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Friday, February 18, 2011

Revolution In Egypt - Tabernacle or Golden Calf?

Revolution In Egypt

Tabernacle or Golden Calf?

by Rabbi Isaac Jeret

As Jews, our character and faith are defined essentially by the story of our ancient liberation from slavery in Egypt, informing our concern for the welfare of those who are similarly oppressed. As a minority often vulnerable to the whims of tyrannical victors of history’s coups and revolutions, we are also keenly aware of the significance of the implications for Israel’s security and that of the entire free-world of the success or failure of the earthshaking events continuing to unfold in Egypt today.  Worldwide Jewry seems divided at worst and uncertain at best in determining our disposition toward the ongoing revolution in Egypt, embracing either but rarely both these two authentic Jewish concerns.  

We agonize. Should we champion Egypt’s modern-day revolutionaries as allies in spiritual cause, as heroes of personal liberty and authentic human rights? Alternatively, should we respond with a self-protective skepticism, urging caution or even preventative action against the likely emergence of a tyrannical Islamist regime that might soon enough have Egypt and the entire free-world yearning for a return to the days of the “moderate” Mubarak regime?  Should freedom and liberty come to prevail in Egypt without our support, will we not have betrayed the historic Jewish calling to champion the liberation of the oppressed? Alternatively, should Egypt renew passive or even active hostility toward Israel and the West would we not have betrayed our reasonable self-interests of security and stability, both as Jews and as Americans, should we have supported Egypt’s revolutionaries?

Taken together, this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, and next week’s portion, Vayakhel, may clarify core challenges facing even the most noble of Egypt’s revolutionaries, implying an important benchmark by which both we and they might assess the evolving character of Egypt’s revolution.

This week’s story of The Golden Calf offers an interesting consideration of a newly freed Peoples’ yearning to return to that which was familiar.  Having escaped tyranny, our ancestors created a God similar in form to the Gods known to them in Egypt; facing a future of possibility and uncertainty, they sculpted and scripted a God limited to that which they knew and could imagine, allowing them the illusion of safety and certainty and an escape from a future as yet undefined.  Rather than leaving Egypt, they would take it with them, recreating it in the desert, or even in the Promised Land.

Next week's return to the narrative of The Tabernacle, on the other hand, represents our ancestors’ graduation to the realization that, for their future to exceed their past, they would have to painstakingly construct a solid structure that would welcome and host the unknown, the mysteriously sacred, the unfamiliar, and the uncertain; a God beyond their control with a message regarding a future to which they would be challenged to aspire.  

Is the current revolution in Egypt akin to the erection of a Golden Calf or the construction of a Tabernacle? Contrary to initial reports of peaceful demonstrations aiming to replace their repressive past with a non-violent future, increasingly, credible accounts are emerging from Egypt of the rapes, beatings, mob-attacks, anti-Semitic/anti-Israel chants and grafiti, and rampant violence that occurred among those who seemed from the illusory distance of a camera-shot to constitute a peaceful resistance to Hosni Mubarak’s oppression.

Just as Pharaoh’s tyranny internalized and reflected broadly among our ancestors would have been even more secure and dangerous than the oppression instituted by a single leader and an insular group of power-brokers, a return to the Egypt familiar to today’s revolutionaries might well be worse than the Egypt we’ve known, or they’ve known, to date, and for the same reasons.  A Pew opinion survey of Egyptians taken in June 2010, only eight months ago, hints at Egypt’s Golden Calf that might well be completed in the coming weeks and months, unless a concerted effort to replace it with a Tabernacle-like initiative commences hastily and courageously.  Over 50 percent of the respondents backed Islamists, 50% supported Hamas, 95% welcomed Islamic influence over their politics, 82% supported executing adulterers by stoning, 77% supported whipping and cutting off thief's hands, and 84% supported executing Muslims who convert to another faith. Several other credible sources confirm that over 85% of Egyptian women endure female circumcision - genital mutilation.

A skeptical and self-protective disposition would then appear to be warranted on our part, given the percentages noted above and the savage violence perpetrated by Egypt’s modern-day revolutionaries upon reporters, foreigners, and their fellow countrymen alike.  However, we might be wise, as well, to maintain a prayerful disposition, hopeful that a more moderate minority might influence the majority of Egyptians more inclined toward the familiarity and certainty of a Golden Calf to build the solid structures and institutions of democracy - a modern-day Tabernacle - allowing for uncertainty and ambiguity, for dissent and differences of faith and opinion in the context of an evermore civil society.  Just as in the desert, for a People freed from Egyptian tyranny long ago, today’s Golden Calf was quick to be erected; it was and remains more about melting what was and re-molding it. However, a the construction Tabernacle requires an organized and sustained effort over a much longer period of time; it requires careful consideration o what needs to be so that the best of what might be is given opportunity to emerge and secure an enduring place at the very heart of a sustainable cultural evolution.

Rather than agonizing, we might acknowledge our skepticism for its well-valued realism while we pray for Egypt to begin building its Tabernacle of democracy.  First, however, its revolutionaries may well need to confront their Golden Calf. All the while, those of us throughout the free-world ought to offer encouragement and apply pressure, each when necessary and at its appropriate moment, to ensure as best we can that an Egyptian Tabernacle is indeed constructed - for Egypt’s sake and for our own.

Rabbi Isaac Jeret
Spiritual Leader
Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay