On Golden Calves and Frozen Lakes

My daughter Audrey is in her final year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and this semester, she is taking a James Baldwin seminar with Professor Craig Werner. A Baldwin scholar, Dr. Werner is retiring after a long career by teaching his eight favorite works by the great writer. Thanks to FaceTime and Google Docs, I have the thrill of participating from afar. I am able to read along with Audrey, reflect with her after each book, and do a deep dive into one author’s voice. And what a voice it was. James Baldwin was a voracious and prophetic observer of the American project. He stood face to face with God, reckoned himself the man he was to be, and forever plumed the ocean’s floor and the very heights of heaven in his quest to articulate truths about race, identity and the historical narrative of the United States. He never shirked from telling his truths and though dead more than 30 years, his words are a wonder to behold, they leap off the page.

In his first novel, Go Tell It On the Mountain, Baldwin’s characters are forever journeying up and down mountains. From from despair to elation; from depression to joy; from sin to redemption. Up and down the mountainside, steep and treacherous, Baldwin hoists us along, with no rope or rig—only our own hands and hearts and minds and souls. To wrestle and grapple with it means to believe or not to believe and ultimately to reckon with what it means to be human. Engaging in the process, one might say in the rather prosaic language of today, brings out the truth. “Folks can change their ways much as they want to,” says one character in Go Tell It On the Mountain, “But I don’t care how many times you change your ways, what’s in you is in you, and it’s got to come out.”

There is much resonance in this line for us as we read this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, the iconic (ha!) story of the Golden Calf. The “stiff-necked” and ever-impatient Israelites, losing hope with Moses gone so long up the mountain receiving the commandments from God, rebel by forging a calf of gold from their jewelry. They dance around it; they declare it their god who freed them from bondage; they establish the moment as a festival to their new lord. It’s rather outrageous, to be sure, and the people are gravely punished. On one hand, we blame them for their lack of patience and rectitude; for their flimsy devotion. On the other hand, what was taking Moses so long? Perhaps he was having too much fun up there, alone with God, talking “face to face, as one man speaks to another.” I’d have a hard time pulling myself away from that conversation too. But you know, it was “in them” and it had to come out: The people’s impatience and the people’s rightful sense of grievance that Moses was keeping God to himself; Moses’ earned righteousness and sanctimonious judgmentalism. To truly understand this story, we benefit from holding both conflicting views in our mind.

What is in us is in us and it has to come out.

After the requisite punishment and plague falls upon the people for their grievous sin and catharsis has been reached, the people finally receive the Torah. Moses, in a moment of yearning, asks to see God’s face. He wants assurance that God will be with him throughout the journey, given that the people may rebel yet again. But God doesn’t grant him his wish to see the materiality of the Divine; rather, God says, “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Eternal, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But you cannot see My face, for no person may see Me and live.”

Perhaps herein lies the ultimate lesson of the Golden Calf: It is not in materiality, in gold, in wealth, in power that we encounter what is eternal and true, but rather in goodness and grace and compassion where we see God’s face. Whether white or Black, gentile or Jew, rich or poor, straight or gay, female or male—this is texture and context to what is in actuality real: our capacity to lead lives of meaning and connection and to build a world of justice and peace.

I had the great good fortune to see James Baldwin speak myself in Madison one winter evening in 1985, two years before he died. Lake Mendota, which abuts the Memorial Union where he spoke, had frozen over as it usually does each year. And as Baldwin approached the microphone, cigarette in hand, he mused about walking into the Union for his talk. “I saw the frozen lake and noticed students walking on it. It was dark and so I couldn’t make out if the students were Black or white. And then I wondered what if the ice should break and someone should fall in. And a hand reached up out of the frozen water, begging to be saved. And I asked myself, ‘Would it matter if the hand were Black or white?’”

Courtesy of UW Madison Archives

Baldwin paused. He let the weight of the question, the daring truth of the question, the potential disturbing answer to the question, hang in the air. We would go up the mountain and come down the mountain with him. Would we build a Golden Calf to material identity? To the color of skin? To the value of a bank account? Or would we stand face to face with our radical humanity?

There are those who believe and those who do not. There are those who remain unsure. And I suppose there are even those who are simply indifferent to the existence of an Eternal Being. But as our rabbis have long taught, we all stood at Sinai. We have all been at the mountain. And if Moses could not see God face to face, then neither could we. But each of us are given the grace to do good, to show compassion, and therein do what is right and just.

Whether we climb the mountain with great writers like Moses, or the Biblical authors, or James Baldwin, what’s in us is in us; and the truth comes out.