If the Golden Calf was wrong, why not our golden tabernacle

Ki Tisa

Exodus 30:11-34:35

Numbers 19:1-22

I Kings 18:1-39

People often tell me things like, “I don’t believe in the God that you believe in” or “I’m a spiritual person, but I don’t believe in the Jewish concept of God the way you do.” They assume that because I’m a rabbi and a religious person that I must take literally the images of God in the Torah and in the prayer book. However, even the Torah itself warns us against taking images of God literally.

rabbi chai levyIn this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, we read of the making of the Golden Calf. When the Israelites see that Moses is taking so long in coming down from Mount Sinai, they get nervous and seek to fill the void with an idol made of gold. Amid celebration, sacrifices and dancing, they say of the Golden Calf, “This is your god, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!”

Of course, we already were instructed in the Ten Commandments not to make sculptured images to depict the divine, and later in this parshah, we are again warned against idolatry and told specifically, “You shall not make molten gods for yourselves” (Ex. 34:17).

The Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859), understands this verse to mean that we should not make a God for overselves that is fixed, static, a molten image. Today, unlike with our ancient ancestors who had come out of Egypt and were surrounded by peoples practicing idolatry, we are less tempted to create an idol like the Golden Calf. However, teaches the Kotzker Rebbe, idolatry still threatens us; if our concept of God is the same today as it was yesterday, then we’ve created an idol in our mind. We’ve built an image of God.

The essence of idolatry is limiting God, thinking we can capture God in words or in images or in concepts, or thinking we can point to something finite and say “This is your god,” as the Israelites said of the Golden Calf. Even the words in the Torah, in rabbinic literature and in our liturgy can lead us to create graven images in our minds, if we forget that words are limited; words might try to express our experience of the divine, but they cannot capture God.

Interestingly, the episode of the Golden Calf takes place in the middle of a long section in the Torah in which God commands us to build the mishkan, that portable sanctuary we carried through the wilderness to create a dwelling place for God.

The holiest place in the mishkan, the place where God will dwell and speak, is filled with gold. The ark that holds the Ten Commandments, the menorah, the winged statues of cherubim over the ark — all are golden. The juxtaposition of the golden holy of holies with the Golden Calf might lead us to wonder: What’s the difference between them? Aren’t both containers for God? Why is one divinely sanctioned, while the other is the ultimate betrayal of God?

The difference is that the Golden Calf limits God, but the mishkan creates a space for God. The Golden Calf is an attempt to capture and contain God, emerging out of fear that we’d been abandoned, whereas the mishkan is the creating of a holy space to invite God’s presence into our lives.

The Torah recognizes that we have yearning to know God, but we can’t fully know God. And if we think we know God, we’ve created an idol. Just after the Golden Calf episode, Moses begs of God, “Let me know Your ways” (Ex 33:13) and “Let me behold Your Presence” (Ex 33:18). God responds by putting Moses in a cleft of the rock while passing by him, saying, “You will see My back, but My face must not be seen” (Ex. 33:23).

In the Hebrew, the word for back, achorai, also means “my after,” meaning that what Moses sees is not necessarily God’s back, but rather, the trace of God’s having been there with him. So it is with us — we can’t capture God in words or images, but we can make a space for God’s presence and know when God has been there.

Rabbi Chai Levy is associate rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.

Rabbi Chai Levy
Rabbi Chai Levy

Rabbi Chai Levy is the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.