SINCE 2008, University synagogue has held a series of annual biblical trails addressing contradictory and disturbing episodes in the Tanakh. The trials began with the People vs. Abraham, and have included the Trial of Jacob and Rebecca, and Joseph’s Brothers. This year the trial concerns the well-known story of the Golden Calf: “The People v Aaron: The Golden Calf Story–Did Aaron Incite the Israelites?”
Several of these mock trials of our tradition’s main characters have become very popular throughout southern California over the last few years and here the University Synagogue trail has become an Orange County event. UC Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson will argue this new Biblical case in front of University Synagogue member Justice Richard Fybel and a jury of all those in the audience. Invariably, what one may think is a sure thing never turns out that way. The decisions of the “jury” are never unanimous, and usually a close split.
The purpose of these trials each year is not only to teach Torah, but to get a look at the eternal views of right and wrong that we still face today. Rather than being a history book, the Torah is about human behavior and the choices we make. We don’t have saints in Judaism, because we recognize that we are all flawed. By examining some of those same flaws in our biblical characters, we can reflect on their decisions and determine a better course of action for ourselves.
When the people demand a golden idol, Aaron abides by their wishes. Melting the peoples’ gold jewelry down he “fashioned it with a stylus and made a molten calf,” and then proclaimed: “These are your gods ‘Israel,’ who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” When confronted by Moses regarding his sin, Aaron blamed the people into pressuring him. “You know the people that they are set on evil” (Exodus 32:22). He blamed Moses for taking too long to get back from talking with G-d.
In our Tanakh, Aaron becomes the chief priest, yet while Moses was on Mount Sinai, and the people lost faith and built the Golden Calf, he doesn’t seem to object much. So who is to blame for idol worship? Did Aaron’s weakness as a leader make him cave in to the people and ultimately be responsible for the insurrection? Should he not have spoken up against the creation of the golden idol and brought the people back to why they were there? Or was he justified in not going against the Israelite throng that had descended into mob mentality? Well, you can be part of the jury and see how Professor Chermininsky argues in his defense and how Professor Levenson sets out her prosecution.
After submission of the “evidence” and the verdict is rendered by the audience, there will be a lively discussion on timeless moral, ethical and philosophical themes, featuring Rabbi Rachlis, Jack Miles, distinguished professor emeritus of English and Religious Studies, UC Irvine; and Julia Reinhard Lupton, associate dean for Research, School of Humanities, UC Irvine.
The trial, co-sponsored by Dr. Miriam Piven Cotler and Arkady and Ella Serebryannik, takes place at University Synagogue, Irvine on Sunday, February 25, @ 1:00 pm – 3:30 pm. Call the synagogue at (949) 553-3535 or go to (universitysynagogue.org) to order tickets and for more information.
Rabbi Florence L. Dann, Beit Sefer Director of Temple Beth Israel of Pomona, has been a contributing writer for Jlife since 2004.