Terumah — Offerings

January 31, 2014 § 1 Comment

“They shall make Me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them.”

In our Torah portion this week, when it says, “They shall make Me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them,” the word for ‘sanctuary’ in Hebrew is ‘Mikdash’. Holy place. What is holy is what is set aside, the special place.

In other words, in the midst of a series of instructions about architecture, God tells the Israelites that they should make a structure – some sort of moveable Temple structure – that allows them to encounter God’s presence while they are encamped in the desert wilderness. It is a place set apart, yet also ‘among them.’

Not surprisingly, this pithy instruction is one that finds its way into synagogue architecture, written in fancy letters, scrolled across an ark or a foundation wall: ‘They shall make Me a sanctuary that I might dwell among them.’ It’s a reminder of what we are here for, why we have come to this place: is this not the very house of God?

Yet in Hebrew, that’s not what we call it. In Hebrew, the synagogue is a Beit Knesset – a house of meeting – or a Beit Midrash – a house of learning – or a Beit Tefillah – a house of prayer. We don’t normally say Beit Adonai – House of God. My congregation’s name, for example, is Beit Yisrael – house of Israel, in the sense of ‘the people of Israel.’ It’s the place where Jews belong.

Why is that? I suspect that it’s because God is not our only reason to be here. We are here to pray together, of course, but also to encounter each other and to learn from each other as well.

Sometimes I am asked: ‘Is it necessary to believe in God to participate in congregational life? Can you join the Temple, for example, if you don’t believe in God?’ Sometimes it is phrased as a statement: ‘I don’t participate because I don’t believe.’

That’s fine, I say, come anyway.

You might think that I say ‘it’s okay’ because I am an easy-going sort by nature. You might think that it’s my personality, my outlook, my approach to welcome everyone regardless of belief.

But it is actually a profoundly Jewish point of view.

Whenever I teach Introduction to Judaism, the students are always a bit surprised when I explain that it is entirely possible to be a Jewish atheist. The reason for their surprise lies in the fact that we live in a Christian culture, where religion is defined as ‘belief in God.’ If you do not believe in God, then you are not religious. That is the Christian view.

Judaism is a more complicated subject. Defined in Christian terms, it might not make sense: by all means, we say, participate if you don’t believe in God.

Judaism is much more than a belief in God.

The word ‘Torah,’ for example, is often translated as ‘laws.’ But it is not a particularly helpful translation. Its root does not mean ‘law’ – rather, its root is the same one as the word ‘horim’ – ‘parents.’ Torah is your inheritance, your culture, your ethnicity, and your religion. Torah is what you get from your parents – the stories and the rules, the preferences and the traits that shape you. Torah is what your family teaches you, and what you take into the world with you.

So, we have had a number of movements or groups within Judaism that were explicitly or implicitly atheist. For example, the early political Zionists were not religious in the Christian sense of the word – they were avowedly secular. They were seeking to create a nation like all other nations. They were not interested in waiting for God’s redemption. They were interested in forming a state with their own hands, their own effort.

And, similarly, there have been a long line of union organizers and socialists in this country, particularly at the time of the sweatshops and tenements in New York, who were not believers in God. They were not motivated by a sense of commandedness when they worked for social justice. They were, however, very much moved by the lessons of the prophets who decried taking advantage of the poor.

And in the most recent Pew Report, a significant percentage of Jews cite their sense of humor as a key part of what makes them Jewish. For many, a Jewish sense of humor is more closely tied to their self-understanding as a Jew than a belief in God. Which would explain why, as a rabbi, it really helps to have a sense of humor.

What is God’s relationship to this sanctuary, then? In the case of the Israelites, God’s presence is both ‘among them’ yet also ‘set apart.’ It’s an interesting paradox.

The Israelites have, up to this point, encountered God in grand historic terms, redeeming them from slavery, conquering their foes, and revealing the commandments amidst earthquakes and fire. They have been experiencing God as a pillar of fire, something intense and powerful and otherworldly.

So God commands them to make a sanctuary – a holy place – that is both set apart yet also among them. The purpose of this ancient portable Temple was to create structure for the sense of the holy. God’s presence was conceptualized as a form of energy – like a lightning bolt in its intensity – that could create life and death.

The portable Temple would hide that presence, envelop it, and create a process by which it would be encountered.

The rituals that grow up around this Temple dwelling-place are in fact organized around a desire to manage this energy, to keep it holy – to keep it separate – so that it is not chaotic or destructive. God commands them to create a structure, a process, and a ritual, that allows them to live in proximity to this energy, to organize their community around it.

What had been an overwhelming divine force encountered either in moments of grand revelation or as a terrifying pillar of fire is now living in community with the people of Israel, among them, in a manageable fashion, approachable. You don’t have to think about God in the same way as the Israelites do in order to understand the value of this fundamental transition. God might now be a part of daily life, a part of the community’s self-understanding.

To be sure, not everyone who comes to Temple believes in God. Or believes in God in so many words. Not everyone who comes to Temple finds genuine support or comfort in engaging in ritual.

But what we offer here is something more than a house of God: what we offer is the structure of ritual, the growth of education, and the comfort of community. We attempt to address what is inchoate and unmanageable in ways that are familiar and engaging.

We live, in a sense, within that original paradox: we attempt to set apart what is divine so that it might live among us.

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