You shall have no other gods beside Me. You shall not make for yourself any graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. (Exodus, Chapter 20, Verses 3-4)
I’m wondering about “graven images.” Specifically, I’m wondering if Steven Spielberg and Cecil B. DeMille have helped or hindered us with their images.
When I taught 5th grade religious school, at the end of every class I took about 15 minutes to tell the story of the Torah portion of the week. And when Exodus came around, I used one entire class time to tell the story of Moses from his birth through the giving of the 10 Commandments. Though I am not a master storyteller, I did get quite good at this story, and each year took great pride in the wide eyes looking back at me.
Then one year, as I explained my vision of the golden calf (“imagine all the women in your family and your classmates’ families taking off their rings and bracelets and necklaces and melting them down to make this idol, it must have been about this big…”), and held my hands about two feet apart to demonstrate the size of the idol, a child interrupted me to tell me that I was “wrong” about the size. It was large enough to ride on, he said, and he knew this because he had seen it in the movie The Prince of Egypt!
Needless to say, we spent a long time that day discussing the difference between faith, and film, a religious vision, or someone else’s artistic vision, and that any one person’s vision is not necessarily “the truth.” I realized it’s not just that student’s generation that sees something onscreen, and then associates the film image with the Biblical story represented. I thought about my parents’ generation, and their ingrained vision of Moses parting the Sea of Reeds, courtesy of Cecil B. DeMille.
The images of God as an old man in the sky, or Charlton Heston as Moses, or a golden calf of a certain size in a movie, are all very Hollywood, and also childlike. The problem comes when we outgrow those images and do not grow into our own adult visions of faith. I think the baby sometimes gets thrown out with the bath water. If you can’t believe anymore like you did as a kid, then for some it is hard to have faith in anything as Jewish adults.
So I ask you: are the images from Mr. Spielberg and Mr. DeMille “graven images”? And even if they are not technically “graven images,” are they helpful or hurtful?
Share your thoughts in the comments below!
The holiday of Shavuot demonstrates a method of gift giving that we may want to deploy when thinking about advancing social justice.
Think about it. What might have happened if instead of the whole counting of the Omer (those 49 days between Passover and Shavuot), and had instead received the Torah on the last night of Passover — perhaps as a gift for the hard work of putting together a Seder and drinking 4 glasses of wine?! That would have been more efficient, right?
There are many commentaries on the purpose of separating the holidays by 49 days. But all of them make it apparent that both the giver and receivers of the Torah needed to be prepared for the giving and accepting of this gift. After all, it seems as though the 49 day delay in the giving of the Torah was not a result of a lack of preparedness on the part of the giver. Rather, it was the receivers who had more preparing to do. When it comes to the giving of Tzedakah, it is not merely the content of the gift that matters, it is the time, place, approach and the people who we intend to help that define whether the opportunity for Tzedakah is ripe. Receiving the Torah prematurely may have resulted in an outcome different than the one we know—the emergence of an independent Jewish people.
Giving Tzedakah, effectively, requires mindfulness—awareness about the material objects that are being exchanged but also about the feelings felt by each person involved. This mindfulness made it possible for the Jews to accept the Torah and make it a defining part of Jewish life moving forward. The receiving of the Torah itself wasn’t an isolated incident. It came with 49 days of preparation, where the desire for the Torah led to extraordinary anticipation. Only when the Israelites themselves demonstrated their desire to receive the Torah was the Torah given to them.
When we think of the many gifts that the Israelites received before the giving of the Torah, they seem to be given by an omniscient and omnipresent God who rescued them from the Egyptians, gave them Manna, split the Red Sea, and so on. However, on Shavuot, we don’t see a God who knows what is best for the Israelites. Instead, we see another face of God – God as partner; God humbly asking the Israelites whether they will accept the Torah. The Torah may have been received differently if it were given by a high and mighty God who had little familiarity with the Israelites. Instead, Moses descended upon the mountain and then God is said to have descended onto the mountain. While it is true that God and the Israelites are not standing on equal footing, we certainly see an attempt to create a more balanced relationship, where God acknowledges the need for a receiver of the Torah, trusts that the Israelites will provide the answer that suits them best and gives them the opportunity to choose their own destiny.
Don’t people living in poverty deserve similar treatment?
[Editor's Note: This post is not our typical "Southern & Jewish" fare; one of our contributors, Rabbi Marshal Klaven, wanted to share a sermon he wrote about homosexuality in the Torah, in light of the ongoing equality debate and the prominence of arguments around this topic "based on biblical texts".]
To Plant or Not to Plant Seed: The Truth of Homosexuality in the Bible
Ladies and gentleman of the jury, Your Honor – the Holy One, Blessed be God, I stand before you today to protest a great injustice and to defend the unalienable rights of fellow members in our human family. Every day, our brothers and sisters – people created in Your Divine image – are having their basic human liberties restricted or altogether stripped away. They are often harassed and tormented; they are often barred from supporting loved ones in times of great need; they are often prohibited from marriage; and, in some places, they are legally thrown out of public places like restaurants and theaters.
Why? What supposed crime have they committed? Simply: falling in love with another human being of the same gender.
And, frankly, it deeply upsets me that this injustice is perpetrated and perpetuated by people of faith, who claim that such blatant discrimination and unabashed bigotry are justified by Your Holy Word. Specifically, contained within the Holiness Code, part of a special section in the book of Leviticus, they point to a group of laws dealing with inappropriate sexual relations. According to just two lines in the entire Hebrew Bible, both of which are found within the double Torah portion of Acharei Mot/K’doshim, we are warned that “if a man lies with a man, as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done a to-eivah, an ‘abhorrent thing;’ they shall be put to death – their blood guilt is upon them.” (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13)
So, no, I will not argue today whether or not homosexual sex is prohibited in the Bible. Clearly, it is. However, I will attempt to answer the question that so often goes unasked in this debate, which is “why was it prohibited?” What about homosexual sex was abhorrent to our ancestors? To answer this pivotal question, which will dramatically change the course of the conservation, I call forward the expert testimony of Robert Alter, Professor of Hebrew Language, renown Biblical commentator. “The evident rationale for such a prohibition,” explains Alter, “seems to be the wasting of seed in what the law envisages as a grotesque parody of heterosexual intercourse.”
Why? What’s the problem with this parody? Well, the problem, according to the Bible, is that heterosexual intercourse, wherein the seed of human life (i.e. sperm) is implanted in the fertile ground of the woman’s womb, is meant for one purpose and one purpose only: to create life, to procreate, “to be fruitful and multiply.” First issued as a blessing in Genesis 1:28, these words only became a Divine command to man upon the depopulation of the world after the flood in Genesis 9:6. There, these words are found among others which deal with a case of homicide. This is intentional, writes the master commentator RaSHI, “for anyone who does not engage in reproduction should be compared to one who sheds blood,” as both require a death penalty.
Anyone, hmmmm? Well then, based upon this rationale a lot of people would be slated for death. Because, in addition to those who engage in homosexual sex, anyone – homosexual or heterosexual – who engages in sex using contraceptives (e.g. condoms), or anyone – homosexual or heterosexual – who masturbates, is likewise guilty of the same crime: wasting seed. What?! Don’t believe me? Then please allow me to introduce into evidence the case of Onan, Judah’s second eldest son. According to the Biblical testimony, “Whenever Onan went to join with Tamar, he let his seed go to waste. What he did,” states the Bible, “was displeasing to the Lord, so God took his life.”
Given this precedent, some may wish to continue their prosecution and persecution of homosexuals. After all, they claim, “God instructed us, in this Holiness Code, ‘to reprove our kinsman.’” True, God did say we should “reprove our kinsman;” however that line ends with “but, we may not incur any guilt because of him.” That is to say, when we see someone doing something we believe to be harmful, we are obligated to say something. However, as the second part of the verse implies, it has to be done in such a way as to not be disrespectful. For, we cannot resolve one sin by creating another. Besides, in God’s law of nature, death eventually comes. Not in body, but in name, as one who does not procreate, has no one to carry it on.
With that, Your Honor, ladies and gentleman of the jury, I rest my case. Clearly, without any true Biblical basis, upon which to ground such injustices, I ask that you dismiss all grievances against these fellow human beings, our kinsmen in the family of God. For, as social psychologist Erich Fromm deduced, “In essence, all human beings are identical. We are all part of One; we are One. This being so, it should not make any difference whom we love,” as long as we love with all of our hearts, all of our minds, all of our souls. With this greater truth, may we go on to honor both God’s Holy Words better, as well as all those who hold these Words near and dear: heterosexual and homosexual alike. Kein y’hi ratzon, may this be God’s will as well as our own.
 For example, while living in Cincinnati, OH for seminary training at HUC-JIR, I learned of a law there, which allowed a proprietor of a public place to throw someone out of their establishment if he/she suspected the individual of being gay, leaving this individual without any legal recourse. While this law was thankfully repealed in 2004 by 67% of the voters, many cities still have such discriminatory allowances.
 It is important to note that the Hebrew word to-eivah (“abhorrent,” or sometimes translated as “abomination”) occurs numerous times in the Bible. Taking stock of these, Rabbi Richard Friedman commented, “to-eivah is a relative term in the Bible, which varied according to human perceptions. For example, in Genesis, Joseph tells his brothers that ‘any shepherd is a to-eivah/an abhorrent thing to Egypt’ (46:34); but obviously shepherding is not a to-eivah/an abhorrent thing to the Israelites, as they proudly perform this role.”
 Some would like to add Sodom and Gomorrah to this list. However, nowhere in that story does the Bible say anything about homosexual sex. It is merely inferred from the line: “Bring them (i.e. the men) out to us, that we may get to know them.” (Gen. 19:5) It is true. Occasionally, “to know” is the Bible’s way of saying “sex;” but not always. Case in point: the beginning of the book of Exodus. There we are told “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” (Ex. 1:8). If everywhere the word “to know/yada’at” means “sex,” then we must conclude that the previous king of Egypt and Joseph were engaged in a homosexual relationship. And, because it did not continue with the new king, the Pharaoh became upset and enslaved our people.
 I explicitly state “homosexual sex” rather than “homosexuals,” because the Bible is clearly not prohibiting a person nor is it calling them abhorrent. The Biblical text is specifically referring to an act as abhorrent.
 Robert Alter. The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary. W.W. Norton & Co.: New York, 2004. p. 623
 The prohibition was addressed only to man, because of our ancestors’ limited knowledge about procreation. According to their understanding, all the material needed to reproduce life was contained with the zerah/the seed (i.e. the sperm), as a woman’s egg is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible. Hence, that is the reason why sex between two women was never prohibited in the Bible, though included later by the rabbinic sages.
 RaSHI commentary to Genesis 9:6
 Kinsey, Alfred C. et al. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Indiana University Press: Philadelphia. 1948 and 1998, p. 499. According to this study, Kinsey reported that 92% of men engage in masturbation. In Kinsey, Alfred C. et al. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. Indiana University Press: Philadelphia. 1953 and 1998, p. 142. According to this study, Kinsey reported that 62% of women engage in masturbation. A similar study was done in 2006 by Gerressu M., Mercer C., Graham C., Wellings K., Johnson A., called “Prevalence of masturbation and associated factors in a British national probability survey.” Arch Sex Behav 37 (2): 266–78. According to their results, 95% of men and 71% of women masturbate.
 See Genesis 38:6-10. The Mishnah, written in the first century of the Common Era, makes reference to this act. As it is written: “The hand that oftentimes makes ‘examinations’ is – among woman – praiseworthy, but among men, let it (i.e. the hand) be cut off!” Just in case we were fooled by the euphemism “examination,” tractate Niddah in the Babylonian Talmud makes it clear that “examination refers only to the emission of semen.” (BT Niddah 13a).
 Leviticus 19:17
 Erich Fromm. The Art of Loving. Harper and Row: 1956.