The Golden Calf: Two Paths to Idolatry

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

“When the people saw that Moses delayed in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron and said to him, “Arise, make us a god who shall go before us, for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and formed it with a stylus, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt (Exod. 32:1-4).”

Rashi (Exod. 32:4) comments: 

“As soon as Aaron had thrown the gold into the fire in a melting pot, the Egyptian magicians who joined the Jews’ exodus made the golden calf through their magic. There are some who say that Micah the idolator was there, who had been drawn forth from the foundations of a building in Egypt where he was nearly crushed. He had in his possession God’s name and a plate upon which Moses had written “Come up, ox, come up, ox!” in order to raise the coffin of Joseph (who is compared to an ox) out of the Nile, and Micha cast that plate into the melting pot and the calf (the young ox) came out (Tanchuma, Ki Tisa 19).” 

These conflicting histories regarding who crafted the Gold Calf indicate that they are not literal, but metaphors or allegories. Certainly this is so, as the Torah openly identifies Aaron as the one who made the Calf. Had these been literal accounts, just as the Golden Calf was retained in both versions, those who created the Calf would have equally been retained, and the Torah would not state that Aaron made the Calf. But the verse clearly states Aaron sculpted the Gold Calf with a tool. 

What is unique to the Egyptian magicians and Micha, as opposed to other personalities, that the rabbis connected them with the Calf? Furthermore, unlike the magicians, why did Micha require an object to create the calf, and why was that object God’s name? 

When blaming either the magicians or Micha, we are attributing to them not the creation of this idol, but some other element. That element is idolatry’s dynamics. I believe the rabbis intend to convey the two forms of idolatry.

One form is expressed by the magicians. The magicians and the Egyptians were primitive and infantile in their understanding of the universe. The root of idolatry is youth, where children view parents (physical entities) as powerful. When mature, one’s psychological nature finds conflict in the realization that his parents are in fact not powerful. Where does the adult displace his image of the powerful parent? Idolatry is the response, where man projects a powerful character onto any one of an array of physical entities—usually humanoid or beast-like to resemble the parent. As this projection exists only in fantasy, the rabbis said the magicians used “magic” in making the Calf. As noted, the verse cannot be contradicted which says that Aaron sculpted the Calf. The rabbis intent is that the magicians merely deified that gold idol. Their relationship to it as a god is akin to making the idol. The rabbis identify one idolatrous methodology—fantasy—saying the magicians “made” the calf. But in truth, they only deified this gold idol.

Another idolatrous method is not mere abstract projection, but a physical cloaking. All people possess the infantile psychological dependency on parents. This is to be abandoned, like all other poor traits. Jews too face this challenge. No human is exempt. But if a Jew fails to extricate himself from the idolatrous emotion of deifying physical entities, having been raised with monotheistic teachings, he has a more difficult task. He experiences a conflict of which gentiles are unaware. Gentiles seamlessly grow from infantile infants, to infantile adults. They have not confronted monotheism, so their transition to adulthood experiences no conflicts; they maintain their idolatrous emotion with no bumps in the road. But the Jew must either abandon idolatry, or mesh it with his Judaism. He does so by cloaking his idolatry in “Jewish garb.”  

Micha was idolatrous, but used Jewish raiments (ephod) and retained the services of a Levite, thereby resolving his conflict between Judaism and idolatry by dressing his idolatry in a Hebrew guise. Micha is the perfect candidate for the rabbis lesson of this second mode of idolatrous dynamics. Additionally, Micha also used a plate bearing God’s name or identity, teaching that behind idolatry is the need for the supernatural. Ramban and Or Hachaim dismiss the notion that the Jews thought the Calf to be God. Ramban said, “No fool would say the gold that was in their ears is what brought them up out of Egypt (Exod. 32:4).”  They merely used the Gold Calf as a means to relate to God. Idolatry aims a relating to a deity, thus the plate was related to God’s name. The Role of Moshe and Joseph in this medrash may point to the Jewish leaders responsible for Jewish monotheism, and Micha’s conflict. Thus, using an item related to both Moshe and Joseph, Micha assuaged his conflict, and retained a Jewish identity for his idolatry.

Depending on one’s origins, his relationship to idolatry will have one of two dynamics.