If horses worshiped gods, those gods would look like horses. This was the claim of Xenophanes, an ancient Greek philosopher who spent much of his life criticizing his contemporaries for committing what he considered to be the theological error of athropotheism—attributing human form and nature to one’s deities. Xenophanes found it remarkable that “Ethiopians say that their gods are dark-skinned, while Thracians say that they are light-skinned,” and refused to accept the notion that the gods went to war with each other or cohabited with one another, as was said of Zeus, Athena, and other members of the Greek pantheon. Indeed, the more he thought about it, the more Xenophanes felt that men had—as Schopenhauer would so memorably put it roughly two millennia later—“taken the limits of their own fields of vision for the limits of the world.” With their statues and idols, humans were creating the gods in their own image, rather than viewing themselves as created in the image of God.
Yet is idolatry really just human-worship in disguise, as Xenophanes contends? When we turn to this week’s Torah portion, which tells the story of the Israelites’ idolatry in the desert, the answer seems to be “no.” After all, our ancestors didn’t dance around the Golden Man or the Golden Woman at the foot of Mount Sinai—they danced around the Golden Calf. To prostrate oneself before the figure of an animal may not constitute worship of the divine, but it certainly doesn’t strike us as worship of homo sapiens, either. This being the case, Xenophanes’ theory about idolatry doesn’t appear to apply in the case of the Jews.
Then again, maybe it does. Before they build their Golden Calf, this is what the Israelites say to Aaron:
When the people saw that Moses was late in coming down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and they said to him: “Rise up! Make us gods that will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt—we don’t know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1).
Read literally, these verses lead us to the radical conclusion that the Israelites, in building a Golden Calf, sought not so much to replace God as much as to deify Moses. In fact, the Ramban makes this point explicitly:
The people were asking for “another” Moses. They said: Moses who showed us the way from Egypt until now… behold, he is lost [i.e. on Mount Sinai]! Let’s make ourselves another Moses through whom God will guide us (“שמות לא:א ד”ה “אשר ילכו לפנינו)
What the Ramban is telling us is remarkable: apparently, the Israelites thought that their relationship with God was contingent upon the presence of some intermediary through whom they could channel their communication. Of course, it wasn’t uncommon for peoples of the ancient world to attribute divine powers to great leaders. Achilles, Buddha, Hercules, Goliath, Karna, and Sargon are just some notable examples of figures who were touted as godlike in their respective cultures. But Moses led a nation of monotheists. He certainly doesn’t belong to this list, ח”ו.
Less certain is how precisely the Israelites did view Moses’ status. After the Israelites cross the Sea of Reeds, the Torah tells us that they “believed in God and in His servant, Moses” (Exodus 14:31). Before revealing Himself upon Mount Sinai, God promises Moses that “the people will hear as I speak to you, and also in you will they believe forever” (Exodus 19:9). Then, during the ceremony itself, the people approach Moses and request that “you speak to us and we shall hear, but let not God speak to us lest we die” (Exodus 20:6). Even once they’ve decided that they want to make the Golden Calf, the people seem to request permission, or approval, before doing so: “The people gathered around Aaron [Moses’ second-in-command] and they said to him, ‘Rise up! Make us gods…’” (Exodus 32:1).
In short, it wouldn’t be so crazy to claim that the Israelites came to believe that their relationship with God was only possible with Moses acting as a go-between, as the Ramban seems to suggest. The people idealized authority to the point of idolizing it. Actually, this insight may help us interpret the latent meaning of the peculiar animal which the Israelites choose to worship: a calf. What is a calf, after all, if not the quintessential symbol of dependency? Nobody relies on another for its nourishment and its safety—indeed, for its very survival—more than the young calf, feeding from the side of its suckling mother while shielded by her protective embrace. So Xenophanes’ equation of idolatry with self-worship wasn’t that far off, after all. When the Israelites worship the Golden Calf, what they’re really worshipping is a representation of themselves. As Freud might put it, they’re projecting their suppressed neuroses: they’re externalizing their anxieties and insecurities in an attempt to legitimize them.
Later in Tanach we find two more stories which closely resemble the incident of the Golden Calf, and both seem to operate according to the principle we’ve been developing. In the book of Judges, the nation approaches Gideon, a powerful military leader, and begs: “Rule over us, you, then your son, then your son’s son” (Judges 8:22). Gideon refuses, and the nation immediately turns to idolatry, crafting a cultic icon out of “golden nose rings”—the same thing that the Golden Calf was made out of—which they then begin to worship. In the absence of strong leadership, the nation turns to idolatry, just as it does in our Torah portion.
An even stronger parallel is found in the book of I Kings, where King Jeroboam, the leader of the Ten Northern Tribes, finds himself worrying that “the people will kill me and return to Rehoboam, king of Judah” (I Kings 27). To prevent this situation, Jeroboam builds two golden calves, announcing “these are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt” (I Kings 28)—the very refrain, word-for-word, which the Israelites call out before the Golden Calf in the desert (Exodus 32:4). Jeroboam understands the power of idolatry, and leverages it to his advantage: he calms the people’s revolutionary instincts by creating a tangible outlet to which they can turn in lieu of stable religio-political authority.
Throughout Tanach, idolatry—the Bible’s idiom for spiritual decay and degeneration—precipitates the moment people abdicate personal responsibility and develop an unhealthy dependence upon authority. In the correct context, of course, authority is something which the Torah endorses and celebrates. “עשה לך רב,” our sages teach us: everyone is encouraged to find a Rabbi whom he or she can rely upon to rule on questions of הלכה (“Jewish law”) or to whom he or she can turn for guidance on questions of השקפה (“outlook on life;” “philosophy”). But while it’s great that the Rabbi, teacher, and youth-group leader are often very good at making Judaism relevant, meaningful and inspiring, we don’t have the right to outsource that obligation to them, and leave it to them to take care of. Never should we wait around helplessly—like the Israelites did, for forty days, at the foot of Mount Sinai—and expect others to create our religious experiences for us. We all share in the duty of probing the texts, of raising the questions, and of searching for the answers; of planning the programs, organizing the service projects, and advocating for the respective causes; of educating our children, and educating each other, and educating ourselves; of elevating the discourse, and enlivening the holidays, and enriching the community. We don’t need intermediaries. Each of us is capable of forging a personal connection with God, the Torah, and the Jewish people—and each of us is invited to do just that.