.Terumah Jews have symbols--Does Judaism?
You remember the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark? It made Harrison Ford famous and it set of a flurry of explorers looking up and down the Nile claiming it may be in the Sudan or Ethiopia. So this Shabbat, we will talk about that famous Ark, but we won’t try to raid it, let alone find it.
The Book of Exodus progresses in theme from physical bondage to liberation to dedication of people at Mt.Sinai . At this point, preparations are made for establishing a sense of permanence of that dedication with a sanctuary.
This portion deals with first set of instructions
Several terms are used for the sanctuary: Ohel Moed( The Tent of Meting), Mishkan ( The Place of the Presence), Mikdash (The Sanctuary)
It is collapsible, to be carried easily during the wandering. Even later, when the children of Israel move into the Land of Israel, it remains moveable for many centuries.
Only during time of Temple in Jerusalem was the sanctuary in a fixed location, yet, for most of Jewish history, the Mikdash Me’at, the small sanctuary of the synagogue, moved with the people wherever they were. The presence of ten and an ark with the Torah scrolls made a synagogue anywhere on earth.
Even now, with Jerusalem in Jewish hands, even with the Kotel ( The Western Wall, no longer the Wailing Wall!) as a gathering place for worship for Jews around the world, the Kotel is not by a long shot the Temple par excellence but a memorial of what once was and a reminder of what could be.
How is it that we could have managed for so long without a permanent Temple?
As soon as Solomon constructed his Temple, he realized and said so himself that no physical place can be the dwelling place of God. The Prophet Isaiah, looking at the rebuilding of the Temple in the return from Exile also reminded the People: The Heavens are my throne and the Earth is my footstool. What house can you build for me; where is the place for my resting?
This was a unique concept in its day, because in antiquity, certain physical locations had a magic or mystical attribute to the location itself. The place produced the power for the ancient pagan gods rather than the gods bringing power to a place. In ancient paganism, the gods were always dependent upon time, fate, and location. Not so the revolutionary Hebew concept of God.
Later, the Rabbis would say,”The world is not the location of God, but God is the location of the world”. In the Biblical and Rabbinic conception, then no place could be the permanent symbol of an imageless God.
Therefore, there is no Holy place in the Hebrew language!
Do we speak of a Holy Land or Holy City in Hebrew? Grammatically, in Hebrew, the Land of Israel is “Eretz Hakodesh” —the Land belonging to, or associated with-the Holy, and Jerusalem is “ Ir Hakodesh”, the City belonging to or associated with, the Holy. The structure in grammer indicates association or ownership, not an adjective.
The Land of Israel and the City of Jerusalem derive their sanctity, not from their geographic location, but from their dedication, as a land and city destined for holy activity.
In that sense, they could have been on the South Pole, if the climate were better!( It is true that there are Midrashic references elevating Jerusalem and the land of Israel physically above and at the center of the world, but that is Rabbinic poetry- after all, God would not have given us less than a land of milk and honey!)
Just as Mishkan, the wandering temple, had no permanent place to rest on, something else distinguished it from all other sacred places, even when it became permanent.
Inside, there is missing the most vital element of a holy sanctuary in antiquity.
In the year 80 BCE, the Roman General Pompey conquered Israel, captured Jersualem, and walked into Temple to see what Jews kept inside. After all, in the Acropolis in Athens, there was a magnificent statue of Athena and the Roman conqueror assumed he would find something of equally great magnitude in the Sanctuary that he knew was financed by contributions from Jews the world over. There would be, he was sure, an equally magnificent treasury to be robbed.
He walked in to the Holy of Holies and walked right out, shocked and stunned, so stunned that he reportedly forgot to rob the treasury.
Inside the Holy of Holies, there was- nothing! To the pagan mind, this was atheism. Judaism was atheism. Without an image, without a graspable symbol there could be
Now , we know what was in the Holy of Holies in the First Temple- the Stone Tablets from Mount Sinai. Keep in mind, however, that these were not an image, not an idol, representing something, rather a text of ideas! When these Tablets vanished at the destruction of the First Temple, there was no urgent need to replace or reproduce the ark, even as a token reminder! Inside the Holy of Holies was only—emptiness! Only in the empty room could the High Priest be in the presence of God!
It is clear that in the Bible, God is imageless.
No priest or prophet would have dared to approve of Michelangelo's painting of God in the Sistine chapel. That magnificent white bearded figure ! It would have been inconceivable!
Judaism is till today, an imageless religion, in many ways.
We often speak of symbols. Symbols of Judaism.
Yet there is no official symbol of Judaism as such and Judaism can’t really be encapsulated into a symbol whether it be visual or verbal.
What is a symbol? It is something that is used to represent something else, something graspable to replace something ungraspable. A flag is a symbol for an entire nation, a
Numeral is a symbol of a quantity that may be beyond our reach. a photograph is a symbol of a person not with us.
What is wrong with a symbol?
We may mistake the symbol for that which it is supposed to represent.
If God can have no image, because the concept is beyond reach, so there can be no symbol. So it goes for Judaism;there is no official symbol of Judaism in history..
What of the Magen David? It is unknown in the Bible ,unknown in the Talmud . At some time in the middle ages it became popular as the seal of local Jewish communities in Europe and gradually became identified as a sign of the Jewish people.
When Herzl looked for an emblem for the new Jewish State he was envisioning , he chose the Magen David as symbol of a people, not a religion. When the Germans needed to identify Jews in their round-up, they used the Magen David with the word” Jude” as identifier of a “race”, even if the wearer was a Catholic or an atheist.
The Star of David then, correctly represents the Jewish people, and hence, its proper place on the flag of Israel as the State of the Jewish people.
A case might be made for the Two Tablets symbolizing the Ten Commandments—but here, we have an abridgement of a text, to remind us of the rest of the text, not to replace it. The Seven-Branched Menorah might be the best contender—but while there is speculation that it looks like a tree ( especially because of the use of the words “knob and flower”) to represent the Tree of Life, but form the Torah-text, it is not clear what is to represent but its is functional-a source of light that is to be kept lit constantly.
While artists use symbols, and modern synagogues use art and art symbols in their décor, not one is in and of itself a true symbol of Judaism. It is so because Judaism predates the concept of religion and it predates the other great religions that it came in contact with ( or that it gave birth to).
Just as the tabernacle had no permanent place, and as God had no visible image, so Judaism has no official image. Similarly, in Judaism , God has no definition, and similarly, Judaism has no definition.
There are symbols in art—there are symbols in words. A dogma, a catechism, serves to represent, in a brief word, the entirety of a religious faith; it serves as a limit on the range of belief of the community of the faithful. The danger is that the dogma, the brief statement, becomes mistaken for the entirety of faith. Just as the symbol , the image, becomes mistaken for the authentic, so the dogma is mistaken for the truth. It becomes a new idol worship.
From the beginning, therefore Judaism had no definition of God, other than "I am that which I shall be".
Just so Judaism had no name for itself in the beginning nor even a word for religion. In the entire Torah, there exists no word for religion. Judaism never developed a definition of itself, a handle, an easily graspable cliché. There were numerous attempts were made, from Hillel to Akiba to Maimonides, yet no statement became official ( The Rambam’s famous “ Thirteen Attributes”, just as his other philosophical writings, never received official sanction in his day)..
Judaism can not be boiled down to an image, a slogan or a phrase, for to do so is like making an image, mistaking a slogan for the real thing.
Now, someone will ask, “But Rabbi, on the other hand!”
In the very chapters we have here in Parshat Terumah , there are instructions to make two cherubs and place them inside the Holy of Holies, facing the Ark.
That’s not an idol?
But what do the two cherubs represent?
In the ancient Middle East, the gods were always depicted seated on a thrown, flanked by cherubs. The ark in the sanctuary served as the thrown of the one God, resting upon the covenant with the people-but what is unique?
In ancient Canaan there would have stood the image of the Baal; in ancient Israel, above the throne there was an empty space, no image at all. Only emptiness.
If hard pressed for one image, one metaphor for God that is legitimate, then consider this statement by Rabbi Joshua ben Levi . It is intended to contrast the procession of soldiers and heralds that precedes the passing of the pagan idols in parade.
“Whenever a human being walks, there is a procession of angels ahead of him saying,” Make way for the image of the Holy One.”
What a radical statement! If there is a legitimate image of God, it is the human being, a creature of flesh and blood. All images are forbidden but one is endowed with sanctity, the human being, of whom the Torah teaches us, Adam betselem nivra, Adam, zachar u nekeva, male and female, is created in the Divine image!
The pagans looked at their gods and saw enhanced human beings, full of vengeance, jealousy, lust and bloodshed. The ancient Hebrew was taught to look at the human being and see a glimmer of the Divine!
An afterthought, for the portion:
But, you might press harder, look at the Cherubs on the Ark—surely the Cherubs there for some reason?
The medieval scholar Abarbanel suggested that the cherub is always described as having a child's face. Guarding the ark, he suggested, were our children, who, in each generation were to dedicate themselves to the study and practice of Judaism. It is to remind us that every Jew must let his thoughts soar heavenwards as if on angels wings and face each other in brotherly love and service of mankind.
Now that is an apt dogma or symbol of Judaism if there ever was one!