Ki Tissa -- Exodus 30:11 – 34:35

Construction of the Tabernacle is left to the wise-hearted artisans, Bezalel and Aholiav, and proceeds according to schedule, but Moses does not return from atop Mount Sinai exactly when expected (32:1). This leads the impatient Israelites to sculpt a molten calf of gold and worship it (32:6).

When he finally returns, Moses sees his people dancing around this idol and becomes enraged; he smashes the first set of tablets, destroys the molten calf, and executes the culprits behind this moment of grave idolatry. Then, in a moment of great empathic compassion, Moses turns to God and says: “If You do not forgive them, then blot me out of the book that You have written!” (32:32) Perhaps this eruption of empathic compassion is what allows Moses to formulate a second set of tablets upon his next ascent to Sinai?

When Moses is able to be truly present to the others in his community, no matter how errant, he is then granted a vision of the divine, through the thirteen attributes of mercy. After Auschwitz, the great French Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) took this remarkable moment of Moses’ request for a complete encounter with the divine “face” (33:20) only to be granted a view of “the other side” (33:23) to teach us that every human encounter with "the other" presents us with a trace of the divine.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Artwork note: This week's illustration depicts the golden calf, Torah's most prominent symbol of idolatry. Here, the calf's head references Charging Bull, the famous bronze sculpture that's sparked countless photo ops in downtown Manhattan since it was installed in 1987. The choice isn't intended as an attack on capitalism (which, when thoughtfully regulated, is the most workable system we’ve come up with), but perhaps our modern championing of relentless economic growth is a species of misbegotten idol? In the background are golden earrings featuring the Egyptian Eye of Horus, a reference to the story's collection of Israelite earrings to create the calf; surely, their earrings' iconography and style would have been Egyptian following such a long period of assimilation. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Sukkot, Day Three -- Exodus 33:12 – 34:26

This Shabbat occurs during Sukkot, and we will be reading a special Sukkot selection from the Book of Exodus. The reading provides us with an opportunity to consider the role of strangers in our lives, especially during this time of heightened "othering" in the political and social arenas.

Atop Mount Sinai, Moses is famously granted a vision of the divine, but he is only permitted or able to see God's back. After Auschwitz, the great French Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) took this remarkable moment of Moses' request for a complete encounter with the divine "face" only to be granted a view of "the other side" to teach us that every human encounter with "the other" presents us with a trace of the divine.

- Rav Aubrey

Artwork note: This week's illustration is inspired by Exodus 33:22–23: "And it shall be that when My glory passes by, I will place you into the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove My hand, and you will see My back but My face shall not be seen." Here, we peer from the rock cleft, obliquely seeing some semblance of the Divine. Many scientists, artists, and mystics are drawn to the notion of a hidden God, and frame the "holy" as something that can only be experienced indirectly. The forms that appear in this illustration are particles of coral sand viewed through a microscope. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

Ki Tissa -- Exodus 30:11-34:35

CoverDesign_KiTissaIn Ki Tissa, design of the Tabernacle is assigned to the wise-hearted artisans, Bezalel and Aholiav. We hear the echo of their influence in Israel even today.

For example, the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, established in 1906 by artist Boris Schatz, has evolved into one of the world's most prestigious art schools. We learn this week why the name Bezalel is synonymous with more than a century of Israeli art, innovation, and academic excellence. Bezalel’s namesake shines -- the school is responsible for producing numerous artistic breakthroughs and has demonstrated a remarkable ability to respond and adapt to cultural changes. If its numerous generations of graduates – the vanguard of Israeli artists, designers, and architects, both in Israel and around the globe – is any indication, then Bezalel remains as strong an influence as ever in Israeli society.

But how does Moses relate to the innovations of Bezalel’s design? Acting as the communal leader, Moses seems to have missed the deadline, and does not return from atop Mount Sinai exactly when expected (32:1). This leads the Israelites to sculpt a molten calf of gold and worship it (32:6). When he finally returns, Moses sees his people dancing around this idol and smashes the first set of tablets, destroys the molten calf, and executes the culprits behind this moment of grave idolatry. Then, in a moment of great empathic compassion, Moses turns to God and says: “If You do not forgive them, then blot me out of the book that You have written!” (32:32)

Perhaps this eruption of empathic compassion is what allows Moses to formulate a second set of tablets upon his next ascent to Sinai. When Moses is able to be truly present to the others in his community, no matter how errant, he is then granted a vision of the divine, through the thirteen attributes of mercy.

After Auschwitz, the great French Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) took this remarkable moment of Moses’ request for a complete encounter with the divine “face” (33:20) only to be granted a view of “the other side” (33:23) to teach us that every human encounter with "the other" presents us with a trace of the divine.

- Rabbi Aubrey Glazer

Image credit: Another in our series of original illustrations inspired by mid-20th century graphic design. Although the artwork specifically depicts the Israelites' worship of the golden calf in this week's parsha, it is more generally inspired by the relationship between fear, ecstasy, resignation, and faith (of a certain kind) -- think Søren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling or, if you prefer the philosophy of another brilliant anti-Semite, think of Arthur Schopenhauer's notion of the sublime providing supreme liberation through self-negation. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.

What's A Jew To Do With The Pagan Pull Of Halloween?

When I was a painting major in high school, I was a nominally-affiliated Conservative Jew wrestling with a challenging conundrum. What image should I choose for my inevitable tattoo? My entire peer group was preoccupied with the counter-culture of punk, and it was a given that either a piercing or tattooing was a de rigeur part of our misfit identity.

No matter how many images I poured over, I simply could not decide. Would it be an exploding head by Ralph Steadman or maybe a decomposing skull by Pushead? You get the picture; the more macabre the better!

SamhainBandAt the same time as I was agonizing over the tattoo image short list, I immersed myself in the most morose punk rock and death metal known to mankind. There was something about the wild and ecstatic sonic energy of the Misfits (1977-1983), for example, that drew me to a weekly mosh pit filled with thrashing dancers — this, I suppose, was my search for community. At some point, I stumbled onto a later incarnation of the Misfits known as Samhain (1983-1989), featuring lead singer Glenn Danzig, Eerie Von on both bass and drums, as well as other motley members. Samhain performed harrowing hits like "All Hell," "Bloodfeast," "Die, Die, My Darling," "Death Comes Ripping," and of course "Halloween II." I was totally absorbed by this celebration of the un-dead world, and I became curious about where this music and art was drawing its inspiration from -- what exactly is Samhain?

Who better to turn to for an answer than Philip Carr-Gomm, the Chosen Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids. Writing about the Paleopagan and Mesopagan druids in Britain, Carr-Gomm reflects:

"Samhuinn, from 31 October to 2 November, was a time of no-time…the Celts knew that there had to be a time when order and structure were abolished, when chaos could reign. And Samhuinn was such a time. Time was abolished for the three days of this festival and people did crazy things, men dressed as women and women as men. Farmers’ gates were unhinged and left in ditches, peoples’ horses were moved to different fields, and children would knock on neighbours’ doors for food and treats in a way that we still find today, in a watered-down way, in the custom of trick-or-treating on Hallowe’en." (Philip Carr-Gomm, The Elements of the Druid Tradition, 1991)

Etching-Druid-Samhain-FestivalAt the time, I lacked the self-awareness to understand what it was about the counter-cultural adaptation of Samhuinn that held such sway over my peers and myself (never mind the power of the same impulse, mutatis mutandi, in Judaism, which is most apparent during the carnivalesque of Purim!) But given the anxieties of high school and the unmoored search for meaning, we were regularly swimming in creative chaos, a seemingly endless stretch of "time that is no-time." But Carr-Gomm expands on this concept:

"But behind this apparent lunacy lay a deeper meaning. The druids knew that these three days had a special quality about them. The veil between this world and the World of the Ancestors was drawn aside on these nights, and for those who were prepared, journeys could be made in safety to the 'other side.'" (Philip Carr-Gomm, The Elements of the Druid Tradition)

The argument Carr-Gomm presents is of a druid culture that is really more about life than death. These pagan rites were really focused on making contact with the spirits of the departed as sources of guidance rather than dread. The druids needed to connect to the “root-wisdom of the tribe” not as something dead, but "as the living spirits of loved ones." I found this idea very compelling, and it opened the door for me to turn back to Judaism.

That "slight, small turn" -- what the Kotzker rebbe called ein klein drei -- is all it took! I spent the next chapter of my search for meaning in and out of different ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic yeshivot (study academies), shteiblach (small, "old school" synagogues), and even Carlebach camp at Rainbow Festival, searching for the root-wisdom of my own tribe not as dead (which is how I was encountering religion in its institutionalized forms), but "as the living spirits of loved ones."

Still, even as I began to explore the riches of the Jewish world, I progressed deeper into the macabre counter-culture of Samhain. Eventually, I was invited by a close punk friend, S.M., to listen to Reign in Blood, a new record by the death metal band Slayer. I remember sitting in his broken-down, Section 8 housing as the lyrics of the album's opening song, "Angel of Death," started screeching from his turntable:

"Auschwitz, the meaning of pain
The way that I want you to die
Slow death, immense decay
Showers that cleanse you of your life
Forced in
Like cattle
You run
Stripped of
Your life's worth
Human mice, for the Angel of Death
Four hundred thousand more to die"


Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1993-051-07,_Tafel_mit_KZ-Kennzeichen_(Winkel)_retouchedThese words written by Slayer guitarist and lead-vocalist, Jeff Hanneman, scorched my soul. I immediately got up and left, nauseated. Perhaps that was the point -- to reach the point beyond meaning which is nausea. The systematic tattooing of prisoners at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp Complex (including Auschwitz I, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Monowitz) set it apart as an experience beyond any common notion of pain or humiliation; in that respect, at least, Slayer was partially right. Prior to tattooing, upon arrival at the concentration camp, prisoners were issued their numbers. These were sewn to their uniforms, along with different shapes, symbols, and letters identifying status, nationality, and religion of the prisoner.

Prisoners selected for immediate extermination were almost never assigned numbers—after all, that would have been a waste! This history alone should have been enough to nauseate me and any of my friends, preventing us from considering anything resembling a tattoo. (Indeed, I recall another Jewish friend, A., who had tattooed most of his body when he became a skin-head in high school and then spent the next decade in laser surgery to remove every last trace.) Nausea can compell choices and actions; as I was to learn later from Emmanuel Levinas, writing as a soon-to-be-survivor of the Shoah in 1935, nausea, along with pleasure, were two visceral emotions that lead us to escape from being:

"There is in nausea a refusal to remain there, an effort to get out. Yet this effort is already characterized as desperate: in any case, it is so for any attempt to act or think. And this despair, this fact of being riveted, constitutes all the anxiety of nausea. In nausea -- which amounts to an impossibility of being what one is -- we are at the same time riveted to ourselves, enclosed in a tight circle that smothers." (Emmanuel Levinas, On Escape).

As the depths of my soul were being smothered in high school by this counter-cultural being-towards-death, my malaise had reached its limit and my innards were heaving outwards, propelling me along a new pathway of meaning. As I wended my way through university, eventually focusing on French language and literature, I became drawn to that same Jewish philosopher, Levinas, who escaped the clutches of Nazi genocide. Levinas’ courage to continue embracing life in the face of death, to see that beyond the slaughterhouse of Nazism an ethical first philosophy was still possible -- this gave me renewed hope as a Jewish philosopher. I came to the realization that the impossibility of choosing one image was now irrelevant; I would now never scratch an image into my skin for life -- the tattoo came to seem utterly banal. How I came to this realization without yet knowing of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), where she coined the controversial term describing the unthinking, mindlessness of the Third Reich’s leaders like Eichmann as "the banality of evil" still shocks me.

So here we are in American Jerusalem on erev-All Hallow's Eve, being pushed and pulled in so many directions as Jews. I see the terrified look in the faces of a visiting Israeli family here for just six months, trying to make sense of the mayhem about to unfold. "What should we do with our children?," they ask me. This is their welcome to San Francisco; for those new to American culture, it can be a scare. Far away from their homeland, this family has landed in the heart of another holy land called American Post-Judaism -- as Shaul Magid courageously reminds us in his book of the same title. Yet, despite the horrors of the latest stats, the family is in search of itself and meaning. How can they resist the pull of paganism and reclaim and redeem the foundations of Jewish monotheism from the shadow of "the Mosaic distinction," that moment when an earlier inclusive monotheism was eclipsed by a more exclusivist monotheism? By embracing cosmotheism, a theology that posits that "the divine world (or cosmos) and the world we live in are inextricably intertwined" according to Magid. But cosmotheism remains largely undiscovered.

So, this year, as my nine-year-old daughter pulls at my sleeve to take her out to "trick or treat," I am gentle, but firm in reminding her that if we do go, it will be nothing more than a dress rehearsal for Purim, our day of redemption — a time beyond time — beyond good and evil, when the divine cannot be divorced from the world.

Halloween
Image credits: 1) Original concert photo of band Samhain taken April of 1986 in a tiny club in Columbus, Ohio; J Fotoman; 2) Colored etching of a Celtic Druid Samhain festival at Stonehenge, uncredited and undated; 3) Nazi camp ID emblems in a 1936 German illustration, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license; 4) Halloween trick-or-treaters, photo by Pictoscribe (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)