parshat pekudei

The Bible spends an inordinate amount of time prescribing, describing and cataloging the construction of the Tabernacle. You can be excused if you missed the punch-line:

33 ….. So Moses finished the work.
34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
36 And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward, throughout all their journeys.
37 But if the cloud was not taken up, then they journeyed not till the day that it was taken up.

The climax is that after all of the effort… the glory of God actually filled the place. Anti-climactic you say! Well, think of all the temples, synagogues, and other houses of worship that are sterile and empty of all things divine and most things human. Think of all the long term building campaigns that drag on and on and when finally completed lose all sense of original and ultimate purpose and mission.

To put into perspective the accomplishment of receiving God’s glory into the Tabernacle, there were many Jews who believed that the glory of God never favored the Second Temple with It’s presence. That’s right… the Western Wall that pious Jews pray at, framed a temple that lacked its most basic requirement.. God’s glory. When Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers, he was acting out a disdain shared by the majority of Jewish sects of time:

Throughout its existence the second temple enjoyed a status which in paradoxical fashion was both substantially higher and substantially lower than that of the first. No longer under the thumb of the monarchs, no longer the target of polemics of the prophets, no longer rivaled seriously by “high places” and other temples, the second temple and its cult gained a centrality and importance that the first temple never achieved…. But the newfound importance of the temple could not hide several difficult problems. ….. The second temple.. although authorized by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, was built by a gentile king and was never authenticated by an overt sign of divine favor. Second Isaiah, in his prophesy announcing God’s selection of Cyrus the Great to be his “anointed one” to free the Jews from Babylonian captivity and to build the temple, is aware that some Jews do not approve of God’s plan (“Woe to him who strives with his maker, and earthen vessel with the potter! Does the clay say to him who fashions it, ‘What are you making’? Isaiah 45:9). The old men who had seen the first temple in its glory cried at the dedication of the second temple (Ezra 3:12) – apparently tears of sadness, as they contemplated the puny temple that was before them. In the second century B.C.E., the temple’s problematic status was revealed to all. The high priests were corrupted and the temple was profaned by a gentile monarch. …. The Maccabees installed themselves as high priests although they were not of the high priestly line…. Herod the Great rebuilt the temple magnificently, but his detractors viewed him as a “half-Jew,” he completely debased the high priesthood, appointing men who had even less claim than the Maccabees to be legitimate successors of Aaron.

Shaye J. D. Cohen, Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Harvard University (quoted above and below) argues that it was the implicit false claims of the second temple that were primarily responsible for the emergence of sects such as the Essenes of Qumran and Dead Sea Scroll fame, the early Christians and even the Rabbinic Pharisees:

Instead of the polluted temple and the corrupt priests, the sect and its leaders offer the only access to God. Either explicitly or implicitly the sect sees itself and its authority figures as the replacements for the temple and its priests. This self perception is well attested at Qumran and in early Christianity … the major distinction between them being that the Jews of Qumran saw their community as the temporary replacement for the temple… While (some of) the early Christians argued that their community was its permanent replacement (Rev. 21:22). The daily observance of purity laws by laypeople, a practice that characterized Pharisees, Essenes, and various others, was an arrogation of laws originally applied to the temple alone… Sects disappeared after 70 C.E., because the destruction of the temple removed one of the chief focal points of sectarianism. [From the Maccabees to the Mishnah by Shaye J. D. Cohen (Nov 1988) pages 131-132]

Today, in America, as Judaism confronts new challenges, we don’t expect the glory of God to grace our congregations, but we do look for validation by attendance. If in the first millennium, Jews left the temple because God’s glory was absent, in the second millennium we can surmise the absence of God’s glory when the Jews are missing.

As Solomon Schechter, the founder of The Jewish Theological Seminary and patriarch of the Conservative Movement said:

“Every generation,” the ancient Rabbis say, “which did not live to see the rebuilding of the Holy Temple must consider itself as if it had witnessed its destruction.” Similarly we say that every age which has not made some essential contribution to the erection of the Temple of Truth … is bound to look upon itself as if it had been instrumental in its demolition. For it is these fresh contributions and the opening of new sources, with the new currents they create, that keep the intellectual and the spiritual atmosphere in motion and impart to it life and vigor. But when, through mental inertia and moral sloth, these fresh sources are allowed to dry, stagnation and decay are sure to set in. The same things happen which came’ to pass when Israel’s sanctuary was consumed in fire. [Inaugural Address, delivered November 20, 1902, Seminary Addresses and other papers by Solomon Schechter, The Burning Book Press, 1959 p 18]

Today, ironically, it is in the synagogues of the Conservative Movement in particular where stagnation and decay… and dwindling congregational attendance are most manifest.

Boredom, not the glory of God, is what characterizes our modern day temples… as Jay Michaelson wrote recently in The Forward:

Recently I met up with a Jewish academic from New York who had relocated to a midsize Jewish community in the South. In New York, he and his family had attended B’nai Jeshurun, the huge, well-known liberal congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But in his new home, the options were less attractive: He described them as a “lame” Conservative synagogue, a “dead” Reform synagogue and a Modern Orthodox congregation in the suburbs.

Lifelong liberal, egalitarian Jews, my friend and his wife nonetheless chose the Orthodox synagogue. Perhaps surprisingly, she was more comfortable there than he was. Yes, my friend’s wife said, she resented being excluded from participation in ritual, but at least at the Orthodox synagogue, she had access to some meaningful prayer experience. The only thing egalitarian about the more liberal settings was that everyone was equally bored.

The point is not that egalitarianism and Judaic vigor are antithetical. Nor is the point that the only shul.. even the one I don’t go to… is an orthodox shul. If either of these statements are true then the future of Judaism is dim. Scott Shay (who I understand belongs to an Orthodox shul) provides numerous arguments in his important book for why we are all stakeholders in the success of non-orthodox branches of Judaism. In one argument, he writes:

In our two millennia-long history in the diaspora we have no precedent for any sizable Diaspora Jewish community in which the less fervent assimilated away, while the fervently orthodox community remained vibrant. In the final analysis, once assimilation reached a critical point, the question was pace, not ultimate outcome. Witness the Jewish communities of China and India in which the Jews assimilated by choice and lack of communal strength, not through persecution or threat…. These two examples teach us that … without a vibrant community, even traditional Jews would likely become dispirited. As Benjamin Franklin put it in another context, “We must all hang together or we will all hang separately.” [Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry by Scott A. Shay, 2006 Devora Publishing pp 24 – 25]

Shechter voiced this same idea when he spoke at the dedication of the new buildings of the Reform Movements Hebrew Union College: “generally there is hardly any phenomenon in Judaism in the way of sect or movement which has not served a certain purpose in the divine economy of our history.” [Seminary Addresses ibid p 241]

The problem with the Conservative Movement, today, is that it is not contributing to the economy of our history. The same holds true for any movement or approach to Judaism which is hosting empty temples or temples who are losing members or a demographic.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism recently announced a face lift. It will lower synagogue dues and rather then run its own programs targeted to individual Jews, it will focus on supporting its member synagogues (you don’t say!) The report, a year in the making, also “suggests dropping the words “synagogue” and “congregation” and replacing it with the word “kehilla”. This is clearly a nod to the growth of the independent minyan and the publication of the influential Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us about Building Vibrant Jewish Communities, by Elie Kaunfer, Jewish Lights, 2010. This type of semantical rather than material change is, in my opinion, characteristic of what Conservative leaders have been doing for the last 20 years… pathetically trying to define and redefine themselves rather than get on with the business of change. [United Synagogue Turns Inward, Jewish Week. February 8th 2011]

I suggest that the leaders of United Synagogue read chapter 10 of Shay’s book: Reimagining the Conservative Movement, where he suggests that:

The Conservative Movement should look to both the Reform and Orthodox Movement’s responses to avert demographic collapse. The Reform Movement abandoned a fixed theology resulting in a plethora of valid expressions of one’s faith. The Orthodox Movement’s unexpected revival over the past several decades is the result of its willingness to include more diversity under the umbrella of orthodoxy including roles for women (while adhering to basic halachic standards) and to an emphasis on day school education. …
American Jewry needs the Conservative Movement to reinvent itself as a broad-spectrum association based on practice, not theology that encourages its members to reach achievable goals. Through these efforts, Conservative Jews will pioneer and illuminate the vastness of terrain between Reform and Orthodoxy.

Conservative Judaism can become the first “post-denominational” movement for Jews who feel disaffected from the way the traditional Movements are structured.

Shay reminds us that Conservative Jews created Havurah Judaism and Recontructionist Judaism. At it’s core, the Conservative Movement, which today shows no movement at all, should be the petri dish for Jews to become more knowledgeable and for knowledgeable Jews to explore and create.

At the end of the day, the message of the tabernacle; the first successful Jewish temple, was not so much that “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” The real battle cry of the tabernacle was that “whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the children of Israel went onward.”

The message of the Tabernacle is that so-called “movements” should actually move! If your temple is not experimenting and taking risks to keep “the intellectual and the spiritual atmosphere in motion” it is failing you and the Jewish endeavor. Our temples are not party halls to run the Bar/Bat Mitzvah mill. Static membership driven by the churn of post BB Mitzvah families leaving to be replaced by younger families is not what is meant by “from generation to generation” … it is failure. If your congregation has talked about hosting an independent minyan but has flinched, if it’s only attempt to make the weekly reading of the Torah relevant is to switch to a triennial cycle .. then shame on it and you. If your shul is not moving forward, then it is moving backward and its time to imitate the Divine Glory and …. move on.

Solomon Schechter


Filed under Bible, Israel, Judaism, Religion, social commentary, Torah

2 responses to “MoveOn

  1. Orna

    Very good, let’s hope for some movement.

  2. Talking about Solomon Schechter… check out this new book to be published by my friends at NextBooK – Sacred Trash .. about the discover of the Cairo Geniza.. which was Schechter’s claim to fame.

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