Parashat Ki Tissa
Perhaps no story in the Torah is as powerful as the tale of the golden calf that we encounter in this week’s parsha. Just a couple of weeks ago in parshat Yitro, the children of Israel stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai and experienced divine revelation only to revert to idolatrous practice. “The people gathered against Aaron and said to him: Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who has brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him” (Exodus 32:1). After Aaron told them to take off their rings and jewelry to make a golden calf, he said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out from the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 32:4).
Judah Halevi, one of the most famous mediaeval Jewish poets who lived in Al Andalus, believed that the children of Israel were not guilty of idolatry. Halevi states that even in the Torah we have anthropomorphic descriptions of God, attributing speech, actions and even a seat in the heavens to God. Halevi states, “Their offence lay in attributing Divine sanctity to the product of their own desires and hands” (Kuzari 1:97). For Halevi, it was not the actual construction or even necessarily the worshiping of the golden calf but that they saw their creation as divine. To me, this is a very powerful and deep insight. It raises the question of what idolatry truly is and it has ramifications for the way we view our religious traditions as well. Any time societies construct philosophical or theological systems – no matter how brilliant, elegant and insightful – and claim that it IS the absolute truth, they are constructing a golden calf. The approach to our tradition at Emanuel has been principally informed by the perspectives of Reform, Conservative, Renewal and Reconstructionist movements. These movements within Judaism see the Torah and our religious tradition as one that has evolved over time. Our religious tradition is a record of our people’s struggle to encounter the Divine Source of all Life throughout the course of human history and in our lives. While we understand the Torah as divinely inspired, we don’t see it as a document that was dictated by God to Moses at one time on a mountain. The Torah reflects our people’s collective attempt to encounter God and to be in relationship with the Divine.
Additionally, our people’s exploration of the Divine did not end with the codification of the Torah, Tanach or Talmudic literature, but it continues and will do so for as long as Judaism exists, thrives and has something profound to offer humanity. The story of the golden calf serves as a warning to us not to mistake human constructs of God for the Divine Source of all Life.
Rabbi Cantor George Mordecai