Parashat Ki Tissa: The Sin of the Golden Calf

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January 29 2009

      R. Judah Ha-Levi, in his work Kuzari, presents the Jewish philosopher’s reply to the king’s question: how could the generation that had just witnessed the theophany at Har Sinai descend to the depths of pagan idolatry and worship a calf? In light of Judah ha-Levi’s notion of the inborn moral greatness of the Jewish people, the question is even more striking: how could this greatness be reconciled with the sin of idolatry? Judah ha-Levi (Kuzari, Book I, chapter 97), speaking through the voice of the haver, answers as follows:

    All the people in those times worshipped images. Even the philosophers who demonstrated the unity and existence of the Deity were unable to dispense with an image to which they directed their worship. They explained to the masses that this image attracted some divine quality to be shown the same reverence we give to our holy places. The masses could only be persuaded to accept the worship of a tangible image. The children of Israel waited for Moses to bring them down something tangible from his communion with the Almighty, as he had promised them, to focus their worship, on the lines of the pillar of cloud and pillar of fire which accompanied them on their departure from Egypt. The people heard the Ten Commandments and Moses went up the Mount to bring down the tablets and make them an ark to constitute for them a tangible symbol containing the covenant of God. The people were left waiting for Moses to come down without having changed their mien, ornaments or garments since the time they had stood at the foot of the Mount during the Revelation. But they had remained as they were, waiting for Moses who was forty days late, not having taken with him any food and having left them with the intention of returning the same day. Then some of the people were overcome with frustration and dissension was sown until some individuals were prompted to ask for a tangible object of worship in the manner of the other nations without repudiating God Who had brought them out of Egypt, merely requesting it should be place before them to gaze upon when they related the wonders of their God…as we do with the sky.

Nechama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot: Part 2 (Mishpatim-Pekudei) (Jerusalem, 1976, translated and adapted from the Hebrew by Aryeh Newman), pp. 550-52, divides R. Judah Ha-Levi’s explanation into a statement of what the children of Israel were not guilty of, and what they were guilty of. In the foregoing paragraph, it is clear that he believes that they were not guilty of idolatry. They merely wanted to facilitate their worship of God through material symbols. In that case, however, one wonders, what were they guilty of? The answer is simply that God had prohibited the fashioning of images, in spite of any meritorious intent. Kuzari continues:

    Their offence lay in the fashioning of an image which had been forbidden them and in attributing Divine sanctity to the product of their own desires and hands without having being commanded to do so by God. In extenuation of their sin we should remember the lack of unanimity which preceded it, and the fact that the worshippers of the Golden Calf constituted only 3,000 out of a mass of 600,000 persons. But the excuse of the leaders who helped in making the Calf was that they did so for the purpose of distinguishing between the believer and disbeliever in order to put to death those caught actually worshipping it. Their culpability lay in leading the rebellion from the realm of thought into that of deed.

This last passage obviously refers to the conduct of Aaron the High Priest. In correspondence with his previous remarks; Judah Ha-Levi does not see in Aaron’s behavior any acquiescence in idolatry. Rather, it was the assistance in the same in making a representation of God (an image) that God had forbidden.

    Their sin did not constitute a total repudiation of the service of Him who brought them out of Egypt, but was rather a partial repudiation of His commands. The Almighty had warned them against making images and they had made one instead of waiting. They themselves had no right to determine the mode of worship and make an altar and sacrifices in accordance with it. Their conduct can be compared to the parable of the fool who we mentioned who entered the doctors dispensary and he prescribed the drugs, thereby killing the patients who would have been saved by being given the proper dose by the doctor himself. The people did not intend to commit idolatry but imagined that they were striving to worship the true God. For this reason they applied to Aaron to translate their strivings into reality. Their sin seems much more serious today because few indulge in actual worship of images as they did in those days. If instead they had built a house of worship to suit their own wishes it would not have seemed so serious to us since we are accustomed today to build our own houses of worship and even maintain that the Divine Presence rests on them and that angels encamp around them. Were it not for the necessity in exile of keeping the community together, this conduct of ours would be forbidden just as it was in the days of the kings when they denounced those who made their own private places of worship which were called “high places.” Pious kings tore them down in order to preserve the uniqueness of the house which God Himself had chosen. In those days images were not in themselves forbidden, as we may note from the Divine command to make the cherubim. Despite all this the worshippers of the Golden Calf were punished and put to death, 3,000 persons in all out of 600,000; but the manna did not stop, the pillar of fire continued to lead them and the prophetic spirit did not persisted  in their midst. The only thing that they were deprived of was the two tablets which Moses broke and interceded with God to restore. These were resorted and that iniquity was expiated.

    Nechama Leibowitz (p. 552) comments:

    Judah Ha-Levi maintains that the legitimacy of the cherubim and the forbidden nature of the Golden Calf derived solely from the express command of God Himself. Images were not in themselves reprehensible. The Calf was forbidden because it was not made at the bidding of the Almighty. The cherubim were permitted because they were made in accordance with His wish. Man must not arbitrarily make his own laws, create his own ritual. This must be determined strictly in accordance with the Divine wishes. Eloquent indeed is Ha-Levi’s parable of the physician and his drugs which are effective only when prescribed as authorized, but which, if made up by the patient himself at his own whim and fancy will not only fail to cure him but may well kill him.

    I would add that with this explanation, which entails a mitigation of the sin of the Golden Calf, an aspect of the inner character of Judah Ha-Levi emerges as well. He now appears not only as a defender of the Jewish faith against its Islamic, Christian, and philosophic opponents, but, in the manner of R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev so many hundreds of years later, as a defender of the Jewish people in front of God.  


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