After the enthusiastic reception of the Ten Commandments, the people, impatient for Moses’ descent from the mountain, made themselves a new god—a golden calf. Examine the text carefully,1 and perhaps a few observations might be made. Can’t we find some exoneration for their idolatry?Was not the golden calf a sincere religious quest for the divine?

Moses was delayed in coming down from the mountain, so the people demanded of Aaron a “god that will go before us,” for the Moses who led the people from Egypt is gone. Was this not a sincere religious quest for the divine? Was not their rejection of Moses (and all he taught) justified, since Moses on the symbolic mountaintop was too exalted for ordinary folk, meaningless to them? He was ideal for the tasks of the past, but do not people need a new, forward-looking god to “go before them” in facing the problems of a new world? Nor were the people miserly—they gave their most precious possessions and brought generous offerings promptly.

Perhaps the indication of their true feelings is found in the statement “The people . . . rose up to play.”

Their insistence on a god they could comprehend, their groping for a progressive faith attuned to the times which they could embrace conscientiously might even inspire respect for puny mortals fearlessly grappling with eternal insoluble mysteries—we might even ignore the gross form their god took. But when all their religious ecstasy and inspiration ends on a note of levity, of release from self-discipline, of casting off the restraints of Judaism, on having a good time, then their motives are suspect. Do they seek G‑d, or attempt to escape Him?

No ideal can be examined by its verbal statements. Spiritual claims are no indication of spirituality. The deeds which it inspires are the measure of the ideal’s worth. Judaism is not pious preachments, but living by the teachings of Torah.