Every year at the time of the Passover holiday this question starts itching me. What about the Golden Calf? I think that Passover is one of the best holidays ever devised by any culture. And it shows what is best about Judaism. I love the heavy handed use of food as symbols, the idea of a symbolic meal. But many other cultures have this. What is most wonderful about Passover is that it is a holiday designed to have children wrestle with some of the big questions of life, to ponder such issues as the nature of freedom. It is a holiday about teaching children. But there is a troubling point that is generally missed.
In this holiday we are to retell the story of Jewish slavery in Egypt, and Moses leading the Jews out of slavery to freedom in Israel. In a cynical age it is pointed out that there is no historic proof that Jews were ever slaves in Egypt, that there was such a man as Moses, or any record of a large tribe wandering the Sinai for forty years. It is hard to explain how Egyptian historians could have missed all this. Successful slave rebellions usually earn prominence in chronicles.
Suppose they made the whole thing up.? Wouldn’t that be even better? How fantastic that a people invented a story of having been slaves for the purpose of teaching humility, social responsibility, and the obligation to help the oppressed.
According to the story, Moses was living the life of a high born Egyptian when he received the shocking news that he was really Jewish. He reacted the way many people have who received this news–he became more Jewish than anyone around. He led the Jews out of slavery after he and God did a range of horrible things to Egyptians ranging from bad complexion to killing their children. The Red Sea opened up to let them cross the Sinai and then closed again to drown the Egyptians who followed–another good teaching point, a prayer is said for the Egyptians who drowned.
It is once the Jews get into the Sinai that I start having a problem. Moses excuses himself because he wants to climb a mountain and go talk to God. The freed Jewish slaves react to this the way most of us do when someone announces conversations with God. While Moses is away acting strange, the Jewish slaves decide to have a religious ceremony and they melt down jewelry and build a large calf of gold to worship. Clearly Jewish practice had deviated in the years in Egypt.
Moses got back from his God-chat and found them violating the most basic rules of Judaism by worshiping a golden calf. He was upset and made the Jews wander in the Sinai for forty years, which, if you have ever seen the Sinai, is a long time, despite a certain arid beauty. Moses plan was to let the entire generation of Calf worshippers die off before crossing the Jordan River into Israel which, if you look at a map, can’t be done from the Sinai. Apparently God didn’t think much of this plan and as punishment did not allow Moses to cross the Jordan, which, last time I looked, takes about one step.
On the nights of Passover children are given four questions to ask, the first of which is what is special about this night? But I have this other question. Shouldn’t a free people be free to worship golden calves if they want to? It is the proliferation of heresy that shows the richness of the human mind. A society without heresies is a society without creativity, without individualism, without free thinking–without freedom.
The problem with the world is not the golden calf worshipers. It is the people who want to ban the worship of golden calves. We see this among both Palestinians and Israelis, we see it in Iran and in Afghanistan with the Taliban and the NATO backed government, with the Shiites and the Sunnis, in academia and the military, and too many school systems. The United States is full of people who want to bar golden calves. They control the level of discourse in politic. They have entire radio and television stations devoted to this repression. In fact, there are so many of them in the world that if we have any hope of freedom we need to start melting down our jewelry right now to begin the resistance.