Ceremonial transitions of power and authority of an elite might be two lessons learned from the events of the Golden Calf

PRAYING DURING the priestly blessing at the Kotel, Sukkot 2018. (photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90)
PRAYING DURING the priestly blessing at the Kotel, Sukkot 2018.(photo credit: NOAM REVKIN FENTON/FLASH90) 

As he ascended to Mount Sinai, Moses temporarily relinquished power to Aharon and Hur. We do not know exactly what transpired during those 40 days, but we do know the result: the building of a Golden Calf, the near obliteration of the Israeli nation, and the subsequent execution of 3,000 of the perpetrators.

To investigate the failure of the Aharon-Hur administration, one must go back to the revolutionary reforms enacted by Moses at Jethro’s advice just a few weeks prior. Up until then, people came to Moses “to inquire of God.” Moses explained this system of government to Jethro: “when they have a matter, it cometh unto me; and I judge between a man and his neighbor, and I make them know the statutes of God, and His laws.’”

The Moses to God administrative system worked since the people “believed in the LORD, and in His servant Moses.” But then suddenly, intermediaries were appointed. Those judges did not profess to have a direct line to God, but rather the ability to apply what Moses taught them. It was a sudden shift from prophecy to judgment. At least those “secular” judges operated under the auspices of Moses and could elevate big matters to him, but then Moses appointed two autonomous leaders, who ruled based on a one-line mandate: “And to the elders he said, wait for us here until we return to you, and here Aharon and Hur are with you; whoever has a case, let him go to them.”

This is the government structure under which the events of the Golden Calf occurred.

Moses seemed to apply the lessons of this structure’s failure. From thereon, transition of powers were done through a grandiose ceremony, as opposed to a one-line mandate. When Moses transitioned his priestly power to his brother Aharon, it was done through a multi-week ceremony, when decades later, Aharon transitioned power to his son Elazar it was done in a celebrated ritual on Hor HaHar, and when Moses himself transferred his power to Joshua, it was done through a detailed ceremony that made clear that Joshua is the new leader and that God is with him.

Moses also seems to apply another lesson from the Aharon-Hur failure: the introduction of an elite. Those two items – ceremonial transition and the authority of a Moses-appointed elite have proven extraordinarily successful. The transition to the Levites lasted for over 1,000 years until the Temple was destroyed, and the transition of priestly powers lasts till today. Nobody questions the elite status of the Cohens, such as being the first to have the honor of Aliyah when the Torah is read in synagogues.

While the ceremonial transition of powers to an elite were successful, the unceremonial transition of powers was not. There was no ceremony anointing the tribe of Judah. This could perhaps explain the people’s lack of acceptance of Hur and rejection of Caleb, president of Judah and only tribal leader who joined Moses and Joshua’s call to proceed to the promised land.This rejection continued in King David’s dynasty, whose rule over the united kingdom lasted for only two generations and was then met with the call: “We have no portion in David, neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse; every man to his tents, O Israel.”

So the people accept when it is clear Moses delegated, such as in the case of the Cohens and the Levites, but not when it is unclear such as in the case of Judah.Hence, when the Temple was destroyed and a new elite emerged – the Pharisees sages (Chazal) – they too established that their source of power is from Moses – the Oral Torah! Indeed, Rabbinical Judaism, which they seeded, remained the organizing principle of Judaism through 2,000 years of exile.

Yet, while preserving Judaism, this system failed to lead the Jews back home. Theodor Herzl set forth to do just that with the cooperation of the rabbis. Herzl, like Moses, understood the need for ceremonies and for an elite: “I am a staunch supporter of monarchal institutions,” he wrote and then explained: “These allow a continuous policy, and represent the interests of a historically famous family born and educated to rule, whose desires are bound up with the preservation of the state.”’

In Christian Europe, there was broad acceptance till the 20th century that God appointed the monarchs, hence the monarch’s desires are bound-up with the preservation of the state. Once Europe stopped believing in the Divine, it also stopped believing in Divine-right-monarchies, and over the last century, new elites have filled the void.

In Great Britain it has been the civil servants. Prime ministers such as Tony Blair recounted their shock upon taking office as to just how little power they had relative to the civil service. This arguably created a continuous policy that Herzl attributed to the monarchs, and hence could “balance” erratic choices by the electorate.

IN EUROPE, it is arguably the European Commission which has limited direct accountability to Europeans. For example the commission’s policies toward Israel are by far more critical than that of its member countries and its citizens. This too is an opportunity to balance “uneducated” views by the European electorate. After all, not everybody can be a foreign policy expert. For example, while individual Europeans might think that the European interest is prosperity for Palestinians, the European Commission has been aggressively sabotaging Palestinian employment and mentorship in Jewish-owned businesses, such as in SodaStream. 

In Israel, there was a clear elite in the early days: the Ben-Gurion-led left-wing Ashkenazi who built the country and its institutions. Since 1977, when the Labor party was voted out, Israel seems to have gradually gravitated toward a model of multiple-elites such as the Druze in the police, Arabs in pharmaceutical and medical fields, ultra-Orthodox in motorcycle medics that saves thousands of lives every month, the national-religious in service, volunteering and ideology, and seculars in the judicial system and academia. Perhaps applying the lessons of the Aharon-Hur administration, such a model of multiple elites might be a necessary interim step before a model of no-elites.

Yet perhaps there is also another lesson from the failure of the Aharon-Hur administration that is relevant today. Moses checked the co-head’s power, and their mandate was not conveyed directly to the people, but rather to the elders. They were a weak executive by design. As there has been an unprecedented global shift of power over the last century from absolute regimes to checked executive, one should apply the lessons and beware of inadvertently creating breeding grounds for golden calves.

Herzl understood that. Indeed, he identified weaknesses of the French democracy system and architected a more perfect version of European liberalism in the Jewish state. We do not have Moses today to appoint elites, but we do have the writings of Herzl – perhaps it is time to begin studying them, as a tool to create a more perfect society in Israel and around the world.■

The writer is the author of the upcoming book Judaism 3.0. For details: Judaism-Zionism.com; for his geopolitical articles: EuropeAndJerusalem.com. For his commentaries on the weekly Torah portion: ParashaAndHerzl.com


More articles linking Torah & Zionism: Parasha & Herzl

More geopolitical articles: Europe & Jerusalem

Related Jerusalem Post articles by Gol Kalev:

From ‘Then Sang Moses’ to ‘Then Sang Herzl’ -Herzl’s view of the Exodus from Europe in comparison to the Exodus from Egypt

Passover as Jewish particularity – Herzl created a new anchor for Judaism, having concluded that the primary malaise of 2,000 years of exile was not the persecution, but rather the lack of unified Jewish political leadership

The decades that transformed Judaism – Judaism was shaped through three brief periods of radical changes: the Abrahamic revolution that shaped Judaism 1.0; the 1st century CE destruction of the Temple that shaped Judaism 2.0; and the 20th century Zionist revolution that seeded Judaism 3.0

To Egypt or to Israel? – Both Herzl and Joshua & Caleb understood what establishment Israelite leadership of their respective time did not – the exodus from Egypt/Europe is the return to Judaism even before it is the return to the land of the Jews.

The inauguration of Judaism 1.0 – The Temple was the point-of-orientation for Judaism When the Romans destroyed the Temple, they destroyed Judaism’s anchor. Yet, Judaism did not evaporate. Instead it transformed, adopting a new anchor – Rabbinical Judaism, centered around Halacha (Jewish Law),  the canonization of the Oral Torah and the yearning to return.

Jewish transformation – Judaism 3.0 – For 2,000 years of exiles Judaism was bound by internal glue of religiosity and external one of insularity.  With the radical decline in religious observance and elimination of outer walls, once again, Judaism has lost its anchor.  But at the same time a new one emerged – Zionism, which is now turning into the organizing principle of Judaism.

more by Gol Kalev on EuropeandJerusalem.com, including:

European hijacking the Palestinian cause

Europeanism vs Americanism – a new global philosophical divide?

European opposition to the Jewish state

Europe should benefit from Herzl’s vision

The resurfacing of European Colonialism

The battle for Europe

Get updates on Gol Kalev's upcoming book: Judaism 3.0

For inquiries and comments, please email: info@europeandjerusalem.com