Ki Tissa: Why Jews forbid visual images of divinity

Ki Tissa

Exodus 30:11-34:35

I Kings 18:1-39

Some time ago a Buddhist friend whom I deeply respect asked me, "How do Jews maintain a faith life without using visual images of God?"

I knew this man to be a person of profound faith, whose spiritual practice included contemplation of small figures of the Buddha. For him, these little figures are by no means divine. They are a tool for stimulating his religious imagination, a way to direct his attention to the reality of the divine. How do Jews nurture their spiritual imaginations without visual aids?

In this week's parashah, we find the paradigmatic story of Israelite apostasy, the sin of the golden calf.

The Torah clearly understands this event as the ultimate sin, the ultimate act of betrayal and disobedience against God. In fact, it takes every fiber of Moses' strength to persuade God not to entirely wipe out this people as punishment for the sin.

Why was the building of the golden calf such a terrible offense? And why does our tradition so fiercely oppose the use of visual images of the divine?

"When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, `Come, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt — we do not know what has happened to him'" (Exodus 32:1).

After 40 days with no sign of Moses, the just-liberated slaves were gripped by utter panic. Moses, the man in whom they had just begun to put their trust, had vanished, and the God of whom he spoke was invisible and inscrutable as ever. They were inconsolable; they insisted they must see this God, even in fantasy.

The text is quite explicit about this. After Aaron collected their jewelry and fashioned it into a molten calf, the people exclaimed, "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!" (v. 4). Later, when God angrily reported to Moses what the people were doing, the exclamation is repeated word for word: "They have made themselves a molten calf and bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying, `This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!'" (v. 8).

The text is quite clear that the "sin" was the creation of a physical image of the divine, and identifying this human-made image with the reality of God. What was so "sinful" about this?

When Moses did not return, the people panicked. Newly liberated in body but not yet enlightened or enriched in spirit, the people had no resources to sustain them in the unbearable uncertainty of the wait. What had happened to Moses? How would they find their way now? Had God killed their Moses? How could they go on without "a god who shall go before us"? In their waiting, they were engulfed by fear.

In order to medicate their fear, they made of their God an object, made of their faith a thing. Confusing the work of their own hands with the reality of God, they descended to living in the ridiculous pretense that this metal object had brought them out of Egypt. And this was the ultimate offense against God's Being.

Unfortunately, real life is a lot more like the period of waiting for Moses than it is like the spectacular moment of face-to-face encounter between Moses and God that unfolds later in this narrative. One might even say that we live most of the time in uncertainty, not knowing when God will show up and in what form, who will lead us, and how things will turn out.

This story tells us that it is a violation of our most basic faith to try to escape from the inevitable uncertainties of life by fleeing into our own creations, our own fantasies, our own small representations of a Reality grander than we can imagine.

Our tradition is extremely strict with us on this point. We may not succumb to the understandably human temptation that other traditions allow — to use tools, figures, images, visual aids. As Jews, we must continue to believe that we can see the invisible, recognize what is beyond form.

As my Buddhist friend pointed out, this is a terribly difficult way to run a life of faith. But who ever said being Jewish was easy?

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at