Parashat Ki Tisa opens innocuously enough, with a discussion of the half-shekel tax and other matters related to the Tabernacle. The drama shifts suddenly in chapter 32. While Moses lingers for forty days on Mount Sinai, the people have persuaded Aaron to fashion a golden calf in Moses' absence. Upon returning, Moses sees the Israelites cavorting around their calf and smashes the tablets of God's law. Joined by the Levites, Moses executes a campaign to root out the offenders. Moses then pleads with God and secures divine mercy for the people. The parashah ends with a restoration of mutual faith and with Moses carving a second set of tablets inscribed with Ten Commandments.
Our selection is from the second aliyah, describing Moses' dramatic reaction when he returns to the camp and saw what the people had done:
As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. (Exodus 32:19)
This infamous episode's common Hebrew name is Chet Ha-egel, "The Sin of the Calf." But what exactly was the sin? Classical and modern exegetes have challenged the claim that the Sin of the Calf constituted actual idolatry. The Israelites did not in fact worship the calf so much as they created a visible representative following the disappearance of Moses. (Plaut, 599, citing Ibn Ezra, Nachmanides, Buber and Kaufmann)
Let us propose, then, that the Sin of the Calf constituted a breach not of the first part of the second commandment, You shall have no other gods besides Me (Exodus 20:3), but of the following verse: You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. (Exodus 20:4) This verse highlights Judaism's opposition to pictorial representations, a principle known as aniconism.
A discussion of aniconism could not be more timely, as this winter we have witnessed weeks of violent, frequently deadly riots by Muslims protesting cartoons of Muhammad published in Danish newspapers. Islam, like Judaism, has its own deep-seated aniconism, especially when it comes to portrayals of Islam's Prophet. Moreover, the cartoons are patently offensive and pointlessly provocative. However, we have seen no Jewish riots in response to anti-Semitic images-neither presently nor historically. Indeed, some of the ugliest imaginable cartoons continue to find circulation in countries with deeply ingrained hostility toward Jews. Yet across the globe, the Jewish reaction to these seems far less hysterical. Why the difference? One possible explanation emerges by looking at Judaism's post-Biblical literature on the subject of graven images.
The Talmud relates that Rabban Gamliel used a public bath in Akko in which a statue of the goddess Aphrodite stood. When accused of violating the Jewish directive against graven images, Gamliel calmly explained that in his eyes, the statue was purely ornamental and served no religious function. ( Avodah Zarah 44b) This differentiation becomes the rule: images that can be classified as purely ornamental, that give no logical suggestion of idolatry, are permitted, while images of probable religious veneration remain proscribed. ( Avodah Zarah 40b-41a) By the 16th century, it had become accepted halachah to permit graven images intended as works of art but to ban only those images designated for worship ( Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 141:1). A Jewish person is permitted to own, for instance, a sculpture of a human figure, if its purpose is obviously aesthetic.
If anything, a survey the Second Commandment within our interpretive literature reveals a complex relationship between Judaism and aniconism, best summarized as follows: During historical "periods that are understood in Jewish eyes as idolatrous, Judaism has distanced itself from iconographic representation. When, however, the representational arts are no longer viewed as a religious threat, Jewish interpretations of the Second Commandment have tended to be much more liberal and accommodating." (Ehrlich, "Make Yourself No Graven Image: The Second Commandment in Judaism," 261-262)
This takes us to another possible explanation for a distinction between classical Jewish and contemporary Muslim reactions to inflammatory pictorial representations. It may well be that Judaism's long history of interpretative literature mitigates against any "fundamentalist" reading of the Torah. Even the Torah's strict aniconism-a "fundamental" rule if ever there were one-is dramatically softened by centuries of interpretation and continual re-application of the ancient law. Perhaps in this we see a model for the development of a liberal, enlightened Islamic religion, one in which the ongoing interpretation of the Qur'an in light of modernity would be considered a sacred and cherished endeavor.
- Pictorial representations in today's synagogues are widely varied. Many synagogues still eschew images of human beings. However, many other images of religious significance can be found. Visit your local synagogue and take note of the images used. How do they enhance (or detract from) the worship experience? Do you see any conflict between these images and Judaism's stated aniconism?
- Among the most celebrated images in today's Jewish world are Marc Chagall's windows of the Hadassah-Hebrew University Medical Center in Jerusalem. Dedicated in 1962, these windows depict the twelve tribes of Israel. Can a work of art also be a subject of religious reverence, or vice-versa?
- For a more disturbing set of images, you may wish to view the anti-Semitic cartoons from the covers of the infamous Nazi magazine Der Stürmer. Political cartoons are often used dangerously, as propaganda. What is your reaction to these cartoons? Do you agree that a discussion of aniconism and the second commandment is applicable to these kinds of depictions? What other commandments or Jewish principles might apply?
For Further Learning
The oldest surviving Ashkenazi illuminated manuscript (South German, ca. 1300) is popularly known as "The Birds' Head Haggadah." This Passover Haggadah is so named for the strange figures with human bodies but bird-like heads illustrated in the margins. Some scholars believe that the pictures represent an attempt to provide pictorial ornamentation without "crossing the line" with respect to the Second Commandment. Thus, birds' heads are depicted instead of human faces. Read more and see some images at the Jewish Heritage Online Magazine. What do you think?