08/29/11

The Golden Calf: Back By Popular Demand (and why it’s good for the Jews)

ANY CONVERSATION REGARDING the place of art in Jewish life will eventually lead to the troubling tale of the golden calf. As an artist and educator in the Jewish community, wrestling with the tensions between art and religion, commercial entertainment and non­profit education, Torah and popular culture, I often go back to that day at the foot of Mt. Sinai, and try to gain mythic perspective on current realities. (A brief recap: at the foot of Mt. Sinai, the impatient people await the return of Mo­ses, their leader and icon of strength, who has vanished on the mountain top. They demand tangible proof of security. Led by Moses’s brother Aaron, they collect gold, mold a god, and when Moses returns, bearing the Divine Words, he confronts ecstatic dancing around a unifying image — the golden calf. It all ends badly, with the calf destroyed, the Words shat­tered, and the first religious war within our ranks, 3,000 casualties.)

Whose side am I on? Had I been there, would I have given my best jewels and danced around the totem of the day? Yes, and we still find ourselves dancing around seductive im­ages, ideals, and idols — chanting at times, as did the people at Sinai: ‘In God We Trust.’

Jews are still traumatized by the calf in­cident. And, perhaps a result of that trauma, the Jewish institutional world engages the art world with some equivocation. Art is where young Jewish talent rarely ends up; rarely do young Jews participate in the rich legacy of Jewish art making — storytelling, design, fash­ion, music, and other uniquely Jewish aesthet­ic experiences. For the most part, Jewish arts are not valued as vehicles of transformation or ways to transmit values. Our communities, secretly suspicious of new golden idols, do not sufficiently support new forms of art and do not encourage new generations of artists.

To address these challenges, it is to the sacred cow itself that I turn, exploring vital avenues of fostering vibrant and accessible soul-sustaining experiences of Jewish art and re-imagining the role of the Jewish artist.

The calf was the popular vote’s choice for what the face of the mystery called God looked like; it was a familiar symbol of power. Thefaceless deity that had suddenly come into their lives and liberated them from Egypt was/is powerful, but also remote and confus­ing. Then, as now, the people at the base of the mountain represent humanity’s basic instincts and needs for tangible theology and simplistic imagery, a security blanket for the senses. And while part of our higher consciousness is able to contain the illusive abstract Word — the mystery of the soul as found on the summit of the mountain — another part of our conscious­ness demands the solid and sensory existence of the physical body, which just might be best expressed through art.

Who will bridge the two domains for a people who wander in the wilderness between the claims of soul and the appetites of mat­ter? Long ago, it may have been the prophet standing at that intersection, his word of fire both theatrical and righteous. But the author­ity of such prophets is long gone, though not our need for leaders to bridge these domains. Exit the prophet. Enter the artist.

While people of all ages and backgrounds flock to artists to find temporary solace, guid­ance, and emotional education, expressive cre­ativity in Jewish arts and culture is surpris­ingly limited and engages only small pockets of American Jewry. Art and culture are still considered in many circles as secondary to ‘formal’ education, deemed at best a useful garnish, and the first to suffer budget cuts. And while Jewish communal bodies lament the disenfranchisement of young Jews, few bold new ventures in Jewish music, theater, film, and other media are encouraged or fi­nancially supported. Although art could radi­cally impact Jewish identity and social values, artists and their creations are struggling for acceptance and recognition; they are often perceived merely as entertainment.

Our people, like all people, want golden calves and golden Oscars. We all demand and deserve soul-sustaining art. In this age of ample choices and cultural options —with remote control in hand—Jewish arts must uti­lize the free market and mass media technol­ogy to cleverly convey our timeless, complex, radical, sustaining, and sometimes repackaged messages.

American Jews need to be strategic and wise about calf-making; new ‘golden calves’ must indeed be created, but with careful at­tention to the integration of values. We need to meet our people where they stand and en­gage them with what the essence of the calf is — a compelling spiritual, artistic, religious, or cultural experience. Otherwise, we will experi­ence Jewish education sitting on the summitof Sinai with a forgotten God and a rejected prophet, holding the world’s former best sell­ing book in hand.

If we want to dance together, passionately, as did our ancestors at Sinai, we need to learn how to integrate calf and tablets, image and word, art and education. We must re-imagine the central role that art and artist might claim in our new and improved, state-of-the-art, healthy Jewish community.