Egel Hazahav

By Rabbi Julian Sinclair, November 5, 2008

Egel hazahav, "golden calf," is a phrase in modern Hebrew (which is full of bits and pieces of Bible and Midrash, in the same way as English contains unrecognised expressions from Shakespeare). You can hear it on the radio in the run-up to the Knesset elections: one candidate will describe another's values, policies or priorities as a golden calf, whether it's secularism or settlements.

The sense is of something like a totem or fetish bordering on, but not quite being, idolatrous in its importance to the opponent.

Interestingly, this usage reflects traditional discussions of the sin of the golden calf described in last week's parashah. The glaring question to contend with is: how could the Israelites have carried out this apparently idolatrous act immediately after experiencing God's revelation at Sinai? (A midrash compares it to a bride committing adultery the day after her wedding.)

While some commentators, including Rashi, are unsparing in their condemnation of the act as idolatrous, others, most prominently the 12th- century thinker, Rabbi Yehudah Halevi, mitigate the crime. According to Halevi, the people didn't actually believe the calf to be a god, but succumbed to an understandable (though still problematic) human craving for something tangible and physical with which to approach God. (Hence, the sanctuary was a divinely sanctioned way of meeting this need.)

In this way, the nuance of Bible commentary supplies contemporary Hebrew with a phrase that conveys harsh criticism of a fixed idea, while stopping short of the charge of idolatry.

Last updated: 2:01pm, November 5 2008