From deicide to calf-worship: Islam and Judaism
There is no generation that does not take an ounce of the deed of the Calf. (Midrash Rabbah)
Or as the great French Bible commentator Rashi paraphrased: “There is no calamity that befalls Israel that is not partial payment for the sin of the Calf” (Exodus 32:34). To what were the sages of Israel alluding? Was this perhaps an overstatement, an example of the sages engaging in hyperbole?
Judaism gave birth to two daughter religions: Christianity and Islam. Both daughters developed supersessionist theologies, whereby the once Chosen People, with their rejection of Jesus and later Muhammad, were left back in time, an unredeemed, if not damned nation. In the words of the twentieth-century thinker Rav Kook, it was the case of “the daughter who bites her mother’s breast.”
Christianity held the Jewish People accountable for the crime of deicide. Having coopted the Jew Jesus of Nazareth and deified him, the Church then accused the Jews of being responsible for his crucifixion. Put crudely, the Jews were a nation of “Christ-killers.”
Islam, on the other hand, did not hold the Jews responsible for Jesus’ death. The Jews were absolved of any complicity in his execution by the Romans, simply because Jesus never died!
And for their saying, “We slew the Messiah, Jesus son of Mary, the messenger of God”—though they did not slay him; nor did they crucify him, but it appeared so unto them. Those who differ concerning him are in doubt thereof. They have no knowledge of it, but follow only conjecture; they slew him not for certain. But God raised him up unto Himself. (The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, ed. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, New York, 2015, 4:157-158)
Islam came at Judaism with a much older complaint. Time and time again, the Quran (2:92-93; 4:153; 7:150-152; 20:85-97) levels the accusation that while Moses was up on Mount Sinai, down below the Children of Israel worshiped the Golden Calf:
And indeed Moses brought you clear proofs, but then you took up the calf while he was away, and you were wrongdoers. And when We made a covenant with you, and raised the Mount over you, “Take hold of what We have given you with strength, and listen!” They said, “We hear, and disobey,” and they were made to drink the calf into their hearts because of their disbelief. (Quran 2:92-93)
As scholars from Abraham Geiger to Abraham Katsh have documented, the Quran is informed not only by the Torah per se, but also by Midrash. In three other passages (2:63; 4:154; 7:171), the Quran states that Mount Sinai was raised over the Children of Israel at the time of the establishment of the covenant. (The last passage is most graphic: “And when We lifted the mountain above them, as if it were a canopy, and they thought it would fall upon them.”) This is clearly a reiteration of the famous agadah recorded in the Babylonian Talmud:
The Holy One, blessed be He, held the mountain over them as a vat, and said to them: “If you accept My Torah—good; and if not—there shall be your burial!” (Shabbat 88a)
In a parody of the Israelites’ declaration of unequivocal acceptance, “We shall do and obey” (Exodus 24:7), in the Quranic version, theirs is a brazen, “in your face” response: “We hear, and disobey.” “Among those who are Jews, are those who distort the meaning of the word, and say, ‘We hear and disobey’…And had they said, ‘We hear and obey,’ it would have been better for them and more proper” (Quran 4:46).
In Surah 20, the Israelites shift the blame for fashioning the Calf to an anonymous “Samaritan” (al-Samiri):
They said, “We did not fail our tryst with thee of our own will, but we were laden with the burden of the people’s ornaments. So we cast them [into the pit], and thus did the Samaritan throw also. Then he brought forth for them a calf as a mere body that lowed, and they said, “This is your god.” (Quran 20:87-88)
Scholars have long puzzled over the identity of “al-Samiri.” Geiger thought Samiri might be a corruption of Samael (or Satan) who entered into the calf (see Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, chap. 45; trans. Friedlander, p. 355), or that somehow Micah of Judges 17 was confused with Samiri (see Rashi, Sanhedrin 101b and 103b). One ventures a guess that the Egyptian magicians Jannes and Jambres (Yohanai and Mamre) of Rabbinic legend have been fused together and transmogrified into the anonymous Samaritan (see Midrash Tanhuma, Ki Tissa 19). Coming out of left field, A.S. Yahuda suggested that the Quran conflated the stories of the Golden Calf in the Desert and the two golden calves later erected by Jeroboam in Bethel and Dan (I Kings 12:28-29). Jeroboam, King of the Northern Kingdom of Samaria, was technically “the Samaritan.” (Ignace Goldziher Memorial Volume, Budapest 1948, pp. 286-7)
A few verses later, the Samaritan reveals by what magic he was able to conjure up the Calf:
So I took a handful [of dust] from the footsteps of the messenger, and I cast it. (Quran 20:96)
“The messenger” (rasul) in this context is none other than Moses. By some stretch of the imagination, we hear the strains of the Midrash:
[Aaron] threw it to the fire, and there came along the magicians and performed their magic.
Some say, it was Micah, who…took the plate upon which Moses wrote “Rise up, O Ox,” when he raised the sarcophagus of Joseph [from the Nile]. Micah threw it into the furnace among the bracelets, and there hopped out a lowing calf. (Midrash Tanhuma, Ki Tissa 19)
Saul Lieberman did not let even “a handful of dust” slip through his deft hands. He found an obscure Midrash to Song of Songs which reads:
When [the Children of Israel] passed through the Sea, Micah beheld the Celestial Chariot and took from the dust that is under the Ox, and put it away for the right time. (Midreshei Teiman, Jerusalem 1940, pp. 17-18)
Moses burnt the Golden Calf, reduced it to ash and cast the ashes into the water (Quran 20:97; Exodus 32:20; Deut. 9:21). The Israelites were then forced to drink it down (Quran 2:93; Exodus 32:20).
In the Islamic view, the Calf-worshipers’ sin was the most dangerous of all offenses, that of shirq, idolatry. “And for those who took up the calf, anger from their Lord shall seize them, and abasement in the life of this world” (Quran 7:152). In this new narrative, the Jews were no longer “Christ-killers” but “Calf-worshipers.”
The odious insult shows up in the most unlikely of places. Scholars have long debated the age and provenance of the Hekhalot literature, a genre that describes mystical ascents to heaven. Nineteenth-century German scholars Heinrich Graetz and Phillip Bloch assumed that these Jewish mystics were active in the Geonic period and influenced by Muslim mystics. Scholem, the “Buchhalter” or “Accountant” of Kabbalah, set research back in this respect when, perhaps naively, he thought the material older than it actually is, supposing that it dates from second-century Tannaitic sources. Today, scholarly opinion has come almost full circle, with the consensus being that the works of the Hekhalot were edited in Babylonia as late as Geonic times. In a passage of the Hekhalot that Scholem banked on for his early dating, we read:
And at the gate of the sixth palace it seemed as though hundreds of thousands and millions of waves of water stormed against him, and yet there was not a drop of water, only the ethereal glitter of the marble plates with which the palace was tessellated. But he was standing in front of the angels and when he asked: “What is the meaning of these waters?’ they began to stone him and said: “Wretch, do you not see it with your own eyes? Are you perhaps a descendant of those who kissed the Golden Calf, and are you unworthy to see the King in his beauty? (Gershom G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, p. 53)
One may now check the minor variae lectionis in Peter Schäfer’s monumental Synopse zur Hekhalot-Literatur (Tübingen 1981), 259§ (p. 116) and 408§ (p. 172).
This defamation of Jewish character was placed in the mouth of the King of Khazaria by the medieval Spanish poet and philosopher (or perhaps “anti-philosopher” is the more apt term) Judah Halevi:
Take care, O Rabbi, lest too great indulgence in the description of the superiority of thy people make them not unbearable, causing thee to overlook what is known of their disobedience in spite of the Revelation. I have heard that in the midst of it, they made a calf and worshiped it. (Book of Kuzari, trans. Hirschfeld, New York 1946, I, 92)
The Rabbi (a fictitious Rabbi whom later generations would gullibly identify as “Rabbi Isaac Sangeri,” sanegor being the Hebrew word for “defense lawyer”) then goes to great lengths to try to minimize the guilt of the Golden Calf (ibid. I, 97).
Judah Halevi’s Book of Kuzari is subtitled The Book of Refutation and Demonstration in Defense of the Despised Religion (Kitab al-radd wa’l-dalil fi’l-din al-dhalil). The “despised religion” is of course Judaism. Halevi was defending his faith against the onslaught of Islam. He argues that there were mitigating circumstances. What to the untrained eye might appear as outright idolatry, was in fact, an attempt to provide a medium upon which the divine presence might rest. Thus, the calf was not substantially different from the cherubim over the ark—with one notable exception. The gold cherubim were divinely enjoined, while the gold calf was a case of the Israelites “taking the bull by the horns” (pun intended) and acting purely on their own initiative.
Halevi’s argument strikes the modern reader as clever rather than convincing. Be that as it may, Halevi’s theory cast a long shadow, entering, if you would have it, the “collective unconscious” of the Jewish People. In 1884, the brilliant, irascible Rabbi of Brisk, Joseph Baer Soloveitchik, would essentially rehash the Kuzari’s defense, adding in brackets:
It is possible that something similar is found written in a book. However I have not seen all this, and on my own cognizance I write so. (Beit Halevi, Ki Tissa, 27b)