What was the sin of the golden calf and why does it matter to us today?
The commentators are divided as to the nature of the sin. For some, the golden calf was the worship of a new god, a rejection of the God who redeemed them from Egypt. According to others, the people’s belief in and fidelity to God did not change. And yet they did a grievous sin by creating something physical to represent God and by directing their worship towards it.
To me, it is clear that the latter was the case. Moses is gone, and the people do not have anyone on earth that represents God. They need something that will allow them to feel that God is among them.
In the Torah, worshiping God through the physical is a form of avodah zarah, just as much as the worship of foreign gods. On a theological level, representing God in a corporeal way corrupts the idea of God and God’s total separateness from our physical reality. And on a practical and relational level, such physical representation corrupts our worship of God as God truly is.
And yet, this purist idea creates a profound challenge, even a paradox, to us as human beings. How can we as humans relate to some One who is outside our comprehension and experience? If God cannot — as Rambam argued at length — even be described with human words since those words themselves are rooted in our experience as human beings, where can the point of connection be found?
It is exactly this profound human need of connectedness that demands the use of the physical in our worship of the Divine. It can’t be an idol, but it needs to be something.
For Rambam, the drawing on the physical aspect of the human experience takes place in the intellectual realm — in the Torah’s use of metaphors and anthropomorphism in describing the Divine — God’s outstretched arm, or God’s smelling the aroma of the sacrifices. But now, these have become dead metaphors and lack their original emotive power, and they no longer serve the goal of making God more relatable.
On the practical realm, the Torah gives us the use of the physical in a number of ways. God tells us to build the Mishkan, and that God will descend in a cloud and dwell among us. We attempt to carry this idea over to our synagogues and shuls, but they so often lack the awe-inspiring power of the Temple to create a felt sense of God’s presence.
What about the act of worship? The Torah gives us sacrifices. An animal is offered to God, placed on the altar, and the smoke rises up to heaven. This is a powerful, concrete way in which one experiences bringing something to God and God receiving the offering. Today, however, we have no such sacrifices, and may people find it hard to relate to this act of worship, among other reasons because its extreme physicality makes God seem too human, too physical.
So what can be done? Finding an answer is not easy by any means. A joke is told about a man who wakes up every morning at the crack of dawn to pray at the Kotel. After 30 years, a friend says to him, “Chaim, tell me, does it help?” To which he responds, “Feh! It’s like talking to a wall!”
To some degree, perhaps, this challenge can be addressed, to some degree, by the use of physical ritual items and bodily movements in our davening. The wearing of tallis and tefillin, the act of shuckling or even just sitting, standing, moving three steps back and three steps forwards, all help make prayer more concrete, and make God maybe that much more accessible at that moment. But all of that probably falls short.
When I suggested this answer to my students they pushed back and offered other approaches. Some argued, cogently, that the disconnect which is at the root of the question should prompt us to rethink our conception of God. We do not have to think of God as merely transcendent and above nature; we can adopt a more Kabbalistic and Hassidic approach which sees God as both above nature and also within it, inhering in every blade of grass. By seeing God in every aspect of the physical, the challenge in finding a point of connection vanishes.
Another way to approach this challenge is through a life of Torah and mitzvot. Too often we see our performance of these as something being demanded of us by an abstract entity called “Halakha.” But in the Ahavah Rabbah prayer that is recited before Shema, we say something quite different. We declare that God has loved us and given us Torah and mitzvot as the expression of that love. And in the Shema we read the verses that state that we should return our love to God through the learning of Torah and performance of these mitzvot. Imagine how different our religious life would be if we saw our day-to-day observance of halakha as an expression of God’s love for us and our love for God! This could become a profound way to worship of God through the physical.
As religious beings, we have a need to connect to the Divine, even if it is sometimes buried deep within us. Our challenge is to not ignore this need, or to note it and move on, but to work to find ways that we can reach out to God in concrete and visceral ways, so that God can be a felt part of our lives.