Ki Tissa and the golden "calf?"
© 2017 S.H. Parker

The "incident"

It seems like 20 minutes ago, Israel was standing "under the mountain" (Ex. 19:17, בְּתַחְתִּ֥ית הָהָֽר also rendered as "at the bottom of the mountain" and "the nether part of the mountain;" there are three droshim (homiletic explanations) of "under the mountain," taking "under" literally when it is clear that in the first millennium B.C.E. this is the idiomatic way of saying "at the foot of the mountain"), hearing the voice of God.

"And the people saw Moses was late coming down from the mountain" (Ex. 32:1). How did they respond? They went to Aaron and demanded that he "make for us a god that will go before us" (32:1).

And how does Aaron, though not yet actually consecrated, the priest of Israel, respond? Does he remind them of the word that they heard against (sculpted) images? Does he express his confidence that Moses will return, urging further patience for Moses' return? Does he, in any way, show how wrong this request is? No. Immediately he tells Israel to bring him the gold earrings of their wives and children.

With alacrity, the people are depicted as complying.

And Aaron "fashioned" a "molten calf."

Right here, we need to stop. "Calf" is not right. The Hebrew (32:4) tells us that he made an עֵ֣גֶל (e'gel). In Biblical Hebrew, עֵ֣גֶל does not mean "calf." It means "bull" (a young bull, though in modern Hebrew, it now means “a young cow”).  Why would our "spiritual leaders" so mis-represent what Torah actually says? Why?-Because as in so many similar cases, something theological is at issue, something Torah says, or does not say, that contradicts what our "leaders" want to say.

The bull is the idol of the Canaanite god El, also known in Torah as "Ba'al." In other words, Israel is not simply committing apostasy, it is doing so in a definitively Canaanite way, making and worshipping Canaan's "chief god." Of course, throughout Torah, Canaan is viewed as a, if not "the," primary source of spiritual contamination. But, I would think, the apostasy of the golden ox would just serve as a proof text of the horrors of Canaanite religion and society. No, something "bigger" is at stake in trying to hide the Canaanite nature of the incident.

What's being hidden is that Israel had lived in Canaan before going down to Egypt - at least three generations. Israel was going back to Canaan. Israel came from Canaan. Not just in the territorial sense, Israel was composed of refugee Canaanites, Canaanites with a better idea of how society should be structured and run. Israel, at first, was not religiously different from other Canaanites; it was philosophically different, sociologically different, politically different but, fundamentally, Israelites, as the bull amply demonstrates, remained Canaanites.

Personally, I don't see what's so horrifying about admitting this. But thousands of years of theologians do seem to have thought it was. And instead of using this to show Israel's progress, Israel's revolutionary thinking ... they hide it. Go figure.

And, who gets in trouble for this? Moses (32:7 ff). Aaron ... nothing. In fact, when Moses confronts Aaron (right after throwing down the tablets of the Commandments, 32:21), Aaron promptly lies:

They said to me "make for us a god that will travel in front of us ... I threw it [the gold] into the fire and this bull came out" (32:23-24)

Talk about chutzpah!

Now we hear the famous "Who is for Adonai, to me!" (32:26) and, the normally zealous Levites finally get motivated. "And the sons of Levi did as Moses spoke; and there fell, on that day, about 3000 men from [among] the people" (32:28).

God establishes a principle of punishment, telling Moses that "who has transgressed against me, [that one] I will erase from my book." That is, the person who sinned will be punished, not anyone else (32:33, instead of bearing the iniquity of the parent to the third or fourth generation, Ex. 20:4, for those who refuse to understand this as the metaphor that it clearly is ).

Two questions

Israelites hearing this story in the late 2nd millennium and early 1st millennium B.C.E. would have understood what the עֵ֣גֶל was and what it meant. As we are shocked by the swiftness with which Israel defected, all the more so, early Israel. For early Israelites, this was not simply apostasy but defection, returning to their Canaanite ways....

But, just how widespread was this apostasy?

We are toldמִן־הָעָם֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא כִּשְׁל֥שֶׁת אַלְפֵ֖י אִֽישׁ ֙ ("from the people, on that day, about 3000 man"), about 3000 men fell. The text uses the word אִֽישׁ, "man," and in Torah that word has only one meaning. An אִֽישׁ is a male who is liable for service in the army; An אִֽישׁ is a male 20 years or older. In any case, 3000 is a lot of people.

At Ex. 12:37, as Israel left the district of Ramses, we read

וַיִּסְע֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מֵֽרַעְמְסֵ֖ס סֻכֹּ֑תָה כְּשֵֽׁשׁ־מֵא֨וֹת אֶ֧לֶף רַגְלִ֛י הַגְּבָרִ֖ים לְבד מִטָּֽף
And the children of Israel traveled from Ramses toward Succot, about 600 thousand heroes [great men] on foot, besides the young children.

Here, אִֽישׁ is not explicitly used but it is implied by the use of הַגְּבָרִ֖ים (the great ones, heroes). Let's forget, for the moment, the question over how אֶ֧לֶף should be rendered (as "thousand," as it is here and in the count of the dead over the bull, or as "fighting unit"), in our two passages, we have apples-and-apples. The same counting unit is being used to count the same subject, adult males.

3000 killed is a large number of people. But compared to 600,000, we can see that the apostates amount to less than 1/2 of 1 percent of the population.

This is not an apostasy of "the people" as a whole. It is not even an apostasy of the majority of the people. It was a minority. This was not only a minority "movement" but a very small, exceedingly small, minority. 0.005.

If it was such a small rebellion, why does Torah draw so much attention to it? Of course, Torah is never shy about pointing out Israel's failings. But, in this case, the failing is truly ghastly, regressing into Canaan-ism, doing after the ways of the nations ... especially this nation.

The size of the apostasy further begs the question of Aaron....

And Aaron is my second question: How does he get away with this? Not one single word is spoken about his role in the golden bull (nor anywhere else he behaves badly for that matter).

Of course it helps that it is his descendants who collected and formalized Israel's stories, wrote them down and promulgated them....

There are two midrashic (homiletic) attempts to excuse Aaron.

In one, Aaron's actions are described as a delaying action, delaying until Moses' return. What is "delayed," we are not told. But, collection of the earrings, melting them down, creating the cast, casting the idol, cooling the cast, breaking the cast, erecting the alter ... all of these certainly took time.

But, in the face of so, relatively, few rebels, why did Aaron accede to their demand for an idol at all? And why so quickly? And why without the slightest indication of misgivings?

The second midrash asserts that Aaron would have been killed if he had not acceded. (Never mind that the same Rabbies who excuse his behavior, assert that idolatry is one of only three commandments that may not be suspended to save a life.)

For a number of years the Catholic Church has wanted to canonize Pius XII, the Pope of the Shoah, the man, when a Cardinal, who minimized Pius XI 1937 encyclical "Mit brennender Sorge" against German racism. Apparently many Jews were unhappy with this and, apparently, vocal about it. (But, I must admit, I knew neither that there was a canonization effort nor vocal opposition until quite recently.)

A few years ago, the Vatican invited 100 prominent Jews from around the world to a meeting to discuss Pius' canonization. A friend of mine was one of the "chosen people." The objective was to get them to urge quiet in the Jewish communities from which they came.

He told me their main arguments. First, Pius did much behind the scenes. (Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, known as "The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican," certainly did. In fact, he appropriated Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's summer residence, to hide Jews and Allied airmen. But Pius? I find no record whatsoever of any activities by him.) Second, the nazis would have killed Pius if he had spoken out.

I say to you what I immediately, without a moment's thought, said to my friend: a priest, much less the chief Priest (nor  a Rabbi, a minister, an Imam), does not have the luxury of being moral only in private. "A man of God," almost by definition, must wear his morality on his sleeve, must display his ethics for any and all to see.

And, as we are the people of God, neither do we.