The "Business" with the Calf

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11−34:35

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Lawrence Kushner

"They exchanged their glory for the image of a bull that feeds on grass!" (Psalm 106:20)

We Jews may have invented monotheism, but that doesn't mean we're monotheists. Indeed, for most of our history, it seems, we have all been idolaters. In Judaism, the maaseh ha-aygel (literally, "the business with the calf") ― at the very foot of Mount Sinai, no less! ― effectively becomes Judaism's paradigm for estrangement from God. Original sin, for us, is not the forbidden discovery of sexuality (as it is in Christianity, symbolized by eating Eden's fruit), but the worship of an idol:

. . . And all the people took off their gold ear rings and brought them to Aaron. He took them and, with a graving tool, shaped a molten calf. Then they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt." (Exodus 32:3?4)

Would that this were the only instance of our ineluctable craving for a divine image. There's more and it's worse. Idolatry was also the most conspicuous sin of the Northern Kingdom.

And [Jeroboam] the king . . . made two calves of gold, and said to the people, "You have been going up to Jerusalem long enough; behold here are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt." (I Kings 12:28)

And who could forget King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel?

And Ahab the son of Omri . . . took for a wife Jezebel, the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went and served Baal, and worshiped him. (I Kings 16:30?31)

According to Sh'mot Rabbah 16:2-3, we were idolaters even before we left Egypt. When we read in Exodus 12:21, "Draw out and take you lambs," the midrash says it means, "Draw your hands away from idolatry and take for yourselves lambs, thereby slaying the [tangible] gods of Egypt. . . ."

Indeed, even the traditional Haggadah itself (though the verse is curiously omitted by the Reform Haggadah) reminds us ― not only of the disgrace of our slavery ― but also of the disgrace of our idolatry(!), with the words from Joshua 24:2: "In days of old, your forefathers ― Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nahor ― lived beyond the Euphrates and worshiped other gods."

But the problem is not merely that Jews have and do worship idols. It's more slippery. Think about it. If idols are only lifeless fetishes of wood, metal, and stone, then why is there all the fuss? They can't do anything! Indeed, this seems to be the conclusion of at least two midrashim. Tanchuma tries to imagine how Moses managed to assuage God's anger over what the Jews have just done. In a comment on Exodus 32:11 we read:

[Moses tried to appease God,] "Why are You so angry with Your people? . . . They have merely given You an assistant. . . . [Look at it this way, God,] You will make the sun rise, [the calf] will make the moon rise. You will look after the stars, and it will see to the constellations; You will cause the dew to descend, and it will cause the winds to blow; You will make the rains come down, it will make the plants grow." But God replied: "Moses, you're making the same mistake they did: That calf is not real." "Ah ha," said Moses, "then how come You're so angry with them?" (s.v. Exodus 32:22; Sh'mot Rabbah 43:6)

The young Abraham resorts to the same logic against his own father, Terah.

Rabbi Hiyya said: Terah was a manufacturer of idols. . . . [One day, in what surely must be the first recorded fit of adolescent, iconoclastic rage, Abraham shattered his father's entire inventory ― except for the biggest idol, into whose hands he cleverly put the hatchet! Under interrogation, Abe claimed that the idols had fought over some food] . . . "then the biggest one got up, took this hatchet here, and smashed them all!"

"What! Do you think I'm some kind of fool?" [Terah, his father] shouted. "Do you actually believe these idols are sentient?!"

"Ah ha," said Abraham. "Listen to what you're saying!" said Abraham. ( B'reishit Rabbah 38:15)

What's going on? Abraham, Moses, (and God) all seem to know that idols are dumb and dead. One explanation may come from a closer look at the word "molten." It has come to mean "idolatrously forbidden." But the Hebrew maseichah , "molten," similar to English, connotes liquidity or plasticity ― more like children's modeling clay, Silly Putty, or "Mr. Potato Head". "Molten" seems to mean more accurately "capable of retaining any shape you give it, never frozen, perpetually malleable." Molten: One day it's a person, the next it's an antelope. Molten: One day it wants this, the next day something else ― just like its human maker(s). The core idea then, of an idol seems to be, not that it's a frozen shape, but just the opposite. It's a moving target. Who can tell what it (or you will) want tomorrow. For this reason, an idol makes an ideal godlet ― ever ready to sanction your latest fantasy, ever willing to tell you just what you want to hear. And why? Because if you can picture it, you can manipulate it. The more you remember you have made it, the more you own it and the more you can manipulate it. And, if you can manipulate it, then it's no longer a god ― you are!

In contrast to all this "visualized tangibility," Johannes Pedersen, the great Danish biblical scholar, imagines God's throne in the Temple . In his classic, Israel: Its Life and Culture
([London: Oxford University Press, 1926], vol. 2, p. 248), he explains that "in all probability [God's] throne was empty [!] Yahweh's [presence] might dwell there without any visible image."

And this brings us back to what I am increasingly convinced may be Judaism's real, central teaching: It's not that there is only one God. (Everyone knows that.) And it's not that God is invisible. (That would imply that, if God were visible, God would look like something.) No, when it comes to God, for us Jews, there's simply Nothing to see ― for none of us has any control over Nothing!

"And God spoke to you from out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of words but you saw no image, only a voice" (Deuteronomy 4:12).

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is the Emanu-El Scholar at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco. He is the author of several books on Jewish spirituality including a new novel, Kabbalah: A Love Story ( New York: Morgan Road Books, 2006).

Lawrence Kushner ©2007

Monotheism: Antithetical to Man?

Daver Acher By: Renee G. Edelman

Rabbi Larry Kushner ends his powerful d'var Torah with the statement that none of us has control over "Nothing." The world and its doings are all God, and we are riders through the storm. Ironically, the mere fact that Ki Tisa was the portion I chanted as I became a bat mitzvah over twenty-five years ago, with Rabbi Larry Kushner as the officiating rabbi, gives credence to his statement. As Larry teaches, God gets us where we need to be. But here is where our perspective differs.

I believe in self-determinism. God may establish our birth and our death, but the days between belong to us. From Genesis to the end of Deuteronomy, Torah teaches that we have autonomy that involves yetzer hara , "an inclination toward evil," and yetzer hatov , "an inclination toward good." "Free will" refers to the type of decision that is uniquely human, a moral choice that stems from our creation in God's image.

Deuteronomy 30:19 states, "I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life ― if you and your offspring would live."

Our ancestors, that band of rebels who created the Golden Calf, made a communal moral decision based on fear, suspicion, and lack of belief.

But the sin at the foot of Sinai was not the creation of the Golden Calf, but a lack of control. Without Moses among them, there was no godlike representative and no restraint. The Israelites were free to indulge their animal instincts, and they certainly did. According to the commentator Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, dancing was an innuendo for sexual abandon. Fear led to idolatry, which led to loss of morality.

Human beings have trouble with faith that is not empirical. We need sight and sound and touch. We need to know that we possess choice and to be recognized for our choices. Between unquestioning belief and ultimate reality lies gray moral ground. Those sinners at the foot of Sinai are not so different from us. They lived through slavery and freedom, witnessed the miracle of the parting sea, and felt terror at seeing so many drowned by its force. In a mere few years, we have lived through 9/11 and seen the effects of a tsunami and a devastating hurricane. But while events may not be in our hands, we can choose how to respond.

Rabbi Renee G. Edelman is a rabbi at The Community Synagogue, Port Washington, New York.

Reference Materials

Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11–34:35 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 632–662; Revised Edition, pp. 581–606; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 495–520 

Originally published: