Parashat Trumah: Liberation from the Sacred
Barbara Lerner Spectre is the Founding Director of Paideia, The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden. She was formerly on the faculty of the Hartman Institute of Advanced Jewish Studies in Jerusalem and is the author of “A Theology of Doubt” (Hebrew) and, together with Noam Zion, the two-volume “A Different Light: The Hannukah Book of Celebration.” In 2007, she received the Max M. Fisher Prize for Jewish Education in the Diaspora. She can be reached at barbara.spectre@paideia- eu.org
Parashat Terumah constitutes an ordeal to many sermon-givers, who twist and contrive to make the notion of the building of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert, relevant to contemporary life. Few Parshiot could seem more remote or distant from the present dilemmas that confront us as individuals and collectively as a people.
On an ideational level, however, the building of the Mishkan represents a response to a profound challenge that has deep implications for all of our lives. That challenge is perhaps best appreciated by reviewing the conceptual revolution that ancient Israel brought to the world.
The revolution had predated by half a millennium, 500 years, the construction of the Mishkan in the desert. The revolution in question was perhaps the most liberating yet exasperating conceptual upheaval in human history: the ‘geographical’ banishing of God from earth and His relocation to heaven.
The Midrash encapsulated that mutinous moment in the famous aggadah of Abraham shattering the idols: when Abraham raised up those “silly” idols (surely everyone must have understood that they themselves had fashioned them?), he was holding in his hands an entire orientation to life: a beautiful mythic perspective that grasped that everything, the entirety of life, is sacred. The universe, nature, even human reality is godly.
All of the world is made of the same ‘stuff’, and all of it is divine. Those idols were made of that ‘stuff’, as are mountains, and rivers, and trees. Not a ‘silly’ perspective at all. Rather, beautiful and compelling, and certainly a perception that speaks to all of us in our search for meaning. A forceful world-view, yet in the hands of Abraham it was about to be smashed – struck against the very earth that until that instant was the home of the gods.
Looking back, we can only be astonished. Why destroy the perception that nature is sacred, and that the gods are tangible? Why herald the moment that banished forever the divine from its proximity to this world and conceptualized a Transcendent Power?
Because simultaneous with the exile of the godly came a threefold conceptual liberation: – if nature was no longer sacred, it could be investigated, examined, and manipulated for human benefit – thus Science was born. Simultaneously, History was launched – for when all is sacred, then no significant change can take place -humanity was thus liberated from the fetters of eternal, cyclical return. At that very instant also Ethics was birthed – what ‘is’ is not necessarily what ‘ought’ to be – and significant change, Teshuvah could be exacted from the human personality – fated neither by nature nor nurture. The displacement of the sacred from reality meant that humanity did not have to succumb to the tyranny of the status quo. Science, History, Ethics – these all became logically possible with the liberation of the universe from the godly. A profound revolution had taken place.
But at an exasperating, frustrating, and often tragic price: when the human mind placed God ‘in heaven’ (our minds cling to the spatial as a way of conceptualizing), the ageless question was also born: “where are you” “Aiechah.” God and humanity were launched into an unending search one for the other.
In this context, the building of the Mishkan is a profound response to the question that has plagued this revolutionary conceptual framework: where do we find God. The text elaborates on a finely detailed description of the attempt to bring God back into the reality of the Israelites.
Perhaps we should envy the people in the desert: they had in front of them the Immanent representation of the Shechinah – God’s presence in the world. It lasted until the destruction of the Temple in 586 B.C.E that would bring an additional shattering of God’s presence on earth, and urgency to the question: where is God to be found?
Down to this day: Perhaps the Jewish people is best understood by appreciating the variety of responses to the lack of God in our universe, and the attempt, be it cultural, religious, national, or philosophic, to grapple with the sacred-deficient nature of life. Despite all of our differences, this indeed unites us, and demands that we respect deeply our various attempts to struggle with a universe in which we are liberated (a liberation we must cling to!) from the sacred. None of the approaches can or should trump the other. We should appreciate them all.
And at times be astonished, for the re-claiming occasionally takes the most unexpected of turns, as is presently taking place in Europe, where a remarkable saga of dis-assimilation is transpiring.
You might have heard the stories stemming from Central and Eastern Europe, where, owing to the dual trauma of the Holocaust and Communism, Jewish identities were hidden, only to be revealed to unsuspecting grandchildren together with the fall of the Iron Curtain. Their stories are often improbable – a young man from Hungary who when in high school calls his opponent in a soccer game a “dirty Jew” only to be chastised by his parents and told that not only is his language unacceptable, but that he, too, is a Jew. Astoundingly, these unexpected Jews are stepping forward to re-claim their Jewish identities.
Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies, is dedicated to empowering them. The institute was founded by a grant of the Swedish government with the mandate of helping them re-imagine European Jewish culture. What could not have been known, with the founding of Paideia seven years ago, were the extensive numbers and high intellectual profiles of these re-discovered Jews. They come to Stockholm from 29 European countries – equipped with their multiple languages and literatures for a year of highly intensive textual studies, coupled with an applied program not unlike the Wexner learning. I urge you to visit Stockholm– and there to listen to the testimonies of these mature intellects. They have so much to teach us about what makes them repossess the Jewish story. Their narratives of reclaiming the sacred – be it in cultural, religious, or philosophic terms – constitute an astonishing commentary on Parashat Terumah.