Humash

Revelation Deferred but not Denied: the Golden Calf as a Rabbinic Origin Story

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The story of the Golden Calf tells of the shattering and subsequent reconstruction of the three-way relationship between God, Moses, and the Jewish people. In the span of two chapters between when Moses is given the Tablets and when he is given a second set of Tablets, God threatens to destroy the Jewish people, but also offers Moses an intense revelatory experience.

The link between the two major threads of the story—God’s evolving relationship with the Jewish people and revelation to Moses—becomes clearer when reading it through the lens of a well-known Talmudic story about the interaction of Moses, God, and Rabbi Akiba (Menahot 29b). I suggest, echoing recent scholarly proposals,[1] that this talmudic passage is a retelling of the Moses-God dialogue within the Golden Calf story. This suggestion is largely absent from traditional and scholarly commentaries, but compelling for reasons of both textual consistency and narrative harmony. The resulting interpretation not only resolves textual difficulties in the story of the Golden Calf, but resolves questions of the purpose and interpretation of the Menahot passage by suggesting that God reacts to the Golden Calf by withholding some of his planned revelation to Moses and deferring its transmission until the time Rabbi Akiba and his rabbinic colleagues some millennia later.

The Golden Calf

While the incident of the Golden Calf is spread over several chapters, a short recap of the key verses will contextualize some of the main questions to be addressed.

In short order, God gives Moses the Tablets (Exodus 31:18), but once the people see that Moses is delayed (32:1), they create the Golden Calf (32:4). In response, God wants to destroy the Jewish People (32:10) but Moses convinces God to reconsider (32:11-14) and then destroys the Tablets (32:19). After disposing of the Golden Calf and its instigators (32:20-29), Moses tells the Jewish People that he will return to God to get forgiveness (32:30) and tells God to “erase me from your book” if he doesn’t forgive the Jewish people (32:32). God responds that an angel will lead the people from here on out (32:34, 33:2). Moses removes himself from the Jewish people (33:7) and experiences “face to face” communication with God (33:11), but asks for still greater knowledge so that he can be reassured (33:12-13). Moses continues to advocate for greater revelation, with God ultimately planning to show him His back, but not his front (33:20, 33:23). Immediately after this, Moses is instructed to create a new set of man-made Tablets (34:1), but continues to plead with Hashem, who then reveals Himself and teaches Moses the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy (34:6-7).

How does the narrative cohere? Particularly, what is the connection between the content of chapters 32 and 34 (where Moses receives two sets of Tablets and the Golden Calf is built and destroyed) and chapter 33, which details Moses’s quest for further intimacy with God? The request is out of place, as Moses is asking God for a favor outside of the scope of his main request to advance the cause of the Jewish People (see Ramban on Exodus 33:12).

I suggest that a Talmudic passage in Menahot 29b is not only a response to these textual questions, but is, in Rubenstein’s words, “a retelling” of these chapters. We turn our attention to Moses’s visit to Rabbi Akiba’s classroom.

Moses in Rabbi Akiba’s classroom

The Talmud (Menahot 29b) relates the following story:

Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: At the time [lit. hour] that Moses ascended on High, he found the Holy One Blessed is He sitting and fastening crowns to the letters. He [Moses] said before him [lit. to his face]: “Master of the World, what stays your hand?” He [God] said to him: “There is one man who is destined to exist at the end of many generations, and Akiba the son of Yosef is his name, who will one day expound upon each and every point heaps and heaps of laws.” He said before him [lit. to his face]: “Master of the World, show him to me!” He [God] said to him, “Turn around [lit. to your back]!” He [Moses] went and sat at the end of eight rows and he did not know what they were discussing. His strength ebbed. Once they reached a certain matter, his [Akiba’s] students said to him “Teacher, from where do you know this?” He responded “It is a law transmitted to Moses at Sinai.” His [Moses’s] mind was settled. He returned in front of God and said to him [lit. to his face] “Master of the World, You have someone like this, and you give the Torah through me?” He said to him, “Silence. Thus it has arisen in thought before me.” He said to him [lit. to his face], “You have showed me his Torah, now show me his reward.” He [God] said to him “Turn around [lit. to your back]”. He turned around [lit. to his back] and saw that they were weighing his [Akiba’s] flesh in the marketplace. He said to him [lit. to his face]: “Master of the World! This is his Torah and this is his reward?” He [God] said to him: “Silence. Thus it has arisen in thought before me.”

The story defies easy explanation. Moses walks into Rabbi Akiba’s classroom and does not know what is going on, yet Rabbi Akiba claims that Moses is the source of the teaching! While the narrative seems to be presenting the idea that Rabbi Akiba’s teachings are legitimate, it simultaneously seems to undermine, if not mock, their legitimacy by suggesting that Halakhah le-Moshe mi-Sinai (“a law from Moses at Sinai”), which is a frequently used as a trump card in Talmudic debate, taking precedence over logical or textual considerations, is not something actually revealed to Moses. Further, what is the reader to take from the fact that Moses does not understand Rabbi Akiba? How is this action tied to God’s modification of the Torah to include crowns, and what is the significance of the crowns? What do we learn from God’s refusal to explain R. Akiba’s martyrdom?

Approaches to these problems generally break along one of two lines. A broad categorization, if slightly oversimplified, is that contemporary scholars often attempt to identify the ideological message that the author or editor seeks to communicate with the story. Traditional scholars, on the other hand, generally show more concern with reconciling the story with traditional positions like the supremacy of Mosaic prophecy.

Several modern scholars interpret the passage as tacitly acknowledging a critique of rabbinic interpretation. Gershom Scholem considers this story as “not entirely without tongue in cheek”, as if the authors understood that they are overextending the Rabbinic claim to legitimacy, but nonetheless put it forward to signal the “maturation” of Judaism from revelation as concrete communication to revelation as interpretative act.[2] Laurence Edwards reads this story as an expression of rabbinic anxiety at the tremendous responsibility inherent in the process of interpretation, with the death of Rabbi Akiba being seen as symbolic of the high price paid for interpretation.[3] Likewise, Azzan Yadin-Israel argues that this text is consistent with a broader post-Tannaitic tendency to valorize interpretation over received tradition.[4] He supports this interpretation by building on Shlomo Naeh’s suggestion that the word for “crowns” in the passage should be translated as “pericopes” (a short section of text), which implies that the passage is explicitly about Rabbi Akiba’s textual interpretative capabilities.[5] Finally, Daniel Boyarin argues that the passage advances an apophatic theology (defined through negation), that “God will not or perhaps even… cannot explain… interpretation of his word or his activities.”[6]

A common theme amongst these interpretations is they imagine the story as a rabbinic acknowledgement of independence and divergence from traditional methods. Yet while Rabbinic Judaism does represent a significant evolution from Temple and Biblical Judaism, there is little explanation about why the Talmud would include a legend explicitly identifying this evolution and undermining its legitimacy. Rubenstein argues that the passage bears hallmarks of editing by the Stammaites, the redactors of the Talmud, who lived close to five centuries after Rabbi Akiba. Stammaites would be well aware that the Talmudic form of argumentation and biblical exegesis would not be recognizable to Temple-era Jews, but why would they seek to prominently canonize a story which conveys a message antithetical to the legitimacy of Rabbi Akiba and the Talmud as a whole?

Revelation to Rabbi Akiba

Traditional commentators approaching the Menahot passage are animated by the question of how to square it with Judaism’s basic creed of the primacy of Mosaic prophecy. Rashi (Menahot 29b) resolves the problem of Rabbi Akiba’s superiority by positing that Akiba’s teaching would eventually be received by Moses, but just hadn’t been received yet at the time of Moses’s visit. Moses’s mind was settled “since it was said from his name, even though he did not yet receive” what Akiba was covering in his lesson.

While this interpretation narrowly addresses the problem, it undermines most plausible interpretations of the passage as well as the basic consistency of the narrative. Specifically, why would Moses think that Rabbi Akiba was greater than him and more deserving of receiving the Torah if Moses was indeed the ultimate source of Rabbi Akiba’s teaching? After all, Moses is going to eventually learn and become the source of Rabbi Akiba’s teaching, so why would Rabbi Akiba’s teaching impress him so deeply? Further, Rashi’s interpretation seems to rob the passage of much of its rich symbolism: what now is the connection between Rabbi Akiba’s teaching, his martyrdom, and the crowns that God affixes on the Torah?

Maharal (Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, Prague, 16th century) develops a nuanced framework to explain why Rabbi Akiba can understand what Moses cannot but is still not superior. In his work Hiddushei Aggadot on Menahot 29b, Maharal explains how the nature of Moses’s knowledge differs from Rabbi Akiba’s understanding. In this system, Moses is attuned to understanding God’s word when communicated through one particular mode of communication – the body of the Torah. The crowns, on the other hand, represent communications that are external to the body of the Torah, and Rabbi Akiba is more attuned to teachings of this nature. In the words of Maharal, when Moses sees that God is affixing crowns to the letters, he recognizes that the crowns are something subtle and beyond his understanding, and presumably all human comprehension as well:

And he says, “Who stays your hand?” as if to say that these subtle realizations that the crowns come to teach us are distant from any individual who is in the material world, which lacks access to the [necessary] intellectual faculties. And because these [crowns] are distant from human comprehension, they are on top of the letters [as opposed to an integral part of the letter]…

Maharal insists that although Moses is greater than Rabbi Akiba, Akiba is specifically attuned to the information that is contained in the crowns but not in the body of the Torah:

And you should not wonder about the fact that Moses our Teacher, may peace be upon him, did not understand what [the crowns] said, and say in response that Akiba is greater. Heaven forbid! Rather, we have explained that Moses had no particular connection to the crowns [like Rabbi Akiba did].

Moses, understandably, wishes to see the individual who will be able to comprehend the subtleties of the crowns, and is impressed by Rabbi Akiba. Moses’s query as to why God does not give the Torah to Rabbi Akiba can then be seen, not about the persona of Rabbi Akiba, but about the form of revelation (e.g. the choice to give Moses the body of the Torah rather than the information in the crowns to Rabbi Akiba). When God responds with the uninformative “So it has risen in thought before me,” he is responding that God chooses, for reasons only known to him, to bring the Torah into this world using Moses and the body of the Torah he understands.

Maharal’s framework suggests that Rabbi Akiba and his colleagues bring new knowledge into the world, not because they are greater than Moses, but because they can legitimately reveal divine truths unknown to him. This framework is complemented and further extended by an unlikely source – Rabbi Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (sometimes known as the Brisker Rav or GRIZ; 1886-1959). Like other traditional commentators, he is concerned about the consistency of the Menahot passage with other parts of rabbinic literature. Specifically, he notes that the crowns on letters in the Torah are only present in the Assyrian script of the Hebrew alphabet, and yet, according to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b), the Torah given to Moses was written in the Paleo-Hebrew script – which has no crowns! Since the Assyrian script only came into use in the time of Ezra, why would God be attaching crowns to the Torah at the time of Moses?

Soloveitchik solves this problem by suggesting that Moses physically wrote a copy of the Torah in Assyrian script on stones on the banks of the Jordan river (as referred to in Deuteronomy 27:2-3 and associated rabbinic interpretations), but that the Paleo-Hebrew script remained canonical for the Torah until the time of Ezra. He then connects the switch from the Paleo-Hebrew script (sans crowns) to the Assyrian script (with crowns) to an interpretation of the Menahot passage:

With this idea, we can resolve the aforementioned Talmudic passage [Menahot 29b] … God was sitting and tying crowns to letters- Assyrian script letters that is. But the Torah was only given in the Levant [Paleo-Hebrew] script without crowns and Moses said to God: “Who stays your hand?” meaning why don’t you give the Torah immediately in the Assyrian script and let us perform exegesis on the crowns. God responds … “He [Akiba] will perform the exegesis and not you.” Moses said before God, “ … Give the Torah immediately to Rabbi Akiba in the Assyrian script with the crowns so he can interpret them.” God responds, “ … the Torah will be given in Assyrian script in the future and the end of many generations and not now.”

According to Soloveitchik, the canonical Torah was originally the version in Paleo-Hebrew script, which does not include the crowns. To the extent that crowns existed in a copy of the Torah on the banks of the Jordan, they are not canon and are meaningless. Yet, at the time of Ezra, when the canonical Torah switches to the Assyrian script, the crowns and their associated teaching now become accessible to human interpretation.

Putting together the ideas of Soloveitchik and Maharal, Moses and Rabbi Akiba represent two sides of God’s revelation to mankind, both thematically and historically. In Maharal’s framework, Moses and Rabbi Akiba understand the Torah in fundamentally different ways. According to Soloveitchik, this reflects God’s decision to give some elements of the Torah to Moses at Sinai and hold other elements back to be “activated” at the time of Ezra (when the canonical Torah is switched to the Assyrian script) and then interpreted by Rabbi Akiba. Thus, the Torah is given progressively; some is given to Moses and the rest is left for later interpretation, specifically by Rabbi Akiba.

Armed with this understanding of Menahot, let’s return to the Golden Calf. Rubenstein points out that there are textual parallels between Exodus and Menahot, specifically a recurring dialectic between the words “front” and “back” in both passages. Therefore, Rubenstein argues, when the story recounts Moses asking God to “show me his [Rabbi Akiba’s] reward,” it is restating the dialogue in Exodus 33:12-23.

Indeed, there is compelling evidence that the two passages are deeply connected. Parallel Talmudic passages suggest that Menahot 29b is one of several connected late rabbinic passages relating to the Golden Calf. The opening phrase, “At the time that Moses ascended to Heaven” or a close variant is also used in Shabbat 89a, Sanhedrin 111a-b, and Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 4:7-8. Each of those texts discusses a topic connected to the story of the Golden Calf. The talmudic passages in Sanhedrin and Shabbat link to the Thirteen Attributes (introduced during the incident of the Golden Calf); additionally, the Shabbat passage explicitly interprets the meaning of a word (boshesh) used in Exodus 32:1 regarding Moses’ delay in descending from the mountain. The Pesikta de-Rav Kahana passage, which has significant thematic overlap with the Menahot passage, suggests that God was learning about the Red Heifer as an atonement for the Golden Calf when Moses ascended. I argue that, more than the thematic connection Rubenstein identifies, the entirety of the Menahot passage should be seen as a rabbinic discussion of the meaning and consequences of the Golden Calf.

Re-interpreting Menahot 29b: The crowns as a reaction to the Golden Calf

Moses returns to the heavens after the sin of the Golden Calf. He has given God an ultimatum to forgive the Jewish people or to remove him from the Torah. With this background, God modifying the Torah by adding crowns takes on a new, ominous meaning. Moses asks, “what stays your hand?” and is told that God is waiting for Rabbi Akiba. When Moses does not understand Rabbi Akiba’s teaching, Moses worries (“his strength ebbed”) that God has erased him from his role in revelation and destroyed the Jewish people.

This explains Moses’s relief when Rabbi Akiba cites a law as a “law transmitted from Sinai to Moses”. Rabbi Akiba’s attribution to Moses – even if Moses does not understand it – makes it clear that Moses has not been erased and, consequently, the Jewish people have been saved from God’s wrath.

This context addresses several difficulties left unresolved in most explanations of the Menahot passage: Why is Moses so sorely disappointed over not understanding a passage – surely it is not because his ego is bruised? Why is Moses relieved at being the source of a passage that he does not understand? In this interpretation of the passage, Moses’s emotional swing (“his mind was settled”) occurs because he now understands that the Jewish people have survived.

But not everything remained the same in the wake of the Golden Calf. Revelation is restructured and split between Moses and Rabbi Akiba. Moses is relieved by the recognition of his continued role in divine revelation, but he asks, “you have someone like this, and you give the Torah through me?” to understand why God does not just give the entirety of revelation to Rabbi Akiba. In the Maharal/Soloveitchik interpretation, the Menahot passage actively captures the moment when God partially replaces Moses with Rabbi Akiba. God was planning on giving the entirety of revelation to Moses; after the sin of the Golden Calf, God changes the Torah and splits revelation between Moses and Rabbi Akiba and his colleagues.

This is a fitting reaction to the sin of the Golden Calf. There is a strand of rabbinic interpretation positing that the sin of the Golden Calf was a desire for an inappropriately intimate relationship with the divine. Evoking Christian notions of Incarnation, Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 45 has the Israelites expressing desire for a physical god who can be carried and seen (a midrashic interpretation of a “god who shall go before us” in Exodus 32:1). It seems appropriate that God reacts by withholding his presence (in the Biblical account) and withholding a part of his revelation for a future generation (in our reading of Menahot).

The fact that Moses can no longer experience the intimacy he previously had with God and does not receive answers to all his questions also dovetails with this interpretation. Moses wishes to see God’s face (in the Biblical account) and understand why revelation is being divided and why Rabbi Akiba suffers (in Menahot). But due to this restructuring, he can no longer do either. “And my face must not be seen” God says in Exodus 33:23. Nor does he get a full response in Menahot to why God divided revelation between him and R. Akiba or why R. Akiba meets such an ignominious end. God instead tells Moses to be silent.

Conclusion

Copious ink has been spilled to interpret the interaction of Moses and Rabbi Akiba in Menahot 29b. Most modern commentators look at this passage and see Rabbinic self-consciousness about their legitimacy and continuity with Biblical and Temple Judaism. In this essay, I suggest the opposite. By demonstrating that the story captures the response of Moses and God to the sin of the Golden Calf, Menahot 29b becomes a bold restatement of the assertion that Rabbi Akiba and his colleagues receive revelation that was stripped from Moses. In the worldview advanced by this passage, the Golden Calf caused a rupture in the original plan for revelation, with Rabbi Akiba and his colleagues standing in the breach. Far from the sly nod and implicit recognition of discontinuity, as suggested by Scholem and others, the seemingly absurd construction of the story in Menahot legitimizes Rabbinical Judaism as the true heirs of Sinai, all but equal to Moses himself. The power and authority granted to rabbinic interpretation was part of God’s plan from the moment the people sinned with the Golden Calf.

One of the ironies of the passage in Menahot 29b is that there is not a single recorded instance in rabbinic literature of anyone, including Rabbi Akiba, who derives laws or other teaching from the crown of a letter. Perhaps this suggests that the legitimacy of revelation through interpretation lives on. The crowns have not been interpreted, at least not yet. The tantalizing existence of uninterpreted crowns says that there will always be new frontiers for interpretation. The revelation that started at Sinai does not come to a close.


[1] Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Stories of the Babylonian Talmud (JHU Press, 2010), 182-202.
[2] Gershom Scholem, The Messianic Idea in Judaism: And other essays on Jewish Spirituality (Schocken, 2011), 282-5.
[3] Laurence L. Edwards, “Rabbi Akiba’s Crowns: Postmodern Discourse and the Cost of Rabbinic Reading,” Judaism 49, no. 4 (2000): 417.
[4] Azzan Yadin-Israel, “Bavli Menaḥot 29b and the Diminution of the Prophets,” Journal of Ancient Judaism 5, no. 1 (2014): 88-105.
[5] Shlomo Naeh, “The Script of the Torah in Rabbinic Thought (B): Transcriptions and Thorns,” Leshonenu 71 (2010): 89-123.
[6] Daniel Boyarin, Border Lines: The Partition of Judaeo-Christianity. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 165-7.

Dr. Amitai Bin-Nun is a senior research scientist at Motional LLC, a Boston-based company developing driverless vehicles, where he focuses on the intersection of engineering, policy, and societal expectations of emerging technologies. Previously, he spent close to a decade working on science policy across several government, academic, and nonprofit leadership roles. He earned a Ph.D. in theoretical astrophysics at the University of Pennsylvania, where his thesis explored using black holes as a window into extra dimensions, a masters degree in mathematics from Jesus College, University of Cambridge, and a B.A. from Yeshiva University. Amitai has published research across the fields of physics, energy policy, engineering safety, and social policy. In 2009, he was awarded the Luckens Prize in Jewish Thought by the University of Kentucky. Amitai resides in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and is grateful to be able to publish Jewish scholarship in the Lehrhaus. He can be reached at binnun@gmail.com.