On a broad level, it would appear that, due to his involvement in the incident of the Golden Calf, Aharon HaKohen was somewhat complicit – even if inadvertently – in the entire horrible episode. Yet, as we know, and as Rashi tells us, Aharon asked the people to wait and bring their wives’ jewelry, as his intention was simply to delay, not to encourage.
“Aharon saw: Many things did Aharon see; he saw Chur the son of his sister, who rebuked them and they killed him. He said, ‘Better that the transgression be ascribed to me and not to them.’ He saw and said, ‘If they build the altar...the work will be done at once; whereas, if I build it, and I tarry in my work, in the meantime Moshe will arrive.’” Aharon understood that a direct approach was not going to stop the people; better to be seen as going along with them than fighting them. He was trying to appease the mob and refused to be rushed into sinning. He tried to at least delay them, in the hopes of buying time to stop the Eigel.
In more recent times, an event of universal proportions may have had a disastrous effect on the spirit and quality of Torah Yiddishkeit for many years to come. The establishment of Napoleon Bonaparte’s “Sanhedrin” in 1806, and the deleterious impact its resolutions brought about, would lead one to believe that any and all those involved – and especially those who headed it – would be made to bear this assembly as their eternal stain. Some have argued that the compromises announced by Napoleon’s “Sanhedrin” gave legitimacy to the then young Reform movement. Others have condemned the French Rabbinate as weak and eager to give in to Napoleon’s self-obsession as the “Emancipator” of the Jewish people.
It was in 1806, after the Austerlitz Campaign, that Napoleon aggressively supported total liberty for the Jews of France. He issued a decree on the 30th of May, ordering that a special assembly of 111 Jewish leaders, thinkers, and rabbis from all over France meet in Paris and answer questions dealing with anti-Semitic accusations against the Jews. Napoleon stated: “My desire is to make Jews equal citizens in France, have a conciliation between their religion and their responsibilities in becoming French, and to answer all the accusations made against them. I want all people living in France to be equal citizens and benefit from our laws.” He attempted to legitimize his efforts by appointing the chief rabbi of Strasbourg, Rav Yosef David Sinzheim zt”l, author of Yad David and rosh yeshivah in Bischeim, as President of the Assembly.
The Orthodox delegates to this body did not consider their appointments an honor, as they knew that they would be called upon to “reconcile” the position of halachah on various social questions with the “enlightened” law of France. Indeed, at the opening session of the Assembly, Napoleon’s representative posed 12 questions that the Emperor wanted the Assembly to address, including the validity of a get (Jewish divorce), lending money to non-Jews with interest, and if Jews consider Frenchmen as brethren or strangers. As the leading halachic authority in France, Rav Sinzheim was caught between the need to give answers that would not misrepresent Jewish law but would not endanger the safety of France’s Jews. As they were in the minority, the Orthodox rabbis in the assembly had little chance of accurately reflecting the Torah’s views on these topics.
When the Assembly of Jewish Notables had completed its work and issued its answers to Napoleon’s questions, the Emperor convened a full “Sanhedrin” to legislate them into law. The delegates to this body were informed that their failure to comply with Napoleon’s wishes would result in the expulsion of the Jews from France. To ensure the body’s “success,” Napoleon stacked it with rich Jews whose economic interests outweighed their commitment to Torah and halachah.
Although history may have judged Rav Sinzheim harshly, as he and his s’farim are not well known despite his incredible scholarship, his own contemporaries clearly did not see him in this light. The Chasam Sofer zt”l, one of the leading warriors against Reform, called Rav Sinzheim a “tzadik” and said: “I know his righteousness and perfection. Although he was made an “Adon” (Lord) because of his knowledge of politics, he remained lord over his strength (his yeitzer ha’ra), and they (the king and ministers) were not lords over him. He did not give in to them, Hashem forbid. He was a “gadol baYehudim.” Although he had to “uncover” a little bit, he went back and “covered” twice as much (Talmudic expression used to mean that he undid any damage that he had been forced to cause). And his perfection remained standing.”
(printed in D’rashos Chasam Sofer)