“They have made themselves a molten calf, prostrated themselves to it and sacrificed to it, and they said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt.’”
The incident of the Golden Calf is very hard to understand. How could the nation that stood at Sinai descend so low as to engage in idolatry? Further, if this were indeed idol worship, why would Aaron have been spared punishment? For this reason, the commentators offer very different interpretations of the event.
The Kuzari and Ibn Ezra suggest that the people needed a concrete object towards which to direct their prayers, without negating their belief in G-d Who took them out of Egypt. They needed something tangible, visible as the object of their pleas, somewhat akin to our directing our prayers towards heaven, itself a concrete manifestation of the Deity. That this was not itself idolatry may explain why during this period the manna continued to fall and the Pillar of the Cloud did not vanish. The sin of the Calf was then the sin of the need to hold on to something concrete, a kind of reification of an idea that run counter to the ideal of monotheism.
The Bet Halevi (R. Yosef Soloveitchik,1820-1892) explains further that they erred in believing that, since G-d had ordered them some physical depiction in the Tabernacle, any form of representation was permitted. This is the reason G-d complains that, “they have strayed quickly from the way I have commanded them.” (ibid). The Tabernacle and all its components contained deep mysteries and secrets known only to G-d and fashioning them was permitted exclusively on the terms prescribed by Him. They erred in thinking that they could create their own images in whatever form they imagined.
However, the sin of the Golden Calf was no small matter. Had it been not for Moshe’s passionate intercession, Hashem was ready to destroy the nation. Moreover, in any punishment that G-d brings upon the Jewish people in the future, part of the punishment comes as retribution for the sin of the Golden Calf (Rashi ad Shemot 32:34). If this was not idol worship in the strict sense of the word, why was this sin so grave?
The Kuzari and Ibn Ezra suggest that the people
needed a concrete object towards which to direct their prayers, without negating their belief in G-d Who took them out of Egypt
The sin of the Golden Calf was not merely a desire for the concrete; it was a rejection of one of the fundamental ideas of monotheism and the essence of the Torah ideal. The primary concept of monotheism is the idea of abstraction. The prohibition against images is not merely a law among laws; it is the essence of the belief in an abstract G-d and the goal to hold on to abstract concepts without resorting to physical representations or imagery. Contrary to the fashion of pagan thought, Judaism demands that we attach ourselves to ideas, not objects that exist in space and time. This was the major revolution affected by our father Abraham and it remains true today.
The requirement that we avoid all physical depictions is a means to wean us from the needs of the concrete and the material and a way of raising us to relate to the abstract and the invisible. Modern philosophy used concepts grounded in paganism in order to deny G-d. The 17th century philosopher John Locke, for instance, insisted on the empirical origin of all the elements of human knowledge as a way of denying the existence of the Absolute and the metaphysical. Religious thought assumes the opposite: that reality and human abilities are not simply the fruit of physical experience but rather the creation of a Higher Idea that in itself is abstract and intangible. This is the most important contribution of Israel to humanity and the elementary axiom of the Torah philosophy. By creating the Golden Calf, the Jewish people abandoned a cardinal principle of the Torah and that is the reason for G-d’s wrath.
The need for the concrete, indeed our obsession with it, is a persistent foible of human nature. Ideas, abstractions do not satisfy us. We need material gifts, physical and tangible symbols of love in order to feel reassured. The mind finds it hard to conceive of feelings in the abstract and is constantly looking for confirmation in some touchable form. For the same reason, it attaches great importance to isolated acts or gestures that are concrete and ignores or is uncertain about a sentiment that is constant but abstract. For instance, we can feel highly insulted and aggrieved by an accidental act by a good friend instead of focusing on the affection of that friend or his constancy and loyalty. In our lower nature, the material, the concrete, always takes precedence in our minds.
In our religious life a similar phenomenon occurs. The concept that G-d continues to punish us for the sin of the Golden Calf implies that we are still guilty of the same sin in every generation. The resistance to a pure abstract Idea, which is part of human nature, can have harmful effects in our religious lives. Our need for the concrete makes it easier to attach importance to the concrete symbols than to the abstract ideas of the Torah. Consequently, we tend to neglect many abstract concepts even as we pay inordinate attention to the physical objects of our religion. We should pay as much attention to the intangible and the abstract ideas as we do to the concrete symbols. Our concern with not shaming others, being kind and non-judgmental of other people should resemble our preoccupation with the wholeness of the etrog or the blackness of our tefillin.
This is the ultimate and fundamental point of the Torah: that reality is not in the material form in which we perceive it in the physical world but rather that what we see is only a part and a limited perception of the whole reality. By informing us that the reality has its origin in abstract ideas, the Torah raises us to become a people attached to the Abstract and the invisible and lift us from our obsession with the concrete.
Rabbi David Algaze is the founder and Rav of Havurat Yisrael, Forest Hills. He is a noted public speaker and author and is the President of the international Committee for the Land of Israel.