Before you answer, consider the following:
When reading good literature, there is a natural tendency to identify with the work’s characters. As we submerge ourselves into the story, we merge and almost become those characters. So if a character acts differently than we would, we are surprised and subtly reminded that we are not actually them! In this regard, reading the Torah is no different. While reading the Torah in this way may make it more interesting – and so we may not want to fully eliminate it – it also leads us to many mistakes.
One fundamental difference that I cannot overstress is that we know the end of the story. The Rabbis (Ruth Rabbah 5:6) express this with regard to Reuven’s attempt to save Yosef from the other brothers. Assuming that the story would be kept in the family, Reuven did what he could within the realm of better than average. But, say the Rabbis, had he known that this story would be written for all time in the Torah, he would have acted with superhuman boldness and carried Yosef to his father on his shoulders. However, he did not know that, so he didn’t.
Just imagine if we could go back and relive parts of our lives after seeing all of their consequences. Who would not make changes with the enhanced vision of hindsight? For better or worse, though, that is not the way life is lived. And yet – given that we constantly reread the Torah – it is the way the Torah is read. Accordingly, the midrash reminds us that Reuven would have also acted differently if he had our perspective. Likewise, the Jews with the golden calf.
Another basic problem with our over-identification with the characters in Tanakh is that we are all radically different from them. Their knowledge was different, their customs were different and their material culture was different as well. Even more important is that we can scarcely imagine the religious convictions and customs of the world around them.
So if we truly want to realistically put ourselves in their place, we must consider how their recent experiences of God were completely removed from anything they had known up until now. Yet they were told to leave everything behind for a type of miraculous existence that was almost unknown except to a handful of unusual characters such as the patriarchs. This involved walking long distances with entire families transporting whatever possessions they had across an unknown desert, completely dependent on the grace of God and on Moshe’s leadership.
Don’t forget that it was only very recently that God had come out of hiding, when He heard their cries and sent Moshe to save them. And if God was hidden up until then, Moshe had been completely absent. Granted, both God and Moshe had shown their credibility, but they were still both very new to the Jewish people. So when Moshe disappears for forty days and then doesn’t seem to return, one can only imagine the latent fears of being stranded in the desert. Nor was the God they experienced so powerfully at Sinai present in any manifestly open way. If you were there and thought both Moshe and God had disappeared, would it not be natural to go back to how you acted before they had appeared? And both midrash and Tanakh indicate that, for many Jews, this included the worship of other gods. Given that everybody else did so and felt it to be least partially effective, why would we expect the Jews who had not heard from God for several generations to behave otherwise?
This is ultimately the challenge the Talmud (Sanhedrin 102b) has the idolatrous KIng Menashe present to the late Amora, Rav Ashi. After being understandably berated by the latter, Menashe comes to him in a dream, informing him that had he lived in Menashe’s time, he would have been just as bad.
True, the Torah is based on the spot-on premise that basic features of the human condition remain constant throughout history. Hence we confront similar challenges as our heroes in Tanakh and respond in similar ways. This is why the Torah is relevant. But this is a far cry from the reductionism that prompts a misguided certainty that we would have done better.
The fact that the Jews did get punished for the golden calf (though revealingly not as much as we might have assumed) means that they could have done better. But that is different than saying it was an inexplicable act of total perfidy or madness. Perhaps this is what Hillel meant (Avot 2:4) by, “Do not judge your fellow until you have stood in his place.”