Thursday, March 09, 2006

Tetzaveh (Rambam)

Postscript to Terumah: “The Chosen House”

A few loose ends from last week, which are perhaps even more germane to this week’s parsha, that deals specifically with the priests, their garments and their week-long initiation ceremony. (In the Purim spirit, some might add that the description of the high priest’s garments davka on this Shabbat can be read as a foreshadowing of Purim fancy dress and, if you like, the whole issue of “garments”—that is, the external appearance of things in this world—vs. “essence” that it symbolizes.)

Last week I asked the question as to why Rambam referred to the Temple as Beit ha-Behirah, “the Chosen House,” rather than using the more usual Beit ha-Mikdash or simply Mikdash (“the Holy Place”). One of the teachings of the Sefat Emet last week (Terumah, 5631, s.v. bamidrash vayiklu li) evoked certain thoughts on this point. He quotes there the verse, “And they shall make me a holy place and I shall dwell among them” (Exod 25:8), and goes on to explain that “a holy place” signifies holiness, in the sense of God’s transcendence, His separateness, His being unreachable, beyond our comprehension, whereas “I shall dwell among them” signifies immanence, availability, presence, the potential for intimacy with man. The word for the latter is mishkan (lit., “dwelling place”)—the word used for the precursor of Solomon’s Temple, in Shiloh and Gilgal.

It seems to me that one of the salient characteristics of Judaism is the attempt to create a synthesis between these two, to enable the human being to live in constant tension between the awareness of God’s transcendence and immanence, between the human responses of fear and of love, the commanding voice at Sinai and the loving father addressed in Tehillim or portrayed in the innumerable midrashim and Hasidic stories describing conversations between various human figures and the Almighty. This same idea underlies the unity of male and female symbolized by the Kabbalistic ideas of union of the Holy One blessed be He and Shekhinah.

This point is often misunderstood. Michael Novak, a perceptive and thoughtful American Catholic religious and social scholar and thinker, made an interesting comment in relation to the bruhaha surrounding Mel Gibson’s film "The Passion":

To devout Jews and Muslims such assertions [i.e., re having a personal relation with Jesus] must reek of blasphemy. There is only one God, and that Holy One is too great to be imagined in human form, too transcendent to be spoken of except by indirection.

This comment expresses a common misperception of Judaism on the part of non-Jews—as shown by the fact that even one as learned as Novak makes it. Perhaps he takes Rambam’s negative theology as normative for all of Judaism. While any schematic characterization is by nature inexact, I would describe the situation thusly: if anything, Islam is the religion that perceives God almost exclusively in His transcendent aspect: as the supreme, commanding God, before whom total submission (Islam) is the only possible response. Christianity, by contrast, at least insofar as it emphasizes the personal relationship with Jesus (what they call “the second person of the trinity”), as in Evangelicism, devotional Catholicism, Pentacostalism, etc., the focus is on immanence. It is in Judaism that there is the greatest attempt to strike up a balance between the two.

The same division may also be seen in terms of approach to gender. Islam is overwhelmingly a masculine religion (and therein lies some of its problems—the violence, the aggressive posture towards the infidel, and the repression of women and of the feminine); Christianity is in some sense feminine, even womanish ; while Judaism ideally seeks the integration of male and female, both in practice, through its conveying a central role to the family, and in symbolism, as mentioned above.

After this round-about digression, let us return to the Sefat Emet: the balance or tension between transcendence and immanence exists not only in the Temple, but also, at least in theory, within each person, in all times and places—as an ideal of personal integration, or as two parallel paths to knowledge of God.

Having said that, what then is the function of the Temple? Its unique aspect lies in its being the place where God chooses “to have His Name dwell there.” Choosing is an act of will; it is in some sense arbitrary, irreducible, not subject to any explanation beyond itself. Even though He is present everywhere (and nowhere, viz. God hidden in the dark recesses of the Infinite), God chose Jerusalem, in much the same way as He chose the Jews, and Abraham, etc. (Hasidism, especially that of the Habad school, has much to say about Will as a manifestation of the very highest sefirot, of Keter or even of Ein Sof, that cannot be reduced to anything else. “Beyond reason or rationale.” All of which carries interesting implications for the nature of human will as well.)


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