Michaelangelo's Moses (WIKIMEDIA/JORG BITTNER UNNA CC BY 3.0)
Michaelangelo's Moses (WIKIMEDIA/JORG BITTNER UNNA CC BY 3.0)

The thorny issue of Moses’ radiant face

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek.


Ki Tisa

Exodus 30:11-34:35


The Basilica of San Pietro in Vincoli is not easy to find. But a rich reward awaits those who navigate the back alleyways of Rome, enter its main chapel and stand before Michelangelo’s incomparable Moses. In the heart of the Catholic world, the greatest Jewish prophet and teacher who ever lived inspires tears, pride and…

Just a moment. Are those actually horns on Moses’ beautiful, sculpted head?

The marble breathes and pulses, centuries after the great master picked up his chisel and gave birth to a Moses who is virile, emotive and sublimely powerful. He is a marvel to behold.

But those small, unmistakable protrusions from his forehead represent confusion over an enduring enigma in this week’s parashah.

After the debacle of the Molten Calf and the shattering of the first set of tablets, Moses stays in deep communion with God for 40 days and nights. When he descends with the second tablets, “lo yada ki karan or panav b’dabro ito — he did not know that the skin of his face was radiant/had become horned for having spoken with God” (Exodus 34:29).

The word karan is the crux of the matter. In the Tanakh, it variously refers to either horns or shining rays, though the Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, clearly chose “horns” to describe the change in Moses’ face. In truth, keren is more correctly a “horn” and karan means more accurately “emitting light.” But the two are very close and often interchanged.

The idea of a horned Moses spurred pernicious and stubborn stereotypes of all Jews having horns, and was used to humiliate Jews in the Middle Ages, forcing them to wear horned headdresses in addition to the yellow stars that made such a horrifying comeback in Nazi Germany. To this day, some people still think Jews have horns, are in league with the devil and/or are engaged in black magic and shape-shifting. The fact that Jews look just like all other human beings is, according to such grotesque and hateful nonsense, only further evidence of our wily, deceptive ways.

Throughout cultural and religious history, horns have been symbols of power, potency, strength and maturity. Surely, regardless of the selected translation of karan, this is what the author of our Torah had in mind. Moses’ time of overwhelming intimacy with the Divine Presence has transformed him. He is quite literally touched by the essence of God, and he will never be the same.

Earlier in the parashah, the people sin out of fear and spiritual immaturity. They fashion a Molten Calf to stand in for Moses and the Awesome Power they had just witnessed at the Sea of Reeds. Their golden calf may or may not have had horns, but Moses most assuredly shone with rays of God’s ineffable, eternal light.

And just as the word molten/masechah is the same in Hebrew as “mask,” Moses too must wear a veil/masveh (a word that appears in the Tanakh only in this story) after his intense encounter.

The calf was a pitiful substitute for Moses and the One True God, but the imagery sets the stage for Moses’ reappearance, when he is radiant with God’s glory and subsequently (properly and necessarily) masked. The Molten Calf was not the “god who took the Israelites out of Egypt,” as they claimed, and neither was Moses. He was God’s chosen representative, however, and he is marked, luminously and permanently, as such.

But there is something even more profound to be gleaned from Moses’ countenance, the rays of light that emanated from it and the protection he wore because of it.

He would take off the veil when speaking with God and when conveying God’s word to the people. Otherwise, he was removed, for the gift of reflecting the Divine blessing exacted an enormous price — Moses could not relate to other people as an ordinary man ever again.

And therein lies one of the most indelible lessons of this parashah.

For people touched by an encounter with God, relating to the world in usual ways is no longer an option. Jews know this very well. From the moment that Abraham heard the call, we have not had the luxury of being “ordinary.”

The theophany at Sinai — God’s revelation to the entire people — sealed our destiny forever.

The prophet Isaiah (42:6) exhorted us to be a “light unto the nations,” and with much astonishing success and occasional colossal failure, we have borne that burden through the millennia.

Moses’ transformation reminds us that the challenge of reflecting a Divine message of justice and mercy will never be simple or easy. Accepting this responsibility has necessarily separated us from much of the world and humanity, even as it has brought us closer to God and eternity.

May we continue to be worthy of the blessing.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at rabbishanachandlerleon@gmail.com.