Making the Tradition Our Own

February 16th: Terumah
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

If one were to make a list of the most archaic Torah portions, this week’s would be near the top. It is the one which details the details of constructing the Mishkan—the Tabernacle or Tent Temple used by the Israelite in the desert. As God puts it in Exodus 25.8, “Let them make me a sanctuary (Mishkan) that I may dwell among them.” This is a beautiful and profound sensibility, but then we get to details about materials and building instructions ad infinitum, ad naseum. Other than the concept of making God welcome, the details and details make this one—pardon the expression—a “yawner.”

Some may suggest that other portions are equally as difficult. What about the Leviticus portions with the extensive rules for sacrifices? They are not very useful today, but if/when the Temple is rebuilt, we shall need all those rules to know how to properly worship God. Some may nominate the rules in Leviticus that deal with leprosy of the skin and “leprosy” of the house. True, our medical and mold procedures are more modern, but the morality and practicality of dealing with contagion are still relevant: Torah principles can guide us in our modern situations.

The reason that I would put this week’s portion—and the others devoted to the building of the Mishkan—at the top of the list is that these instructions are for a one-time project: something that was important back then but that is never to be repeated again. This portable “Tent Temple” was designed to travel around with the Israelites while they were wandering in the desert. Then, it resided in various locations in the Promised Land—but only until a permanent Temple could be built.

The most famous location of the Mishkan/Tabernacle was at a place called Shiloh, in what is now the West Bank north of Jerusalem. The modern settler community there constructed their synagogue in the form of the ancient Mishkan, and it is very striking. However, it is a synagogue and not the Tabernacle. No sacrifices are offered. There has not been a Mishkan for some 3000 years, and the Bible does not suggest that there will ever be one again.

So, why do we read and study this every year? The first answer is Tradition. There is something appealing and grounding and meaningful about repeating cultural forms that have come down through the generations. The second answer is Symbolism and Allegory. Ours is not the first generation to realize the problem of relevancy, and our Sages have constructed an elaborate system of symbolic explanations and allegorical lessons for the many details in the construction plans. Remember, Torah is more than just an ancient text; it is the living embodiment of the historical quest for understanding life and holiness. In so many ways, the Torah serves less as a rulebook and more as a locus for the development of wisdom.

A third answer is related to the first two. Facing such archaic texts on a regular basis keeps us in the discussion about how we can be both ancient and modern at the same time. The history of our religion shows a continuing dialogue about what old things we should keep and which old things we do not have to keep—except in memory.

As the historian Ellis Rivkin explains, each generation of Judaism has been faced with a choice about what to do with the religion it inherits. Most often, the choice is replication. Continuity is an important part of any tradition, and countless generations have practiced and taught the Judaism they inherited. Sometimes, however, there developed variations on a theme. An example is the institution of prophecy. At first, the prophet was a tribal leader, a patriarch like Abraham. Later, leaders without tribal seniority but with national responsibilities—like Moses, Joshua, and Samuel—were the prophets. Still later, prophets did not have any political or military authority, functioning rather as advisors and commentators. Nathan, Isaiah, and Elijah were these kinds of prophets. Such variations did not happen very often, but, when they did, it was because the conditions of the world and the needs of our sacred mission demanded adjustments. On three occasions, however, small changes were not enough: the survival of our people and the continuation of our holy work required changes so large that Dr. Rivkin terms them mutations or quantum leaps.  After the Temple was destroyed (586 BCE) and some exiles returned from Babylonia (circa 500 BCE), so much was different that resurrecting our people, our civilization, and our mission required significant changes: the limiting of the priesthood to one family, the elevation of the priests to political and religio/social leadership, and the compiling of many sacred stories into what we now know as the Torah. The other two mutations were the transition from Priestly leadership to Rabbinic (circa 165 BCE) and the development of modern Judaism (Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist) with its belief in individual religious autonomy.

In every generation, the question has been: what in the Tradition do we continue, and what do we change? This has been a thoroughly Jewish question ever since Sinai. During the last 200 years, the basic position of Reform Judaism—and actually of Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism, though they use different language—is that traditional components that are meaningful should be continued, and those that are not meaningful can be put aside. Here’s the way the Pittsburgh Platform of Reform Judaism stated it in 1885:
“We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.”

Which ceremonies of traditional Judaism elevate and sanctify our lives? There has often been consensus but never unanimity in the movement. And, the consensus has changed in significant ways over time. Kippot and Tallitot were originally worn, then not worn, and now are worn again. Hebrew was the main part of the service. Then the vernacular became the main language of prayer. Then, in the last 40 years, Hebrew has made a comeback. As the movement itself explains, Reform is a verb. We are not Reformed Jews. We are constantly reforming as we approach life and religion seriously and craft and re-craft our religiosity in ways that elevate and sanctify our lives.

So, when we read about the Mishkan and all those mitzvot that no longer apply, we put ourselves into a very traditional Jewish conversation. We have a tradition that we revere. How do we use it to continue and enhance our sacred endeavor?