Religion can be Most Evil

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Moses told the Jews he would ascend Mount Sinai, receive the Torah and return in 40 days. However the people started counting prematurely, and when Moses had not yet arrived according to their incorrect account, they panicked. They sought from Aaron a replacement for Moses. Seeing how the masses already killed Hur for resisting them (Rashi), Aaron played along, attempting to retard the process of creating an idol, asking the women and children to part with their gold, which he felt they would be reluctant to give. During this hopeful delay, Aaron's plan was that Moses would finally arrive, eliminating the people’s fear and idolatrous actions. But Exodus 32:3,4 shows they were not reluctant:

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 cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” 

The verse says they made the calf, and no magical methods are necessary to explain this simple molding of melted gold. But the rabbis write in metaphor to teach deeper lessons. Rashi on Exod. 32:4:

As soon as he (Aaron) had thrown it (the gold) into the fire in a melting pot, the magicians amongst the mixed multitude who had come up with them from Egypt came and made it (the golden calf) by their “magic art.” 

This is allegory. This first Rashi teaches us, had there not been superstitious Egyptians among the Jews to suggest mysterious powers about the Gold Calf—their magic—the people would not have succumbed to worshiping it. The mixed multitude of Egyptians who exited with the Jews were idolatrous. They convinced the Jews about the Gold Calf that “This is your God.” Of course magic is never been validated, but magicians refers to people with great influence. They prey on people's insecurities and convince them that certain activities will provide security in life. Today this is embodied in horoscopists, tarot card readers palm readers. The equivalent in Jewish circles would be wearing red bendels, putting notes in rabbis’ graves or feeling mezuzah has powers. 

Fearing Moses was now dead, the Jews panicked that the “man” who took them out of Egypt (Exod. 32:1) was no more. They were overly attached to this physical leader, the “man” Moses. The Egyptian multitude quickly catered to their fears by creating a physical calf, and building up a story of its powers. That is what is meant by “magic art,” psychological persuasion. But the Gold Calf was a simple lifeless sculpture, explaining why Moses was later able to burn it and ground it to golddust (Exod. 32:20).

Rashi offers a second explanation for the Jews’ acceptance of the Gold Calf (Exod. 32:4):

There are some who say that Micah the idolator (Judges 17) 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 a “supernatural name” and a plate upon which Moses had written, “Rise ox, rise ox” in order to raise the coffin of Joseph out of the Nile who is compared to an ox (Deut. 33:17), and he cast it the name and the plate into the melting pot and the calf came out (Midrash Tanchuma, Ki Tisa 19).

This too is non-literal allegory and must be deciphered. At this moment the Exodus had commenced. The Jews were leaving Egypt en-route to Mt. Sinai and then on to Israel. What was the need to bring Joseph's bones to Israel?  Metaphorically speaking, why is God’s name and also the plate bearing “Rise up ox” (Jacob’s blessing of Joseph) necessary to elevate Joseph’s coffin? What is this equation between raising Joseph’s bones and creating the Gold Calf, that both the name and the plate are used?

Sifsei Chachamim (Exod. 32:4) equates Joseph’s metaphor to an “ox,” to the Gold Calf which is baby ox. Just as Moses raised Joseph’s bones with the reference of God’s name and the plate bearing “Rise ox, rise ox,” Micha too raised the Gold Calf from the crucible with these two items. Simply put, we have two cases where an “ox” is raised with these 2 items. 

What the rabbis mean is that there is an equation between Moses taking Joseph's bones out of Egypt heading towards Israel, and Micha’s creation of the Gold Calf. 

Moses wished to demonstrate that Jacob's fine upbringing of Joseph was for the ultimate goal of the Jews receiving Israel, the perfected state for Torah observance. Joseph was the most prominent figure in Egypt, but that 210 year duration of slavery was merely preparatory for the Jews to receive Torah and Israel. Moses taking Joseph's bones with him demonstrated that Joseph's ultimate role was that the Jews receive Torah and Israel: Egypt was not to be Joseph's final destination. However, a distorted personality can relate to a great leader like Joseph in an idolatrous manner, and relate to God too in idolatrous fashion. Therefore, the rabbis scripted this allegory to show that the same two indications of perfection—Joseph and God—in the hands of a Jew corrupted by Egyptian culture (Micha), would lead to an idolatrous personality, expressed in Micha’s creation of the Gold Calf. Man's misguided religious emotion (Micha) can lead him to the greatest of tragedies (Gold Calf), as we see in the Crusades, Jihads and other religious fanatics, whose belief in following what they thought is God’s will, fueled guilt-free slaughters of innocents. Talmud Yoma 69b offers insight:

He delivered the evil inclination to them. A form of a fiery lion cub came forth from the chamber of the Holy of Holies. Zechariah the prophet said to the Jewish people, “This is the evil inclination for idol worship, as it is stated in the verse that refers to this event, ‘And he said: This is the evil one’” (Zechariah 5:8). 

Rabbi Israel Chait asked what is the most significant part of this allegory. He said it was the location from where the instincts emerged: the Holy of Holies. He explained that the religious emotion is the greatest instinctual expression [1]. This is because when a person feels his actions are the fulfillment of God's will—religion—there is no guilt or restraint, and his emotional expression is unbridled and in full force. The religious emotion sanctioned by one’s imagination of “doing God's work” and has no restraint. The Crusades, Hitler and others were misguided in their belief that they were divinely inspired. Unlike all other instinctual drives where a person might feel guilt and restraint, the religious instinct is unbridled, and can perpetrate the most heinous crimes. This was Micha. 

Unlike Moses who related to man (Joseph) as merely one who leads us to God, and unlike Moses’ acceptance of an unknowable God (Moses had only God’s “name”), Micha related to man (Moses) as a physical intermediary, and he could not relate to a metaphysical God. Micha succumbed to fears when Moses was late, and created a Gold Calf to replace Moses and to reject our true non-physical God. 

Sifsei Chachamim (Exod. 32:4) cite an allegory of the rabbis: Pharaoh, upon seeing the Jews did not meet their brick quota, had the Egyptian taskmasters use children in place of missing bricks. Moses asked God why He was allowing Egypt to kill the children. God responded that none of the children would escape Egypt’s corrupt influence; their lives would be worthless. Moses removed one child being crushed in the walls and this was Micha who followed idolatry.

[1] The lion is the strongest of the animals, indicating that the instincts are very strong. And fire is the strongest of the elements, which embellishes the point of how strong the instincts are.