Thursday, March 02, 2006

Terumah (Midrash)

The Father-in-Law’s Little Apartment

As we mentioned last week, the midrash speaks of the Torah as both mother and, alternatively, as bride, as His daughter whom God gives in marriage to Israel. This latter image is repeated in an interesting way in the latter part of the first midrash on this week’s parasha, Exodus Rabbah 33.1:

“And they shall take for me an offering” [Exod 25:2]. … This may be compared to a king who has an only daughter. One of the kings came and took her [in marriage], and he wished to return to his land and take her with him as his wife. He [the father] said to him: My daughter whom I have given you is an only child. I cannot bear to be separated from her; but neither can I tell you, “Do not take her,” seeing that she is your wife. Rather, do me this favor: wherever you go, make me a little bed-chamber, so I may live with you, for I cannot leave my daughter.

Thus said the Holy One blessed be He to Israel: I have given you my Torah. I cannot separate from her, and I cannot tell you do not take it. Rather, wherever you go, make me a little house that I may dwell therein, as is said: “And they shall make for me a sanctuary…” [Exod 25:8].

Let us leave aside the inevitable reaction of the contemporary reader—“Oy, what a nudnik of a father-in-law! Doesn’t he understand that his daughter is a grown woman who needs a little privacy with her husband, rather than having an interfering father-in-law bumbling around under their feet all the time!” Our midrash obviously does not share the assumptions or expectations of modern couples. Nor does it seem to know of the pattern of Eastern Europe of a century or two ago, where the son-in-law would be the one to move in and “ess kest” by his father-in-law. What is striking here is the understanding of the function of the tabernacle: namely, not so much to serve as a dwelling place for the Divine Presence, as something desirable thing in itself (as implied by the peshat of the proof-text brought from Exod 25:8, as from 29:46; 40:34 ff.; etc.; and cf. 24:16) , but as a kind of expedient enabling God to remain “close” to the Torah (so to speak). Why did the midrash paint things in this way? On the textual level, this homily was perhaps a way of explaining the chronological or textual proximity between the Revelation of the Torah and the indwelling of God’s Presence on the Mountain and the order to construct the Tabernacle. But the theology remains rather puzzling. What are we to make of all these personifications of the Torah? Is the Torah part of the created world? An apotheosis of God? Or perhaps some third kind of thing—perhaps a pre-existent, pre-cosmic emanation of the Divine?

The Shrinking God

Two separate homilies in this section deal with God’s self-limitation, regarding two different areas: in relation to Man’s limitations—of perception, of intellect, of ability to apprehend or even passively receive the awesome, overwhelming Divine presence; and in relation to the physical universe. Exodus Rabbah 34.1:

“And you shall make an ark of acacia wood” [Exod 25:10]. It is written there, “The Almighty—we cannot find him. He is great in power” [Job 37:23]. Our Great Rabbi [i.e., Rabbi Judah the Prince] said: We need to be grateful to Job, for whatever Elihu said, he came and added to his words. Job said to his friends: What do you think: that what I have told you is all His praise? Who can tell all the praise and might of the Holy One blessed be He? All the things that you have said “are but the outskirts [or: glimpses] of His ways” [Job 26:14]. Elihu came and said: “The Almighty—we cannot find him. He is great in power.” Whoever hears this verse says: Perhaps he is blaspheming? Heaven forbid! Rather, Elihu said thusly: We have not found the power and might of the Holy One blessed be He among his creatures, for the Holy One blessed be He does not come in a burdensome way to His creatures. Rather, He only comes to a person in accordance with his strength.

Although Elihu’s words appear towards the end of the Book of Job, following the three rounds of theological debate between Job and his three friends, Job’s words in these earlier chapters are interpreted by the midrash as glosses and additions to the words of Elihu. Even though he complains against God, he is ultimately seen as both more pious and as more deeply conscious of the Divine-human encounter, then either Elihu or the other three. Job articulates most clearly the limitation of human perception of the Divine, and the fragmentary nature of our religious knowledge (“the outskirts of His ways”).

You find, that when the Holy One blessed be He gave the Torah to Israel, had He come to them with His full power they would have been unable to stand, as is said, “If we continue to hear the voice of the Lord our God any more, we shall die” [Deut 5:22]. Rather, He came to them according to their own strength, as is said “the voice of the Lord is with strength” [Ps 29:4]. It does not say “with His strength” (be-koho) but “with strength” (ba-koah)—i.e., according to the strength of each and every one.

God limits the force of His presence in revelation to suit human limitations. There is a pervasive idea in the Bible that seeing God is dangerous: “No man shall see Me and live” (Exod 33:20). The midrash here quotes the dialogue between Moses and the Israelites following the epiphany at Sinai, when they were overwhelmed by the frightening, uncanny aspect of the Divine presence: “Speak with us, and we will hear; but do not let God speak with us lest we die” (Exod 20:16. Our midrash quotes the version of this conversation in Deuteronomy. An interesting side issue: it is always instructive to compare the recounting in Deuteronomy, of both events and of laws, with their original presentation in the other four books. In this case, the issue is the beginning of Moses’ role as intermediary: Exod 20:15-18 and Deut 5:19-28. But it would take us too far afield to conduct a comparison here; the problem is addressed by many of the commentators.)

By analogy, the idea of God “limiting” Himself to the capacity of human beings may also be applied to the use of religious language. As we discussed at some length last week, all religious language is basically metaphor, the Torah speaking in “the language of man.” Even Maimonides qualifies the obligation to pursue knowledge of those sciences leading to apprehension of the Creator as being limited “to the utmost human capacity” (Rambam, Teshuvah 10.6).

But there are two schools of thought on this matter in Judaism. As Jung once said: “Everyone in Western thought is temperamentally either a Platonist or an Aristotelian.” The difference between the two is basically that between intellect and the creative imagination; between mind and heart; between that which takes its starting point from rational, discursive thought, and that which starts from imagery, Platonic forms or archetypes. Thus, in Judaism we have Maimonides and his followers, who start from the power of reasoning; and those schools which make more extensive use of imagery, of figures of speech, of myth and symbols and archetypes. (I cannot enter here into the important distinction drawn by some between myth and archetype. See, e.g., Ken Wilber’s interview in The Sun, #164.) In ancient times, this was the difference between the two great tannaitic schools, of Rabbi Ishmael and of Rabbi Akiva (see Heschel’s Torah min ha-Shamayim be-Aspaqlaryah shel ha-dorot). In our own day, as suggested by my friend Yaqub ibn Yusuf, a similar difference exists between the two Hasidic schools which have most enjoyed a revival in our generation—Habad and Bratslav.

Maimonides was a rationalist, who believed in the way of amor dei intellectualis, the love of God that proceeds through the intellect; and a purist, one of whose central concerns was with purifying religious belief. Hence, his relentless struggles with what he considered theological error, incorrect conceptions of the nature of God, and anthropomorphism and anthropopathism, which he saw as nearly tantamount to paganism. By contrast, the midrashic approach (at least on the face of it) and later the Kabbalistic world-view, is filled with images, some of which seem outrageous from the viewpoint of pure monotheism. I would understand that the justification for the latter as based upon the assumption that, given the utter inability of human beings to perceive God “as He is,” there is no alternative but to use homely, concrete images as kind of “pointers” towards God. (Interestingly, the Kabbalah expresses its own sense of awe by the insistence that there are certain realms about which one cannot speak: i.e., the upper Sefirot, and that which is beyond—i.e., Keter and Ein Sof.) The aim of all this is not to create a one-to-one correspondence to some absolute, objective truth, but to guide the human mind, by a round-about process of approximation, of suggestion, of intuition, of drawing analogy from everyday experience, to a kind of intuitive understanding of that which is beyond apprehension. Thus, the images of Midrash and Kabbalah are not intended to convey “reality” directly, but to serve as tools, of vehicles for our understanding.

This is also why Rambam so rigorously avoids sexual imagery; in him, one doesn’t find any talk of the Shekhinah, nor of the duality or dualism of Middat ha-Din / Middat ha-Rahamim (the Divine aspects of Judgment and of Mercy, already found in Hazal), nor of the Shabbat as queen or as bride, or of the wedding imagery of Shabbat night, etc. (This last crosses the border from parable to actuality in the halakhic notion of Friday night as the most appropriate time for every Jewish couple to engage in marital union, when feasible, i.e., a kind of weekly consummation of the marriage, as part of Oneg Shabbat and, in Kabbalistic thought, as a kind of imitation of the union of masculine and feminine aspects within the Divine.) It is interesting to read Rambam’s description of how one ought to welcome the Sabbath: “The early Sages would gather their disciples on the Sabbath eve, enwrap themselves [in tzitzit] and say, ‘Let us go out to great the Sabbath king.’” (Hilk. Shabbat 30.2) This could have been a description of the ritual observed among Safed Kabbalists, except for the last word, but therein lies all the difference!

Some readers may have been a bit taken aback by my comparison of the figure of the Shekhinah to the Virgin Mary, in last weeks Hitzei. The point was, of course, that such female, maternal images are part of the universal store of images available to us as human beings, which are drawn upon by both Judaism and Christianity, in similar but different ways. (The main difference, which is also the root of the problematic aspect of Christianity, is that Mary—and for that matter Jesus—were real human beings of flesh-and-blood who lived in a specific time and place. Their elevation to divine, mythic figures lies at the root of what Jews find as bordering on the pagan in Christianity.)

Another thing: “The Almighty—we cannot find him. He is great in power.” When the Holy One blessed be He said to Moses: Make me a Tabernacle [literally, “a dwelling place”], he [Moses] began to be wonder and said: The glory of the Holy One blessed be He fills the upper and lower realms, yet He says: Make me a dwelling place! Moreover: He looked and saw Solomon having building the Temple, which was greater than the Tabernacle, and he said “Does God indeed dwell on the earth?” [1 Kgs 8:27]. Moses said: If Solomon spoke thus of the Temple, which is far greater than the Tabernacle, how much more so regarding the Tabernacle!

This passage expresses a fundamental dilemma in the whole notion of religious practice, of the very act of engaging in acts of worship, of making temples and sanctuaries and houses of worship. There is something paradoxical, maybe even vaguely blasphemous, in the idea of holy places (see already HY III: Vayetze). The continuation of the verse from Solomon’s dedicatory prayer articulates this idea quite clearly: “The heavens and the utmost heavens cannot contain You! How much less this house that I have built?!”

Hence Moses said: “He who dwells in the shelter [lit., ‘hidden place] of the Most High” [Ps 91:1; one of the psalms traditionally ascribed to Moses]. R. Judah b. Simon said: He who dwells in the hidden place is most high above all His creatures. What is meant by “In the shadow of the Almighty” [ibid.]? In the shadow of God (be-tzel El). It is not written here, “In the shadow of the Merciful” or “in the shadow of the Compassionate,” but “in the shadow of the Almighty.” In the shadow of that which was made by Bezalel. Therefore it says: “he shall dwell in the shadow of Shadday” [ibid].

This passage is passed on a double (or even triple) pun: Betzel Shadday is read as if it were Betzel El (the Divine names Shadday and El are treated here as interchangeable, both being traditionally identified with aspects of Divine power and might); and the latter phrase is in turn read as equal to the proper name, Bezalel; while that is then equated with the building Bezalel made. Thus: Betzel Shadday = Betzel El = Bezalel = Mishkan Bezalel. (This string of associations is reminiscent of much of Rav Nahman of Bratslav; more on this, b”n, in the near future.)

The Holy One blessed be He said: Not as you think do I think! Rather, twenty beams in the North, and twenty beams in the South, and eight beams in the West [the space demarcated by the Sanctuary in the desert]. Not only that, but I descend and contract my Shekhinah within a place of an ell by an ell [i.e., the dimensions of the Ark of the Covenant].

The Midrash here gives an answer of sorts to Moses’ and Solomon’s dilemma: God somehow contracts Himself to make himself accessible to man, or possibly, even, as an act of graciousness. Even though any building of wood and stone (or of marble, or steel, or poured concrete, or glass, etc.) is ultimately an inappropriate home for the Infinite; yet, because it is built by man as a gift of love, and out of the longing that this will somehow bring God closer to man, God accepts it in that same spirit of love, violating His own nature, shrinking himself so as to allow His Presence to enter within the limits of finite space—and then it matters not how tiny the space may be!

A certain analogy may be drawn to the later idea of tzimtzum in Lurianic Kabbalah, according to which God “contracts” or “withdraws” Himself in order to create a place that is not-God in which to create the universe. It is interesting to compare the two ideas. Here God contracts Himself to a particular space within the world so as to make Himself available to man. There, God withdraws to the hidden recesses of Infinity, to the realm of Ein Sof, to a place somehow “outside” of the universe, which can hardly be described as a place at all. The reason is in a sense an ethical one: God retreats or “moves over” to allow room for man—nay, for the cosmos, for Being itself—to exist. If all were truly God, there would be naught but undifferentiated holiness. Creation was both an act of love, and an act of God’s own self limitation.


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