July-Fourth-golden-calf-slavery by the Forward

On July 4, a Talmud passage about Israel’s flaw, and unbroken covenant

This weekend, we celebrate July 4, on which the founders signed The Declaration of Independence and proclaimed as self-evident “that all men are created equal,” despite the fact that they themselves were slaveholders.

As protests underscore the cognitive dissonance between this country’s enlightened founding principles and the fact that “Black Lives Matter” is still a controversial slogan, a certain Talmudic passage resonates in a new way:

“One who is promiscuous under their wedding canopy.”

This is the phrase the Talmudic sage Ulla used to describe Israel’s violating the covenant with God at the very moment they entered into it at Sinai — by creating and bowing down to the golden calf.

The Talmud passage in which this quote appears asks what it means for a nation’s start to be marred by its compromising the foundational values on which it rests, taking Israel’s worshipping the golden calf to be as corrupting an act as a bride or groom cheating during their own wedding … or, I might add, a founding father owning slaves.

But the fact that the covenant is flawed from the outset doesn’t detract from its earth-shaking importance. We have a tendency to oversimplify things, to either assent or dissent, to declare things either good or bad, perfect or flawed. The Talmud rejects simplistic categories while still demanding that we pursue the right and the just.

… the Holy One, Blessed be He, established a covenant with the acts of creation and said to them: If Israel accepts the Torah you will exist; and if not, I will return you to chaos and disorder.

The logic is all there: If accepting the Torah kept the world from dissolving into chaos, certainly the golden calf should have led to the world’s destruction! But that’s not what happened. A flaw, even at the foundation, does not undo all of a project or a people’s potential good, it points to a task that remains.

Rabbi Simai taught: When the Israelites [accepted the Torah] 600,000 ministering angels came and tied two crowns to each and every member of the Jewish people, one corresponding to “We will do” and one corresponding to “We will hear.” And when the people sinned [with the Golden Calf], 1,200,000 angels of destruction descended and removed them …

That is the point made in the final section of the text presented here. Slavery and its heritage of white supremacy overwhelms any claim of moral superiority for our founders. So, too, does the sin at Sinai outweigh the positive aspects of embracing the covenant — that’s why there were twice as many angels responding to the sin. The lesson the Talmud presents is that nonetheless, the covenant is unbroken. Instead, it remains an everlasting demand not fully fulfilled.

Another lesson: In history, we always find ourselves facing the task of undoing the harms of the past and pursuing the shared good we have committed ourselves to. The beginning section of the Declaration of Independence deserves our praise, but its unfulfilled potential demands our action.

Reish Lakish said: In the future, the Holy One, Blessed be He, will return them to us, as it is stated: “And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing unto Zion, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads” (Isaiah 35:10). That joy will at last be upon their heads.

As the sage Reish Lakish suggests about the Jews, we Americans can still hope to adorn our nation with the promises of freedom and equality we cast aside at the very moment we took hold of them on that historic July 4. Perhaps this will be the year we come closer to deserving to wear that crown again.

Dov Nelkin teaches Talmud, Tanakh, and philosophy at a Jewish day school in New York City. He holds a doctorate from the department of religious studies at the University of Virginia. He welcomes questions, comments, and disagreement via Twitter @drnelk.

On July 4, a Talmud passage about Israel’s flaw, and unbroken covenant

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