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Half Calf

Yom Revi'i, 28th of Tammuz, 5775
Tuesday, July 14, 2015

I remember before I started dating, I would tell my family and friends that I wanted to date dutch - I'd pay for my half of the meal or coffee, and my date would pay for her half. It seemed only fair. My friends and family made fun of me, and when I did start dating they'd nervously ask "did you make her pay?!" "No," I said, and smiled, and they'd seemingly collapse in relief. And I admit it felt right, like I was being a man. But if you really think about it, is it very fair?

We're now in the Three Weeks, a time of mourning on the Jewish calendar. No weddings, no music videos, and no haircuts or shaves, so dating is even more difficult. The Three Weeks began on the 17th of Tammuz, when HaShem nearly broke up with the Jewish people over the making of the golden calf. The golden calf appears to be only between the Jews and HaShem, but I claim it was also about our relationships with each other. We connected with HaShem at Mt. Sinai because we were unified as a people. If our achdus broke in any way, it would also affect our relationship with G-d.

The incident of the golden calf occurs in a section of the Torah called parshas (portion) Ki Sisa, which begins: "And HaShem spoke to Moshe, saying: When you take a census of the Jewish people,... each man should give .... a half a shekel as a portion for HaShem."1 By counting up those half shekels, we can find the total number of Jews. The use of a half shekel teaches us, commentators note, that a Jew alone is only half a Jew; we must join with others to achieve our full potential. So too, every person, man or woman, has a zivug, their other half whom they need to fulfill their purpose in this world.

(Video added after the Three Weeks.)

Later on in parshas Ki Sisa, the people panic when it appears that Moshe is not coming down from the mountain. They approach Aaron and ask him to make a god to lead them on. "And Aaron said to them, remove the gold earings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me."2 Why does Aaron ask for gold only from the women and the children? The most well known answer comes from the major commentator Rashi, who cites a Midrash (an ancient commentary in story form) saying that Aaron figured the women and children would not want to part with their jewelry, and that delay would be long enough for Moshe to come back.3

Maybe it's only me, though I hope not, but I think there's something very wrong with this explanation. It's gender biased, inappropriate, seriously lacking in respect for women. Even if Rashi and the Midrash are wrong, it's still hard to think of an appropriate explanation for why Aaron made that statement. Let me say first that Aaron HaKohen was one of the most spiritually advanced people who ever lived. He would become the High Priest in the Sanctuary, and he was known as a great peacemaker, the Mr. Achdus of his day. But I want to suggest, nervously, that he was also a human being, subject to the biases of his culture.

Aaron's comment revealed a flaw in our achdus, one that we still struggle with today. We learned at the start of parshas Ki Sisa that men and women are two halves of the same coin. Those halves, while different in some ways, are of equal worth, and they complete each other. Yet from Adam and Eve until now we fail to recognize this fact. This problem took on one of its worst forms in Egypt with Pharoah's decree to throw all the boys in the river and keep the girls alive. The prophet Jeremiah called Egypt "a very fair calf" - for all its cultural advance, Egypt was terribly lacking in basic dignity for all human beings.4

The Jewish people ultimately repent their mistake, and HaShem forgives us. When the call is put out for people to contribute to build the Tabernacle, so that HaShem can dwell among us, the Torah records that "The men came with the women, everyone whose heart motivated them brought... all sorts of gold ornaments... for HaShem."5 Some of this gold would be used to make the cover of the Holy Ark, where, from between two gold cherubs, one male and one female, HaShem would speak to Moshe and the Jewish people. For HaShem to dwell among us, we need to make a welcome space for G-d between us - as individual women and men, and as a people.

Sadly, the sin of the golden calf has not been completely forgiven, as we recall at this time each year. We continue to bear the mistakes of our ancestors. Part of that heritage is the underlying cause for the sin of the golden calf. Every morning when I open my Orthodox siddur to pray, I'm faced with the following pair of "blessings" prescribed for women and men.

The * refers to comments that seek to justify the difference.

If this is how we see each other, and ourselves, how can G-d dwell between us? Perhaps it is appropriate for men and women to say different blessings, as there are indeed differences between the genders. But those blessings must express the dignity, nobility, and fundamental equality of both women and men. For some time now, I've been saying "for having made me according to His will." It's my own small effort to fix the gender inequality in the Orthodox camp. I still say the rest of the prayers,6 keep Shabbat, study the Torah each day, and live my best Orthodox Jewish life, but some things need to change. We're still in the process of fixing the world that we've inherited.

While it's beyond the scope of this post, the equality of men and women is not only a matter of achdus between the genders; it affects the achdus of the entire Jewish nation. Gender equality is perhaps the biggest issue separating Orthodox Jews from Jews in other denominations. But it doesn't have to be. Some movements, like Conservatism, have made great strides at achieving gender equality. Though in some cases they go too far, ignoring appropriate gender differences that do have a place in Judaism. In my view, Judaism should include some of the gender equality of Conservatism and some of the traditional gender roles of Orthodoxy. Just as a person needs both of their halves to be whole, so the different parts of our nation need each other to be complete.

During these Three Weeks, we mourn the loss of HaShem's presence among us, and reflect on past mistakes that led to that loss. Our tradition tells us that eventually these days will be transformed from a time of mourning to one of celebration. But for that change to happen, we must work to fix the mistakes of the past. To restore our connection with HaShem, we need to work on our achdus, each lone half-a-Jew joining with all other Jews. Only when we can look across that table in the coffee shop and see the other person as the essential other half that completes us, whether man or woman, Conservative or Orthodox, will we feel that spark of G-d between us again.

Shalom Aleinu, and don't forget the tip. :)

1 Exodus 30:12-13
2 Exodus 32:2
3 Rashi, Exodus 32:2 from Midrash Tanchuma 21
4 Jeremiah 46:20
5 Exodus 35:22
6 With one exception. In one other blessing, instead of saying "for not having made me a goy (gentile nation)", I say "for having made me a kadosh (special) nation."