Sample text for What shall I do with this people? : Jews and the fractious politics of Judaism / Milton Viorst.

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Chapter One: Moses versus God

God first described the Israelites as stiff-necked in Exodus, the biblical account of their flight from centuries of slavery in Egypt. He rendered the judgment when they were still in Sinai, midway between the pyramids and the promised land, and Moses, their leader, concurred in it.

Stiff-necked is a metaphor derived from the practice, common to tillers of the soil since biblical times, of harnessing oxen for work in the fields. To secure the yoke properly, at the joint between the head and shoulders, the tiller had somehow to persuade the beasts to relax their necks and lower their heads.

In Sinai, at the seminal moment of Judaism's history, God had just used His powers to emancipate the Israelites from Pharaoh. But they not only withheld their gratitude they also could not be persuaded to relax, lower their heads and submit dutifully to His authority. On the contrary, God found the Israelites to be persistent malcontents, rebels and finally apostates. So, in His irritation, He denounced them for their attitude. The Jews have been described as stiff-necked ever since.

One might reasonably hold that only by happenstance does a description applied collectively to the Israelites in Exodus serve also as a commentary on the Jews today. Scholars have never confirmed, apart from the biblical account, that the Egyptian sojourn took place at all, but they hypothesize that the flight may have taken place about 1250 b.c.e. The date means that Jews have been considered stiff-necked for some 3,250 years, surely an endurance record for a trait of character.

One might also question whether God really applied the description. Religious tradition holds that the Torah is His personal creation, dictated to Moses word for word. Secular scholars, naturally, are skeptical of this belief. Most regard the Bible as an account written by mortals of events they did not themselves witness, in a context much changed by time. Whether a reader favors God's authorship or man's depends, of course, on personal convictions. But even if God Himself did not choose the metaphor, He is immutably linked to it. The link gives it ongoing credibility, and surely accounts for its durability.

But whatever God's role, it does not necessarily imply a divine presence in the transmission of the trait. The Jews have been a rather closely knit people since Moses' era, perhaps even from Abraham's, a far longer span than any other people that has played on history's stage. Some authorities do not preclude that a character trait can be transmitted, more or less intact, from one generation to the next, even for thousands of years.

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, argues in behalf of such a notion. Freud is convinced that, through conscious and unconscious communication, the generations routinely pass on aspects of their heritage. In Moses and Monotheism, he goes back to Abraham to postulate the source of the Jews' reactions to God in Sinai. "We must...adopt the hypothesis," Freud wrote, "that the psychical precipitates of the primeval period became inherited property which, in each fresh generation, called not for acquisition but only for awakening."

What Freud meant in that murky assertion was that each generation does not build anew an attitude toward life. Whether human or animal, parents transmit to their children, by cultural as well as genetic means, instincts that predetermine values and behavior. The instincts may remain latent until a circumstance arises that demands a response. But the response, he says, is foreordained.

In Totem and Taboo, Freud quotes approvingly from Goethe's Faust: "What thou has inherited from thy fathers, acquire it to make it thine." He goes so far as to say that the demanding strictures absorbed long ago into standard Jewish practice may result from the "rapture of moral asceticism" produced by the guilt feelings of Jews for the stiff-necked treatment they dealt to God in Sinai.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of Great Britain, adopts a mystical approach but makes an observation very close to Freud's:

"On Pesach, we are slaves in Egypt we experience the Exodus. On Tisha b'Av we endure the grief and suffering of all Jews throughout history, from the generation condemned to die in the wilderness through those who saw the Temple destroyed, to the Spanish exiles and those who awaited death in Auschwitz. Jewish consciousness is constructed in terms of memory, not history. History is what happened to others. Memory is what happened to us."

Sacks contends that Jewish memory fixes a permanent kinship between previous generations of Jews and our own.

Raphael Patai combines Freud's notion of "inherited property" and Sacks's reference to "memory" into the category "folk memory." Patai, an anthropologist born in Budapest in 1910, received in 1936 the first Ph.D. awarded by the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In The Jewish Mind, he contends that every people stores an image of its own history, a tribal memory, in a reservoir of data that establishes its collective character.

For Jews, the chief source of memory is the Bible, most notably its first five books, the Torah, which means "guidance." The preeminence of one man in its pages leads to its also being called the Five Books of Moses. The Torah's major concern is the experience of the Jews, under Moses' leadership, in the desert of Sinai, which is the point of departure of Judaism as we know it. Mosaic law, the guide to Judaic practice, is the Torah's major product. Folk memory, Patai says, is its by-product, exercising a powerful impact on Jewish character.

Patai contends that the Jews' sense of personal identification with the lessons learned at Sinai is the foundation of their tribal outlook. It is, he says, what sets them permanently apart from the Gentile world.

The Bible, especially the Torah, provided a unique assist to the Jews' memory. It gave them, alone among contemporaries, a written reference to refresh the mind. While Gentile peoples were creating mythology and folklore, Patai writes, the Jews were studying the Bible. Moses himself, in the Torah's last chapter, urges his people to remember their experiences. "Regard the days of old," Moses says. "Consider the years of ages past."

The British historian Paul Johnson, contemplating the Bible's impact on the Jews, holds that it derives largely from its literary merit.

"The biblical historians achieved a degree of perception and portraiture that even the best Greek and Roman historians could never manage. There is nothing in Thucydides to equal the masterly presentation of King David....But the stress on the actors never obscures the steady progression of the human-divine drama....Most of the books of the Bible have a historical framework, all related to the wider framework, which might be entitled 'A history of God in his relations to man.'"

It is hardly surprising that, in the Bible, history is secondary to divinity. The Bible's lessons are solemn. They impart to the Jews a deep-rooted religious orientation. Still, the Bible is more than God. The history it contains is the thread that winds its way through Jewish memory, the opening experience in the shaping of the collective Jewish mind.

Patai makes the valid point that the Jews have never been very interested in their secular history. The explanation is surely that during their centuries of exile, they did not make their history it was made for them, or done to them. After the biblical era, Jews had neither kings nor great warriors as heroes. They had only pain to put in their memory bank, inflicted on them in the Crusades, the Inquisition, the pogroms, the Holocaust. The Bible, however, was their very own possession, the egg from which they grew, their real history. It was, in Patai's words, the charter of Jewish life. It served them as a source of ethics and of law. The Bible also provided them with a sense of themselves as permanently linked to God.

Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher of the twelfth century, told Jews that the study of history was a "useless waste of time." It was an unusually shallow position for him, but rabbinic Judaism still holds this view, on the grounds that history contributes nothing to the understanding of God's will. Yet ignoring secular history does not nullify its impact. The past is as much prologue for the Jews as for other peoples. To dismiss it is to lose an instrument of self-knowledge, markers to a common destination.

Examples of history's ongoing power are abundant. The organization of Jewish life during the exile -- around self-governing communities called kehillot in Hebrew, but more conventionally known as ghettos -- still influences the character of Jewish communal life. The deference accorded in the kehillot to rabbis as political leaders shapes the way traditional Jews think about politics today.

On another level, it is fair to say that Jews, unwisely, have shown a lack of interest in Christianity's rise during the era of the Second Temple. Similarly, they have overlooked dealings between the Jewish tribes in Arabia and the Prophet Muhammad during Islam's seminal years in the seventh century. To treat as useless artifacts events that, even today, help shape relations with the two other monotheisms surely represents missed opportunities.

Patai says that "inner" history defines the Jews. He argues that on Passover, Jews commemorate not the end of their enslavement or their escape from Egypt but the miracles that God performed in their behalf. Hanukkah, in his understanding, memorializes not liberation from the Greeks but the rededication of the Temple. Jews, he contends, have paid heavily for the scant attention they have given their connections with the outside world.

My own experience, based on participation in countless Passover seders, Hanukkah festivals, Bar Mitzvahs, and brits (circumcisions), is that Jewish celebrations can be at the same time sacred and profane. The Bible itself, whatever Orthodoxy claims, is both. God's presence imparts its holiness. But Moses is clearly a grouch, David is adulterous, Jacob is a cheat and many of Israel's kings are politically corrupt. If God's Bible is the foundation of folk memory, He has seen to it that the lowly have passed with the lofty, the profane with the sacred, into the national memory.

The greatest impact upon the Jewish psyche came, no doubt, from the covenant with God that Moses negotiated in the Israelites' behalf at Sinai. No two Jews can agree on its precise meaning. Many interpret it literally, many others symbolically. But every Jew acknowledges its inherent holiness and its centrality to Judaism, even today.

Juxtaposed with the story of the holy covenant, however, is the Israelites' thoroughly profane embrace of the golden calf. This is the act that, having provoked God's wrath, led Him to proclaim them a stiff-necked people. Moses concurred, but even he, God's favorite, periodically irritated God and provoked His displeasure.

The Book of Exodus, it might be parenthetically noted, does not use the term Jew. It calls the people by a name God imparted to Jacob, Abraham's grandson, after the mysterious wrestling match narrated in Genesis. Bestowed as an honor, "Israel" translates, curiously, as "Godfighter," a term that seems to foreshadow the turbulent relationship between God and the Jews that lay ahead.

God's perception of His people as stiff-necked is in this tradition. The story of the golden calf can, quite reasonably, be considered a parallel to the Christian conception of original sin. The Jews, whom God had described as a holy people, proceeded to forge an idol, imposing on their holiness a permanent burden. In God's mind, it seemed for a time to put the covenant itself in doubt. God finally resolved His dilemma in the Jews' favor, but the burden remains. Even in this, the opening chapter of their book of memory, the central experience of the Jews combines the sacred with the profane.


Exodus is the book that deals with Judaism's birth. Great moments preceded it in Genesis: Abraham's agreement to sacrifice Isaac, Jacob's wrestling with God, Noah's deliverance from the flood. But Judaism took shape in Exodus, beginning with Moses' emergence as a prophet and going on to the liberation from bondage in Egypt, the covenant with God at Sinai and the scandal of the golden calf.

But beneath this narrative lies the tension on a most palpable level between God and His people, with Moses serving as the intermediary. This subtext reveals how much the Jews' journey to self-identity has been fraught with internal quarrels. These quarrels, as our daily newspaper reminds us, characterize relations among Jews, and relations between the Jews and God, to this day.

Exodus opens with God's ruminations on bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. He encounters Moses, an Israelite who had only recently escaped from Egypt after killing an abusive overseer while shepherding a flock of sheep. Moses was living in the desert with a tribe called Midianites when God, from within the flames of a burning bush, proclaimed, "Moses, Moses." In Genesis, He had similarly addressed Abraham at the altar, prior to conveying His command to spare the boy Isaac. As Abraham had once answered, Moses responded, "Here I am."

Though God declared His identity, and kept the bush from being reduced to ashes to prove it, Moses responded warily. He was clearly frightened. God declared He had decided to rescue those He called "My people" and send them to a land flowing with milk and honey. Moses, He said, must go to Pharaoh and announce this plan. He instructed Moses to invoke His authority by declaring, "Thus says Yahweh," the name God most often used.

Moses was unconvinced and, in a touching display of humility, declared, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh?" God sought to reassure him, saying, "I will be there with you." Referring to the Israelites, Moses asked, "What shall I say to them?...They will not trust me, and will not hearken to my voice." God responded with another dazzling display of power, transforming Moses' staff into a snake, then changing it back into a staff.

But Moses, still resistant, said to God, "No man of words am I...for heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue am I." He pleaded with God to find someone else, and God responded impatiently, "I Myself will be there with your mouth...and will instruct you as to what you shall do." Only after God assured Moses that his accusers in Egypt were dead did he accept the mission for which he had been selected.

So Moses packed up his Midianite wife, Tsippora, along with his sons, and mounted them on a donkey for the trip back home. At God's instructions, Aaron, his older brother, came out from Egypt to meet him on the road. Moses conveyed to Aaron his apprehensions about seeking to win over both the Israelites and Pharaoh. Together the two finished the journey to face their destiny.

Given his modesty about his gifts, Moses assigned Aaron the responsibility for relaying God's plan to the Israelites at a mass gathering in Egypt. The Israelites, after hearing Aaron out, accepted the offer. "The people trusted, they hearkened," Exodus says. Later, at a perilous moment in their flight, some of them would -- to Moses' dismay -- recall the exhilaration of the moment quite differently.

The two brothers then set off for their encounter with Pharaoh. Notwithstanding their invocation of divine power, however, Pharaoh dismissed their pleas with contempt and ordered his overseers to punish the Israelites by augmenting their workload. When the Israelites complained about their added duties, Moses dutifully appealed to God. "For what reason," he asked, "have You dealt so ill with this people?...You have not rescued Your people." So well did he argue that God apologized and promised, "Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a strong hand he will set them free."

Moses' advocacy had by now changed him from God's reluctant agent into a middleman, even into the people's representative. The role, which he would play until the Israelites looked upon the promised land, would place him in constant confrontation with God.

God, faithful to His promise, proceeded to inflict on Egypt the ten plagues that are familiar to those who hear them reviewed each year at the Passover seder. It is not a pretty review. The first plague turned the Nile to blood, the second rained frogs over the land, the third spread lice, the fourth brought flies, the fifth killed Egypt's livestock, the sixth inflicted boils, the seventh battered the land with hail, the eighth spread locusts, the ninth plunged the country into three days of darkness.

On the eve of the tenth plague, with the Egyptians already reeling, God issued instructions for Israel's escape. He commanded Moses to have each family slaughter and roast a lamb and eat it with matzo (unleavened bread), "your hips girded, your sandals on your feet, your sticks in your hand." He also ordered the Israelites to paint the blood of the lambs on the doorposts of their houses. The Israelites obeyed and prepared for flight. Taking note of the blood-painted sign, God proceeded to "pass over" the Israelite houses to pour out His anger on Egyptians alone. The tenth plague was the most appalling, killing all of Egypt's firstborn, humans and animals alike.

The next morning Moses rallied his people. They were, according to Exodus, six hundred thousand strong, plus their sheep and oxen. God led the way "by day in a column of cloud, by night in a column of fire." Guided by these columns, the Israelites trudged across the desert toward the sea.

But as soon as they learned that Pharaoh's charioteers were in pursuit, the Israelites were stricken by a faintness of heart. Summoning Moses, they revised their recollections of the night they hearkened to God's plan. "We spoke to you in Egypt," they said reproachfully. "Let us alone that we may serve Egypt. Indeed, better for us to be serving Egypt than dying in the wilderness."

Though incensed, Moses was not insensitive to their fears. "Yahweh," he promised, "will make war for you. Be still!" Indeed, Yahweh redeemed Moses' pledge. The story is well known. God split the sea to allow the Jews to cross on dry land, then closed the waters over the racing charioteers, drowning them all. Looking upon Egypt's dead, Exodus says, "The people held Yahweh in awe, they trusted in Yahweh and in Moses, His servant." Then they burst into song.

After only three days of rejoicing, however, they faltered again. When they complained of thirst, Moses told God, who provided them with water. But they later complained to Moses again, saying, "Would that we had died by the hand of Yahweh in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate bread till we were satisfied. For you have brought us into this wilderness to bring death to this whole assembly by starvation."

Moses went straight to God, Who once more answered the call. "I have hearkened to the grumblings of the children of Israel," God said, and delivered to them coveys of quail. Still, the Israelites persevered in their faultfinding, and Moses cried out to God in despair, "What shall I do with this people? A little more and they will stone me."

Finally, God sent down the all-purpose food the Bible calls manna. Despite their repeated violations of the Sabbath in gathering it, He provided it for them during the entire duration of their stay in the desert. Still, the Israelites were not satisfied. Once God, to slake the Israelites' thirst, instructed Moses to strike a rock with his staff, sending forth water. Moses, with some irony, named the place Massa, "challenging," and Merivah, "quarreling." The names would come back to Moses later as reminders of how vexing his people could be.

The Israelites were also unwilling to acknowledge God's exertions in providing for their security. He empowered Joshua, Moses' young deputy, to defend their camp from attacks by hostile Amalekites, promising "to wipe [them] out...from under the heavens." Joshua did despite his victory the people remained sullen.

After three months in the desert, the Israelites reached Mount Sinai, where Moses had them pitch camp. God had foreshadowed His plan for them long before, having promised Abraham in the Book of Genesis that the Israelites were to be His people. Once in Sinai, He laid His irritations aside, clearly conveying the message that, though quick to anger, He would not forsake His people or abandon His plan.

Scholars of religion say the tribe that Moses led through Sinai was at best a desert cult, already monotheistic but otherwise not far different from its pagan neighbors. Its faith, too primitive to be called Judaism, had hardly changed from the days of Abraham. In Sinai the Israelites were transformed into a society of laws, probably history's first such. At Sinai, the scholars say, Judaism acquired a structure, institutions, ritual and a set of values based on a code that bound its believers. The practices it adopted emphasized the rules of daily life over any spiritual bond with the divine. The form Judaism took under Moses strongly resembled what it is today.

The events at Sinai were seminal to all who have ever called themselves Jews. Religious skeptics, of course, do not believe the account in Exodus some wonder whether the journey ever took place at all. Yet there is a consensus that something happened at Sinai, which became the foundation of all of Judaism's subsequent development.

According to Exodus, God, perched on Mount Sinai, delivered His seismic offer to Moses, poised in the camp below. "Tell the children of Israel," He said, "If you will hearken, yes, hearken to My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be to Me a special treasure from among all peoples..., you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation."

God's message, scholars point out, contained a dual promise: Jews would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Were the two parts synonymous or not? What did it mean to be a kingdom of priests? What did it mean to be a holy nation? Religious Jews, aware that neither promise was kept, still debate God's intent.

Summoning Israel's elders, Moses conveyed God's proposal and, says Exodus, "All the people answered together. They said: All that Yahweh has spoken we will do." Moses hurried back to the mountain with the message, but God was clearly dubious. In Egypt, the Israelites had accepted His proposals with enthusiasm, yet had proven rebellious throughout the entire desert journey. Exodus makes clear that God did not fully trust them.

Nonetheless, God invited Moses to proceed. In one of literature's most dramatic narrations, Exodus tells readers that while the Israelites hovered nervously around the tents, Moses prepared for his meeting with God on the mountain.

"There were thunder sounds, and lightning, a heavy cloud on the mountain, and an exceedingly strong shofar sound. And all of the people that were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out toward God from the camp and they stationed themselves beneath the mountain. Now Mount Sinai smoked all over, since Yahweh had come down upon it in fire its smoke went up like the smoke of a furnace, and all of the mountain trembled exceedingly. Now the shofar sound was growing exceedingly stronger....Yahweh called Moses to the top of the mountain and Moses went up..."

Moses later returned to the camp with God's conditions, conveyed verbally, for the covenant. They later became the Ten Commandments.

The first commandment -- "I am Yahweh your God Who brought you out of the Land of Egypt" -- is not a commandment at all. It is a statement of authority, effectively legitimizing the terms that follow. The second was a warning that went straight to the issue of Israel's stiff-necked character.

"You are not to make yourself a carved image or any figure that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath it, that is in the waters beneath the earth you are not to bow down to them, you are not to serve them, for I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God."

Scholars regard this as history's first clear statement of monotheism, and the first explicit enjoinder against idol worship. The words tell us that, though Israel had vowed since Abraham's time to worship only one God, it had often strayed. The commandment admonished the Israelites sternly to stay in line. The commandment was so important to God that He had Moses repeat it to his followers twice, then convey it a third time. Finally, for a fourth time, He has Moses tell the people, "You are not to bow down to their gods, you are not to serve them, you are not to do according to what they do, but are to tear, yes, tear them down, and are to smash, yes, smash their standing stones. You are to serve Yahweh your God."

Moses' repeated admonitions serve as clear evidence of the depths of God's concern and, at least for a moment, the admonitions worked. After Moses relayed God's message, the Israelites replied in one voice, "All the words that Yahweh has spoken, we will do."

Exodus tells us that Moses, after writing down God's instructions, sacrificed a bull and used the blood, the symbol of life, to seal the deal. But he, like God, had doubts about the people. Moses insisted on still another affirmation from them, and when satisfied that it had not been given lightly, he headed once more to the mountain with the inscribed vows in his hand. This time, feeling the need of witnesses in meeting God, he was joined by Aaron and several elders of Israel. God, however, dismissed the delegation, instructing Moses to make the journey alone, making clear that, of all the Israelites, He had confidence only in Moses. Amid the heavy clouds covering the mountain, God ordered Moses to climb to the summit to receive the Ten Commandments permanently inscribed on tablets of stone.

In his absence, the Israelites waited apprehensively. Exodus says Moses was gone for "forty days and forty nights," surely long enough, in the supercharged atmosphere of thunder and lightning, to generate fears that something was amiss. Finally, the people summoned Aaron and said, "We do not know what has become of him." Breaking the vow they had only recently taken, they told Aaron, "Make us a god who will go before us."

Scholars say the alacrity with which the Israelites violated their pledge demonstrates the fragility of their commitment to monotheism. The scholars cite the expression "make us a god" as evidence that they had not yet absorbed the idea of Yahweh or the principle of a distant, invisible God. Under stress they were more comfortable with the idols their neighbors worshiped. In a pinch, the scholars say, the Israelites found relief in falling back on near-pagan practices.

Aaron, amply depicted as the weaker brother, gave in without even an argument. "Break off the gold rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons and your daughters," he said, "and bring them to me." Having collected these items, he took a graving tool and, in the fire, shaped the mass into a calf. The mob then mocked Yahweh's earlier declaration that "I am your God," as if their vows of loyalty were without meaning. Pointing to the golden calf, they cried out, "This is your God, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt."

While his people frolicked with the idol, Moses was still at the summit. When God learned what was happening below, He declared to Moses:

"Your people, whom you brought up from the land of Egypt, has wrought ruin. They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them, they have made themselves a molten calf, they have bowed to it, they have slaughtered offerings to it....I see this people -- and it is a stiff-necked people. So now, let Me be, that My anger may flare against them and I may destroy them -- but you I will make into a great nation."

The passage bewilders scholars, in that God, after denouncing the Israelites as stiff-necked, offers to make Moses into "a great nation." Moses, who certainly shared God's anger, must have been sorely tempted by the prospect. Was He testing Moses? God's intent is not clear. The words suggest He was in the market for another partner, and, at the least, it implies that He and Moses should together turn away from the people of Israel.

But Moses, faithful to his tribe, would have none of it. Rather impudently, he poses a question, asking God whether He had gone to the trouble to rescue the Jews from bondage so that Egypt could have the pleasure of saying, "With Evil intent He brought them out to kill them in the mountains, to destroy them from the face of the soil?" Even more audaciously, he advises God:

"Turn away from Your flaming anger, be sorry for the evil intended against Your people. Recall Abraham, Isaac and Jacob Your servants, to whom You swore...: I will make your seed many as the stars of the heavens, and all this land which I have promised I will give to your seed, that they may inherit it for the ages."

Moses' daring succeeded, perhaps better than he anticipated. "Yahweh," Exodus says, "let Himself be sorry concerning the evil that He spoke of doing to His people." This may be the only story in the Bible -- or in any other religious source -- that culminates with God's apology.

Moses finally came down from the mountain, holding in his arms what he had been promised, "the tablets [that] were God's making, and the writing [that] was God's writing, engraved upon the tablets." But what he found was a heady festival of drinking and dancing among Israelites celebrating the golden calf. Moses seized the idol, threw it in the fire, ground it up, spread the powder over water and forced the Israelites to drink it. So angry was he that he also "threw the tablets from his hands and smashed them beneath the mountain."

Moses then confronted his brother, who tried to weasel out of his complicity, but Moses showed him no sympathy. He accused Aaron of a "great sin" that brought guilt upon the people. He then turned to his own tribes, the Levites, who had refrained from joining in the revelry. Use your swords, he ordered them, to "kill every man his brother, every man his neighbor, every man his relative." That day, Exodus says, three thousand Israelites fell to Levite swords.

It is noteworthy that this punishment was ordered by Moses, not God, Who had still not shown His hand. Moses, as the people's advocate, clearly sought to forestall even greater wrath, and returned to God to plead for forgiveness. To make his case, he played what was, even for Moses, unusually tough poker. He bet that by placing on the line his own good name, God would defer to him. If He refused forgiveness, he told God, he wanted to be "erased from the records that You have written." Like much in Exodus, the precise meaning of the offer is obscure. But God, acknowledging that Moses was personally free of the sin of the calf, gave in. God and Moses had gone head to head, and it was God Who blinked.

The episode did not end there. God imposed a costly plague on the Israelites. He agreed to their continuing the journey to the promised land. But, penalizing them symbolically, He informed Moses that He would not be their guide, as He had been leading them in flight from Egypt. "I will not go up in your midst," God said, "for a stiff-necked people are you."

Though reaffirmed by God, the holy covenant was thus off to a bad start. Both God and the Israelites, the parties to the bargain, embarked on the relationship with a grudge. In fact, the Bible itself makes clear that the Israelites continued to turn to idols, particularly in hard times, for several centuries more. Biblical verses depict a people that was still primitive, relating only with great difficulty to an incorporeal god.

God Himself, the Bible tells us, was constantly tormented by this failing. In a touching lament in Psalm 95, God recalls His command to Moses early in Sinai to strike a rock -- Merivah and Massa -- to produce water for a thirsty people, and calls on a new generation to rise to a higher ethic.

Do not be stubborn as at Merivah,
As on the day of Massa, in the wilderness
When your fathers put Me to the test,
Tried Me, though they had seen My deeds.
Forty years I was provoked by that generation;
I thought, "They are a senseless people;
They would not know My ways."
Concerning them I swore in anger,
They shall never come to my resting place!

What mattered most, however, was that God overcame His disappointment. He did not abandon the covenant and did not replace the Israelites with another people. Much as their misdeeds infuriated Him, much as their grumbling exasperated Him, He paid heed to Moses and directed them to the promised land. Though He punished them, He also forgave them. A reader might conclude from Exodus that, while God wanted His people holy, He understood they would also be profane, and He accepted them in both parts.

God even forgave Aaron for his weakness. He not only spared Aaron's life He also named him the Israelites' high priest, an honor Aaron would pass to his descendants. And Aaron repaid God's confidence by performing the duties of the post with honor.


Traditional rabbinic sources recognize that the tragedy of the golden calf left a wound in the folk memory of the Jewish people. Judaism has made much less of this wound than Christianity has made of the concept of original sin. Yet the golden calf remains a source of guilt, a burden on the Jewish spirit.

Rabbinic sages have found it difficult to explain how the Israelites could have sought out an idol so soon after Sinai, and how Aaron could so readily have accommodated them. Some sages have hypothesized that the Israelites were infiltrated by foreigners others say they panicked after miscalculating the date on which Moses was to return from the mountain. The Talmud makes a comparison between the Israelites at Sinai and a "shameless bride." More often, the rabbis have maintained an embarrassed silence.

The Jews' embarrassment passed into Christian theology, where it was cited as evidence of inherent Jewish sinfulness. Jesus' followers regarded the golden calf as the germ of Jewish evil. Augustine linked it with the worship of the devil, a notion that medieval Christianity adopted. The church long claimed the calf proved the Jews were not God'shan Christianity has made of the concept of original sin. Yet the golden calf remains a source of guilt, a burden on the Jewish spirit.

Rabbinic sages have found it difficult to explain how the Israelites could have sought out an idol so soon after Sinai, and how Aaron could so readily have accommodated them. Some sages have hypothesized that the Israelites were infiltrated by foreigners others say they panicked after miscalculating the date on which Moses was to return from the mountain. The Talmud makes a comparison between the Israelites at Sinai and a "shameless bride." More often, the rabbis have maintained an embarrassed silence.

The Jews' embarrassment passed into Christian theology, where it was cited as evidence of inherent Jewish sinfulness. Jesus' followers regarded the golden calf as the germ of Jewish evil. Augustine linked it with the worship of the devil, a notion that medieval Christianity adopted. The church long claimed the calf proved the Jews were not God's chosen people, that the covenant was never consummated. Not surprisingly, these arguments served as a buttress of anti-Semitism.

The Jews had no real defense against these attacks. Louis Ginzberg, among the greatest of Talmudic scholars, writes that the conventional rabbinic view holds that "the worship of the golden calf had more disastrous consequences for Israel than any other of their sins."

Ginzberg's classic, The Legends of the Jews, draws upon the midrash, the diverse body of popular and rabbinic literature composed over centuries, to understand the attitudes of ordinary believers. He writes of a widespread conviction among traditional Jews that God, having created the Torah as a weapon to defeat the Angel of Death, changed His mind after the apostasy of the golden calf. The legend holds, Ginzberg writes, that God:

"had resolved to give life everlasting to the nation that would accept the Torah, hence Israel upon accepting [the covenant] gained supremacy over the Angel of Death. But they lost their power when they worshipped the golden calf. As a punishment for this, their sin, they were doomed to study the Torah in suffering and bondage, in exile and unrest, amid cares of life and burdens, until, in the Messianic time and in the future world, God will compensate them for all their suffering. But until that time there is no sorrow that falls to Israel's lot that is not in part a punishment for the worship of the golden calf."

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, a religious scholar whom we will later encounter in the context of territorial Judaism, leaned more to the mysticism of the Kabbalah to find the meaning of the golden calf. He found it an extremely costly sin for the Jews. But as a founder of the religious wing of Zionism, he was convinced that, in resettling the Holy Land, the Jews had entered a messianic era, which would set matters right. Kook wrote:

"Had it not been for the sin of the golden calf, the [Canaanite] nations that dwelled in the Land of Israel would have made peace..., for the name of the Lord would have aroused in them sublime awe. No matter of war would have been conducted....This sin alone caused peace to be delayed thousands of years. But now all the factors in the world are joined together to bring the light of the Lord into the world, and the sin of the golden calf will be erased entirely."

The Messiah did not arrive for Rabbi Kook, and the sin of the golden calf has not been erased from Jewish memory. But the golden calf is only a part of the substance of Exodus. The covenant remains its dominant lesson. Yet surely the protagonists themselves, with their complex personalities, have had an impact on Jewish character, influencing the course the Jews have taken.

God is multifaceted, jealous by nature but also compassionate, irascible, forgiving and even modest enough to admit mistakes. Moses is petulant, but clearly a man of huge wisdom and rectitude. As for the body of Israelites, much as they aspire to attain God's expectations of them as a holy nation, they remain irremediably stiff-necked. Such dramatis personae make a volatile mix.

These personalities produced in Exodus two great events, the proclamation of allegiance to God in the awe-inspiring covenant and its reverse side, the apostasy of the golden calf. The juxtaposition foreshadows the sparks Jews have generated among themselves throughout history. It also created a bifurcation in the folk memory of the Jews and perhaps in their collective soul. The aim of Mosaic law was to provide the structure for a holy nation, while the Jews' disposition to the profane placed the promise of holiness out of reach.

It is not too much to visualize Jewish history as essentially the interaction of the protagonists of Exodus, maneuvering within the framework of the two poles of the covenant and the golden calf. Exodus is, more than anything, the story of a tumultuous relationship among God, the Israelites and the law. Its principal message may well be that the volatility among the three will define Judaism forever.

Copyright © 2002 by Milton Viorst

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication: Judaism History, Jews History, Judaism and politics Israel, Jews Israel Identity, Ultra-Orthodox Jews Israel, Reform Judaism Israel, Orthodox Judaism Israel