Why Belong to a Sinful People? Ki Tissa 5779

D'var Torah | Exodus

Before he could be convinced to convert to Judaism, the king of the Khazars had to be certain that Judaism was worthy of his allegiance. In his fanciful reconstruction of the dialogue between the king of the Khazars and a rabbinic scholar, Rabbi Judah Halevi discusses a number of questions that were undoubtedly on the minds of Jews, not just on the minds of potential converts. One particularly thorny question relates to the sin of the Golden Calf. If the Torah is correct and God appeared before the assemble multitude at Sinai, how could these witnesses to God’s revelation so quickly disobey His commandments? Moreover, would not a sin against such a fundamental principle of Judaism disqualify the people Israel from any future special relationship with God? To put it differently, why should any outsider consider adopting Judaism when Jews themselves ­– and at the time of the most intimate contact with God – rejected an essential principle of Judaism?


Rabbi Judah Halevi offers five responses (Kuzari, Part 1, Section 97). First, he points out that the sin was not universal. Less than three thousand out of a total population of six hundred thousand engaged in the worship of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:28). Hence, an entire people cannot be condemned for the sin of a relative few. Second, he intimates that the leaders who participated in the fashioning of the calf did so cunningly. It was their intent to weed out idolaters among the people by luring them to step forward. Third, he reminds the king that as serious as any sin may be, one sin is no more catastrophic than any other sin. All sins being equal, the Israelites committed only one sin and surely one sin is insufficient for condemning an entire people.


Fourth, Halevi, through the rabbi, notes that the motivation for the worship of the calf came from the magicians and astrologers mixed among the Israelites and not from the Israelites themselves. And finally, he argues that the making of the Golden Calf, forbidden in practice, is actually a salute to the zeal and devotion of a people who wanted to manifest their faith in a way accepted by most believers at that time. The Golden Calf was not a surrender of commitment to God but a concession to the religious conventions of the day.


Cementing his defense, Rabbi Judah Halevi concludes that Israel’s special relationship with God should not be questioned by people since it was never questioned by God. Despite the incident of the Golden Calf, the manna continued to fall and the cloud indicating God’s divine presence never ceased from hovering over the camp.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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