The People & the Book: Of scapegoats and golden calves

The Torah portion Ki Tissa is read on Shabbat, March 18.

Art by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Art by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
WHILE RIDING my bicycle through the hills of southern Spain, I saw a billboard announcing the forthcoming celebration of the quincentennial – the 500 year anniversary.
It was 1991, and Spain was preparing to celebrate its unification in 1492. I had just toured the cities of Andalusia, where the silhouettes of mezuzot could still be seen on the doorposts from more than 500 years ago.
This year, there is another quincentennial: Martin Luther’s public airing of the Catholic Church’s abuses. Historians tell us that many conversos were happy to challenge the Church in revenge for their forced conversion and the expulsion of the rest of the Spanish Jewish community, also dating from 1492. There was a widespread belief that “Judaizers” played a significant role in opposing certain Church doctrines. The Gospels had scapegoated the Jews for deicide; and 16th-century Catholics scapegoated the Jews for the Reformation.
All this scapegoating – where does it come from? Before King James I of England authorized a Bible translation into English, there was the pioneering effort of William Tyndale. In the early 1530s, he dared to translate the Torah into English from the original Hebrew, rather than from Latin. Although Tyndale’s Bible went on to contribute about three-quarters of its prose to the King James Version, Tyndale himself didn’t fare as well. In 1536, he was strangled and then his body was burned at the stake for heresy.
It was Tyndale who gave us the word scapegoat to identify the goat that escaped being killed by the High Priest on Yom Kippur.
The scapegoat was dispatched into the wilderness after the High Priest transferred all the people’s sins onto it (Lev. 16:21).
The Torah mentions goat demons (Lev.17:7), and our scapegoat seems to be an offering to a desert goat deity called Azazel (Lev. 16:10). Not much of an escape! Remnants of our pre-monotheistic past, sprinkled through the Torah, remind us of how far we have traveled. The Rabbis could not imagine that the scapegoat was an offering to a goat demon, so they rewrote the narrative’s ending. According to the Mishna, rather than being released in the desert, the scapegoat was escorted to a cliff and shoved over the edge ( Yoma 6:6). Since sacrifices must be blemish free, a cliff dive would be disqualifying. The goat is no longer an offering to Azazel, it is a symbol of the removal of sins from the community.
The scapegoat, however, neither escapes nor dies. The scapegoat survives. It rears its horned head in Midrash Tanhuma as a symbol of shifting the onus of responsibility for the golden calf from the whole community to those of non-Israelite stock. Tanhuma’s finger points at the erev rav who joined the Hebrew slaves on their way out of Egypt (Ex. 12:38). The erev rav is translated as a mixed multitude or motley mob. Although most early midrashim do not stigmatize the erev rav as bad seeds who would later contaminate monotheism with idols, the great medieval scholar Rashi chose the Tanhuma to feature in his commentary. The erev rav became riffraff.
The episode of the golden calf begins with vision, or the lack thereof. Our narrator does not tell us that Moses was delayed coming down from Mt. Sinai, but that the people saw that Moses was delayed. It’s hard to overestimate the power of vision, especially when the vision is of nothing.
The human mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum.
Meditation is difficult because emptying our minds is difficult. Thinking nothing and seeing nothing can be terrifying.
Idolatry might be defined as filling our field of vision with our egos, our desires, and our narratives to the exclusion of others.
When the Israelites saw nothing, they panicked. They needed some assurance that their narrative would continue according to their desires: “Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him” (Ex. 32:1). The vulnerable, newly released slaves were desperate for a master to lead them. They reverted to what they knew.
The Tanhuma and Rashi reject that reading.
“A real Jew would rather die than commit idolatry (Sanhedrin 74a)! No, it must have been only the non-Jews in our midst who commissioned the calf.” The projection of our sins onto others, scapegoating, is also a form of idolatry. We fill our field of vision with our own narratives that crowd out any space for self-examination. Have we behaved in ways that betray our own narrative, our own self-image? Projection allows us to escape that question, thereby protecting our ego.
Where does scapegoating come from? When God asked Adam if he had eaten from the forbidden tree, Adam blamed God and Eve. The seeds were sown, and scapegoating has been growing like a weed everywhere, ever since.
Shai Cherry lectures in the Theology and Religious Studies Department at the University of San Diego. He is the author of ‘Torah through Time: Understanding Bible Commentary from the Rabbinic Period to Modern Times,’ and he is the featured lecturer for The Great Courses’ Introduction to Judaism.