The Golden Calf - what does it really mean?

(Photo: Unsplash/kharp)

This month we entered the Jewish month of Elul. Elul culminates after four weeks with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and Succot, when we celebrate our life in the desert by reenacting dwelling in huts.

This entire period of ushering in the New Year will finish on October 22, on Simchat Torah, when we dance around the synagogue, get drunk and rejoice in the Law, the Torah, given by Moses at Mount Sinai. On this day we read the last book of the Torah – Deuteronomy - and start again with the first words of Genesis: "In the beginning, G-d created the heavens and the earth."

Finishing with the old and starting the new once again reminds us that this is the day when we start our new lives of independence, far from our former idolatrous and slavish existences.

And leading up to that time, we are encouraged every week not only by the book of Deuteronomy but also by the consoling prophecies of late Isaiah, immortalized by the composer Handel in Messiah. 

In English, it simply doesn't come across that Isaiah is addressing his words to the women. But this is all too obvious in the Biblical Hebrew wording. Having given up on the men, ie. the so-called leaders, the politicians, the religious authorities, the business men of his time and the mere bruisers, the prophet Isaiah turns to those women.

For it is the women who are celebrated at the beginning of each month for refusing to take part in the sin of the Golden Calf, that idolatrous edifice which caused so much trouble to the people stuck in the desert – as all idolatrous edifices always do.

So it is appropriate at this time to ask: what is the Golden Calf? What is idolatry? And what is meant by the first commandment and the words, "I am the Lord your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery"?

It is important to recall that in Judaism, G-d is regarded as having no shape or form. Therefore any image designed either of or for the deity is strictly forbidden.

Some say that the Golden Calf was an actual substitute for G-d, others a substitute for Moses whom many felt had abandoned them, and others simply suggest that the calf depicted doubt. But if you are leaving a situation (i.e. the Wilderness after 40 years) and immersing yourself in a new life, a new land, newness altogether in fact, doubt is not a very positive emotion to harbour – and will probably act as an obstacle to progress, and can therefore lead, even inadvertently, to sin.

The website gives a good account of the major and differing rabbinic explanations of the Golden Calf.

The three major biblical commentators, spanning from 1040-1271, between them deal with a variety of possible interpretative options.

Interestingly, the first commentator, Rashi, a vintner from France, worked for the local Catholic establishment, preparing the sacrificial wine for the Cathedral in Troyes, in Champagne country. Rashi witnessed the massacre of his family by crusaders en route to the Holy Land. His commentary states that the children of Israel had decided that Moses had died and they wanted to fashion a deity who didn't need human intermediaries.

The second commentator, Ramban, was born in Gerona and was forced to participate in religious disputations with the Dominicans, which Ramban won and therefore had to flee to exile in Israel. He wrote his biblical commentaries in Acco (Acre). His commentary states that the calf was not meant to be a deity, but took the place of Moses as an intermediary to G-d.

My favourite commentator, Abraham ibn Ezra, born in Tudela (also in Spain), ended up in England, where he was eventually mown down by crusaders en route to the Holy Land. His solution to the conundrum is based in common sense. The calf was merely a pedestal on which G-d's presence would rest.

So there you have three alternatives: the calf is an alternative to G-d, an alternative to Moses, or merely a foot rest for the holy presence!

But now, at the end of the Jewish year, the Deuteronomy passages deal less with the Golden Calf per se and more with the embracing of freedom after years in the wilderness. And this is far more difficult than people often think it is. Because we all tend to cling to the familiar rather than strike out into pastures new. And even when we do strike out, we often bring all our past baggage with us. Most Exoduses in history are like that.

What Moses is trying to do in the last days of his life is to diminish as far as possible the negative baggage carried with the Jewish people from Egypt and to encourage them to practise all the Torah laws, customs and acts of brotherly love that he had demonstrated to them during their 40 years of journeying in the desert.

To reinforce this emphasis, G-d now offers the Jewish people the choice between a blessing and a curse.

The curse is to remain in the state of slavery, constantly reverting to idolatry. Moses will no longer be with the Jewish people when they cross over the River Jordan and enter the Promised Land. His work has been done and he can now die in peace. However, he wants to make sure that the people are ready for this new stage in their history. If Moses is no longer with them, and Joshua takes over, will the former slaves remain faithful to G-d's word? Or will they take the easy way out and go back to their idolatrous ways – the curse?

So what is the blessing offered by G-d to the Jewish people? Surely that after going around in circles for 40 years, they now have the opportunity to throw off their old life and embrace the new – but each individual has to take the first step himself. For isn't it easier to remain with their strong leader in a wilderness than to take responsibility for their new life in a land that has to be built up from scratch? Isn't it almost impossible to decide to make the leap over the river and to start anew? For leaving Egypt and letting go means to abandon the wilderness years and to work the new land from scratch.

The situation of slaves being liberated is often called the shock of freedom. And that's what it's like: so much easier to stay imprisoned in the cosy past than to stride into the unknown.

To be totally honest, isn't it human nature to be somewhat scared of freedom? And this is understandable. We would all like to return, once in a while, to our immature ways. For, didn't the Jewish people, molly-coddled for so long in the Wilderness by Moses, often yearn for the luxuries of the old – for the fish that cost them nothing at all, as well as the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic of their slave life in Egypt.

Were the Jewish people really ready for their break with the past? Are any of us ready for this when so much is on offer if we only clung to the past? But the Bible is teaching that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The book of Deuteronomy not only offers us freedom from slavery but freedom from fear. This greatest of all biblical books urges us to completely alter our outlook on life.

"All you who hunger and thirst, come and eat – give, give, give doubly to those who are poor and enslaved, to the weak and to the oppressed. No-one is forgotten. We are all part of this marvelous gift of G-d. Open, open your hand wide and give ...."

Those who are poor and enslaved by bad habits are encouraged to hunger and thirst for a new way. G-d has made a covenant with the Jewish people. He is telling them that they always have a choice – to be free or to be enslaved. It is now up to them – and to us.

Just before they are to cross over into their true home, the Land of Israel, Moses reminds them that "You have seen everything that the Lord did before your eyes in the land of Egypt to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land. But the Lord did not give you a heart to know, or eyes to see, or ears to hear until this year. I have now led you for 40 years in the Wilderness."

After 40 years of life education, Moses thinks that the Jewish people may now be mature enough to go it alone.

That is why Deuteronomy is read at this time of year, in the contemplative month of Elul, leading up to Rosh Hashana, Jewish New Year. At the end of the Elul period, at the end of September, the shofar will sound once again, to give us the wake-up call beyond all other sounds. The book of Deuteronomy will be completed. The Torah will have been finished and, straight away, the first book of Genesis 'In the beginning' will start all over again.

But it takes an entire month of contemplation on the contemporary meaning of Golden Calves, idolatry and the attraction to slavery before we can face the piercing sound of the shofar, the ram's horn. This is the huge wake-up call for all of us, and not only for the Jewish people, to throw off our idolatrous and slavish ways and to start worshipping the one and only G-d – the G-d of all humanity.

And the question facing us this year of all years is: are we up to it?

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.