By Rabbi Steven Bayar
This weeks portion is Ki Tissa; loaded with material. At the center of the narrative is the episode with the Golden Calf. Moses has been up on the mountain for a long time — the Israelites are nervous that he may not return. They turn to Aaron, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), and insist that he create for them an image of “the god who took us out of Egypt.” Lost in a haze of Hollywood films and popular conception is the question of the calf’s identity: What exactly is the calf?
There is no suggestion that it is a representation of a polytheistic theology. In other words, the calf is not a god. Rather it is a representation of the one God. This is a different form of idolatry, but idolatry nonetheless. It’s not only that you cannot make representations of other gods and bow down to them, you cannot make a representation of the one God in any form.
The question asked in the tradition is, “Why?” Why is making a form of the one God as forbidden and equivalent as worshiping other gods? The answer comes from Maimonides in the middle ages: Making an idol to represent God limits God by bringing God down to human terms (our level). This of necessity forces to see God in truly human terms — and that is not allowed.
God is God. This is the true meaning of the phrase the congregation chants at the end of Yom Kippur: Adonai hu ha’elohim: God is God.