We are in the midst of the final section of the Book of Sh’mot and the devastating highlight of this section is the Sin of the Golden Calf. And when the people saw that Moses was late coming down the mountain they turned to Aaron and they said, “Make for us a God of gold who will lead us, because this One (God) of Moses the man, we don’t know what has become of Him.”
Israel wanted to worship God by portraying Him as a Golden Calf. Now, unconditional love of anyone, especially the Jewish people, requires that we try to understand their interest in worshipping a Golden Calf. What’s so terrible about this?
First of all they honor God by planning to make the Calf out of gold, the most precious metal. Gold is central to the construction of the Mishkan, the Ark, which is made of gold. The Menorah is made of gold. The two tiered, six leveled Table for the Shabbat Challa is made of gold.
Secondly, they just saw God work the Ten Plagues in Egypt and split the sea. They saw God defeat the Egyptian army and all of its chariots and horsemen. They perceive God as mightier than anyone. They look around their environment and it’s quite natural for them to see in a young calf, soon to be a bull, an example of might and power. What is so terrible about that? Alright, they made a mistake, but why such rage and anger from God and Moses in response? Their sin has in it some perfectly reasonable ideas.
One of the reasons that the Torah prohibits idolatry, one of the reasons that Judaism prohibits making an image or likeness of God, is not because the image or the likeness is incorrect. It really is possible to portray an aspect of God in wood and stone. The problem is that God is beyond time and space. God is infinite. It is not that the idol presents a false image of God. It is rather that the idol presents an incomplete image of God. It elevates that aspect of God to the exclusion of the infinite aspects of God. To make an image of God that represents some aspect of God, for example to portray God as a compassionate mother or to portray God as a mighty worker building the universe, is to exclude the infinite. It is to freeze that aspect. It is surely a presumptuous act. It is incorrect simply because it is an incomplete portrait of God who is infinite. God is infinitely more than just the might on display in liberating Israel from slavery in Egypt. This is idolatry, the denial of the infinite.
There is a parallel in the human plane to almost everything on the divine plane. Human beings are created in the image of God. Human beings are endowed with many aspects and facets. When Karl Marx held that the essence of a human being is the material and their economic role in society, he is on the one hand surely right. Economics are quite important, but economics are not the only important thing about a human. Marx committed idolatry when all that he could see in the human being is an economic being.
At a time in our society when we seek civility and respectful discourse, we need the lesson of the Golden Calf. In it we find some of the roots of uncivil or disrespectful speech. One of the roots of this spate of incivility is idolatry. A person with a different set of ideas or convictions presents an idea about social, political, economic, or religious life. Too often, not only does the idea gain a critique, but the idea is then identified with the person. The person and the idea become one. The person is then attacked as if he or she is nothing more than the idea or position under discussion. The critic has frozen and reduced the person to one position. That is idolatrous.
Idolatry begins when the only thing you see before your eyes is just a man or woman and not a person with many facets. If all that you see before you when you meet a gay person is a homosexual, then you have committed idolatry, because that person, like every other person, has almost infinite facets—because she or he is created in the divine image.
In our political life if all one sees is a left-wing Democrat or a right-wing Republican, that is idolatry. When you meet a human being, created in the image of God, and you see before you someone endowed with multi-faceted and complex intellect and personality, then you won’t commit the sin of idolatry. For each person is far more than one or another facet of his or her being. Israel had it right; God is mighty. Honoring God with gold is surely good. Even declaring that God seems to be as mighty as the mightiest of all the beasts on earth, that is also fine. The Sin of the Golden Calf was that they saw only one aspect of God. That is idolatry. And that is what leads to reducing humans to one frozen image.
Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is Judaic Scholar at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.