actually break free and construct your own sanctuary.

In both films, God is a visible absence. There is no source of divine authority, no source of authentic being, except, and in both films, the love of a parent for a child. That is the ultimate source of authenticity. This is the repeated pattern of the tale told in Genesis about the family rather than the making of nation in Exodus. The error in Inception is that DiCaprio left his children behind, not to climb to the peak of a mountain, but to get to the valley of the third level of the subconscious on the ocean floor. The route to freedom in this film is about self-making and freeing oneself from irrational ties – father, mother, wife – in order to bond with a child. It is a Rousseau fantasy. The issue is not so much freeing oneself from a father-figure who protects, guides and supports, as becoming a father figure who protects, guides and supports.

Becoming a settled nation with boundaries, with recognized authorities and rules, requires leaving behind the nomadic life, whether that roaming takes place in the heavens above, as in the case of Howard Hughes as a pilot, or in the subconsciousness of other lives. And that means accepting responsibility for accumulating wealth without succumbing to the worship of it. In the pastoral world, yearning and desire offer fatal attractions that lead to war and violence. The object is to construct an alternative settled world in which roaming will take place in the imagination and in intellectual inquiry rather than in a quest for riches.

The job of the university is to help facilitate that process. So why must it change all the time, change the idea behind it so that the idea itself creeps in to control the mind and prevent precisely what its purpose was intended to fulfil? Why must humans return to converting a rich and flowering institution into the fatal attraction of the nomad for the consolation of a desert? What lies behind the compulsion for self-destruction and all in the name of re-creation and renewal? How and why do the horizon-struck dreamers, whether in the arts or Hollywood, whether into the unconscious or nature, end up turning the rich life of a jungle into an arid place for both the mind and body?  Where and how does the parting of the waters lead to the construction of a Golden Calf, a treasured inert object without an ounce of spiritual creativity?

In the Torah, how do the Israelites overcome the heroic world of pastoral nomads to seek an oasis in a city of stone like Jerusalem (or Amman)? How did the Israelites, transformed by forty years of desert life from slaves into alert warriors with the endurance of camels, with wells of courage, loyalty, and openness both to strangers and to new ideas at the same time, become a nation that builds walls of stone within which they find a sanctuary? What role did the portable sanctuary of the desert play in that transition?

That is the key question. The university reinvents itself as a sanctuary, transforms itself from one type of sanctuary into another, only to eventually destroy its own walls. Why? And how? Why was it necessary for the university to leave faith behind so that both faculty and students are left bereft, feel it, but largely do not recognize what they feel? Is civilization necessarily intertwined with discontent and can salvation only come from an escape from hidebound institutions and well-defined roles to return to the clean air of the desert with waters lapping on an unseen shore?

Certainly, many of the prophets believed that corruption came with civilization and all effort must be made to engage in intellectual and imaginative nomadism where rules do not apply and the power of fire guides one towards the promised land which, when reached, has already revealed itself as a betrayal of its vision of clean air and an austere landscape guided on its path by a pillar of fire to an austere desert. Has the university waxed fat and gone a whoring as Hosea declared?

Settlers are governed by rules and laws as are universities that prepare people to live in a civilized culture. But the latest rebellion is all around. The people want to worship at the feet of a Golden Calf, even those strongly rooted in a religious tradition and, perhaps even more so, for they want to return to a world of faith rather than one grounded in scepticism, forgetting that the desert world is a place of discord and feuds rather than an imaginary place of magnificent calm at one with the peace of God.


To be continued: From the Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method


Power, Influence and Authority in the Torah


I have been writing a series of papers on the contemporary university which I will continue now that I am back in Toronto. I went to Torah study upon my return yesterday morning. We were at the end of the Book of Exodus reading Ki Tissa. Rabbi Splansky wanted to place the discussion within a larger compass and pull back rather than focus on any minute detail After reading two short excerpts about Shabbat, we turned to reading the final chapter from Jonathan Sacks’ 2010 book Covenant & Conversation – Exodus: The Book of Redemption called “Exodus: The Narrative Structure” (329-337) Sacks is the brilliant ex-Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth and a prolific author. The book itself justly won a National Book Award.

He claims, with much justification, that Exodus is the transitional volume in transforming a family into a nation. Though he focuses on the theme of moral courage in a time of crisis, on the emphasis on “the power of individuals, driven by justice or compassion, to defy tyrants and change the course of history,” I want to cut across his discussion of politics and morality to unpack his conceptions of power, influence and authority embedded in his thesis.

Before I do, I begin with where Rabbi Splansky began, with a reading of 31: 13-15

יג  וְאַתָּה דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר, אַךְ אֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי, תִּשְׁמֹרוּ:  כִּי אוֹת הִוא בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם–לָדַעַת, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם.
13 ‘Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying: Verily ye shall keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the LORD who sanctify you.

יד  וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא, לָכֶם; מְחַלְלֶיהָ, מוֹת יוּמָת–כִּי כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בָהּ מְלָאכָה, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמֶּיהָ.
14 Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; everyone that profaneth it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.
טו  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, יֵעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן קֹדֶשׁ, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה מְלָאכָה בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, מוֹת יוּמָת. 15 Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.

and 35:1-3

א  וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם:  אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה, לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם. 1 And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: ‘These are the words which the LORD hath commanded, that ye should do them.
ב  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה, יוּמָת. 2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work therein shall be put to death.
ג  לֹא-תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, בְּיוֹם, הַשַּׁבָּת.  {פ} 3 Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.’ {P}

Does this identification of fire with work have anything to do with God first appearing to Moses as a burning bush (Rubus sanctus) on Mount Horeb in which the flames burned brightly, but the bush itself did not burn? All of Sinai is summed up as seneh, Hebrew for that particular bush.

In the first extract, one is commanded to keep Shabbat as a sign between God and the Israelites throughout the generations in order to recognize one’s nation as a consecrated or sanctified nation. And, of course, you cannot work or you will be put to death. In the second extract, nothing is said about consecration of the nation but the work which is forbidden is depicted as that which is connected with kindling fire. I will return to these extracts in tomorrow’s blog after explicating Sacks on power, influence and authority.

Sacks first introduces the theme of power when he argues that the major theme of Exodus is a narrative moving from slavery to freedom as a result of God’s intervention in history to challenge any tyrant who seeks “to dominate others by the use of power,” (my italics, what I have previously called coercive power) and a matching theme running in the opposite direction of transferring power to the people in the form of humans assuming responsibility for their own destinies. In this theme, God is an educator working through influence rather than countervailing power in order to displace coercive power with creative power. In this counter current, the text is “less about divine power than about divine empowerment.” Note that the transfer works through influence, through education.

Within this intellectual frame, that thus far has not included any reference to authority, Sacks then moves to unpack the structure of the text according to a chiastic or mirror image. The dominant chiastic pattern is a b c b a OR abcdedcba in which there is a pivot in the centre. Rabbi Splansky dismissed the ABBA structure as not chiastic, but it is, just a different version without a pivot. Different chiastic structures can be located in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as well as in the Torah. Thus, the story of the flood narrative has a pivot between two wings each with 10 elements:

A: Noah and his sons (Gen 6:10)

B: All life on earth (6:13:a)

C: Curse on earth (6:13:b)

D: Flood announced (6:7)

E: Ark (6:14-16)

F: All living creatures (6:17–20)

G: Food (6:21)

H: Animals in man’s hands (7:2–3)

I: Entering the Ark (7:13–16)

J: Waters increase (7:17–20)

PIVOT: X: God remembers Noah (8:1)

J: Waters decrease (8:13–14)

I’: Exiting the Ark (8:15–19)

H’: Animals (9:2,3)

G’: Food (9:3,4)

F’: All living creatures (9:10a)

E’: Ark (9:10b)

D’: No flood in future (9:11)

C’: Blessing on earth (9:12–17)

B’: All life on earth (9:16)

A: Noah and his sons (9:18,19a)

Exodus, according to Sacks, has two overarching arches reflecting one another:

Unjust society (1-6)

Liberation (ten plagues) (7-13)

Division of the Reed Sea (14-18)

Liberty: ten commandments (19-20)

Just society (21-24)

In the tale, Israel was instructed to become an anti-Egypt “predicated not on power but on respect for human freedom and dignity.” (331) Yet Sacks also insists that the “most powerful force tending in this direction [the move from slavery to freedom] was the Sabbath.” (331) The Israelites moved from a hierarchical society of pyramids and the focus on a central ruler to a flat desert “in which nothing intervened between man and God.” (331)

Why is the parting of the Reed Sea the pivot point in this first arch, the link between Moses when he stands alone with God and confronts burning bush and the second in which God appears “like a devouring flame”? One individual, Moses, with God working through him, changes history by means of “the inner dialogue between a single soul and the God of freedom and dignity.” (332) This is a tease rather than a fulfilling answer, but I will expand and explicate it further in tomorrow’s blog.

Sacks then puts forth a second arch, a second chiastic pattern, “less about politics than about spirituality, and the place of God in society. Its symbol is the sanctuary. The chiastic pattern follows:

Tabernacle: instruction (25-31:11)

Sabbath (31:12-18)

Golden calf (32-34)

Sabbath (35:1-3)

Tabernacle: construction (35:4-40)

The pivot point is not the division of the Reed Sea, but the making and worship of a Golden Calf. It is here that Sacks diverts into some questionable Freudian interpretation, that the Golden Calf represents not so much idolatry, but the fear of absence, for when the father is absent, the child feels a mixture of guilt and fear and needs to construct a substitute father as the core mechanism to explain the origins of religion. The Freudian references are Totem and Taboo (1913), The Future of an illusion (1927) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). The Golden Calf is “a substitute for an invisible God and the missing leader and father figure.” (333) Of course, for Sacks, the theory is not a stage in the historical evolution of beliefs, but the eternal recurrence of a repeated pattern thus justifying the continuing role of religion.

In this exposition, Sacks ignores all the anthropologists, such as Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber and Claude Lévi-Strauss who have heaped scorn on Freud’s theory for ignoring culturally-determined influences in favour of macroscopic universal frames weak in evidence as well as subsequent developments in psychoanalytic theory which rejected the application of individual psychological dramas and tensions to superimpose them on history. Géza Róheim, a psychoanalyst and anthropologist, did not, at least initially. However, Róheim eventually accepted Freud’s theory of totem and taboo as discredited, but continued to respect Freud’s theory as a classic.

Finally, quite aside from whether Freud’s idea is about a fear of absence, quite aside from the legitimacy of Freud’s idea, whatever it is, there are so many other differences between what Sacks is explicating and Freud, that the interposition of Freud comes off as ludicrous. To give just a few examples:

Totem and Taboo

Sacks Freud
Transition from family into a nation Treating a tribe as if it were a family
Power of individuals to defy tyranny Individual impotence to defy authority
Totem = a time – Shabbat Totem = an animal spirit in space
Why – God consecrates Source of consecration unknown
How – banning work (use of fire) How – banning contact (incest)

There are other differences, but I want to move on to the core exposition of Sacks’ views on power, authority and influence. I will eventually circle back to totem and taboo, especially when linking Sacks’ theories to the psychological and social structures embedded in two movies that I saw last evening, Warren Beatty’s 2016 romantic ‘comedy’ Rules Don’t Apply about Howard Hughes, and Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie Inception, a heist sci-fi movie focused on stealing and shifting an individual’s unconscious. In the meanwhile, I will bracket Sacks’ simplistic assertion that Freud is about the longing for and resentment of father figures that explains our political craving for strong leaders. For Sacks, the pivot point is the Golden Calf, not because it is an idol, but because it signifies the disintegration of a nation unready for freedom because of its obsession for a strong leader.

For Sacks, the Sanctuary serves two purposes. It is a visible symbol of the presence of God in the midst of a people to assure them that God was among them and they need not fear His absence. Secondly, in actually constructing the Sanctuary, what we do supplants what is done for us. The whole community builds the Sanctuary. Allowing the Israelites to express themselves as “free and creative human beings,” what I had heretofore referred to as creative rather than coercive power, provides an apprenticeship in liberty. The fire of God was now with the people daily. Further, the building of the Sanctuary marked a turning point from a reliance on prophets for a specific time and place to a reliance on Priests, on individuals solely with authentic authority to those who also had positions of formal authority and, therefore, could offer institutional continuity.

The central thesis: society in general, and Jews in particular, need the presence of God in their midst to avoid repression and corruption. God is the sovereign authority, the ultimate authentic authority for a nation living under God to circumscribe all human power, to ensure that might is subordinate to right. If one forgets to worship God, one opens oneself to tyranny. This second interposition – the first was the reference to Freud’s totem and taboo – is Sacks’ political theory on the roots of tyranny and the method of offering insurance against it.

Sacks went on to paint another chiasma, the use of that pattern to place the social and political within a cosmological context by comparing the pattern in Genesis with that of Exodus. But I will skip the effort at cosmology to sum up Sacks’ theories of power, influence and authority while bracketing the Freudian theory, bracketing the explanation of the roots of tyranny and the mode of insurance against it, and his cosmological exercise.

coercive versus creative, and the energy and labour of the people must be used to consecrate freedom, to embed freedom to create and ensure freedom from the rule of tyrants
Non this issue, Sacks is weak because he only focuses on intellectual inFfluence, on the transfer of thoughts and ideas to a whole community and ignores the role of material influence which is really symbolized by the Golden Calf rather than a substitute for a missing father. (I will expand on this theme when I analyze the two films I saw last evening.)
both authentic (God or God’s voice through prophets) and formal through boundary conditions – the main one, not working on Shabbat, not playing with fire on Shabbat – and exercised through the formal religious structure of priests and a formal political structure of kings and/or parliaments or presidents.

After the expansion of these themes through reference to the two films and critiquing both Sacks’ interpretation and interposition of Freud’s theory of totem and taboo as well as his thesis on the origins of tyranny, I will return to the exposition of the development of universities as the central institutions responsible for cultivating influence rather than authority in a society.

To be continued.

The Leadership of God, Moses and Aaron

Ki Tissa Exodus 30:11 – 34:35 The Leadership of God, Moses and Aaron


Howard Adelman

There is a lot that goes on in this portion of the Torah, more than most. First, there is the issue of the census and its evident purpose, levying a tax on each Israelite over twenty years of age – no discount for those over 65 (a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight — twenty gerahs to the shekel, the confirmation of weight to be done by the priest). Is the money necessary for the upkeep of the portable sanctuary? Evidently not! The payment is called a ransom; its rationale is that it is paid so that “no plague may come upon them.” Instead of being based on a graduated tax based on ability to pay, rich and poor pay the same levy “as expiation for your persons.”

Then there is the continuation of the instructions for the mishkan, but no longer about the detailed structural and interior design. Verses 11-34 of chapter 31 are all about how to craft the utensils, the formulas for the anointing oil and incense to be used in this portable sanctuary and how they are all to be used. And, God forbid, if the high priests do not follow the directions precisely, they will surely die. These are not just rules for when the Israelites are in the desert, but for all time. These are eternal edicts to consecrate the priests. Do not try to replicate these formulas for daily use or even just to smell the incense. The punishment is dire. You shall be ostracized, “cut off from his kin.” God even names the craftsmen to be employed in carrying out the instructions. Talk about micro-management! Frankly, it all smells of the behaviour of a pharaoh from whom the Israelites had just fled.

Except the Israelites are then instructed to keep (v’shamru so familiar in a synagogue service) shabat as a sign of the covenant between God and the Israelites and as a way of remembering that the Israelites are a consecrated people chosen by God. It is a day of complete rest after working hard for six days, but, God forbid, you do any work, like fix up your recreation room. You “shall be put to death.” Only after receiving all these instructions is Moses given the stone tablets inscribed by the “finger of God.” Of course, that can only be a metaphor, for God does not have a body.

Or have we been sold a bill of goods?

Then the story gets really exciting. Moses has been away for a seemingly long period, perhaps a month. The Israelites get restless. There is a populist revolt. And the people get the High Priest, Aaron, to lead the revolt and make them an idol, a golden calf. Why would he consent to do that? Because the will of the people was too powerful and he wanted to stall until Moses returned? Because he was afraid the mob would put him to death if he did not go along with their wishes? Or because they wanted a physical reminder of their absent leader, Moses, and he was willing to oblige?

The latter seems implausible since the people explicitly asked Aaron to make them a god. When the cat’s away, the mice will play! If Aaron was afraid, there is no sign of fear. There is only the sense of an eager participant. And hardly a stall artist! He could have taken an enormous amount of time to gather the gold and the silver, to melt it down, to find just the right craftsman to make the make the mold and forge the golden calf. Nothing of the sort happened.

All these and other rationales for Aaron’s behaviour seem to be just apologetics. Someone who just tries to smell incense made according to the formula for the sanctuary is to be killed. But the leader of the rebellion who does what is considered the most horrific act of all, making an idol to be worshiped instead of God, gets off scot-free. Unjust is not the word for it! For the man who collects the precious metals, for the man who actually casts the mold and makes the golden calf, for the man who exclaims to the people concerning the golden calf, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” For the man, for the very person who is a High Priest, to then organize a hedonistic revelry for the occasion!

No thunder from on high. Just instructions to Moses to get back in a hurry to quell the rebellion against the emerging Hebrew religion. Moses, fearing God’s revenge, implores God not to wipe out the very people he consecrated. God relents. There will be no punishment for the people. But what about Aaron, Moses’ older brother, the High Priest who led the rebellion? How does Moses feel about being betrayed by his own brother?

As Moses is returning Joshua warns him about the rebellion and the revelry. Moses is in denial.

“It is not the sound of the tune of triumph,
Or the sound of the tune of defeat;
It is the sound of song that I hear!”

But Moses could not deny what was before his eyes when he returned. He lost it. He blew his cool. He confronted Aaron. What did Aaron say? It wasn’t me. The people made me do it. It is they who are evil. I did not mold the calf. It just emerged out of the fire. It is one thing to lead a rebellion. It is another to deny any responsibility. It is even worse to be such a craven coward with such a flimsy and preposterous recap. Does Moses punish his brother? He called forth the Levites, his praetorian guard, and, seemingly randomly, they slew about 3,000 of the 600,000 Israelites. Thus was the rebellion put down.

The same Moses who talked God out of revenge and punishment gave vent to his own wrath. Did he assume any responsibility for something he might have instigated by his absence and failure to leave behind a reliable second-in-command? Did he even hold his brother responsible? He did blame Aaron for letting the people get “out of control,” but even excused that by saying the people were a “menace,” thereby giving credence to the explanation that Aaron only went along because he was afraid for his life.

The behaviour of both Moses and Aaron is appalling. It is elitism of the worst sort. Most biblical exegesis offers apologetics rather than plausible interpretations and explanations, compounding the problem. Does Moses ever hold his brother responsible? The people are guilty of a great sin for making a golden statue, not because it was a piece of folk art, but because it was an idol of worship substituting for God.  And God says, after Moses’ intervention on behalf of his sinning people, I will only cut those out from my favour who were actually guilty. No collective punishment. Nor even any arbitrary punishment as Moses had meted out. God just sent a plague which presumably killed only the guilty ones. I am tempted to be sarcastic – they were killed because they would not be paying taxes any more since the taxes already paid never saved them from the plague as promised when they paid the tax. But Aaron was not killed! God also reneges on his promise to live amidst the people. Why? Because He could get so angry at their stubborn willfulness that He might slay them. God nevertheless is persuaded to agree once again to lead them to the Promised Land. What is Moses’ punishment for letting all this happen? Moses will no longer be able to see God’s face. Only his backside.

I will not go on with rest of the section that recounts how Moses carved two substitute tablets as replicas to the ones he broke in his rage. For my theme is: understanding what is said about leadership. I begin with God.

The Lord passed before him and proclaimed: “The Lord, the Lord, a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (34: 6-7)

God boasts. I’m a good guy. I keep my word. I am patient and kind, “forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.” But not all! When I do not forgive, the punishment will extend to the third and even fourth generation. No more collective punishment in space. Only in time. For God is a temporal not a spatial God. He sets His imprint in history, not having pyramids built in his honour like the sun god. He will remain a hidden God present only in Spirit as He withdraws from the presence of the Israelites. Not to move back to the top of a mountain, but to place Himself in the vanguard of history. Humans will only be able to see God as history unfolds. Prediction will not be part of their ken. God will become a God of deeds rather than words. In return, no miscegenation. No paying respects to local customs. Smash all the religious places and figures of the local inhabitants and engage in ethnic cleansing. God would qualify to be a leader of ISIS.

Moses, quick to anger and slow to forgive, lacking any deep sense of compassion, though pleading for his people, for without them he would have no role and no mission. If any grace is to be found, it will not be located in Moses. The only one to whom he shows kindness and forgiveness is his brother.

Aaron comes off the worst. He refuses to take responsibility. He is a person of great privilege, but one who opportunistically deserts the establishment to lead the common people, those laden with insecurity and fear, resenting the privileges of the ersatz royalty. Just as Moses deserted the Pharaoh to return to the people, so does Aaron. But Aaron does so as a coward. And then he deserts the people he once led and blames them exclusively for what happened. No wonder Moses kicked him upstairs and took away his role as a military leader. Think of what would have happened in the attempted coup if Aaron had continued to have a command and control role over the military.

I speculate that Aaron resented his “promotion,” resented from being removed from a role with real power to one that was only ceremonial. When one of the elite deserts the establishment to effectively lead a populist revolt, not only against Moses, but against God, to risk his status and the riches associated with it, suggests very strongly that Aaron in the very depths of his being resented his younger brother who was far less accomplished than he was but was given the real leadership of the people.

We have an example of the irrationality of a populist rebellion led by a member of the establishment, but one saved by that same establishment lest the very sanctity of their positions be undermined. Fortunately for the Israelites there was another leader lurking in the wings, the man who alerted Moses in advance of his return of the rebellion underway, a man who stayed inside when Moses toured the camp to receive the acclaim he felt he was due from everyone else who came outside their tents.

“Joshua son of Nun, a youth, would not stir out of the Tent.”

Ki Tisa Exodus Chapter 30:11 – 34:

A Murderous God Committed to Ethnic Cleansing


Howard Adelman

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.

Chapter 33

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."

Chapter 34

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. ( 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.

Ki Tisa.Exodus.