“How was it conceivable,” writes Nechama Leibowitz,
that the generation which had witnessed the miracles of Egypt and had scaled the loftiest heights of communion with God at the Revelation on Mount Sinai could descend to the depths of pagan idolatry and make a calf?
She is in good company. Yalkut Shimoni is fairly unambiguously in agreement with her stark image, as is a psalmist. The Midrash says that what we were used to was what we saw in Egypt: gods that people carried around with them and were able to see as they prayed to them—and so that was what we wanted. Living today and seeing so many Jews, used to Western lifestyles and systems, and attempting to replicate them in Israel, whether consistent with Torah or not, we find this approach convincing and believable.
The Talmud also comments on the calf, introducing a more general principle that when Jews reveal an intention to worship idols, then when non-Jews do it, they are doing it as agents of the Jews. This principle opens some fascinating windows when studied in the context of history; and in just the last century, in light of the extraordinarily active participation of Jews in the Soviet government and the progressive movement, we find this gemara to be a very interesting commentary.
Rav Avraham ben haRambam writes that his father, the Rambam, noted to him that the timing of the Exodus coincided with the zodiac sign of Taurus—the bull. It appears that the Rambam’s conclusion was similar to that of the Midrash: that the Jews were party to the “astrological culture” of their host country, and could not easily leave it behind.
Rashi’s commentary is somewhat more ambiguous. He writes “Moshe had shown us the way; and now we need אלהות to go before us.” This very much follows the text, except that the text uses the masculine אלהים. While that word often refers to God, it sometimes refers to human leaders. Is Rashi referring to gods or just leaders?
Rav Eliyahu Mizrahi interprets Rashi as referring to human leaders. But Rabbi Yissocher Ber Eilenburg writes that the Talmud is fairly unambiguous about the request being idolatrous, and that Rashi uses the Talmud for his interpretation; thus Rabbi Eilenburg is inclined to conclude that Rashi is also interpreting the calf as idolatry.
Wrestling with this issue, Nechama Leibowitz comes to terms with what seems to be the inevitable:
[W]e should not be astonished at the fact that the generation which had heard the voice of the living God and had received the commandment “thou shalt not make other gods besides Me” descended to the making of the Golden Calf forty days later. One single religious experience, however profound, was not capable of changing the people from idol worshippers into monotheists. Only a prolonged disciplining in the precepts of the Torah directing every moment of their existence could accomplish that.
It is tempting to join Leibowitz in this conclusion. A poor education and upbringing, much like a good one, seems to last a lifetime, and we often see that a generation—at least—needs to pass for values to change. But we want to note that it was a very different incident—the incident of the spies—that, the Torah seems to assert, demonstrated the necessity of a generational transition. After the calf, the Jewish people continued toward the border of the Land of Israel. To us, this makes it sound as if the calf is not nearly so grave an offense as the refusal to mature and stand on one’s own two feet.
Rabbi Judah haLevi, some 35 years younger than Rashi, wrote a long essay on the golden calf, noting that having symbols in our service of God is not, in itself, inherently bad: after all, the Temple is full of physical objects, from the showbread to the menorah; and when Moshe finally returns from the mountain, he brings down two stone tablets. The difference, of course, is that the artifacts in the Temple are made strictly according to God’s instructions.
Rabbi Judah draws an analogy to a doctor’s office. When the doctor prescribes medication and patients take the exact dosages that the doctor recommends, it may well save their lives. But if the doctor is gone for a bit longer than expected, and impatient patients break in and write their own prescriptions, without a proper understanding of the medicines or the dosages, it is likely to lead to their deaths.
Over the last two weeks, we have been reading instructions on the proper artifacts for our service. The people, in their impatience, built an artifact without following instructions, and so it did not work properly. Rabbi Judah does not seem to see this as idol worship.
This approach reminds us of many people nowadays who reject not just Torah, but even the lessons of history, insisting that the entire past is barbaric and racist; that they, the heirs of “social progress,” do not need to pay attention to those who came before them. And so they work to build their brave new world. We believe we would end on a positive note when we state that, if the episode of the calf is any guide, we expect these new projects to be miserable failures; but that would not change our davening.
In the beginning of kaddish, after the discussion of God’s name, we hear the expression of a hope that God will soon rule over us. The Aramaic word used for “soon” is בעגלא, the middle of which is עגל. This ties in well with Rabbi Judah’s points about hurry and impatience; and it reminds us that wanting things soon and quickly is not always bad. There are appropriate times to hurry to try to achieve things. It is important to be properly educated and prepared in order to identify them.
 Tehillim 3:3
 Tehillim 106:19-20
 Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 45
 Avodah Zarah, middle of 53b
 We have, in the past, used Yosef haTzadik as a springboard to discuss this phenomenon; that is a completely different angle from which to look at this, and we must make it very clear that we are emphatically not making any connection, ח”ו, between Yosef haTzaddik and idol worship.
 Rashi on Shmot 32:1
 See (the possibly mysterious) Shmot 4:16, as well as (the quite unambiguous) Tehillim 82:6.
 Rabbi Eilenburg is very convincing, because in the middle of Sanhedrin 63a, there is a robust discussion of whether it is worse to believe in God as well as other gods, or to deny God altogether, and the calf is brought up. Rashi comments on this, specifically to clarify that the Jews believed in God, but added the calf as an additional deity. This does make it appear as if Rashi believes that the calf was idol worship.
 In the Kuzari