The Golden Calf: Turning Away From God

April 1, 2011
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Ariella Radwin

According to Exodus 32, the Golden Calf was an idol fashioned by Aaron to appease the anxious Israelites while Moses sat atop Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments. The Israelites provided Aaron with their gold jewelry and earrings, allowing him to fashion a molten calf, ready to be worshiped as the God who effected their exodus from Egypt. The Torah and later Jewish thought unequivocally regard the act of creating this Golden Calf as a sin of the highest degree.

Fashioning the Golden Calf was not merely the most blasphemous sin of the Jewish people; it was also a metaphor that shapes how we view idolatrous acts. According to the Golden Calf narrative, the idolatrous sin included doubting God’s presence, creating a material object, and then assuming that the tangible is more powerful than the ineffable. In other words, the essential sin of idolatry is swapping an abstraction for materiality.

The calf is a metaphor of turning away from God. It demonstrates both the physicality and the clarity of idolatry: One could worship either God or the calf. All of idolatry is dichotomized — us or them, truth or objects, faith or doubt. One believes either in an incorporeal and powerful God, or in the magic of inanimate metal and wood.

While a third option exists at least theoretically — that one may see a material object as a tangible reminder of some deeper reality — in Judaism, the lesson of the Golden Calf denies that possibility. Instead, we learn that holding an image in hand means rejecting the larger truth it represents. One must choose either the piety of believing a larger truth or the sin of worshiping its earthly stand-in.

Metaphor has the power to shape the way we envision the world even when we are not truly aware of its effect. Sometimes a metaphor is so foundational that the words themselves fade into irrelevance, and even when they are no longer in front of our minds, they shape our understanding of the world. Such is the case with the Golden Calf. It is an “invisible” metaphor. Its power as a metaphor shapes our thinking even when we no longer think about the actual incident of Aaron, Moses, and the people. Even today, the assumption of a dichotomy between abstraction and materiality in faith is fundamental to the way that Judaism encounters the limits of idolatry.

Here are some ways that the metaphor still works: In contemporary Judaism, meditation, yoga, and psychotherapy can be nice complements to spiritual pursuits. These abstractions are reasonable ways to enrich one’s conception of God, even though they are not inherently Jewish ways of being. What makes these activities acceptable is that they are abstract and contain no material essence. There is no warning bell of idolatry because there is no tangible manifestation. Instead, these practices tuck into the broad range of expressions of Jewish faith, from atheism to monotheistic devotion to nearly polytheistic thought. With no materiality attached, there is no conflict — or at least, no sin. Buddhist thought, mindfulness meditation, blessing circles, and yogic mantras all insinuate themselves into our practice (or find their more native Jewish counterpart) without incident.

On the other hand, when we swap that abstraction for materiality, we often have a distinctly uncomfortable feeling. Consider, for example, Jewish sentiments about Christmas trees. While Jews might carve pumpkins in October and feast on turkey in November, there is remarkably little tolerance for a tree in December. Embracing the icon of another faith is still recognizable as the most basic of errors. Taking on another’s materialized symbol of truth is like putting one’s earrings directly into Aaron’s bag, an unredeemable sin.

The real legacy of the Golden Calf has been to limit our understanding of the first commandment: “You shall have no other Gods besides me.” While this commandment should serve as the most sweeping prohibition against idolatry, we rely instead on the more narrowly construed second commandment, “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image.” Can we reclaim this lost ground by viewing the Golden Calf not as the paragon of wrongdoing, but rather as a mere instance of it? This, in turn, would allow us to better understand all of the other “gods” modernity begs us to worship, the material and incorporeal, the holy and profane.

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Ariella Radwin graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 2007 with a doctorate focusing on rabbinic literature. Over the past several years, she has taught courses in Jewish studies at San Francisco State University, the University of San Francisco, and Stanford University.


  1. Dear Editor,

    Ariella Radwin’s description of “Jewish sentiments about Christmas trees” (The Golden Calf: Turning Away from God) is inaccurate and off-putting. She writes, “While Jews might carve pumpkins in October and feast on turkey in November, there is remarkably little tolerance for a tree in December.” Really? The most recent statistic is that 55% of Jewish households are intermarried; half or more of the young adults who are or could identify as Jews have intermarried parents; in seven years’ of’s December Holidays surveys, over half of interfaith couples who are raising their children as Jews have Christmas trees in their homes. Contrary to her statement that “Embracing the icon of another faith is still recognizable as the most basic of errors” and to her suggestion that having a tree amounts to “Taking on another’s materialized symbol of truth,” to the intermarried population in our surveys, the Christmas tree is almost universally regarded as a symbol without religious significance.

    When Jewish intellectual leaders suggest, as Radwin does, that Jewish families that have Christmas trees commit “an unredeemable sin,” they are reinforcing negative stereotypes about interfaith families and gratuitously pushing away those interfaith couples who describe their families as Jewish and raise their children as Jews.

    Edmund Case
    Newton, MA

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  2. There is scarcely much I can add to the well thought out comment of Ed Case. Allow me to comment on the method of reasoning here though.

    There is a reason our rabbis warned us, “ein moreen halacha midivrei agaddah” - “One cannot base a ruling on legend”. The reason is that the lessons of the legend are not at all obvious, and frequently the lesson is decided upon by the one teaching it, who can then go back and find whatever tenuous basis for it in the legendary story. That is why such categorical statements pronouncing a cultural practice as an “unredeemable sin” speak less about the text it is “derived” from, and more about biases of the one who forcefully derived it.

    The author should have remembered the famous warning, “Chachamim, hizaharu bidivreichem” - “Wise men, be careful with your words…”

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