Shabbat Ki Tissa – Student Rabbi Deborah Blausten

Theranos and self-deception

By all accounts, Theranos was a world-changer. Perhaps you’ve heard of it. After all, its founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes has appeared on the cover of Time magazine, of Forbes, she was funded by some of the richest people in the world. Her board was a who’s who of power brokers. In 2015, Theranos was the name on everyone’s lips in Silicon Valley. A $10biilion dollar startup with a dynamic young female Stanford dropout at the helm, promising to revolutionize and democratize medical technology, and beginning with changing the way that blood tests happen.

Working in a similar way to modern blood sugar testing devices, Theranos promised its device could perform 30 lab tests on just a single drop of blood. The implications of this in the US, in a climate where healthcare costs were seen to be spiraling out of control, and doctors are perceived to be in the grip of the influence of big Pharma was enormous. The promise of the technology coupled with the company’s impressive founder was too much to resist. Elizabeth Holmes offered Silicon Valley an answer to constant criticism of the male dominated field of science and technology, and she offered tech disruptors, a glimmer of hope that they could assert control back against the medical industry. Theranos’s success gave everyone what they needed.

The only problem was Theranos’s amazing technology didn’t exist.

If you’ve heard of Theranos its likely that it’s not because of their world changing promise, or their superstar founder and MedTech messiah once likened to the next Steve Jobs, but because Elizabeth Holmes and her team have been charged with massive fraud. Its investors lost more than $600 million, and the book by the Wall St Journal reporter who exposed the company has become a worldwide best seller.[1]

The story of Theranos is captivating. The company existed for 12 years, raised close to a billion dollars from private investors and employed about 800 people. But it never had a product that worked.  It traded on its ability to manipulate the fact that people wanted the technology to exist. They wanted it, and they were seduced by science fiction movie style illustrations of how the product could work. It was a giant, co-created fantasy- a lesson in the seductive and intoxicating lure of big dreams.

The question at the heart of the story that has people gripped seems to be this- what did people really know, and what did people chose to not know? The product sounded plausible, it looked the part, and it was a great idea. But it seems that the thing that enabled Theranos to get away with what it did was that people were willing to suspend their disbelief. At the moment when they had to make a choice about what to think, they leaned into the world they wanted to believe in, rather than the world in front of them.

The company was a form that was visible, but without substance, and THAT is the absolute dictionary definition of an idol.

The technology involved was essentially a beautifully designed empty shell, onto which aspiration could be projected, and from which fulfilment could be sought. It’s not hard to understand why it was so compelling.

And that’s what idols are- images or forms which appear on the surface to be something that they are not, that they can never be, but that can temporarily act as substitutes onto which we can project that which we need from them.

This property in particular makes idols rather useful, especially in the realm of politics.

In the time of the biblical book of kings Israel was split into two kingdoms. Jereboam- the guy who gave his name to a large wine receptacle- was king of the Northern kingdom and he had a problem. His people wanted to go and make sacrifices in Jerusalem. But Jereboam knew that if the people from the Northern Kingdom went to Jerusalem- located in the southern kingdom of Judah- they would most likely give allegiance to Rehoboam- who as well as giving his name to an even larger wine bottle- was the king of Judah.

Jereboam knew that the people wanted to make sacrifices, but he also knew his power rested on them staying and not leaving for the southern kingdom. To keep them in his kingdom, Jereboam made two golden calves, built shrines, placed them in the cities of Bethel and Dan. He then proclaimed to the people “ele eloheycha yisrael, asher he’e’lucha me’eretz mitzrayim’- this is your God, Israel- the one who bought you out of the land of Egypt” and he instituted festivals and appointed priests to serve in the shrines. In all likelihood, the people probably knew that these freshly made calves were not the God who had brought them out of the land of Egypt, but the appeal of the idols in reasonable proximity was clear, and they observed the festivals and took the sacrifices. It was a mutually convenient deception.

The words that Jereboam uses to talk to the people when trying to convince them to worship these calves are the same words found in this week’s Torah portion, straight after the bit that Saul read today.

The bible scholar Richard Elliott Friedman explains that there is probably no accident in these words being the same. Scholars now think that books of the Torah were probably edited in the southern kingdom, and he argues that the writer of the golden calf story probably took the words from Jereboam and put them into the mouths of the people in the desert. Fixing the narrative so that the paradigmatic scene of the Israelites being punished by God and Moses for worshipping a golden calf would forever undermine the legitimacy of the actions of the rulers of the northern kingdom. [2]

It’s not enough that the Ten Commandments themselves caution against making idols, the law had to be supplemented with this narrative section that details the incident, that makes the absurdity of idolatry apparent- even against the backdrop of the confusion and uncertainty in the camp at the bottom of the mountain.

One detail in the story changes from the version in Kings. In Kings, Jereboam builds the idols for the people, but in Exodus, they ask Aaron to build it for them, and they are part of the process- bringing the raw materials to make the calf. It matters that the people are involved in building the idol themselves. It matters because it exposes the absurdity of idolatry, and the mechanics of the willful self-deception involved. It’s a window for us as readers into the process of seeking something solid and defined to serve as an anchor in moments of uncertainty.

The biblical authors aren’t just making a theological statement in the story of the calf, they’re making a political one too. The act of self-deception is present in both stories, but the Exodus story makes it more pronounced, and thus draws our attention to the mechanics of power at play.

Idolatry is one of three sins in Judaism where the maxim yehareig v’al ya’avor applies- it means you should sacrifice your own life rather than violating the prohibition against it.

The story of the calf gives us a hint as to why idolatry is so dangerous. It’s dangerous because it blurs the lines of reality, it disrupts the most fundamental aspect of a social contract because it relies on surrendering free thought, and it hands power to falsehood. Idolatry disrupts trust because it disrupts truth, it emboldens controlling fantasies that make people vulnerable. Whether its false Gods, unicorn startups with no real product, or even the idol-like construction of certain political figures in our ecosystem, the world of idolatry is one which opens people up to exploitation.

Judaism is sometimes described as an iconoclastic tradition. While the other two yehareig v’al ya’avor principles of not murdering and not engaging in sexual exploitation are shared with our secular legal system, something that sets us as Jews apart is this insistence on avoiding idol worship. Iconoclasm- the breaking of idols- is hard work, it requires a continued, and often inconvenient, disruption of falsehoods and false images. It’s not the kind of thing that necessarily wins you friends, but it’s essential.

It’s particularly essential when an idol is constructed in the image of that which is central to our values- whether it be a professed commitment to anti-racism, to democracy, or to freedom of expression. Iconoclasm isn’t destruction for the sake of destruction, it’s a necessary breaking down of falsehoods to allow an honest rebuilding. The breaking of idols isn’t about saying something can never be, it’s about saying that this thing is not what it claims to be. Rather than a devaluing, breaking idols is a necessary step in building something real.

The golden calf incident draws attention to both parts of the conversation about idolatry, the social complicity of idol creation, and the essential task of breaking them. Perhaps one day we might live in a world where a single drop of blood will indeed tell us everything we might need to know about our bodies, we might live in a society which can truly claim to uphold values of anti-racism, but we can’t live in that world if we pretend that it is already here. Breaking through the empty shelled statues, and burning the golden calves, is the only way- however messy and uncomfortable- to ensure that which is sacred is truly upheld.

Yehareig v’al ya’avor- our very survival depends on it.


[1]  You can find a link to the Downfall podcast that chronicles the story here or see John Carryrou’s book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Sillicon Valley Startup


[2] [1] For more on this see the introduction to who wrote the bible, or this piece by Rabbi John Rayner is also a good introduction to the geography and politics of biblical storytelling.


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