Democracy, science, and the Golden Calf
Posted by metaphorical on 11 March 2007
One of my best friends’ daughters had her bat mitzvah yesterday. At their synagogue the initiate picks the day’s reading from the Torah. She then gives a talk about it—the morning’s sermon, if you will (though most rabbis annoyingly can’t keep themselves from commenting on it afterward, making sure we know who has the upper hand in their houses. This one was no exception.)
Her reading was the story of the Golden Calf, from Exodus.
To refresh your recollection, Moses is up on the mount with God for longer than the Israelites expected, and it’s the last straw from some of them. Moses has dragged his people out Egypt (from slavery, sure, but it’s the only home they know). He’s insisted they worship this totally inanimate insubstantial God. And now he has seemingly abandoned them in the middle of the desert, somewhere between home and promised land. So they complain to Aaron, Moses’s nebbishy brother. Facing a revolt, Aaron has everyone give him their gold earrings, which he melts down into the Golden Calf. God sees his people worshiping an idol, which is a pretty serious offense. He and Moses are quite upset. God tells Moses to get some folks together for some smiting. Moses has his people, the Levites, punish the people.
The bat mitzvah girl thought God was overly harsh. Her first argument was that they were still worshiping God, just differently. Her second was that since the 10 commandments weren’t yet received, the people weren’t sinning, since they hadn’t really assimilated the rule against idol-worship. They didn’t really know better yet, was her argument.
She and the rabbi then debated the issue, in the sense that he told her what he thought, and she stood there and listened. If I understood him correctly, the rabbi said that the punishment of the people was really God teaching Moses a lesson. Neither of them mentioned what that punishment consisted of—the slaughter of 3000 people, including friends and neighbors. Some lesson. God was ready to kill everyone and start over, as with Noah, but Moses persuaded him otherwise.
Whatever you believe or don’t believe about the Judeo-Christian God, I myself find the Golden Calf pretty hard to understand as a religious story. One of my college teachers read the Bible as a collection of political lessons, and for me, this is a great place for that.
God in the Bible is always the source of legal authority. In a democracy authority comes from a free people coming to an agreement with one another about what the law is, but for an authoritarian society, such as that of the Israelites, a ruler’s authority comes from God. In a democracy, God is the social contract and the law is a covenant with one another. For Israel, the covenant was between God and Moses and the law was handed down from God. Moses was in charge because he had God’s ear.
On this understanding, Aaron, Moses’s delegate while he was on the mountain, faced a revolt. He forged a compromise. Moses returned in time to reassert his authority. He killed his enemies. Perhaps Aaron would have been amenable to democratic rule. We’ll never know. Moses returned and his authoritarianism persisted for many generations.
It’s no coincidence that the Bush administration is the most authoritarian this country has had in decades, probably ever, and that it is the most religious. It’s also no coincidence that it is opposed to science.
Science, as it was invented by the Greeks and has been perfected over five centuries since the Enlightenment, is the democratic process of determining what it is rational to believe. It is an agreement we have made with one another to share our perceptions and intuitions, and to reason from them, all in a way that can be shared, which is to say published and replicated.
The opponents of science would rather get their standard of belief from authority. The fundamentalist Christians choose a book, the fundamentalist Muslims do the same (but a different one); other anti-science people can choose yet a third and a fourth authoritative source of belief. It doesn’t much matter.
It’s no coincidence that the founding document of the U.S. doesn’t mention God, and it’s no coincidence that Ben Franklin (America’s Noah), and Thomas Jefferson (America’s Moses), were the most scientific of the founding fathers. It’s also no coincidence that we’re finally, in the last few years, seeing some pushing back by atheists and agnostics. It was all fine and well when science’s place in our culture was secure, through the 1960s and 1970s. Religion was a source of friendship and charity. Back then Christianity, like astrology, was fun.
Since then, the fundamentalists have changed all that. Those in the administration are hollowing out the institutions of government. They are as opposed to democratic determinations of what to do (law) as what to believe (science). Atheists are digging in and speaking out not because they fear theology but because they fear theocracy.
My best friend (and his rabbi), could worry a little bit more about the role of religion in a democracy, or his daughter’s daughter won’t live in one. Given the eternal Christian infatuation with Israel, the synagogues are probably safe, but probably not the mosques, and if the science labs still stand at all, we’ll see how well they’re funded. The fundamentalists are serious in their authoritarian project. Those of us who prefer science and democracy need to be as well.
“Unique among nations, America recognized the source of our character as being godly and eternal, not being civic and temporal. And because we have understood that our source is eternal, America has been different. We have no king but Jesus.” — John Ashcroft, 8 May 1999, at Bob Jones University