What exactly was the sin involved in the making of the Eigel haZahav, the Golden Calf?
Rashi (Ex 32:1 “asher yeilekhu“, “asher he’elanu“) says it was actual idolatry.
The Kuzari (1:97) says it was a representation to be used as a conduit between man and G-d. A Moses replacement. Not so much a violation against the second and third of the Rambam’s articles of faith (Divine Uniqueness and Divine Incorporeality), but a violation of the fifth — that we are not to worship anything in the role of middleman between G-d and ourselves.
The distinction between the two may boil down to choosing which phrase in the Torah is the primary motivation given by the Jews.
The people saw that Moshe was late to come down from the mountain; the people ganged up on Aharon, and they said to him: “Arise, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this man Moshe who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him.”- Shemos 32:1
Rashi comments on the words “a god who shall go before us”, and the Kuzari writes about their worrying about Moshe’s non-return.
I could make a historical argument for the Kuzari’s position. In Egyptian mythology, the minor deity that purportedly pulled the cart of prayers up to heaven and blessings down to mankind was Apis, a bull (or man with a bull head). Oxen were towing animals in their society. In Egypt, Apis was the courier of prayers to the other gods, and of blessings to man. It is quite plausible that they thought that without Moshe, they needed a new conduit to G-d, and therefore turned to Apis.
Apis’s holiday was on the 15th of the 8th month. There were two temples at the far sides of Egypt, Memphis and Heliopolis, that had representations of Apis, golden bulls, in front of them.
Yerav’am, when he founded the Malkhus Yisrael, needed to establish a new religion that would free them from being tied to Yehudah and the Temple in Yerushalayim. Among his changes were that he shifted Sukkos from the seventh month to the eighth, and he built temples in Beis-El and Dan with bulls in front of them. It would seem that a pretty conscious imitation of Apis worship was still around.
Thus, the notion that the golden calf was a product of the same mentality, and thus an attempt to replace Moses would explain why they chose the animal they did. The connection between Yerav’am’s religion and the eigel is made explicitly by Tanakh. Yerav’am’s language on consecrating his bulls even parallels that of the Jews when the eigel was completed:
And he [Aharon] received it [the gold] from their hands, and shaped it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf; and they said: “These are your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”- Ibid. v. 4
The king [Yirav’am took counsel, and made two golden calves; and he said unto them: ‘You have gone up to Yerushalaim too much, here are your gods, Israel, which brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”- Melakhim I 12:28
Lehavdil, the keruvim on the aron, that the golden calf as well as the Northern Kingdom’s bulls are the product of a false understanding of the keruv concept.
The keruvim had the faces of children, either one boy and one girl or two boys, and a pair of long bird-like wings that arced over the ark. We do not know what else — if anything — they had. Could have been just a pair of busts, heads with wings and nothing else; or perhaps an entire body. When the Jews got along with each other, they faced each other. When they did not, the keruvim turned away from each other. This would only be seen by the Kohein Gadol on Yom Kippur and by soldiers who saw the ark during war. I assume, therefore, that it served as a call to repentance on Yom Kippur or when preparing for battle.
These are different than the keruv as discussed in Bereishis, who guards the entrance to Eden while holding a sword of revolving fire.
It is also different than the keruv as implied by Yechezqeil. In 1:10, the angels called chayos (Living Beings) present at the Divine Chariot are described as having four faces: that of a man, a lion, an ox, and an eagle. However, in 10:15 we’re told that a chayah is a keruv, in the two visions he them saw identically (10:22) and the keruv has the faces of a keruv, a man, a lion and an eagle. The face of the keruv replaces that of the ox. This implies that a keruv is an ox-like thing, that being the corresponding face. (Even though “chayos” has a more common meaning of “wild animal” to the exclusion of “beheimos”, domesticated ones like oxen. Then again, people aren’t chayos either, and one of the faces of the chayah is human.)
The Chaldeans worshiped a god called Kirub, who was a bull with a human face. So the linguistics point to this interpretation as well. (It also supports Maimonides’ assumption that idolatry began with the worship of G-d’s “entourage” as a way to honor Him.)
I would therefore suggest that this middleman god is a single thread of pagan thought — be it Apis, Kirub, the eigel, or bulls at Malkhus Yisrael. They are a misunderstanding of the notion of keruvim.
Yerav’am’s sin therefore carries an echo of Korach’s. The medrash tells us that Korach brought Moshe a garment entirely made of techeiles (blue wool) and asked whether it needed tzitzis. When Moshe replied that it did, Korach scoffed. If the whole garment being blue is insufficient, what difference would one thread make? Korach tried to declare the whole world holy and thereby leave nothing sacred.
Yerav’am took the two keruvim and placed them at opposite sides of his country. The Divine Presence would appear in a pillar of smoke from between the keruvim in the Mishkan and Beis haMiqdash. Now, Yerav’am declares, that holiness is everywhere.
There were two utensils in the first Beis haMidash that had images on them — the aron had keruvim and the legs to the laver that Shelomo made. Both share a law — they were not made of a separate piece welded on. The keruvim had to be of the same gold, part of the lid of the aron; not welded, but of the same piece. Thus making it clear that they were secondary to the Torah and not worship-worthy gods in their own right.
As the Rambam explains the birth of idolatry:
“In the days of Enosh, the people fell into gross error, and the counsel of the wise men of the generation became foolish. Enosh himself was among those who erred. Their error was as follows: “Since God”, they said, “created these stars and spheres to guide the world, set them on high and allotted unto them honor, and since they are ministers who minister before Him, they deserve to be praised and glorified, and honor should be rendered them; and it is the will of God, blessed be He, that men should aggrandise and honor those whom He aggrandised and honored – just as a king desires that respect should be shown to the officers who stand before Him, and thus honor is shown to the king.” When this idea arose in their minds, they began to erect temples to the stars, offered up sacrifices to them, praised and glorified them in speech, and prostrated themselves before them – their purpose, according to their perverse notions, being to obtain the Creator’s favor. This was the root of idolatry, and this was what the idolators, who knew its fundamentals, said….- Laws of Idolatry 1:1