Parshat Ki Tissa: One Man's Garbage Is Another Man's Golden Calf

Video of the Rabbi and Artist in conversation about the Parsha:

For more about Artist Robert Katz:

For more about Rabbi Ben Greenfield:

Piece Description, Robert Katz, “A Biblical Tableaux: Retribution and Redemption”:

My recent mixed-media assemblages inspired by selected Parashiyot explore the interplay of myth, ritual, memory and truth. By repurposing found objects, texts and photographs — vestiges of a modern world — I examine the mysteries and struggles depicted in the Scriptures. The use of disparate materials across a consistent background of aged and unfinished wooden boxes literally imbues this visual, biblical mosaic with elements of creation and the smell of the earth.

My compositions are not meant to be literal illustrations of the Torah. Each assemblage is layered with irony, as well as personal and social commentary, while reinterpreting significant moments in our collective Jewish history. I incorporate the recurring themes of retribution, repentance and redemption embedded in the biblical encounters between humans and G-d.

By giving a contemporary shape to the retelling of ancient texts, I have constructed a portal into my imagination, traditions and faith.

Discussion Questions:
1. The antiques and old photographs set the stage of all of the elements in the story. What resonances do these objects have for you? How do they affect the tone and meaning of this piece?

2. The story of this parsha is told through isolated panels. What direction do you read this image and does that affect its meaning? Without one central focus, how does this format of story telling reinforce your understanding of this particular biblical narrative.

3. The title of this piece is, “Retribution and Redemption”. Where do you see the retribution and where do you see the redemption? What does it mean to look at both processes play out in the same piece?

4. In what way does the abundance of material culture relate to the themes of this portion? Where were you in your life when you last held any one of these objects (a ruler, a scotch tape roll, a copper wire…)? What do these materials remind you of?

Rabbi Ben Greenfield:

Readers of Ki Tissa stumble upon something in the Torah that we too often take for granted, but which we haven’t seen in the previous three Parsha’s and we won’t see again for another five. We stumble upon stories.

Between the Mitzvah command of the half-shekel which opens this Parsha, and the detailed construction and function of the Mishkan in the coming Parsha’s, occurs one of the Torah’s foundational narratives: that of the Golden Calf. In the midst of such a lengthy legal section, this story reminds us that our Torah is not just a book of laws but also a book of stories.

But why? Why did God offer us a Torah containing stories? Laws are clear, direct, and lead to behavioral change. What does the Torah expect stories to “do”?

Ki Tissa sharpens the question in that the story of the Golden Calf is so messy and hard to decipher. The reader knows that idolatry is forbidden, but is never offered a clear introduction to why it is anathema. The reader understands that the idolaters are the “bad guys” but we get little insight as to how they conceive of their own project. So it is hard to understand the severity of Moshe’s reaction: massacre the worshippers and force feed gold-dust water to the survivors. This is the opposite of a story for children: the details are too savage; explanatory background is lacking; there is no neat moral “lesson” with which to walk away.

Indeed, the Torah is full of such “messy” and difficult to decipher narratives. Yaakov’s successful breeding of spotted sheep; Avraham and “his sister” in Pharaoh’s Egypt; God drowning almost all human and animal life. In each case, it is a sacred project to dive into the text and attempt to tease out a lesson. But I do hope that it is clear that such efforts constitute, well, a project. The stories themselves are anything but obvious, transparent, or neat. Which means that even if one succeeds in arriving at a deep understanding of any of the above narratives, it is still worth asking: why is the Torah written this way at all?

The classic starting point for any discussion of the Torah’s narrativity is Rashi’s first line of commentary on the Torah. Before Rashi even comments on “In the beginning”, he steps back and asks: Why does the Torah begin here, with a book full of stories, when it could skip the first 63 chapters and commence with the first actual law commanded to the Jewish people. Taken at face value, Rashi’s question betrays an explicitly legalistic assumption about the Torah’s nature. This ought be a book of laws; the stories are an interruption. Rashi’s answer fits that mode. Land law is itself a part of Halacha, and these stories establish the Jewish people’s potential right to the Land of Israel. The stories are not themselves law, but are evidence towards a practical legal question.

Ramban offers his own spin on Rashi’s question. He understands why the Torah would, in theory, begin with theologically significant stories like that of Creation. At first glance, such stories provide a clear and important message: there is a God, who created this world, and who even offers us an insight into the scientific processes that produced this universe. Unfortunately, a second glance reveals that these stories are fairly incomplete. Ramban is of the view that topics like creation, nature, and the Garden of Eden, “cannot be fully understood from the verses alone”. Only with knowledge of the Oral Torah, and with various traditions (and Kabbalistic insights) passed down from Moshe himself, can one arrive at a complete view. Ramban understands why there are stories; he does not understand why there are unclear stories. Ramban raises the question, but does not fully answer it.

I’m aware of two broad approaches to this question. The early Sages developed a conception of the Torah as a multilayered — even infinite — text. In the language of the Mishna: “Turn it again and turn it again, for everything is in it” (Avot 5:25). Or in the language of the Talmud: “Just as a hammer strike produces many sparks, so does one verse split into many meanings” (Sanhedrin 34a). The messiness of Torah stories necessitates interpretation, and it is in the interpretation (more perhaps than in the text itself) in which the reader meets the sacred. A more straightforward text would produce a less immersive (and thus less compelling) Torah.

Second, the complexity and seeming imperfection of Biblical stories makes them in some sense a better fit for our complex world full of imperfect beings. A startling Midrash on the Ten Commandments notes that contradictory passages are baked into the Torah not to be resolved, but because our world is itself full of contradiction. “Live flesh turns into dead tissue, but [the soil] returns, turns to life … dust turns into human being, returns, into dust … the sea turns into solid land, the land returns, turns into sea … and so too, the Torah tells us to observe Shabbat, but also commands animal sacrifice, [with much fire and labor] on Shabbat!” (Shemot Rabba 20:4). Chassidic teachers emphasize that every individual contains within them each of the Torah’s many characters. We are all in part Pharoah, made up of Moshe, and containing Yitzchak. A straightforward Torah would be nice, but it would not be us.

Robert Katz’s striking tableaux offers an uncanny visualization of the very nature of Torah narrative, as understood above. The piece’s purpose, at first glance, is to artistically render the content of various Biblical stories. But I would argue that beyond Torah content, the piece depicts the Torah medium. The artist has laid out hundreds of individual items (not unlike the hundreds of Biblical scenes, icons, and turns of phrase) but some invisible force in the work compels the viewer to make sense of them. Each item urges interpretation (“what’s in that bottle? What does it represent? Why is it next to a ruler?”) while refusing to give away any clear answer. The texture of each scene is so rich, that it feels like one is in fact “reading” or revisiting the story, and yet, there is no story present in the objects: it is but a web of items, in proximity, asking us to place them together. Further, there is an almost intoxicating complexity to the piece. This is not Bible art with simple answers or single-sided stories (or even a single scene), nor is it Bible art made so abstract that you lose all sight of the very grittiness of Torah narrative. The ingredients are anything but complex — indeed, they are almost disturbingly earthy: ribs, thread, floods, sheep, droughts, stone, knives, semen, mountains, bread. And yet, the picture they produce suggests a meaning grander than the sum of these parts.

Indeed, Katz’s work speaks to a third manner of answering why the Torah is composed of messy stories. (To be clear, it is not the approach that I primarily adopt, but one I see as worthwhile nonetheless.) Note that the first approach recognizes the difficulty in making sense of these narratives, but envisions that lessons and messages are in fact there, if only we engage in the sacred interpretive process. The second approach likewise envisions a certain set of lessons and messages, just ones that are complex enough to suit the complexity of human experience. I see in this tableaux an aesthetic claim. Stories which don’t add up are, in fact, more beautiful.