Frederick L. Klein

Living in a world of zealous gods

Just as Moses deflected God's wrath after the betrayal of the Golden Calf, we must stop short of allowing even justified anger from devolving into violence (Ki Tisa)
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We are living in a world of zealots and zealous gods. I must say, zealots worry me, and my concerns were echoed in a book authored by one of the “prophets” of Israel’s secular establishment.

In one of Amos Oz’s last books, Dear Zealots (2017), he considered the rise of the impulse to zealotry, which he saw virtually everywhere. In times of pitched uncertainty, he argued that cultures in their sentimentality imagine another world just beyond reach, a world in which everything is settled and life makes sense, free from the suffering and complications of life. To achieve this desired end however, zealots point to a culprit “who can be blamed for all our suffering” and “if we only eradicate the villains, all our troubles will perish.”

It’s all because of globalization!” “It’s all because of the Muslims!” “It’s all because of permissiveness!” or “because of the West!” or “because of Zionism!” or “because of secularism!” or “because of the left wing!”… More and more commonly, the strongest public sentiment is profound loathing- subversive loathing of the “hegemonic discourse,” Western loathing of the East, Eastern loathing of the West, secular loathing of believers, religious loathing of the secular. Sweeping, unmitigated loathing surges like vomit from the depths of this or that misery.… For example, concepts that only half a century ago seemed innovative and exciting — multiculturalism and identity politics — quickly morphed in many places, into the politics of identity hatred. What began with an expansion of cultural and emotional horizons is increasingly deteriorating into narrower horizons, isolationism, and hatred of the other. In short, a new wave of loathing and extremism assails us from all sides.” [1]

What unites all of these ideologies is the phrase “if only.” If only an, individual, a group, an ideology or even a god were to be destroyed, the world would be restored to some imagined order. When a vanguard arises who tries to accomplish exactly that, to bring the imagined utopia on earth, the result has always been utter death and destruction. (Consider the Communist revolution for example.) The Hasidic masters understood in a way few do that redemption is not necessarily a movement of history, but a movement within the human heart. History is simply the outer reflection of humanity’s inner awakening of itself.

Which brings us to this week’s parashah. Did you know that one of the descriptions of God is a zealot, demanding ultimate and complete fealty? God tells the Jewish people in the very first commandment not to have any God’s before them, for “I am a zealous God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me.” Any deviation will not be tolerated. Perhaps an all-knowing God is justified in zealotry — even though we will see that God “evolves” — but for God’s minions who claim to advance God’s goals, I find this absolutist zealotry terrifying, an absolutism with the potential to commit great evils upon God’s creatures.

Given this, the episode of the Golden Calf in our parashah is depicted as the ultimate betrayal. In the very midst of the camp, the presence of God is displaced with an idol. God’s initial reaction? God plans to destroy the entire people, root and cause. Like the ancient flood, God states that He will begin again, creating a new nation from Moses himself. God’s righteous anger at this moment has the potential to destroy everything and everyone in its path.

It is clear to Moses that given the depth of the betrayal, there must be a decisive reaction. Initially, there is no chance for true reconciliation and Moses descends the mountain smashing the tablets as an act of rebuke. He then declares, “Who is for God? Follow me” (Ex. 32:26). The Levites than engage in civil war, and 3,000 people are killed. Moses instructs them to kill their own neighbors and relatives, and at the end of his life praises them for not showing any favor to kinship (Deut. 33:9). The only value at that moment that makes any difference is eradicating the evil at hand. Indeed, there are moments in history in which evil reveals itself, and there may be times in which this evil must be eradicated. Yet can evil truly be completely eradicated if it resides in the human heart? One might reflect upon the fact that even after these events, even after Moses’s decisive actions, idolatry and rebellion against God persist. Evidently, religious zealous action did not eliminate the abominations of the camp.

Yet, while Moses destroys those who engaged in and built the golden calf, he utterly rejected a righteous anger which would have led to the destruction of the Jewish people. Zealotry may have a place, but only in a limited way. While recognizing the seriousness of the violation, the rabbis explicate our parashah as an extended dialogue, in which Moses, the one who speaks to God “face to face,” faces off with God, challenging God to stay God’s own anger. Kinah — zealotry cannot be the foundation of this relationship. Moses will simply not allow God to follow through on his initial zealous and righteous anger, fueled by the betrayal of His own people. The talmudic rabbis build upon some of the implications of the biblical text.

The rabbis see the radicalism in their claim:

“Now leave Me be (lit. “let go”), that My wrath will be enraged against them and I will consume them; and I will make of you a great nation” (Exodus 32:10). Explaining this verse, Rabbi Abbahu said: Were the verse not written in this manner, it would be impossible to utter it, in deference to God. The phrase “leave Me be” teaches that Moses grabbed the Holy One, Blessed be He, as a person who grabs his friend by his garment would, and said before Him: Master of the Universe, I will not leave You be until You forgive and pardon them. (B.T. Berakhot 32a)

Playing on the words hanicha li, leave me or let go of me, the rabbis intuit that Moses was “grabbing on” to God, like someone grabbing their friend by the lapel. Moses refuses to allow God to act in unlimited fury.

Moses engages in a number of stratagems, but at the root of his arguments is that the people are God’s people, taken out from the idolatry of Egypt. They were raised in a culture of idolatry, and the expectation that they could be quickly weaned is unrealistic. By definition, people are fallible and limited, and if God is to have a relationship, God must remember who the people are, as well as their psychological limits and their limitations.

The promise that God will make Moses into a great nation is utterly rejected. “Remember the [promises you gave] to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” Moses declares. Commenting upon this, the Talmud remarks, “If a three-legged stool cannot stand before your wrath, how will a stool of one leg?!” This is as if to say, “If the merit and the traditions of the Patriarchs are not enough, how will I be any different? My descendants will also disappoint you, and how will they fare any better” (B.T. Berakhot 32a).

The Torah describes Moses’ entreaty for mercy before God using the term, va-yahel, which generally is translated as “entreat” or “mollify.” However, the rabbis again read Moses’ approach to God more forcefully. In one reading, the word va-yahel is derived from the Hebrew words, halal, slain person. Moses is said to be ready to be slain before he submits to God’s violent intentions.

The people indeed have sinned a great sin, but God must nonetheless forgive them. If not, Moses asks God “to erase him from His book” (See BT Berakhot 32a quoting Exodus 32:32). Moses wants no part of a book — or a world — in which there is no hope for change, for forgiveness. Moses did not commit to a story in which God liberates the people only to later destroy them in fury in the desert, even if they have done a great sin (Exodus 32:12). Indeed, the Egyptians will look at the fate of the Israelites, and say God is an evil God. God took them out, only to destroy them in the desert, as He did to us in Egypt.

Ultimately Moses’s entreaties, even struggles are successful. God pulls back from the brink, “And God renounced (Vayinachem) the punishment planned for His people” (Exodus 32:14). In Genesis, the same word, “Vayinachem” is invoked in the story of Noah, but the word is associated with God’s regretting the very creation of humanity in the first place, given their wickedness. Noah, the faithful but flawed servant, says nothing and God’s righteous anger floods the world. Here, Moses responds, and prevents a similar destruction.

By the end of our parashah, over the process of an extended period of reconciliation, we are introduced to God once again, just like the first commandment, but this time we experience a different God. God introduces what is known in Jewish liturgy as the 13 attributes of mercy, a theology grounded in the understanding that to be human is to be fallible as well: Adonai, Adonai, el rachum ve’chanun — My God, my God, a God of mercy and compassion. God certainly does not forget iniquity or responsibility, but at the same time is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin…” (Ex.34:6-7). Our tradition teaches that we are to invoke these attributes of mercy, to arouse Divine pathos. This text is at the core of the High Holiday services, as each of us individually as well as collectively try to repair our relationships with both God and our fellow human beings!

It is remarkable that the One offended, the One that is the object of Israel’s faithlessness, the One who is abused, then instructs the people themselves the key to reconciliation. It is Moses, our intermediator, who negotiates this new arrangement. There is punishment for the Golden Calf — there is culpability — but at the same time the people are not destroyed and even ultimately are reconciled. There is the capacity to rebuild, and what was before does not necessarily dictate a future course. This is true whether between God and human, between humans, or even between nations.

To hold out a promise for change is not to relieve a community or an individual of moral culpability, but it does guarantee that reconciliation whether between individuals, people, or even God is still possible. What has been does not necessarily dictate what will be. The 13 attributes of mercy hold out the promise of reconciliation between an infinite God and a finite, flawed people.

How much more can this serve as an example to our world, deeply scarred and flawed. There is culpability – the people were forced to drink the gold dust of the golden calf that they created, and the fashioners of the golden calf were destroyed by the Levites. However, in the end, Moses looks to build ultimate reconciliation, and ultimately succeeds.

After the absolute abomination of the golden calf, the biblical narrative seems to imply that God was ready to destroy the entire Jewish people, but Moses’ example of staying the full extent of God zealousness and wrath was also heroic. God’s very own restraint, invoked in the 13 attributes of mercy, is ultimately also a form of power, but of a different order. Who is strong? He who conquers his inclination, as it is said: “Better is one slow to anger than a strong man, and one who rules over his spirit than a conqueror of a city” (Proverbs 16:32).[2]

In the world in which we live, the process of personal, communal and even national reconciliation is not the work of any one generation, but the collective work of civilization itself, and given the violence and hatred we see around the world, we realize how far we have to go. As people who hold sacred ideals — values of both justice and mercy — we need to constantly consider the line when violence fueled by just claims descends into zealous fantasies of anger fueled by trauma. Admittedly, like the words of Ecclesiastes, there are times of absolute war, but there are also times for peace. There are times in which we cannot let injustice stand and must be decisive, but there are also times in which righteous anger and zealous fantasies of vengeance can potentially unravel our entire moral core. May God grant us the wisdom to know the difference.

Shabbat shalom

[1] Amos Oz, Dear Zealots: Letters from A Divided Land, translated by Jessica Cohen, (Houghlin Mifflin Harcourt: USA, 2018), pp. 5-6

[2] Ethics of the Father, 4:1

About the Author
Fred Klein is Director of Mishkan Miami: The Jewish Connection for Spiritual Support, and serves as Executive Vice President of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami. In this capacity he oversees Jewish pastoral care support for Miami’s Jewish Community, train volunteers in friendly visiting and bikkur cholim, consult with area synagogues in creating caring community, and organize conferences on spirituality, illness and aging. As director of the interdenominational Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami, Fred provides local spiritual leadership with a voice in communal affairs. He has taught at and been involved with the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, Hebrew College of Boston, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, CLAL– The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, and the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is Vice President for the Rabbinic Cabinet of the Jewish Federations of North America, former Chair of the Interfaith Clergy Dialogue of the Miami Coalition of Christians and Jews, and formerly served on the Board of the Neshama: the Association of Jewish Chaplains.
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