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You can put lipstick on the Golden Calf, but it will still be an idol. You can put lipstick on January 6, and the purveyor of this falsehood will still be a liar.
This week's portion of Ki Tisa contains the climactic Golden Calf incident, or, as Tucker Carlson might describe it, "an afternoon tea party. No Big Deal. No debauchery. No idolatry. Just a sweet pastoral scene. A few baby cows, a few baby sheep. A few tourists in a lovely Yorkshire setting looking for landmarks from All Creatures, Great and Small. No fire and brimstone. No quaking mountain. No smashed tablets or windows. Nothing to see here."
"Totally innocent! He didn't make the calf. Antifa did."
And where was Moses this whole time?
"That's the crux of the problem. Mo is AWOL, nowhere to be found! That's what happens when you pick a leader who's 80 years old! And who chose him, anyway? The process was rigged!"
I could go on, but mercifully, I won't. However, this little parody raises a crucial question about the nature of transmitted truth. There is really only one documented way to understand what happened on January 6, 2021, and it's supported by a mountain of evidence and a cattle call of convictions. Yet some still choose to deliberately lie to further their own political and - in Fox's case, more to the point, commercial - agendas. How Fox News could still be doing this at the very time they're being exposed by the Dominion lawsuit revelations is the height of chutzpah. Fortunately, the attempt to whitewash what happened on the 6th will likely fail, especially in light of the growing desire of Republican leaders to finally let the lie go - to their credit.
But, if we turn our attention back to the Golden Calf, how can we be sure that the Torah's account of this sinful debauchery, and particularly Aaron's role in it, are to be accepted as the only possible version of events? The text and commentaries jostle over the relative guilt of Aaron in collecting the jewelry and constructing the idol. Some say was simply trying to stall for time. And the entire group present, all the people, are the true guilty party. After all, the punishment did not go to Aaron alone. Each individual Israelite was held responsible by God for this idolatry. Their donations of jewelry and participation in the idol worship rendered them all complicit.
Maybe not ALL.
On this day after International Women's Day, this juicy bit of Midrash is just perfect. While the Hebrew verb for “they took off (their jewelry),” is masculine plural, it is typically seen as applying to a mixed-gender group of Israelites. But the Midrash chooses to read the phrase literally: “They (the men) took” asserts that it was only the Israelite men who chose to hand over their gold. The Israelite women, says the midrash, refused to donate their valuables or to participate in idolatry.
Is all of this "true," in the historical sense?
Joseph Campbell, the great chronicler of myth, delineated that distinction between literal fact and a broader truth:
...half the people in the world think that the metaphors of their religious traditions… are facts. And the other half contends that they are not facts at all. As a result we have people who consider themselves believers because they accept metaphors as facts, and we have others who classify themselves as atheists because they think religious metaphors are lies.
It is clear that Jewish sources stand on the side of deeper truth, rather than historical literalism.
We can debate precisely what truth is, but we know clearly what it isn't - you need look no further than the Dominion case depositions to find that. The Talmud states definitively that God's very signature is truth.
The Holy One, blessed be God, hates a person who says one thing with their mouth and another in their heart.
That's how you define a liar. Clean and simple.
The sages understood the fragility of the trust that people place in those who recount the stories, and who make the laws based on those stories.
As we read and retell our sacred stories again and again, year after year, there is a certain trust that accompanies that reading, a faith that these events were initially communicated, and later interpreted, in good faith, however subjectively, Not by an agenda-driven cynical egomaniac out to hold onto power and make a few billion bucks for his media empire. We've got to believe that the editors and story tellers who passed the Torah stories down to us believed, on some level, that what they were telling was "true."
The same is true for all faith traditions. I may have serious questions as to the historicity of the Red Sea parting, just as a Christian might question the events on Golgotha. But with these stories, like the Golden Calf, there is an internal integrity that makes them timeless and able to yield priceless truths. The Golden Calf midrash about the courageous women lays bare so many lies and stereotypes. There are myths to explode and moral lessons to explore, so many in just one brief story.
But it all depends on the integrity of the teller. For me to accept the Bible as "true" and divine, I need to place my faith in the authors, scribes, bards and redactors who developed and transmitted the stories for all these centuries. Because these stories passed through so many hands - and mouths - they have survived a vetting process unlike any other in history. The Hebrew Bible was possibly the world's first - and still best - crowdsourced document, written in the original Multiverse, a mishmash of "everything, everywhere and all at once."
John Riches wrote in The Bible: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press):
The biblical texts were produced over a period in which the living conditions of the writers – political, cultural, economic, and ecological – varied enormously. There are texts which reflect a nomadic existence, texts from people with an established monarchy and Temple cult, texts from exile, texts born out of fierce oppression by foreign rulers, courtly texts, texts from wandering charismatic preachers, texts from those who give themselves the airs of sophisticated Hellenistic writers.
Over those centuries, the process of editing, re-editing, translating, and interpreting, left us with a document richly layered in the (often contradictory) truths of the human experience.
If any of it was written with Tucker Carlsonesque malevolence, millions of proofreaders could question, cajole, and tug at the text and bring forth new fruit. But even generations of tugging and remastering will not transform the Golden Calf incident into a jolly holiday in the Yorkshire countryside. You can put lipstick on this calf, but it will still be an idol. You can put lipstick on January 6, 2021, and the purveyor of falsehood will still be a liar. And now, a deposed one, sworn to tell, of all things, the truth.
In this week of great parody, from Purim masks to Fox News unmasked to Mel Brooks' long awaited sequel to his "History of the World, Part One," we need to believe that our sacred stories come to us relatively untarnished - but rather, varnished to a deep shine, by the eyes of a billion readers spanning hundreds of generations. There can be truth in numbers.
What Fox News continues to do in spreading such devastating lies about the 2020 Election is a sin that is downright biblical in nature, with consequences bordering on apocalyptic. We've only seen a glimpse of what the world can be like when it is run by power hungry manipulators who have no respect for the people they supposedly serve. At some point, the greatest casualty will become truth itself. But before that happens, Dominion will go to trial, more truths will emerge - and the verdict will await God's signature.