Ki Tissa 5774 – The Horns of Moses

In 1505, Pope Julius II commissioned the Renaissance artist Michelangelo to design and contruct his tomb in Rome.  In the course of his work, Michelangelo created one of the most famous statues in the world, known simply as the Moses.  Giorgio Vasari, a contemporary of Michelangelo, wrote a description of the statue:

Michelangelo's MosesMichelangelo finished the Moses in marble…, unequalled by any modern or ancient work. Seated in a serious attitude, he rests with one arm on the tables, and with the other holds his long glossy beard, the hairs, so difficult to render in sculpture, being so soft and downy that it seems as if the iron chisel must have become a brush. The beautiful face, like that of a saint and mighty prince, seems as one regards it to need the veil to cover it, so splendid and shining does it appear, and so well has the artist presented in the marble the divinity with which God had endowed that holy countenance. The draperies fall in graceful folds, the muscles of the arms and bones of the hands are of such beauty and perfection, as are the legs and knees, the feet being adorned with excellent shoes, that Moses may now be called the friend of God more than ever, since God has permitted his body to be prepared for the resurrection before the others by the hand of Michelangelo. The Jews still go every Saturday in troops to visit and adore it as a divine, not a human thing.  (Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Artists Michelangelo Buonarotti of Florence, Painter, Sculptor and Architect)

Where did they come from?

This morning’s Torah portion, as it turns out.

After the disaster with the Golden Calf, God wants to wipe out the Israelites altogether and start over with a new nation descending from Moses.

Moses, in his role as God’s therapist, manages to talk God down and gets God to give the people a second chance.  Moses then descends the mountain to investigate the damage.  He breaks the tablets with the Ten Commandments on them, cleans house, and heads back up to the top of Mount Sinai to reestablish the relationship between God and Israel.

Moses is on a roll.  So he decides to strike while the iron is hot.  Now is the time to ask God the question that he has been saving for just the right moment:  “Show me Your glory.”

Moses wants to see God’s essence.  That, it turns out, is a bit too much even for someone like Moses to handle, so God agrees to shelter Moses in the cleft of a rock while the Divine Countenance is revealed.  Then, Moses will be able to catch a glimpse after God’s Presence has passed by.

Even that is pretty impressive.  When Moses comes down the mountain after forty days, everybody is excited for the reunion.  Moses has a shiny new set of Tablets, and the people are eager to have their leader back.  But as soon as they see him, the Israelites recoil in fear.

In his encounter with God, something has happened to Moses’ face.

The Torah describes it.  קָרַן עוֹר פָּנָיו (karan or panav) – Our Etz Hayim chumash translates it as “the skin of his face was radiant.” (Exodus 34:29) Robert Alter says, “the skin of his face glowed.”

In other words, Moses was radioactive.

But it is kind of a strange expression.  In fact, it is the only time in the entire Hebrew Bible that the verb karan appears.  The word means “to send out rays [of light]”

There are far more common words that would have conveyed the same image.  L’ha-ir, for example, is a common Hebrew word that means “to shine.”  Why didn’t the Torah use that word?  There must be something unique about this particular event that would explain the use of such a rare expression.

In the 4th century, Saint Jerome translated the Bible into Latin for the Catholic Church.  When he got to our word, he connected the verb karan to the noun keren, which is a common Hebrew word that means “horn.”  He translated it into the Latin cornuta, meaning “horns.”  The Latin translation would go something like this:  Moses had sprouted horns from the skin of his face.

It doesn’t really fit the context.  First of all, horns would grow from the head, not from the skin of the face, as the text describes.  Second, it makes a whole lot more sense that Moses would come away from his encounter with God reflecting some of the Divine fire that engulfed the mountain.

Jerome probably did not mean anything negative by attributing horns to Moses.  In the ancient world, horns were often associated with power.  The Babylonians and Egyptians had horned deities, and the Romans used horns to symbolize might, depicting horned statues of Jupiter.

The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible, which Jerome certainly knew and understood, translated karan as “glorified.”  Jerome probably had something similar in mind.

But not everyone knew that.  It was in the 11th century that depictions of a horned Moses started appearing in Christian art.  The idea of Jews having horns also emerged around this time.  It was an especially pernicious accusation, possibly rooted in  a misunderstanding of Jerome’s translation.

In 1267, the Council of Vienna decreed that all Jews had to wear a special, pointed, horned hat.  Jews in other European communities over the following centuries were forced to wear other degrading symbols or items of clothing – often having something to do with horns.  (Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews, pp. 44-46.)

Why horns?

Horns were associated with the devil.  And so along with horns, Jews were also accused by medieveal European anti-Semites of having large, hooked noses, tails, goat-like beards, and cloven hooves.  It was a nasty rumor that persists to this day.  When my sister-in-law met her roommate upon first arriving at university, she asked her, in all sincerity, “where are your horns?”

What did Michelangelo mean by giving his Moses horns?  It’s hard to say.  There had been artistic renderings of Moses for hundereds of years, some with horns, and some without.  Some of those that depicted him with horns did so in a particularly evil light.

But there is no evidence that Michelangelo meant anything nasty by it in his Moses.  He was an artist, not a biblical scholar.  So he made Moses according to the words in his Bible: with horns coming out of his face.

But we still haven’t answered the question of why the Torah uses such an unusual word in Hebrew.  The Bible scholar Nahum Sarna suggests that the word karan “is probably a pointed allusion to the golden calf, for keren is the usual word for a horn.  It subtly emphasizes that the true mediator between God and Israel was not the fabricated, lifeless image of the horned animal, as the people thought, but the living Moses.” (Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Exodus, p. 221.)

In other words, the Torah describes Moses’ glowing face with the word karan to emphasize that there can be no physical representations of God.  A horned calf made out of gold is a false god.  God cannot be encountered through an idol.  The Divine is not comprised of stone, wood, or precious metals, which are inanimate and lifeless.  God’s will is transmitted through human beings – through the Prophet Moses, and through the written and oral Torah that our tradition traces back to Moses’ intimate conversations with God.

After the people recoil from Moses’ glowing face, he gently urges them to come back.  “It’s ok.  It’s ok.  Everything will be fine.”

From then on, whenever he shares his conversations with God, the Israelites are illuminated by the Divine light reflecting off of Moses’ face.

And it is a conversation that continues to this day.  We have the records of Moses’ interactions with God, and the records of generation after generation of students and teachers trying to understand, apply, and extend those conversations to meet the evolving needs of contemporary life.  Whenever we engage in that conversation, we too are illuminated by the radiance that shone from the skin of Moses’ face.

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