This article appeared in the October 8, 2010 Jewish Advocate.


America’s Golden Calf

By Steve Maas

I have been reading “Covenant & Conversation,” Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s compilation of essays on the Bible. Sacks, who is the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth, lives up to the promise of the title. Each time I pick up one of the books – he has covered Genesis and Exodus so far – I feel as if I’m resuming a conversation or perhaps listening in on one, as G-d and the Jewish people in fits and starts forge their covenant. Sacks is masterful not only at telling the story, but at distilling its message and drawing parallels to the world today.

In one essay on Exodus, he uses the Golden Calf as a departure point to discuss the self-destructive worship of wealth as epitomized in the Great Crash of 2008.

As Sacks notes, that’s just one of many lessons to be learned from the story of the Golden Calf. For me, reading about it in the run-up to the midterm elections, I thought about the parallels between the “stiff-necked” Israelites, impatient for Moses’ return from Mount Sinai, and American voters, angry about the state of the economy.

Before I go on, I must emphasize that in no way am I trying to compare Obama with Moses – though, we could surely use someone with the latter’s leadership prowess today. Rather, I’m thinking of how we Americans have such short memories and so little patience.

Think back three years ago to when the Dow was shedding hundreds of points a day, bank lending seized up like an engine without oil and economists were warning of a Great Depression.

Thanks to TARP – the bank rescue plan – the sky has not fallen, and far from proving to be the great sinkhole that many predicted, forecasters now say it will cost the taxpayers in the worst case $60 billion and in the best case actually make the government money,

Meanwhile, the stimulus package kept hundreds of thousands of teachers and public safety officers on the job, while putting thousands more to work on much needed work to repair bridges and highways. Yes, unemployment still seems stuck around 10 percent, but think how much higher it might have gone. The Republicans opposed the stimulus – and continue to campaign against it – on grounds that it will swell the deficit and ignite inflation. Judging by interest rates – have you renewed a CD lately? – the financial industry doesn’t foresee inflation returning any time soon. And considering that George W. Bush managed to turn the budget surplus he inherited from Bill Clinton into an ocean of red ink, the GOP concerns about the deficit sound a mite bit opportunistic.

But somehow, voters seem to have forgotten that.

If anything, the stimulus package wasn’t enough. Normally, consumers drive the economy. But people aren’t spending because they’re paying down debt or saving for what they fear will be more rainy days. Republicans argue that tax breaks will get business hiring again, but why would a company add jobs, if it doesn’t have customers for its product? We seem destined to repeat the mistakes of the Great Depression. Then, too, the stimulus package proved too little, and the economy would have slipped back into recession if World War II hadn’t come along.

As galling as it is to hear Republicans lecture about deficits, they show even more chutzpah when they complain about too much government regulation. Have we already forgotten how we got into the mortgage mess in the first place? Left to their own devices, mortgage brokers and Wall Street financiers pursued short-term wealth without regard for long-term consequences. The free marketers love to tout the magic of the invisible handed; well, it nearly strangled us.

Again, somehow, voters seem to have forgotten that.

Republicans have also managed to persuade millions of voters that Obama’s health care plan is something evil – or worse, socialistic – because it penalizes people for not getting coverage. Whether or not we have kids, we all pay taxes for public schools. Is that socialism? Yes, some people, especially younger ones, might be able to take the risk of not getting insurance, but without their contributions to the pool, the rest of us will have to pay much more. And, don’t forget, the young and healthy tend to grow older and sicker.

Again, voters somehow seem to have forgotten that.

Just as the Israelites fell back on worshipping false gods, Americans are falling for the same disastrous policies that brought us to the brink just two years ago.

Fortunately, the Israelites had Moses. When he returned from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments and saw the Golden Calf, he didn’t retreat into some white tent. No, he flew into a mighty rage and smashed the tablets into smithereens. That got the people’s attention.

In an article in The Jewish Week of New York, Washington correspondent James D. Besser reported on how Jewish progressives have soured on Obama not because of Israel but because of his compromising and dithering on domestic issues. Indeed, only last month – after spending far longer than 40 days and 40 nights up in the clouds – did he finally start mounting a counterattack.

Moses was able to intercede with G-d to get the Israelites a second chance. Presidents, as we know too well, don’t have that kind of pull.

Steve Maas is the editor of The Jewish Advocate.