How exactly can a finite human being, rooted in her physicality, connect to an infinite, non-physical God? This question is one that the Torah grapples with throughout the second half of the book of Shemot. The Mishkan delimits a place, a space, for the Divine presence to inhabit, and the Glory of God is a created thing which represents God’s presence, but not God Godself. It was in such a physical space, with such a felt physical Presence, and through the physical act of the offering of sacrifices, that finite people were able to connect to an infinite God.
This is the means that the Torah provided, but it is easy to blur the line between it and between creating an actual physical representation of God. It is exactly this line which is crossed as soon as Moshe leaves the people on their own, and tarries in his return from Har Sinai. The people make a Golden Calf, and call out: “This is your gods, Israel, who have brought you up from the Land of Egypt.” (Shemot 32:4).
When it comes to idolatry, the Torah recognizes two types. There is the idolatry of worshiping other gods. This is the idolatry that is prohibited in the second of the Ten Commandments. “You shall not have any other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an engraved image… You shall not bow down to them and you shall not serve them because I am the Lord your God, a jealous God…” (Shemot 20:3-5). The focus here is the worship of other gods, and the imagery of God as a jealous God evokes the husband who is jealous because of his wife’s actual or suspected adultery (see Bamidbar 5:14). It is a violation of the fidelity of the God-Israel relationship, it is a “whoring after other gods.” (Devarim 31:16).
There is, however, another type of idolatry. Not the worship of other gods, but the corrupting of the idea of God, the worship of an image as a representation of the true God. It is this idolatry that the Torah warns against immediately after the Ten Commandments and the Revelation at Sinai: ” And the Lord said to Moses, Thus you shall say to the people of Israel, You have seen that I have talked with you from Heaven. You shall not make with me gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold. (Shemot 20:19-20). God is saying, in effect, “Because you saw that I talked to you from heaven, you may think that you actually saw something, that you saw Me. You may attempt to represent me with images of gold and silver. Know that this is forbidden. I remained in Heaven; I never came down; I am not of this world and cannot be represented in a physical fashion.” This meaning is made explicit in Devarim, when the Torah retells the event of the Revelation: “Take therefore good heed to yourselves; for you saw no manner of form on the day when the Lord spoke to you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire; Lest you corrupt, and make you an engraved image, the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female.” (Devarim 4:15-16). The key word here is tashchitun, to corrupt, not to worship the wrong god, but to worship the right God corruptly, to corrupt the very idea of God Godself.
When it comes to the Golden Calf, the commentators debate which form of idolatry took place. Did the people believe the Calf to be a different god, as is perhaps indicated by the use of the plural (“your gods, who have brought you up…”), evoking the constellation of pagan gods, or did they create the Calf as a physical representation of God, as a more immediate way to connect to and worship God? Psychologically, it seems hard to believe that after everything they had just experienced, that the People would so quickly backslide into their earlier pagan beliefs, but perhaps this is just evidence of how hard it is and how much work is necessary to change a person’s deeply ingrained practices and beliefs. So while the psychological argument is debatable, the textual evidence is, I believe, quite clear. “The Lord said to Moshe: Go down; for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted; They have strayed quickly from the path which I commanded them; they have made them a molten calf…” (Shemot 31:7-8). The key word, here again, is shecheit, corrupted. They have not abandoned Me; they have not whored after other gods; they have corrupted – corrupted the worship of God and the idea of God. They have strayed from the path that they were commanded, they have violated the rules, and left narrow path that allows only certain forms of worship, but they have not violated the faith, they have not believed in or worshiped other gods.
The Golden Calf, then, was the People’s need to go one step further than the Mishkan. It was the need for an actual physical representation of God. They lapsed into this because of Moshe’s absence. What is the causal relationship between these two events? It is possible that as long as Moshe was present, the people did not need a physical representation of God because Moshe served that purpose. A religious leader, especially if he is a charismatic one (or, in Moshe’s unique case, has the opportunity to speak to God directly), can often come to represent God in the mind of those he leads. Although there is no actual confusion of the leader with God (one hopes), having a person who represents religious authority, who (ideally) embodies the teachings of the religion, can satisfy in the mind of the worshiper the need for a more concrete representation of God Godself.
People who are religiously yearning, who are looking for a means of connection, may tend to focus on their religious leader, their rabbi, as a substitute, and to raise their rabbi to a God-like status. While rabbis deserve respect and at times even reverence – and this is a value often needs strengthening – they do not warrant slavish worship. Such worship of a human being is a form of idolatry, a disaster for the rabbi who can forget his own fallibility and need for humility, a disaster for the congregant, who can shut down his or her critical facilities, and not think for themselves in religious and life matters, and it is a disaster for the religion and for our relationship to God.
But even when this idolizing of leaders is not present, there is still a strong religious draw to find a more concrete connection to God. The ideal response to this need would be to find ways to connect other than through our physical nature. It is perhaps for this reason that after the sin of the calf, Moshe asks God to be shown God’s ways, to more understand God. They need more than a Mishkan, but less than a Calf. They need to replace the physical seeing with the intellectual understanding. And this God understands, and God agrees to. You can “see My back,” God tells Moshe. You can strive to understand how I act in the world, what are My attributes, what are My ways. This is how you can connect to Me with the mind, not just the body.
How do we achieve such understanding of God? For some, the answer is philosophy and theology. For others, it is the study of kabbalah and the achievement of mystical states. For many today, though, the answer is through the study of Torah – God’s word to humankind – and Halakha – God’s directive for how we are to act in the world. But this latter approach can just as easily be an avoidance of God, rather than an engagement with God. How often do we ask, when studying the Talmud, “what is it that God wants from me?” How often do we hear said in the beit midrash, “How does this help me understand God or God’s will better?” A recent educator told me that he did a survey about what Jews talk about when they get together. God did not even make the top ten.
It is perhaps for this reason that Moshe, after the sin of the Calf, broke the Tablets when he descended from the mountain. He saw that even stone tablets that contained the word of God could become an object of worship, a type of an idol. Even the study of Torah and Halakha, if it is only meaningful in itself, and not as a way of understanding God and connecting to God, can be a type of an idol.
To avoid repeating the sin of the Golden Calf requires rejecting the false gods in our lives – those things that we give greater value to than God, that come to replace God – but also rejecting the idols in our lives – those things that we use to buffer between us to God, those things that we can worship and direct our religious and intellectual energies to, so we don’t have to connect to God directly. If we are to truly serve God, we must seek out God in many ways, and bring a wide range of pursuits – rational, mystical, aesthetic, artistic, scientific – to the service of knowing God and of connecting to God.
Revised from 2013