Do you consider yourself an idolater? I ask the question in a serious manner, for one of the main aversions, according to the Torah, is the path of idolatry, a path we witness in our parasha this week, Ki Tisa, with the Golden Calf. Yet, in today’s modern world, what does it mean to be an idol worshiper? Where are we to find the idols of today that we are commanded to avoid?
One of the greatest idols of our time is the idol of ultimate truth. There are those who believe that ultimate truth is out there to be found, that it exists in some realm of certainty that assures the finders that they are right. And I am not only talking about the Christian right and their imaginary sense of black-and-white truths, but also among the Jews who seek to articulate a vision of Torah that both accentuates a belief in ultimate truth and alienates those who do not hold that truth to be valid.
In his dynamic book, “A Heart of Many Rooms,” philosopher and theologian Rabbi David Hartman, a modern Israeli thinker, says, “The role of the rabbi is not so much to provide answers as to create questions.” As I understand my role as the spiritual leader of a religious community, I appreciate Hartman’s teaching and embrace it as a profound influence on my way of thinking.
So, the question I am posing here is about Mount Sinai and the experience of revelation that we read about a few weeks in Parashat Yitro, an experience that seemingly should have prevented the scene with the Golden Calf. What happened on that day? Did Moses receive the word of God? Was that word written down and transmitted verbatim to the people? And if so, is that the Torah that we have today? The commentators vary widely on the issue of what happened at Sinai, ranging from everything that ever is, was and will be was said to Moses on that day, to the idea that only the first commandment, “I am the Lord Your God,” was uttered, with many options in between.
However, if there is anything that divides us as a people, it is this idea of what happened at Sinai. There is very little room to dialogue with those who hold that the Torah is the word of God, period. I believe that both humans and God created the Torah, thereby allowing for a multitude of truths to be possible, even as we all read the same words from the same book. A multitude of truths based on experience and time in history: this is the miracle of our people. And that understanding is at the heart of the talmudic tradition, one that values and highlights a variety of opinions, a multitude of truths: the notion that “alu v’alu d’varim chayyim,” that both sides of the argument were the living words of God. While there are objective truths that our society has agreed upon, such as murder is wrong, even those are subject to interpretation, for that is how we allow for killing in self-defense and capital punishment. Furthermore, those truths that we held to be acceptable in the past, truths that allowed us to enslave others, discriminate against others based on race, gender or sexual orientation, are being revealed today as falsehoods. And that is part of our growth and development as a society, as a people always seeking to understand and expand our notion of truth.
The Golden Calf incident reminds us what can happen when we let fear, anxiety or desperation cloud our judgment. We make an idol, a replacement for God, to soothe us in that moment. But while an idol may pacify us in that moment, it won’t last. A few months from now, we will read in Parashat Behar, “You shall not make idols for yourselves, or set up for yourselves carved images or pillars, or place figured stones in your land to worship upon, for I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 26:1). This is a reminder of the 10 Commandments of Yitro and the Golden Calf of Ki Tisa. When we allow our understanding of truth to alienate and vilify those with whom we disagree, we become idolaters. When we think that our way of thinking is the only way of thinking, we desecrate God’s name. This is happening today in our religious spheres — including the current climate of intolerance in Israel — in our communal spheres, and perhaps most dangerously in our political spheres. We must replace the call to ultimate truth, which is the realm of God, with the call of human truth, which is always subject to interpretation, re-creation and continual revelation. This demands humility, a trait that requires us to always hold out the possibility that our truth may not be the only truth, a trait that calls us to have hearts of flesh, as Jeremiah demands, and not hearts of stone.
Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center (pjtc.net), a congregation affiliated with the Conservative movement.