This week’s parashah details Am Yisra’el’s severe sin of the Golden Calf which occurs at Mount Sinai. I would like to present, and analyze a number of various approaches in understanding the nature of this sin and its severity.
The first approach can be found explicitly in the Torah’s description of the sin, and in our Sages’ explanations as recorded in the Midrashic literature. The Torah states: “Go, descend, for your nation has corrupted… they have rapidly turned from the way… And now, let Me be and let My fury burn against them, and I will destroy them…” (Shemot 32: 7,8,10). This sin is described as nothing less than outright rebellion against God, and the discarding of all Divine morality, punishable by death.
The Midrash continues along these lines: “Rabi Shim’on ben Chalafta said: …generally, when one goes on his way, he walks for one or two mil (measure of distance), and then in the third he may go astray. Would he lose his way already in the first mil? Thus God said to them, ‘You were to decay not in the second or third (mil) but already in the first?’” Rabi Meir comments further, “Bnei Yisra’el’s hearts were not even set on God for a single day, for they stood at Sinai and declared, ‘We will do and we will hear’ (Shemot 24:7) yet their hearts were directed to idolatry!” Rabi Tanchumah bar Abba goes even further, saying, “Not only were their hearts directed to idolatry, but also to sexual immorality and murder – for it states ‘And (Bnei Yisra’el) arose to commit folly (‘l’tzachek’) and folly’ infers sexual immorality and murder…” (Shemot Rabbah 42:6).
Against the backdrop of these harsh words it is surprising to find a number of explanations that minimize the severity of this sin, stating that it was the result of mere misunderstanding and human error. In his “Kuzari,” Rabi Yehudah ha-Levi describes the sin of the Golden Calf as follows: “Bnei Yisra’el were anticipating Moshe’s descent from Mount Sinai, and when he tarried, “then a number amidst the masses were tremendously disappointed. They were divided amongst themselves – for there were diverse opinions and interpretations (of what was to be done), until finally they desired a deity to whom they could turn in a similar fashion to all the nations (of the world). All the while they did not deny the divinity of He Who had taken then from Egypt – they simply desired that they should be constantly accompanied by a tangible deity to whom they could relate the wonders of their God… the nation’s sin, then, was in making an image (of a deity), something that was forbidden to them. They thus ascribed divinity to an object they had fashioned with their own hands, without receiving a command from God in this regard… the entire sin of the Golden Calf was not in turning from the service of God Who had taken them from Egypt, but rather a transgression of one of His commandments; for He had forbidden the service of an image, and they made an image for themselves. They should have continued waiting for Moshe, and not chosen to make a representation (of God) of their own volition… (Kuzari, 1:97). The sin of the Golden Calf was not an act whereby Bnei Yisra’el turned from the service of God to the service of other gods, yet rather a mere error in their attempt to come closer to God.
How are we to reconcile these two opposing approaches in understanding the terrible sin of the Golden Calf? In order to explain the great disparity between Rav Yehudah ha-Levi’s explanation and the Torah and Midrash’s explanations, we must first understand his historical, social, and religious setting. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries were periods of great dispute between Christianity and Judaism, the many public debates and disputes directly affected the Jews’ status, personal safety, religious observance, and degree of assimilation. Christianity claimed that while indeed the Jews had been the Chosen People, God had removed that status from them. The Jews had sinned, and thus God had now conferred that status on the Christians. What could be worse than a nation who commits treason against its God the very moment it received His Law?
In his explanation of the Golden Calf, Rabi Yehudah ha-Levi seeks to refute this Christian claim. We must also recall Rabi Yehudah ha’Levi’s position that the Jews’ special status as the Chosennation is an intrinsic, inbred quality. Such a severe sin stands in direct contrast to this philosophical approach, and thus we must understand his explanation of the Golden Calf as a solution to the problem of the Chosennation who by nature cleaves to its God, yet sins with such a severe act of idolatry.
Considering this novel approach, which so differs from the Midrash to the Golden Calf re-iterates the fact that our Torah is a Torah of life. The Torah lives in every generation and every era, and the Torah sage has the tremendous responsibility to confer the Torah and its values to his specific generation in the most effective, appropriate manner. While we are to consider the approach of our Rabbis, and rely on their rationale, we still have the obligation to delve into even the most difficult of questions and sins.