This week’s Torah portion is T’rumah, which means gift or offering. This is the portion of Exodus where the instructions are given for the Tabernacle (Mishkan) and all Israelites whose hearts so moved them are instructed to round up the supplies for the construction of the structure, a “sanctuary” for G-d. And within this Tabernacle, G-d will dwell among the Israelites.
I wanted to write, just briefly, to take note of that last sentence. The portion says that the purpose of the construction of the Mishkan is so that G-d may dwell among the Israelites, and of course my initial worry about this and the portion as it is composed, is the idea of idolatry. The purpose, perhaps, of the construction of this structure, to be with the Israelites, is so that the feeling of G-d at Sinai can be with the Jews always, as we know that moments and instances of intensity are fleeting. What if we forget that feeling? The Tabernacle, thus, is a physical site to “represent the presence of G-d” in the midst of the community. It is to become a “sacred space.” (These quoted words come from my reading of Etz Chayim, the Conservative chumash w/commentary.) My concern, of course, comes from the idea that an object can represent G-d, or at least do so in the eyes of the community. How does a community draw lines? How does a community — a new community like the Israelites — define the sacred space without allowing the sacred space to become that which is worshiped?
We see in many religions that symbols become almost worshiped items — figures of saints or holy places. The cross itself has become a worshiped symbol among Christian believers. I know some might take offense to that idea, but that is my opinion of the object. Many have said to me that Jews wearing the magen David is quite the same thing, taking a symbol and placing it forth as an idol of sorts. Of course, for those who know the story of the star of David, the idea that it is symbolic as an idol is preposterous. It is by no means a necessarily “holy” symbol so much as it is a representative symbol — but most definitely not worshiped.
But for believers — of all faiths — the struggle with the unknown in a place where everything is physical, immediate, and evident is difficult. You can see the computer in front of you, and you know precisely what it is. But for the religious, you do not know of G-d or the afterlife or anything beyond the immediately physical realm. Creating idols and symbols to worship makes sense out of that which we do not understand.
But the sages have said that the importance of sacred space was to remind us that G-d does not exist exclusively in the heavens, “remote from humanity” — or rather, that G-d has not forsaken us. Exodus 25:8, which says the structure is that so G-d may “dwell among them,” is meant to serve as this reminder. The Tabernacle as such is not per se a sacred space of G-d’s dwelling, but rather a physical reminder of a non-physical presence.
Of course, on a related note, we know that with the destruction of the temples came Rabbinic Judaism and the permeation of the synagogue as the house of meeting for Jews. The synagogue (or shul or temple) serves as the modern-day Tabernacle with some more social features, perhaps than the former. The synagogue has many holy objects that remind us of the presence of G-d, and perhaps it can be said that the synagogue serves so much as a physical reminder of G-d’s presence, dwelling among us in modern times.
So my question, amid this little Torah spiel, to you all is to express what purpose the synagogue serves for you. To you, is it a place for G-d to “dwell among” us? Is it a house of prayer? Is it merely a structure within which we meet friends and family to represent like ideals? Is it, indeed, a sacred space that exists as a reminder of those feelings from the foot of Sinai?
Be well, friends. It’s time for me to go dig myself out of the snow!
One of my undergrad history professors, who’d attended Harvard Divinity and is something of a religious scholar, put forth the idea that the tabernacle was sort of “training-wheels” for the idea of an all-present deity for the ancient Israelites: she told me that one could view the tabernacle as giving the Israelites a sort of divine security-blanket: since G-d was about to make them wander and Egyptians of the time, like most religions of the area, tended to think of deities as having a “location” component to them (Bast of whereever, Rah of whereever, the Apollo of wherever…), so the tabernacle was a sort of “little portable place that symbolically held G-d, so they could feel they would really be able to carry G-d around with them” until they could get used to the idea (after the Babylonian exile and the final destruction of the second temple) that G-d was really, truly, everywhere. She cited for further support the prohibition on worshiping Sinai: this demonstrates in a sense that G-d is not the G-d of Sinai that the Israelites decided to carry around, but the one, true G-d who is everywhere who happened to speak to the people at Sinai. I thought it was an interesting way of looking at the tabernacle–I don’t remember where she heard it (somewhere at divinity school I suppose), except I know she didn’t come up with it, but again, I think of that story whenever I read this portion.
I guess I feel that the synagogue and services as giving us a special place to talk to G-d. Somewhere I read (I can’t remember where–I think it might have been in Kushner’s “To Life” but I can’t recall exactly and I loaned it to my mother), that in the Torah G-d sort of went “Here’s this book, tell me what you think about it” and everything else (midrash, mishna, talmud,religious discussion and debate) is us tell Him what we think about it. I guess I sort of think of synagogue in a like manner, as place we gather to tell Him we still remember our Covenant with Him and where we go to hear read aloud what He had to say to us (and, furthermore, a place for us to meet and study and, hence, tell Him what we think about this book He gave us). It feels a bit to me like a courthouse (not that we go there to be judged). You can talk about law in places other than a courthouse, and I daresay the overwhelming vast majority of words and ink spilled on the subject happen elsewhere, but when you want to do something meaningful about the law, you tend to go to a courthouse to say it. Courthouses aren’t an idol to the law (or they shouldn’t be) but they do carry symbolic weight.
I think though the act of people gathering together in one space with intention for that purpose, though, is more meaningful than the building they do it in. I’m particularly aware of this lately: I started attending my shul, it’s been under major reconstruction so no services can be held it in until at least this fall (we’ll have been out of it for two years by then), so we hold services all over the place (among some of the fun locations I’ve hiked out to this year: a car dealership (no kidding), a Catholic college, a middle school auditorium, and a Methodist church). Even after two years, though, people still gather together for Shabbat every Saturday morning and the high holidays were still insanely packed, even if we sort of have to duck into chairs that weren’t meant to fit adults, or ignore the irony of the cantor chanting the Torah in a church where Jesus is splayed dramatically on a gigantic cross in front of us (it was very, very nice of said college to loan us their chapel for the High Holidays, though).
Good job on this post, and you’ve posed some interesting questions at the end.
For me, my synagogue is a kind of all of the above. It is a community center, a place of learning, prayer, celebration, and the one place in the city which is Jewish soil. It is a little bit of Israel in Northern Minnesota. Whatever its use at the time though, it is sacred space for sure.
Regarding idols and symbols…. you’ve made some good points, especially the part about sacred space being a physical reminder of a non-physical presence – G-d. Which is why, for my part, I consider Judaism so much closer to Islam than Christianity theologically… neither we nor our Muslim cousins could conceive of human imagery standing in for G-d, G-d forbid. In the ancient Near East, many cultures had temples laid out like the mishkan, but the difference with ours was that there was nothing in the inner sanctum but the aron carrying the lukhot habrit (tablets of the covenant). No statue, no image. Incidentally, the inside of the Kaaba in Mecca is the same – a house of G-d with nothing visible in it.
To you, is it a place for G-d to “dwell among” us?
I view the synagogue as a place where G-d dwells amongst us only because G-d dwells everywhere. As far as G-d’s “house”, no, I do not see the synagogue as G-d’s “house” because G-d’s only true home is the Temple.
Is it a house of prayer? Is it merely a structure within which we meet friends and family to represent like ideals?
The synagogue for me is a house of prayer, a house of study, and a house of community. Even though most of my prayers are done outside of the synagogue, I feel the most present with G-d at the synagogue. I think this is mostly because of my fellow Jews as well as the Sefer Torah being present.
Is it, indeed, a sacred space that exists as a reminder of those feelings from the foot of Sinai?
Yes, it is a sacred space and is a reminder of those feelings at Har Sinai. However, I feel that it is a poor substitute for the Temple in Jerusalem but it will suffice until the Temple is rebuilt.
Thanks for both of your comments! They’re usually e-mailed to me, but I didn’t get them! Good thing I looked in to see if anyone had responded
Alissiana — I know how it goes with having services in some of the most unusual places, and it is often those kinds of places where perhaps one can feel most in sync with the community, because you aren’t held to the standards of the space you are in, but rather are aware of the people around you. Once for High Holy Days we had services in a very large church near our shul because the facility we had was too small. It was incredibly awkward though with the crucifixes hanging about and the honorary spaces for all the saints. I found it difficult to focus on the services, despite understanding that they were doing us a great favor by loaning us the space.
Yair: You make a great point about Islam and the representation of G-d, most definitely you do. I can’t believe I hadn’t thought of that
Interesting post but even more interesting, is the question which you ask. For me I suppose it all depends upon, which a synagogue I am attending, what kind of mood am I in and what are the people around me like. I have something of a love-hate relationship with synagogues. On the one hand I’ve had very spiritual experiences, while attending shul. This is especially true back home in Canada, and during my conversion process. However, I’ve also had disconnected and sometimes even, non-spiritual feelings/relationships with synagogues. I think the bottom line is that for better or worse, I’m just a solitary kind of guy when it comes to connecting to the divine. This, makes a packed shul on a Saturday morning fairly antithetical to any a real sense of spirituality. I suppose it’s not so much about the space/a shul but rather my inability to connect, in terms of worship with those around me, which is taking place. However, I probably in the past have projected this on to the shul itself.
For me more times than not, it’s more of a structure where are I meet and connect with others, in order to engage in my Jewishness (as in outside of the shul). So although I have indeed upon aoccasion had a deep sense of the sacred while attending shul, more times than not it’s just a building. I don’t think this is particularly healthy and think it has more to do with me than with anyone else or any sanctuary.
There you have it, now my pathetic secret is out! LOL!