Thursday, March 02, 2006

Terumah (Torah)

“And let them make for me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst”

With this week’s portion, the Torah takes a sudden turn. We tend to think of the Book of Exodus as charting the movement from servitude to freedom: first physical liberation from Egypt, followed by the spiritual freedom realized through the Revelation at Sinai and the making of a covenant with the Living God. This pattern is reinforced by the Jewish calendar: Passover, followed by forty-nine days of counting the Omer, culminating in Shavuot, the one-day festival of Revelation. Yet, following the brief legal code of Mishpatim, the last sixteen chapters of Exodus focus upon the construction of the sanctuary, the prototype for the Temple in Jerusalem, interrupted only by the incident of the Golden Calf (hardly a salutary event). Why?

Moreover, if the central thrust of Judaism is in fact “ethical monotheism,” as we have been taught repeatedly by liberal apologetics for the past two centuries, the Torah should have jumped from Exodus 24—the “Book of the Covenant”—directly to Leviticus 17, the opening chapter of the humanistically-oriented “Holiness Code.” At most, one might countenance the interruption for the episode of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32-34, to illustrate the dangers of relapsing into paganism and, perhaps, Leviticus 11, for those prepared to infer some sort of ethical lesson from the laws of kashrut. But what, in this view, can possibly be the point of these tedious chapters, filled with minute details of the construction of the Sanctuary and the weaving of the priestly garments? (Moreover, the contents of these chapters, specifically, are repeated almost verbatim in Chaps. 35-39).

And yet, if we read the Torah as a holistic document, our operative assumption being that all its parts form an integral whole, we discover an interesting thing: reading the Torah in its own terms, these chapters form a natural conclusion to the Book of Exodus. Liberation from slavery, the approach to Sinai, the covenant with God, and the receiving of His laws—all these culminate in the making of an earthly dwelling place for God’s Presence, in the very center of the nation, as the end and purpose of the Exodus. “I am the Lord their God who took them forth out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them: I am the Lord their God” (29:46). A comparison, for example, of Exod. 24:15-18 with 40:34-38 shows how the “Glory of the Lord” moves from its temporary resting place at the top of Mount Sinai to the Tent of Meeting (I shall return to this point in Parshat Pekudai).

This idea is expressed in a matter-of-fact way in various Rabbinic aggadot. Thus, on the final page of Ta’anit we read: “’Go out and see… King Solomon… on his wedding day and on the day of the gladness of his heart’ [Cant. 3:11]… [Shlomo represents] the King to whom peace pertains [i.e. God]… ‘The day of his wedding,’ that is the Sinaitic revelation; ‘and the day of gladness of his heart’… that is the building of the sanctuary.”

Moreover, the understanding of the Sanctuary as God’s dwelling place on earth, so to speak, may help to explain several other seemingly anomalous features in these chapters. These chapters describe the construction of the sanctuary as a dwelling house for God, without any elaboration of the nature of the sacrifices to be offered there. The Temple had two focii: the altar, and the Holy of Holies. Here, the focus is almost exclusively on the Inner Sanctum, where are located the ark, the candelabrum, and the table for the shewbread; the altar only comes into its own in the Book of Leviticus, with the handbook of sacrifices in Chs. 1-7. Here, the function of the sanctuary is to as a house for God to dwell. The only sacrifice mentioned at all (except in Chapter 29, the consecration of Aaron and his sons, which may be seen as in some sense parenthetical) is the korban tamid: the fixed daily sacrifice, a kind of symbolic recognition of God’s indwelling in the sanctuary, the main bulk of the sacrificial code being postponed to Leviticus 1.

Indeed, as noted by Nahmanides, even the incense altar is not mentioned at all in the initial presentation of the artifices meant to be in the Sanctuary (Ch. 25), but is only tacked on at the end (30: 1-10): this too, in order to strengthen the home-like image: like Elisha’s garret apartment kept for him by the Shunemite woman (2 Kings 4:8-10), this “house” is reduced to the bare essentials: a chair (the ark and kaporet), a table (for the shewbread), and a lamp (the menorah). As Ramban remarks archly, since He who keepeth Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps, there was no need for a bed.

In short, these chapters represent the purely religious, theocentric, transcendent dimension in life per se; their major role and position in the book of Exodus is indicative of the importance of this aspect. The Torah is not only concerned with political freedom, nor even with the construction of a humane society whose ethics are axiologically rooted in the belief in a Supreme being. It is equally concerned with a real, ongoing connection with the Divine; with “knowledge of God,” and feeling His presence: in short, with the religious moment per se as the object of man’s longings. If you wish, the human religious impulse and God’s wish “to make a dwelling place below” are ultimately two sides of the same coin.

As I see it, our difficulty stems from the fact that we come after four centuries (among European Jews, really two centuries) of Western Enlightenment, secularism, humanism, liberal, man-centered thought and apologetics; of the seeming invincible advance and dominance of science and technology; and the debunking of much of the traditional religious world-view resulting from the four-square assault of Freud, Einstein, Marx and Darwin. It is hence difficult for us to see religion as serving other than a social purpose; we have all but forgotten the religious moment per se.

True, in recent decades there has been a remarkable resurgence of spiritual interest and return to religion, both traditional and nascent, in large measure in reaction to the increasingly evident failings of modernity. But this “return to spirituality” has itself yielded strange and bizarre manifestations. The youth culture of the ‘60’s, and its rebirth among some in the ‘90’s in the “New Age,” has often indiscriminately accepted anything and everything that was hitherto seen as beyond the pale for any educated, cultured person: astrology, faith-healing, Tarot cards, Eastern esotericism, divination of all sorts, Kabbalah (popularized and misunderstood), etc.

How is one to find his way in all this? How can one live a rich, deep, authentic religious life, while avoiding both the Scylla of shallow modernity and mechanical mitzvah observance which often seems to plague the liberal and even the so-called “modern Orthodox “ community, and the Charybdis of either near pagan superstition and credulity that marks much of the “New Age” spirituality, and/or the fanaticism and ghettoization of sectarian Orthodoxy? Taking as my motto that each person needs to build an “inner Mishkan” in which the Divine spirit may rest, I shall attempt in coming weeks to address some of these issues.

Re: The Hasidic Homily

My mother-in-law, a good Reform Jewish woman from the Midwest, wrote me somewhat puzzled about last week’s quotation from my grandfather’s Torah. “Doesn’t the verse ‘you shall not seethe a kid in its mother’s milk’ refer to kashrut?” she asked. As others may share her puzzlement by Rabbi Gallant’s interpretation of the term “kid” in terms of the American colloquialism, I reproduce here my reply to her:

Re: seething (or boiling; I don’t know why the KJV translates this as “seething,” which implies a high, intense boiling, almost like a pressure cooker, which is not implied by the Hebrew bashel) a kid in its mother’s milk: you are of course perfectly correct. My grandfather, and many other preachers influenced by the Hasidic tradition, often employed a homiletic technique in which the individual words of the Torah were detached from their original meaning in context, interpreting them in some new way that has nothing to do with the original meaning. (There are two more examples of this in the short passage I quoted: the title comment on “our elders and youths,” which in original context was not meant to exclude the middle-aged; and “return us our father,” where “our father” is a title of God, and not the subject of the petition.)

One must remember that, in addition to being a revered, sacred text, the Torah was the core text of our ancestors’ culture. As such, and in a way that may seem paradoxical to us modernized, Westernized Jews who are used to a more solemn tone when dealing with religious matters, pious Eastern European Jews were not afraid to “play with the Torah”—to engage in fanciful homiletics that even stood the verse on its head. This was a technique that was clearly done partly in jest or in whimsy—simply to “have fun” with the Torah, if you like; partly, too, in order to anchor the new idea being expressed in the venerated text, no matter how far-fetched the homily; and partly based upon the mystical idea that every possible idea is already contained in the Torah, including its words and letters, even if one needs to distort its verses beyond recognition in order to find it.

This is, for example, the organizing idea of the Tikkunei Zohar: a mystical midrash containing seventy chapters, each one of which is based upon a different permutation and combination of the six letters of the first word of the Torah—bereshit, “in the beginning,” which is then interpreted as brit esh (covenant of fire); b’Aleph Tishrei (on the first of Tishrei - i.e., Rosh Hashana); bayit rosh (the head of the house); shir ta’av (He desired song), and many more.


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