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Archive for February, 2014

I’ve been rereading and studying Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism over the past week for a course I’m teaching on cultural theory. I’m not sure if this is why I focused on the labor themes of the text or not, but I could not help but wonder at the relationship between skill, work, and calling as they are described in the text. Many online commentaries of this parasha zero in on the Shabbat injunctions at the beginning and riff on that, but for me, that’s the least interesting part of the parasha.

In Fox’s translation, a few words and phrases get repeated and associated repeatedly throughout the passage in reference both to the offerings of materials to build the Mishkan and in regards to the workers actually creating it:

  • to raise
  • to lift up
  • to make-willing, to be willing
  • wise mind, wisdom
  • spirit and mind

There is a feeling in the text, in the way that these concepts get repeated over and over in Fox’s translation, that one is impelled to offer (donate) as the words are repeated both for the mind being lifted up to offer and then the individual Hebrew lifting up that offering. There’s a sense of being impelled or called to offer and then that offering is lifted up for the building of the Tabernacle. The same language is then used for the workers who actually build the Mishkan, that their minds are infused with wisdom and have been raised up with wisdom from YHWH to do the work.

The URJ commentary points to the historical existence of Hebrew arts—sculpture, architecture, mosaic, painting, etc.—and explains the historical distancing of the Jews from representational art. But I wondered as I read about the Torah itself which seems to “lift up” artisanship and art and skill in labor and creation as wisdom and as a calling from YHWH, as part of the creative work that humankind must do in relationship with the Divine.

It wasn’t until I looked at the Speaking Torah portion for Vayak’heil that it all came together. The Maggid’s students took these passages and, in a mode of רמז and סוד interpretation give us a mystical, Jewish understanding of labor. Because I’ve been reading about Calvinist readings of labor this week, I feel pushed to distinguish the two, but there is some significant overlap here as well.

In two separate places, the rebbes teach that when we are working in mindfulness of what it means to work as a creation of YHWH, it hallows all work and is a manifestation of humans participating in the ongoing process of creation. The Me’or Eynayim calls this Torah within us, that what impels, motivates, or pushes us to act for good in the world is actually Torah itself, and we are vessels. In the passage describing the work of women on the Mishkan, the T’semah ha-Shem li-Tsevi interprets קל אשה to mean not just merely all the Hebrew women, but rather, all womanhood itself, which would then be the Sh’khinah; here, it is the Sh’kninah that impels or motivates work, and we are the vessels of that cosmic impetus, again participating in ongoing creation.

There is a meditative mindfulness about work here that distinguishes it from the Calvinist concept of “vocation.” Rather than fulfilling one’s earthly role for the sole purpose of the glorification of god, the Rebbes taught that we are co-creators with the divine, that the divine works through us, and that through mindfulness of this dynamic we participate in creation itself. (This dovetails with the chasidic teaching that Betzalel, the chief architect of the Mishkan, was a master of the Hebrew letters who knew how they were used to create the world, and deployed them to create the Mishkan in reflection of the original creation.)

The editors of Speaking Torah contradict the current, extreme versions of chasidism that insist that these passages actually refer to study, so the eschew work and deny the dignity and holiness of the workaday world (a dynamic that has caused significant problems within the state of Israel). They argue that the teachings are clear that the labors of daily life are themselves a sacred activity with the possibility of sacrilizing daily life; in the editors reading, the Me’or Eynayim actually says that mindful work the rest of the week is what actually makes the Shabbat holy.

Whereas Calvinism’s vocation is about holding one’s nose to work in the social structure for the sole purpose of glorifying god, the Maggid’s teachings about work combined with my reading of the parasha see the spirit or mind being implanted with knowledge or skill necessary to participate with Torah/Sh’khinah/YHWH in creation itself. Work, in this way, is an end or process toward unification with Keter, toward the negation of the self in the recognition of the self as vessel for the divine. In the Hayyim v’Hesed, a comparison of Jacob and Moses leads to a teaching that as Moses turned away from the body in his recognition of his own nothingness compared to God, so did Jacob turn toward his body and make it whole and perfect by using it. Because the world is fallen and utterly depraved, this kind of sanctification is not possible in the Calvinist view, and indeed would be blasphemous.

There is a kind of mystical experience, then, associated with everyday work, but it is unclear in the Hayyim v’Hesed (at least in the passage quoted by the editors) whether or not this is an ideal (Moses as exemplar) or a command. But reading deeper, it seems to be rejected by the Rebbes as it is in the banal, every-day world of the body and work that the divine is made present in the world.

That leaves me with several questions at the level of practice. How can mindfulness of the Torah/Sh’khinah working through a human vessel be incorporated into an experience of daily work? And does the nature of the work matter at all? Is all work (all deed?) holy by definition, or can that mindfulness lead you to the realization that your work is not holy or hallowing? If Ya’akov hallowed himself through his embodied working, but if Moshe’s sanctification came from self-negation, then what is the relationship between embodiedness, work, and sanctification of the world (tikkun olam)?

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Without You, we are nothing at all. So whatever holiness we call forth, it is really as though You were calling and doing it all. Our mind and strength are entirely Your own. … All our deeds are nothing more than a response to your call. When we turn ourselves toward the good, fulfilling Your pure will, it is just like [You] responding [to Yourself.] — ‘Avodat Yisrael

The confession of undiminished astonishment is rare in a literature that is so used to providing answers and explanations. In the end, we are being told here, they are all worth nothing. All we can do is stand before the mystery—and go on living and following God’s word in this strange world. —Editors, Speaking Torah, Vol. 1 

T’tzaveh continues the instructions regarding the mishkan, but moves to ritual practices and purgations and hallowings (kadesh-ings) of the priests. In several places I read this week the reminder that mishkan and shekhinah share the same Hebrew root (but nowhere did anyone actually give the root). But with a little sleuthing, I found the root שכן, to dwell. It is to the relationship between holiness and in-dwelling, the relationship between the physical (the mishkan) and that which dwells in it (the shekhinah) that I found myself returning to through the week.

The text of the parashat moves quickly and frankly from the ‘eternal light’ of the menorah through the bloody rituals of sacrifice. But nearly all the commentary I found on the text focused almost exclusively either on the imagery of the light of the menorah from the first few verses of the parashat, or an anthropological explanation of the rituals of animal sacrifices and the significance of blood to the ancient Hebrews. On the second count, I found myself wanting more depth and complexity. Clearly, the ancient Hebrews saw blood as something essential, a substance of deep significance in the structure of life and the world as they saw it. And just as clearly, the post-Temple rabbinic tradition has replaced blood and ritual sacrifice with notions of transcendence and in-dwelling. But I want to know more about the ways that such rituals function culturally and the way they are experienced. I suspect there are some good anthropological texts out there that treat such things; I will need to look for them, however.

When I was preparing for the hatafat dam brit, I read several commentaries on the ritual of shedding of blood of convert men, including a book about circumcision called Covenant of Blood by Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman. Hoffman’s views are pretty critical of the ways that blood rituals developed from their ancient roots through Rabbinic judaism; and he begins with a willingness for the ancients to be seen as responding to their lived experiences rather than what we moderns might judge as bloodthirstiness or simple wrongheadedness. Yet it was hard for me not to read the passaged about spreading blood around the altar, smearing blood on the priests, and purifying the ground with the blood of animals in terms of its primitiveness, superstition, and violence. One of my teachers, Rabbi Wolf-Prusan taught me that much of what motivated the ancient Hebrews was about the mystery, frustration, and precariousness of embodied living, trying to make sense of life and death, the combination of living consciousness and a mortal body. In that framework, I can read the passage in its context and I can appreciate the significance of ritual as an effort to hallow the ground, the place, and the people.

One pattern stood out to me in the descriptions of the high priest’s vestments, a pattern of remembering, which seems to be a central theme in Judaism, not to forget what has happened before, and to bear the burden of memory as a sacred burden. The Torah describes the priest’s clothing in terms that made me think of them as mnemonic, not in a literal memorization sense, but in the sense that remembering is itself a kind of sacred act. Here is the pattern that gets repeated several times throughout the parashat (with a couple different variations)

to bear
the names (of Israel)
over your (the priest’s) heart (or on his shoulders (the ephod))
in the mishkan
to remember
in YHWH‘s presence
regularly (marking the time)

This ritualized, almost poetic, repetitive of the act of remembering becomes a practice of awareness of identity and relationship, and marks a kind of liminal enactment of the relationship between the physical and the kodesh.

Perhaps this is why I’m particularly drawn to the brief passage in Speaking Torah that I began with above. I still find myself struggling to define or understand or grasp in some meaningful way, other than experientially, the Holy. And maybe at the end, really all we can do is stand before that mystery and wonder.

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We Children of Israel are forever building up our entire selves to become dwelling places for divinity. … We Israelites are called upon to build up the full form of shekhinah (= mishkan) by using our entire selves. … The verse [Exodus 25:8] does not say ‘within it’ but ‘whihin them’! … This is what we have taught: that each of us must build up our entire self to be a fit dwelling of divinity. Then God indeed dwells within us. This is what the holy Zohar meant when it taught that the form in which the world was created, the form of the mishkan, and the human form, are all the same.

— Malbim, Or ha-Me’ir quoted in Speaking Torah, Vol. 1

A common idea among modern liberal Jews is that Torah is an emergent phenomenon arising from the ongoing, centuries-long dialogue, debate, and struggle of Jews with the text and with each other about what this founding document might mean. Torah is both communal and accretive, in this view. But some parts of the text are easier than others to have this kind of dialogue, and this middle section of Sh’mot baffles me, not at the p’shat level—it’s anthropological origins in ancient middle eastern cultic practice are clear, fascinating, and interesting—but at the deeper levels.

As I wrap up the week of study, I keep coming back to the idea that the משכן (mishkan) stands for the immanence of the Divine, of holiness, both in that it is human constructed—that is, we create the holy space—and that it is “in our midst.”

The Text (Monday)

I seem to have picked an inauspicious (or perhaps immanently auspicious) parsha to start my Torah blogging with. Reading it on the morning train on my way to work, it was hard to keep my eyes from glazing over. The seemingly endless descriptions of curtains, poles, and slaughter-sites feels really disconnected from life of a modern Jew. I understand the symbolic and anthropological import to the mishkan, but knowing such doesn’t change the construction instructions into scintillating reading.

Fox’s commentary with his translation offered some interesting ways to frame the building instructions from the anthropological point of view, that the dwelling place of the divine is the earthly locus of the divine presence, the axis mundi, to borrow Eliade’s phrase. Fox argues that the litany of materials and measurements are the message of the mishkan passage, culminating in the injunctions about Shabbat (next week’s parsha). I like this idea of the measurements and materials being a human expression of perfect proportions and perfect matter, but it is difficult for me to make something meaningful out of that. [But i love the imagery of the winged-sphinxes (usually “cherubim”) protecting the holy witness of divine will.]

Commentaries (Thursday)

Reading the commentaries this week, I find myself thinking mostly about the relationship between human action and holiness, about how we are partners in the acts of creation and in the making of holiness in the world. I’m sure I’ve been quite influenced by the contemporary Judaism of which I’m a part, which takes the Lorianic Kabbalah and makes the key ideas of tikkun olam as central to Jewish worldview and life.

After Sinai, the moment of complete immersion in the presence of the Eternal, the people must wander away from the axis mundi, the center of the universe in Sinai [thinking Eliade here], but the mishkan allows them to take the presence with them. That they must construct it themselves emphasizes the humanness of making holiness and the human responsibility in kadeshing (if you’ll pardon a coinage) the world we live in. To extrapolate from Rosenzweig’s argument that these chapters of Exodus are actually the pinnacle of the Torah, this is the moment when a formerly enslaved people were able to turn their work, the labor of their bodies, to something higher, and to do so of their own free will. Questions about what we are working for and why come to the fore—am I building a mishkan, as it were, or a pyramid?

I also like the centrality of wandering to this line of thinking about the mishkan. This is a story of people in exile, used to living apart from the holy place, and it creates a bridge between the physical, historical land of revelation and the wandering people. The divine goes with you, if you build it. [I first encountered the idea that one of the Hebrews great innovations was that you could take your god with you, and did not become subject to new gods when you moved (or were forced) from one land to another in Karen Armstrong’s work when I was in college.]

Sod (Shabbat)

The early hasidic masters seem focus on the spiritual meaning of the mishkan and the meaning of making an offering, a t’murah (literally an ‘uplifting’). Reading the redactors’ commentary, it is no wonder that I found earlier this week the fact that this is a portable, moveable dwelling place so appealing, as it is both the divine presence for the diaspora and the interior experience of holiness from practice, which is what drew me to Judaism in the first place. In the No’am Elimelekh, we learn that the mitzvot can, depending on your intention, serve to open the heart to experience the divine in this world, again emphasizing the immanence of the divine and the connection of holiness to human acts.

Thinking about the Malbim’s command to build a dwelling place for the divine in your own heart, and Rabbi Green’s response to the idea, I keep thinking about the ineffability of Sinai, the overwhelming experience of oneness with YHWH and the experience of covenant, and the desire, maybe the drive, to put it into words or to somehow make it real, thingly, but the impossibility of doing so. It strikes me that the mishkan was empty; it was a physical shell, but there was no god within it. You cannot make an image of g-d because the physical cannot contain the expanse of olamim, the eternal Being itself; and what you can make, a dwelling, leaves us with awesome emptiness and silence.

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