What was Aaron"s level of culpability relative to the Israelites running totally amok while Moses was on Mt. Sinai? I always thought the Israelites rapid descent into bacchanalia was testimony to (1) Aaron"s limited leadership skills, and (2) the shallowness of the Israelites obedience to God"s edicts. Based on your studies, why did the Israelites devolve so quickly in pagan behavior once Moses was gone?
Shalom, Thank you for your question. On this issue (as in many issues found in the Torah) there is a wide range of religious approaches – all of which have their supporters within traditional Judaism. (It is probably appropriate to quote the Rabbinic saying that there are seventy “faces” to every aspect of the Torah). In relation to Aaron, there is a major trend in Rabbinic literature to look favorably at him and his actions connected to the golden calf. In general it is explained that he was attempting to stall the people from their sin, in an effort to buy time until Moses would return. However, he was not successful. In relation to the sin itself – many explain that it was not the Jewish people as a whole who sinned, but rather the “erev rav” or mixed multitudes of non-Jews who came out of Egypt together with the Jewish people. This group is blamed for various episodes that are mentioned during the time in the desert. Alternatively, perhaps the sin of the people was a result of their slave mentality that they took with them from Egypt. Thinking that Moses was dead, they instantly returned to the slave mindset of needed an immediate and physical leader and master. This they made for themselves in the form of the idol. Additionally, some explain that the sin was not nearly as terrible as is seems (unlike the assumption in your question). Rather, the people were still connected to, and trying to worship, G-d. Their sin lay in creating a form of worship that G-d did not command. That is, they were trying to serve G-d, but sinned in the mode of worship. (See the Kuzari for this explanation). Of course, this is only a short answer to a topic that deserves much in depth study. I hope it is enough to lead you in your own research. Blessings.