#214: The Golden Calf and Hawara
Rabbenu Baḥya on Shemot/Exodus 32:7
A house burned in the attack on Huwara. Photo credit: Michael Turknitz via Wikimedia Commons, CCA-SA 4.0
Gimme Some Torah #214
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וַיְדַבֵּר יְהֹוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֶךְ־רֵד כִּי שִׁחֵת עַמְּךָ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלֵיתָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם׃
יהוה spoke to Moses, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely.
The people offer sacrifices to the עֵגֶל הַזָּהָב (eigel hazahav, Golden Calf) and celebrate it with feasting and dancing.
God tells Moses in Ex. 32:7, “Hurry down, for your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely.” It is clear from the following verses that the Golden Calf was not merely a sin. The Calf was a tear in the relationship between the Holy One and Israel, a catastrophic and heretical act of spiritual terrorism.
Rabbenu Baḥya’s (bio) interpretation of Ex. 32:7 describes the enormity of the Calf and goes so far as to compare it to the sin of eating from the Tree of Knowledge:
. . .the Torah wanted to get across the point that not only did the people become corrupt on earth but their deeds also caused corruption (actively) in the celestial regions. . .This is what our sages referred to as קִצֵץ בְּנִטִעוֹת, “chopping off the young shoots.” (i.e. heresy—EG) There is no question that what the Israelites did at the time of the golden calf episode was similar to what Adam and Eve had done when they ate from the tree of knowledge, when they sinned both in thought and in deed.
What happened in the wilderness thousands of years ago took on horrifying relevance ten days ago on Feb. 26. That was the night that hundreds of Jewish vigilantes attacked the Palestinian village of Huwara, killing one man and burning many buildings and cars.
The attack on Huwara was not merely a crime. Because Jews in this instance are the culprits, what happened at Huwara was, like the Golden Calf, a public act of apostasy, a rip in the collective soul of the Jewish people.
To make matters worse, Jews celebrated Purim by rioting again in Huwara. Just as the Calf worshippers engaged in revelry after worshipping the Calf, the rioters celebrated Purim on the ashes of what they had done.
The attack on Huwara demands compensation and criminal prosecution. More importantly, the rioters’ disgusting and un-Jewish behavior also requires not mere forgiveness but atonement.
I recognize that Palestinians frequently murder innocent Jews, including the recent slayings of Elan Ganeles and the Yaniv brothers. I am well aware that the world does not care about Jewish deaths. Nonetheless, their murders do not justify vigilantism.
Vengeance is not an option because we are the Jews. We are supposed to be morally superior. If we commit or tolerate ugly acts of vigilante injustice, then what’s the point of Zionism or our faith for that matter? Do the rioters not see that they are playing right into the hands of our enemies? Legitimate self defense is a mitzvah. Revenge, however, is a sin, prohibited by the Torah in no uncertain terms.
Moses burned the Golden Calf, ground it to fine dust, mixed it in water and forced the people to drink it. For the rioters, the only commensurate consequence would be the swift disbandment of Netanyahu’s coalition and the formation of a new government.
The defense of Israel is important. Avoiding the desecration of God’s Name is vital.
What is wrong with vigilantism?
Why do you think the Torah bans revenge?
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Rabbi Eli Garfinkel is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Somerset, New Jersey. He is the author of The JPS Jewish Heritage Torah Commentary.
I'm not fully sure whether you're asking the important questions. I mean, those Israeli right-wingers just need to compare Palestinian Arabs to Amalek -- I'm sure they'll find a way to argue for that -- and, whoops, they can feel absolutely justified in what they do. They simply won't need to care about your argumentation any more.
That is why I am pretty doubtful about whether it is of any use at all to argue with the Bible in a case such as Huwara. One believer will take these verses of the Torah literally and those metaphorically, and another vice versa. One believer will call the assumption X to be "common sense", i.e. self-evident, and another the opposite of X.
How can we get at what is right and wrong with such a method?
The philosophy of law that is behind the idea of a modern, secular state to me seems to have better answers, because it is based on a simple recognition: Humankind is prone to doing evil. So it asks the question: How can we build a just society despite this awkward predisposition of ours?
Jews are human beings; so they are as prone to doing evil as anybody else. Those "vigilantes" are a good example for that. Jews certainly ought to do what is right; but actually, everyone should. And nobody, Jew or non-Jew, always does.
That is why I would prefer to ask: Cannot Zionism focus upon building a secular (!) state in Israel? A state where all its inhabitants (Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze, atheists etc.) enjoy the same dignity, i.e. the maximum of freedom that is compatible with equal freedom of everybody else; and where persecuted Jews from all over the world can find refuge in case of need?
The idea of a secular state explicitly does NOT preclude you from doing MORE than it demands or from drawing some inspiration from the Bible. Somewhere in your book e.g. you raise the problem of Netanyahu's policy of supporting all-day Torah study in Orthodox yeshivot. Great idea.
But to make it compatible with human dignity, one needs to design it in a way that EVERYONE can profit. I.e., there must be Reform and Conservative yeshivot that (and whose students) receive the same kind of funding. Minorities of other religions must have the same option within their respective traditions. And atheists must be able to study philosophy or humanism within the same framework.
Expensive business? So be it.
You may ALWAYS do more. But you've got to respect human dignity.
(1) One problem with vigilantism is the term itself. Isn't it something good to be vigilant? The German term for it is "Selbstjustiz", i.e. self-justice: taking justice in one's own hands.