The Golden Calf: symbolism and idolatry

The Golden Calf represented Israel’s first infidelity after being redeemed from

Egypt. The Jewish tradition calls the erection of the Golden Calf, an Israelite, monotheistic infidelity toward God, avoda zara, what Rabbi Jose Faur calls “unauthorized service” which is a religious act offered to other gods or to the real God in an unauthorized way.

On one hand, idolatry is not common in the secular west; rumors of demonic idols remain in modernity. This study will identify the irreconcilable differences between the anthropology of the paganism of idolatrous mind and the mindset of the Judaism of the Jewish sacred library.

The pagan sense is sight. Seeing is believable. Gestures are statements of loyalty to the deity and the hierarchical elite that knows the will of the god. It is the power person who represents the salvation, way, will, and life of the god, and no one can possibly parse the mind of the god except them.

In each and every paganism, the god is represented by a hero. The hero looks human but is either fully or partially divine. Horus is embodied in the living, reigning Pharaoh, and Gilgamesh, although human, had extraordinary power because he was partially divine. Hammurapi tells his reader that the god Shammash gives the law to him.

Muhammed, an illiterate, gets the law from Jibrili, the Gabriel of the rabbinic tradition.

Disobeying the vicar replacement of the god is both political treason and theological heresy. The hero speaks in the name of the god, who commands that the human vicar be honored, fed, venerated and above all, obeyed. Religion is the opiate of the masses because it provides the superstructure justifying the means of production in a morally mean society. Religion validates and legitimates the order for whom the right to rule is reserved to those with the might, monopoly of coercion, and brute will to exploit the human labor and life span of others for their exploitation of the effort of others. This leadership “knows” the will of the real gods, and are not shy in proclaiming the pieties that justify their socially exalted station.

Asking “why” to this elite is a moral and mortal threat to the social political order.

By killing the Egyptian who was beating the Israelite, Moses challenged the elite. When Moses asked that Israel have a day off, a Sabbath, Israel was called lazy for the request.

Discretionary time is dedicated to the elite; religion legitimates the elite, it does not refresh the slave. The hierarchy is “high,” today called “your holiness” or “your highness,” the message being that before such higher people you are low and would do well to know your place and do what you are told. Modesty is the response of the masses before the esteemed and venerated leader, the “great one.”

The golden calf was an Israelite paganism. Even though there was only one such idol according to the biblical record, this monotheism is nevertheless pagan. There can be no images of God because images are controlled by elites. Pharaoh presided over a neon society in which religion was state propaganda. Like the Hegel of the 19th century, the state is right because it is the world spirit realizing itself, happiness, justice, and even freedom notwithstanding: The symbolism of gold is eternity, it does not tarnish. Hence, there were mummies with golden masks, as the face will resurrect in eternity. The calf is the young bull, Baal’s fertile footstool on earth. Understanding the import of pagan ideology, which justifies power elites and licenses pleasure, the rabbis recognized that paganism will justify legislation. When Israel “got up to play,” to enjoy license, the mission of idolatry becomes manifest.

The Torah model is the mirror opposite of paganism. The Torah sense is hearing, not seeing. We are warned “not to stray after your heart and eyes, after which you are unfaithful.” The rabbinic word for tradition, shemu’ah, is hearing.

Israel saw the splitting of the sea and the revelation at Sinai, yet built the golden calf. Jethro heard what God did for Israel and became a believer. God cannot be seen because God cannot be processed by the finite human mind. The Seder is about recalling, retelling, reshaping the past to render the past useable in the present. We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, God did not create us as or to be slaves. Therefore, we will resist submission to bullies because we believe in God; if we happen to be slaves, we tell the story of the Seder in the present to be used and applied. The past as it occurred is lost in antiquity and is religiously irrelevant. The Passover of the Exodus is ever present in the Passover animated as observed by successive generations. Ahad Ha’am, the secular essayist of the National Hebrew Revival taught that the Moses of archeology, the Moses who walked the earth, is most likely not identical to the Moses of our historical memory.

In paganism, the leader invents the god or gods whom he, and occasionally she represents. The divine icon is at the back of the leader, who is an extension and representative of the god. Some call this extension the messenger, the rasul, other the replacement, the vicar. And no one can reach the god invented by the leaders except through the orders, interests, and policies of those leaders. The leader is addressed as “highness” and “holiness.” Conversely, Moses, the greatest of prophets is at the same time the most modest of all men. Paganism creates hierarchies of deference; Torah’s Author invests the individual with the dignity of the image of God. In paganism, no questioning of authority is permitted because religion’s major role is validating the status quo. Because God’s covenant is with Israel and not just with the elite, the elite is judged by all Israel by comparing its acts to the actual rules and benchmarks of Torah. In Ecclesiastes, King Solomon asks questions of God regarding providence, and his father, King David, asks in frustration, “My God my God why have You forsaken me?” The prophet regularly challenges the constitutional monarch of Israel regarding self-serving violations of the only covenant that validates his rule.

In the Judaism of the rabbis, only public laws are laws. No secret laws are admissible. Legislation and reason create rabbinic rules, not fatwas or intuitions. If the Torah opinion [<I>Daat Torah</I>] is not recorded in a canonical document, it is neither the will of Torah or the Giver of the Torah but the opinion of a pretender to Torah.

In Judaism, there is a hierarchy of learning, not of pedigree or family. No one is so holy that she or he cannot be challenged. The unpedgreed learned Jew is morally superior to the unlettered high priest or king. The “high” priest is really the great priest, the first of equals, who when not engaged in his office dresses like a commoner. Professor Jacob Neusner insightfully refers to Judaism not as “the religion of the Jews,” because that would deny Torah. Torah, the word of God, is the official religion of the Jews. With time, Torah became known as teaching as it referred to God’s teaching. The late Reform scholar, R. J. Peutechowski, taught that Torah derives from the root yrh¸meaning oracle, the word of the Lord. This Torah creates a society and is not created by a society to justify the status quo.

The Torah outlaws icons because pictures, which can be manipulated, may not be allowed to replace words with grammar. Pagans venerate images that embody proclaimed hierarchies; Torah sanctifies words that teach people how to be better. The deity appears in paganism to an elite; the Torah teaches that the law is not in heaven, and if not given in public, it is not law. Israel is the servant of the liberating Holy One.

Israel respects people but defers only to God. People who demand deference do believe in a god; narcissistically, they worship themselves.

Israel’s Torah is a teaching of truth, gestating the seeds of eternity. In pursuit of pleasure the pagan seizes power, the goodies of culture and the day at hand.

Israel obeys the Torah, inheriting eternity.

Rabbi Dr. Alan Yuter

About Rabbi Alan Yuter

Rabbi Yuter is Adjunct Prof. of Hebrew Lit., Baltimore Hebrew University, and Adjunct Faculty, Fairleigh Dickenson University/Institute for Traditional Judaism. S'micha from Chief Rabbinate of Israel, Rabbi Mordecai Eliyahu. See bio for more.