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Parashat Ki Thisa

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Parashat Ki Thisa 5759/1999

The Golden Calf through the Eyes of The Kuzari

Prof. Yohanan Silman

Department of Philosophy

In considering the episode of the golden calf we are ever and again faced with the same poignant question: how are we to understand such a descent from the loftiest heights to the lowest depths? How could it be that the generation of the exodus from Egypt, who but forty days earlier had witnessed the revelation at Mount Sinai, turned to a golden calf, exclaiming, "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt" (Ex. 32:4)?

R. Ulla, one of the amoraim, gave strong expression to this paradox by comparing the Israelites to a bride who betrays her husband on the night of their marriage: "How shameful is a bride who has been unfaithful under the wedding canopy" (Gittin 36b). He compares the revelation at Mount Sinai to the ceremony; the Israelites to the bride; G-d, the groom; and the sin of the golden calf, the act of betrayal. This betrayal is sometimes interpreted as violation of the marriage contract, abrogating it from that point on, or as an indication of the poor degree of loyalty which the Israelites had in the first place at Mount Sinai.[1] This interpretation opens the way for undermining claims about the unique bond of the Jewish people with G-d and was therefore highly significant in confrontations between Jews and non-Jews, holding a key place in religious polemics.[2]

The view that the uniqueness of the Jewish people was undermined by the golden calf episode is reflected in The Kuzari of Rabbi Judah Ha-Levi. It may be heard in the ironic response of Al Khazari, king of the Khazars (representing the non-Jewish person on the path to becoming Jewish), to the praise lavished by The Rabbi (representing the Jew who plays a key role in bringing the non-Jew into the religion) on the Jewish people:

Take care, O Rabbi, lest too great indulgence in the description of the superiority of thy people cause thee to overlook what is known of their disobedience in spite of the revelation. I have heard that in the midst of it they made a calf and worshipped it. (1.92)

What is The Kuzari's response to these charges? The Rabbi prefaces the main part of his reply with praise for the Jewish people.[3] In his opinion, a correct understanding of the lofty station of the Jewish people and their origins intrinsically eliminates any possibility to see the sin of the golden calf as revealing the elementary baseness of the Jews; or alternatively, that the sin of the the golden calf instilled in the Jewish people a character flaw from hereon in.[4] The principal greatness of the Jewish people is not based on any one-time event, such as the revelation at Mount Sinai, but rather is vested in their inherited characteristics, stemming back to Adam.

Thus we see that Judah Halevi's understanding of the golden calf is quite different from Ulla's. In his opinion, the revelation at Mount Sinai cannot be compared to a wedding, and the sin of the golden calf is not like a bride betraying her husband under the bridal canopy.[5] But the constant stress on the greatness of the Jewish people makes it all the more difficult to understand the episode of the golden calf. Hence the king of the Khazars returns to his point even more emphatically:

This is the true greatness, which descended direct from Adam. He was the noblest creature on earth. Therefore you rank above all the other inhabitants of the earth. But what of this privilege at the time when that sin was committed?

The Rabbi's response to this argument reveals various lines of thought, their common element being that they explain the sin by mitigating its gravity without detracting from the greatness of the Israelites.[6] Initially he ascribes the sin of the calf to historical factors which retrospectively have to be taken into consideration. In his opinion, during the era when this sin took place, it was impossible to establish a religion in which the masses would have to conceive of a G-d who would not e visible to them through their senses. Accordingly, G-d appeared to the Israelites during the exodus from Egypt in pillars of cloud and fire (1.97). They also expected, the Rabbi adds, "that something visible would descend on them [at Sinai] from G-d which they could follow" (ibid.).

These constraints and, paradoxically, also G-d's promise at Sinai, mitigate the sin of the golden calf. Moses ascended the mount to realize this Divine promise, and the people stood at the foot of the mountain, anxiously waiting for him to return with the anticipated "object" in his hands. The people mistakenly believed that Moses would return the same day that he ascended, but he remained on high for forty days. This led to growing disappointment, and out of a true desire to worship G-d some of them tried to create an image that would serve the role that the "object" was intended to serve; thus it was that the golden calf was made. Hence, the sin in making the golden calf was not one of idolatry, as the Rabbi explains:

This sin was not on a par with an entire lapse from all obedience to Him who had led them out of Egypt, as only one of His commands was violated by them. G-d had forbidden images, and in spite of this they made one. They should have waited and not made an image by themselves... (ibid.)[7]

Now a different line of thought emerges from the continuation of the Rabbi's remarks. The focus shifts to the present, to his own generation, which had great difficulty understanding why their forefathers had to worship through images and the golden calf. The Rabbi wrestles with these difficulties by pointing to the centrality of physical symbols commonly accepted even in present-day religious rites to assure the "gathering of our community" (ibid.).[8] By virtue of such "sociological" arguments, explaining the sin of the golden calf requires no assumptions regarding the inferiority of the age in which it took place; for people throughout the ages share the essential need for representations.

The object of these lines of thought which we have sketched above is to reconcile the greatness of the Israelites, an idea which is basic to The Kuzari, with the fact that indeed they made a golden calf. These arguments seek to explain that despite their fundamentally elevated status, some of the people, under mitigating circumstances, were drawn into making the calf. These arguments do not present the golden calf as denigrating the basic character of the Israelite people.

On the face of it, The Kuzari does not deal with the clear proximity (semichut parshiot) of the episode of the golden calf to the revelation at Mount Sinai. But in fact, from the descriptions of the revelation on Mount Sinai, a description in which The Kuzari constantly stresses the primacy of vision and seeing in establishing the relationship of human beings to G-d, we can learn about the real relationship between the character of the Israelite people, the revelation at Mount Sinai, and the golden calf.[9] These relationships are not contingent on any external proximity of the incidents, but on the essential need for the sense of vision to comprehend G-d: to know and love Him,[10] as the Rabbi put it:

The first leader, Moses, made the people stand by Mount Sinai, that they might see the light which he himself had seen, should they be able to see it in the same way. He then invited the Seventy Elders to see it, as it is written: "They saw the G-d of Israel" (Ex. 24:10). (4.11)

Viewed from this angle, the impatience that led to making the golden calf was rooted in the revelation at Mount Sinai itself: the Israelites sinned precisely because of, not in spite of, their proximity to the revelation at Mount Sinai.


[1] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Mishpatim, par. 13; Tosefta, B. K. 7.9, and cf. Ps. 106:19-21.

[2] This question is raised in ancient sources, such as Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, pisqa 2, Ki Tissa, Mandelbaum ed. p.16.

[3] His initial (albeit unconvincing) response (cf. 1.93) only gives the general line taken to understand the episode: the sin of the golden calf not only fails to attest to the infeof the Israelites, it actually is consonant with their greatness. At this point in the argument he is still obscure about the relationship between the sin of the calf and the greatness of the Israelites.

[4] Accordingly, the Rabbi notes that even the sinners among the Jewish people, those "despised of G-d," did not lose their unique virtue entirely (1.95).

[5] Judah Halevi does not perceive the sin of the golden calf as betrayal because he does not view it as idolatry.

[6] Accordingly, the Rabbi notes that when the sin of the calf took place "they were in the same ecstasy as they had been on the day of the revelation at Sinai" (1.97) and that therefore they did not lose of their greatness and the sin was forgiven to them.

[7] As the continuation shows, the fact that the worshippers of the golden calf relied on their own initiative led them to err and worship an inappropriate symbol. In this respect, they could be compared to a person who is not a physician taking medication that he has self-prescribed.

[8] Nevertheless the Rabbi finds it necessary to stress that only three thousand of the Israelites participated in worshipping the calf.

[9] Accordingly, Al Khazari argues that the revelation at Mount Sinai could be construed as personifying G-d (1.88), which the Rabbi rebuts by distinguishing between G-d's manifestation of Himself and His actual essence.

[10] Cf. 4.3, 5, 17.