Thursday, February 17, 2011

Embracing the Unknown and alternatives to scientific knowledge /the case of the Golden Calf

Egyptians and others who care about what happens there are facing the unknown. There is an ancient impulse to seek linear knowledge, evidence based, “scientific” information about what is and what will be. This essay argues that having clear knowledge is not always appropriate and that some times it is useful to embrace the unknown or “traditional knowledge” of people with a variety of skin tones including the darker shades.
In 1999, the Nuer and Dinka tribes of Southern Sudan had been waging war, killing each other and destroying each others’ cattle. An American Christian, Bill Lowery, and others from the New Sudan Council of Churches brought chiefs from the two sides together, at great risk to the chiefs themselves. One of the rituals involved participants spitting into a gourd filled with water. When it came to Bill, he spat into it too. When everyone had spat, they splashed the water on each other. The spittle on the tongue is meant to be the coldest part of a person, and splashing it symbolised cooling off the hot bodies, charged with the ‘heat of conflict’. Bill asked the chiefs to tell stories they heard from their fathers’ mothers about how conflicts were resolved in the past. They sat opposite each other, divided by a rope representing the Nile, and discovered the wisdom of their respective ancestors was very similar. They told stories about what was done to them, and finally were asked what they ‘remembered’ for the future of their daughters’ sons.
After three days of story telling, they reached the point of decision. Bill warned his team that this was not a time to give advice. In the end the decision was a ‘no-brainer’. The logical conclusion was ending the fighting. One of the oldest chiefs told Bill, “I have been to many meetings with the United Nations. Never before has anyone asked me what I think[1].”
It is plausible to suggest that the wise UN people were arrogant, but I suspect that they suffered from this need to have a linear “scientifically” documented plan with neat graphs that might not have allowed for listening to old black men. One liberated brown gentleman, India‘s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, had this to say. “It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger…of superstition and deadening custom…the future belongs to science and those who make friends with science”[2]. 
This impulse may have also been at work when the ancient Israelites, not long after hearing God’s command “Do not make for your self any image[3] demanded “make us Elohim that will go before us[4] then created and bowed to a Golden Calf.  The common understanding of this is reflected in the Midrash that “the Egyptians would carry their gods and sing before it and see it before them. Make us a God like the gods of Egypt and we will see it before us”[5]. The word Elohim can mean God but it can also mean a guide as we find when a reluctant Moses is told to speak to the Jews with Aaron as his spokesman, he is told that “you will be for him an Elohim[6][7].  The Jews were seeking a replacement for Moses who failed to come back from the mountain.
They thought it would have a higher power to tell them the future, to stand instead of Moses to lead them and tell them what will happen to them[8]. Alternatively, the purpose of the calf was “like Teraphim (statue like objects) that were used in witchcraft to tell them their needs[9]”. In direct contravention of “do not have diviners, (using lucky or unlucky times or omens)…be wholesome with God”[10].  
The Golden Calf was to serve as a focal point for prayer for the Israelites, “just as we do today in our places of worship, taking pride in their stones and mortar” Just as we turn our hearts to “heaven” in prayer. In this view the problem was not so the calf which in its meaning was not that different to the Cherubim on the holy ark but rather creating their own symbol not commanded by God[11]. Aaron states that tomorrow there will be a feast to God, because the spiritual content remained unchanged, only there was a small concession to concreteness of worship[12].
The quest to uncover mysteries engages Moses as well and he asks God to “show me your glory[13]” by which he meant “show me how you lead the world[14]”, seeking to understand divine justice, reward for the righteous as well as the tranquility of the wicked[15].
God responds to this request by explaining that no man can see His face and live. Instead God offers to “I will put you in the cleft of the rock[16] where Moses will see “God’s back” but not his face. Then He will “shield (Moses) with  the palm of his hand on him until He passes”.  The face, back and hands are metaphors that indicate that there are some secrets that must remain closed even to Moses.
The place in which Moses has this experience, hosts another visitor years later in the dramatic story of Elijah in the cave[17].  Elijah arrives in the very cave and asks him “"What are you doing here, Elijah?". Elijah replies that he had “been zealous for the Lord, the God of Hosts, for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant... they have killed Your prophets by the sword..” Again the theme of passing plays out. God tells Elijah, “"Go out and stand in the mountain before the Lord, Behold! the Lord passes”. Then there is a great and strong wind splitting mountains and shattering boulders before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake-not in the earthquake was the Lord. After the earthquake fire, not in the fire was the Lord, and after the fire a sound of silence[18]. Whatever God’s message was to Elijah with all of this, curiously God repeats his original question. "What are you doing here, Elijah?" Elijah’s response is identical with the one he offered before this dramatic display. I wonder if this is part of the reason our sages teach us that forever more Elijah is required to attend every circumcision where the covenant is affirmed. Perhaps observing imperfect people ambiguously cleaving to God is a good correction to Elijah’s judgmental “black and white” certainty.  
Moses is changed forever by this experience and having “Gods hand on him”. Moses did not know it but the skin of his face shone with rays of light, Aaron and the sons of Israel were afraid to approach him. For most of the rest of his life he would need to have some concealment of his own, covering his face with a mask or veil. If we understand the veil metaphorically then rather than adding to the mystery detracted from it by “putting a mask on the ideas and presenting them in a way that the people could understand[19]”. Thus, Moses having sought to uncover the mystery and having being touched by it, must now protect others from mystery, giving physical interpretations to spiritual ideas, thus concretizing the ethereal.     
While the scientific method can help us communicate and put a man on the moon, it is not the tool for the ultimate questions of life. Embracing the unknown or seeking traditional knowledge each have their place. The Ultimate knowledge of God is (to know that) we don’t know[20].

[1] Lowery, W. (2010). Related to me in by Bill Lowery in late night Conversation at the Third World Peace Forum, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Accessed 7 June 2010
[2] Appleyard, B. (1992) Understanding the Present, Science and the Soul of Modern Man, p.3 Picador/Pan Books, London
[3] Exodus 20:4 in the Ten Commandments
[4] Excodus 32:1
[5]  Pirkey Drabbi Eliezer 45, cited in Torah Shelaima, volume 21, p 85.
[6] Exodus and later 7:1
[7] Interpretation brought in Torah Shlaima, Volume 21, Miluim p. 206, seems to be quoting Ibn Ezra, not clear to me from the text.
[8] Ralbag, Torah Shlaima ibid
[9] Rashbam, in Torah Shlaima ibid
[10] Deuteronomy 18:10-12
[11] Kuzari 1:37, cited in Nachshoni, Y (1988) Studies in weekly Parsha, Sh’mos p.573, ArtScroll, Brooklyn NY
[12] Ibn Ezra as understood by Nachshoni, Y, ibid p.574
[13] Exodus 33:18
[14] Midrash Tanchuma Yashan, Vaetchanan 3
[15] Shemot Rabba 45:5
[16] Exodus 33:22
[17] Talmud Pesachim 54a, quoting Kings I Kings - Chapter 19. Ten things were created on the eve of Shabbat between the sons (twilight), these are…and the cave in which both Moses and Elijah stood. Moses as it states and “I will put you in the cleft  of the rock and with Elijah “and he went till the mountain of God, Horeb and came there to the cave and rested there”.
[18] The Hebrew is Kol Demama Daka, which literally means a sound, a silence, that is fine. The late educator Mr. Max Wallhouse, of blessed memory, translated it as the “Sound of Silence” which is the best translation I can think of. The more common translation is “a small still voice”.
[19] Rabbi A. Alrabi, Drashot Torah – Rabbi Shem Tov son of Rabbi Shem Tov, Ralbag, discussed in Torah Shelaima, Kasher, M, Torah Shelaima, volume 22, Miluim, p 181
[20] Mimonedes

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