The Patriarchy of Ki Tisa and a Call to Reimagine Divinity by Ivy Helman.

This week’s Torah portion is Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11-34:35.  Its events revolve around the theme of creation, destruction, and recreation.  From a feminist perspective, it is quite clear that this cyclical process is a result of a patriarchal understanding of the divine as jealous, distant, and rage-filled.  

Ki Tisa begins soon after the Israelites have been delivered from Egyptain slavery.  This delivery creates a new people devoted to this divine liberator.  Yet, Ki Tisa starts with both that deity and their leader, Moses, nowhere to be found. So, what do the Israelites do being in such a vulnerable spot?  They create a golden calf in order to have a spiritual connection to something.  

Meanwhile, Moses, a recent recipient of divinely-fashioned stone tablets, is up on Mount Sinai conversing with the deity.  They both become aware of the golden calf.  Instantaneously, the divine one is filled with jealousy, anger, and spite, wanting only the eradication of the Israelites.  Luckily, Moses is there to intercede.  Playing into the divine ego, he suggests that wiping out the Israelites would only serve to give the deity a bad reputation among the Egyptians (32:11-12).  Does the divine want to be known for such evil?  Then, he appeals to the divine promises made to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel (32:13).  On account of these persuasive arguments, the deity reconsiders.  Nonetheless, Ki Tisa makes it clear that, in the idolatry of the golden calf, the Israelites have destroyed their relationship with the deity.  

Photograph by author.

Next, Moses descends Mount Sinai, tablets in hand.  Out of anger at the Israelites’ behavior, he destroys the stone tablets as well as the golden calf.  The destruction/punishment continues.  First, the Israelites are forced to drink water mixed with calf ashes, causing various repercussions on the people, depending on their culpability in the golden calf incident.  Second, this generation will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land (33:1).

Yet, the story does not end there for the Israelites.  Moses is commanded to recreate the stone tablets and return atop Mount Sinai.  It is up there that Moses once again pleads with the divine being to reestablish a relationship with the people.  As he begs for forgiveness for a “stiff-necked people” (34:9), he describes the deity as compassionate, generous, full of loving-kindness, and slow to anger (34:6).  In the next verse, the deity announces that there will indeed be a covenant between the divine and the Israelites, requiring exclusive worship and observance of various mitzvot and festivals.  Thus, the relationship between the divine being and the Israelites is renewed, recreated.

Thus concludes the stories of creation, destruction, and recreation in Ki Tisa.  Now, let us examine the parshah from a feminist perspective, beginning with Moses’ depiction of the divine being in 34:6 as this looks promising.  However, in Ki Tisa, the deity is never compassionate, generous, slow to anger or full of loving-kindness.  If anything, the predominate attitude of the divine is one of jealousy, quick to anger, and loath to forgive.  Thus, Moses spends an exorbitant amount of time pleading on behalf of the Israelites to calm that anger and mitigate the deity’s destructive tendencies, which only partially works.   

From a feminist perspetive, this is a problem.  First of all, why would one want to be a devotee of a divine being that is preoccupied only with their own worship?  This jealousy is often turned against the Israelites through the use of power-over to control, manipulate, and punish them.  Ki Tisa’s golden calf is a good example of this.  So is Moses’ constant pleading on behalf of the Israelites.  One may even go so far as to consider Moses as placating an abuser in his description of the divine as good.

Another dubious part of this parshah from a feminist perspective is the other-worldly nature of the divine.  In Ki Tisa, this is most evident in the methods and ways in which only Moses is allowed to interact with the deity.  One can also see this in the Israelite need to connect to divinity, thus creating the golden calf.  

Yet, this is not always the case in the Torah.  The deity walks in the gardening Genesis.  In Numbers, the divine appears as a pillar of cloud and fire to guide the Israelites through the desert.  The Shechniah dwells in the Temple.  There are more examples.  It is also true that the divine’s actions are often not so reprehensible. There is usually some aspect that shows care, concern, and so on. Unfortunately, neither is true in Ki Tisa.

As a feminist, I have sincerely endeavored to find redeeming qualities, yet the parshah is marred in patriarchy. Empty handed, I am forced to wonder: what if the Torah had not been so influenced by patriarchy?  How would the deity be described?  What effects would this have?

First and crucially, feminist understandings of the divine seek immanence, a this-worldly presence. Thus, all Israelites would have the same opportunity to connect with the divine whose power functions as power-among or through; no exclusive meetings with only favoured people would exist.  This-worldliness means no creation of the golden calf because the divine would be present from the get-go. Thus, there would be no excuse for rage or jealousy. A this-worldly presence means that divine power-over and fear of idolatry would not exist. Second, instead of a preoccupation with human and divine creation, destruction, and recreation, perhaps there would be more focus on the cyclical nature of the earth itself.  After all, in-dwelling takes place in creation.  Third, that prescriptive wish of Moses from 34:6 – that of a deity of compassion, generosity, and full of loving-kindness – (which develops later in the tradition) would shine on every one of the Torah’s pages.  Finally, a different understanding of the divine would have created a different type of covenantal relationship. There is not enough time to dig further into that here.

Alas, jealousy, anger, and destructivity drive Ki Tisa’s cyclical nature. This comes from its highly patriarchal understanding of the divine, which is deeply unsettling. I hate to say it (and rarely do), but I do not find redemptive aspects of Ki Tisa from a feminist perspective.

Instead, it calls us to reimagine the divine. When we do so, so much changes. We get that connection with the divine the Israelites hoped Ki Tisa’s golden calf would bring and so much more.

Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.  

Categories: Feminism and Religion, God-talk, Jewish Feminism, Judaism, Patriarchy, Torah

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