Yom Rivii, 22 Heshvan 5780
Wednesday, 20 November 2019
Parashat Ki Tisa 2013

Parashat Ki Tisa
Cantor Gershon Silins

29 February 2013

I've been dealing with a problem that some of you probably have experienced as well. It is the problem of email. Not the deluge of emails that appear in my in box, though that's a problem too, but another thing, which is just how difficult it is to write so that people will understand me, and to understand the emails I receive. This issue with email is, of course, well known. After a flurry of email up and back in which I am trying to placate an inexplicably furious correspondent, who gets angrier with each email I send, engendering an increasing frustration on my part, one of us will finally pick up the phone, and in five minutes or less, defuse the anger and get to the root of the problem. As we continue to discover, there's no substitute for direct communication.

This week's Torah portion, Ki Tissa, is to some degree about the same problem, in an era long predating email. We see it in particular in the story of the Golden Calf. Our sages were amazed that the generation that had witnessed the miracles of Egypt and had scaled the loftiest heights of communion with God could, in a moment, descend to the same kind of idolatry they had agreed to relinquish. "Na'aseh v'nishmah," they had said, "we will do and we will listen." One might say, yes, you said you would do and you would listen, but you didn't understand what you heard. When the divine voice said, you shall have no other gods, what did you think it meant? Surely not the worship of a molten calf to be described as "your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt." And yet, what else could the people imagine? Yes, they had agreed to the words that they heard, but they heard them in the only context they could know, the context of the religion of Egypt, which admitted of many divinities, each worshipped symbolically through idols that represented them. When Moses had been gone so long that they had reason to doubt if they would see him again, they said to Aaron, "come, make us a god who shall go before us." They had reason to seek an image to worship: they had already been commanded (a few portions ago, in Terumah) to give their valuables to build a physical dwelling place for God to inhabit. So why not this? Apparently the message that God sent was not the message that the people heard.

There is some dispute in our tradition as to whether this act constituted idolatry; God doesn't say, "they have turned aside from me," but rather, "they have turned aside from the way I commanded them." So there was a basis for reconciliation, which Moses negotiated, though not without a lot of anger on his part as well, as the breaking of the first set of tablets demonstrates. A single moment of revelation may create a new religious awareness for the person who experiences it, but it does not create a religion. For that, a structure and a framework must be constructed; not a moment in front of Sinai, but a lifetime of immersion in what it means to be Jewish.

That framework changes with time, and indeed, it must change with time precisely because God may be unchanging, but we are not. A recent article, "The New American Jewish Secularism" in the Washington Post [19th February] speaks to the reality of this change in our own time. The authors (Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar) observe that "[o]nly half of Jews compared with 80 percent of all Americans strongly agree that God exists. Forty-one percent of Jews never attend religious services aside from a family life-cycle event, and 87 percent of American Jews fail to observe kashrut outside their homes.

Jews, they say, are increasingly investing their Jewish identity on cultural elements, from the ridiculous (Sarah Silverman and Jerry Seinfeld) to the (more or less) sublime: political lectures at Manhattan's 92nd St. Y on separation of church and state, art and photography exhibitions; Modern Hebrew classes, the revival of the Yiddish language, the new appreciation of 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza; the excellent, newly launched Jewish Review of Books, a revival of Jewish musical traditions such as klezmer (East European), Sephardic (Mediterranean) and mizrahi (Afro-Asian) melodies and recreational Israeli folk dancing. We see these same areas of Jewish interest here in Britain as well.
I encountered the Washington Post article through an on line publication called Jewish Ideas Daily, one of a number of similar sites and publications, including Tablet Magazine and, here in the UK, Jewish Renaissance Magazine. Most of these sources are not tied to one stream of Judaism; they include news and views from a wide variety of Jewish sources, making them open to Liberal Jews as well as to more traditional Jews who are curious about the wider Jewish world. These sources tell us that Jewish identity today is at least as much cultural as religious, and no less powerful for that. For those to whom the only authentic approach to Judaism is through institutionalized public prayer, this is a regrettable development. But for those who take pleasure in the richness of Jewish life and who are fascinated by its variety, it is fascinating and wonderful.

We can no longer rely on the direct communication from Moses that our ancestors experienced; each generation, ours included, must create a version of Jewish life that is authentic for us. This is a process that never ends, and it is exciting to be a part of it.