beware of temples from the sky

parshat terumah

If you believe that there is much that is new in Judaism, then it is only natural, that persistent and pervasive ideas that were not-so-new inched their way back into our texts and beliefs.

One such new and radical idea in Judaism was revelation. What is really revolutionary about revelation is that it happened in time.  There was a long period of time where these “truths” were not self-evident and these laws had no meaning or efficacy.  Revelation was a historical occurrence experienced by one group of people at a particular time and place.  It is socially subjective and historically contingent. The giving of the Torah in times was the beginning of a process with no way back.  The law is no longer in heaven but given to man …. to futz with.

It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ …. But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it. (Deuteronomy 30: 12,14)

What is meant by; ‘It is not in the heaven’? Rebbi Yirmiah said: It means that we don’t listen to a bat kol (voice from heaven) in matters of Halachah (the law), for the Torah was already given to man at Har Sinai. (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 59b

So what does this revolutionary concept of  The Giving of the Torah mean to exclude?  It excludes an eternal, natural and pre-existing law or truth.  It excludes The Word (logos) of the Gospel and it excludes the natural law of the philosophers and the Wisdom of Wisdom Literature.  All of which are extremely compelling concepts, especially for the religious type who craves closure, certainty and universalism.  No surprise that the pre-existent (as opposed to historically given) law appeared, re-appeared and/or was read into the very texts and religion that have evolved beyond it.

Which brings us to Parshat Terumah and Exodus 25:9 regarding the construction of the: the Tabernacle….

“According to all that I am going to show you, as the pattern of the tabernacle and the pattern of all its furniture, just so you shall construct it.”

A simple reading would take this verse to mean that although God was going to verbally describe the details of the construction of the Tabernacle, He was, like any good architect, also going to provide a pattern or blueprint. But the Rabbis… showing their Neo-Platonist colors.. took this pattern as a reference to God showing Moses the Ideal form of a transcendent Tabernacle. As Harry Austryn Wolfson writes in his seminal work on the Jewish philosopher Philo:

“According to this Jewish tradition there had been in existence an ideal tabernacle or, as it is usually called, sanctuary, prior to the building of the visible tabernacle in the wilderness; and it was that ideal tabernacle which God showed to Moses as a pattern for the visible tabernacle. This tradition is expressed in two ways, Sometimes it is said that the ideal sanctuary was created by God prior to the creation of the world (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 54a Nedarim 39b 
Tanhuma Numbers, Naso 19 ) … This ideal sanctuary is referred to as the “celestial sanctuary” (Genesis Rabbah 55:7 bet Ha-mikdash le-ma’alah..). Besides the sanctuary, there were also ideal models of all its vessels, and these, too, were shown to Moses when he was in heaven. This belief in the preëxistence of the tabernacle and its vessels is part of a more general belief in the preëxistence of certain objects or actions which were subsequently to play a part in scriptural history. … The preëxistence of some of these occurs also in the apocalyptic literature. Two of these preëxistent ten are also mentioned by Hellenistic Jewish writers. First, the preëxistence of the Law is affirmed by them in their identification of it with wisdom which in Scripture is said to have existed prior to the creation of the world. Second, the preëxistence of the tabernacle is stated in the following verse: “Thou gavest command to build a sanctuary in the holy mountain and an altar in the city of thy habitation, a copy of the holy tabernacle which Thou preparedst beforehand from the beginning.” Wisdom of Solomon 9:8 (Philo: Foundations of Religious Philosophy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Harry Austryn Wolfson, Harvard University Press (1947) p182-184)

Although Wolfson concludes that this concept of preëxistence was “an old Semitic belief”, he agrees that “For the Hellenistic Jews it was quite natural to blend such beliefs in the preëxistence of things with the Platonic theory of Ideas.”

The old Semitic belief, that Wolfson references, is Wisdom Literature such as assimilated into Judaism in the Book of Proverbs. Normally, Wisdom Literature was kept entirely distinct from the revealed Law of the Torah. But the attraction of the theory of Forms was so strong, that the Rabbis succumbed to its pull… most famously in the first verse of the Torah the Rabbis play on the similarity between a description of the preëxistent Wisdom in Proverbs 8:22 The LORD brought me forth as the first of his works, before his deeds of old: and Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning” .. or with “Reshit” … now Wisdom-Torah.

The Torah declares: ‘I was the working tool of the Holy One, blessed be He.’ In human practice, when a mortal king builds a palace, he builds it not with his own skill but with the skill of an architect. The architect moreover does not build it out of his head, but employs plans and diagrams to know how to arrange the chambers and the wicket doors. Thus God consulted the Torah and created the world, while the Torah declares, IN THE BEGINNING GOD CREATED (1:1), BEGINNING referring to the Torah, as in the verse, “The Lord made me as the beginning of His way” (Prov. 8:22). (Genesis Rabah 1:1)

Similarly, the Rabbis introduced the absurd belief that the Patriarchs observed the Torah in so far as they kept the, as yet unrevealed laws of kashrut or even Passover… before the sojourn in Egypt. This perverse belief is commonly accepted in the Orthodox Jewish community today, which is surprising since the primary sources for this travesty of anachronism, is in the extra-biblical Book of Sirah (included in the Septuagent but not Hebrew Bible) and the Pseudepigrapha such as the Book of Jubilees whose relevant verses are paraphrased here:

The (Book of Jubilees) author’s … practice of founding essential legal practices in the time of the ancients of Genesis rather than in the age of Moses. For example, … Noah first celebrated the Festival of Weeks (see 6:17–22) and later Abraham, too, observed this holiday, which became the anniversary of the Noahic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic covenants (6:17–22; 15:1–2). The Festivals of Tabernacles (16:20–23; 32:4–9, 27–29) and Unleavened Bread (18:18–19) and the Day of Atonement (34:17–19, which commemorates Jacob’s torment on learning of Joseph’s “death”) also were introduced in the age of the fathers. The author’s reason for antedating these practices can only be surmised, but it is clear that he wished to impress upon his audience that these essential acts of obedience to the covenant were not the innovations of a later age that were imposed upon the religion of the patriarchs. They had been in force since earliest times, were inscribed immutably and eternally on the heavenly tablets (of the numerous cases, see, for example, 3:10, 31; 6:17; 15:25; 16:28–29; etc.), and in some instances were practiced in heaven (Sabbath [2:30]; Festival of Weeks [6:18]; circumcision [15:27]). These provisions were to be observed scrupulously in the present if the ideal future was to be realized. (Anchor Bible Dictionary, Book of Jubilees see also (Two Views of the patriarchs: Noachide and pre-Sinai Israelites, Joseph P. Schultz in Texts and responses: Studies presented to Nahum N. Glatzer.. ed. Michael A. Fishbane, Brill Archive, 1975)

So what is my objections to the transformation of the Torah and its commandments into the Eternal Platonic Forms or the preëxistent Wisdom? Why is it to me the heresy of heresies? Because it contradicts the two most basic tenets and the crux of that which is revolutionary about Judaism… Creation and the Giving of the Law/Covenant…. (I don’t use the inaccurate translation of Matan Torah as “revelation” since it is tainted by preëxistence. Reveal-ation presupposes an already existent law that is now being revealed)

Creation… especially creation from nothing (ex nihlo – Yeysh meAyin) means that there is NOTHING inevitable about our world. Our world and our lives truly do not have to be. It means that the world as we know it is unthinkably different from the the Divine. The divine is eternal and perfect; our world is material, finite, imperfect, made up of disconnected moments and always changing.  All creatures, including man are similarly a radical contingency.. Man is ultimately made of dirt and is given a name; Adam, to prove it. The same is true of the radical nature of Matan Torah.. the giving of the Torah. It is radically contingent on the shared history of God and a particular people who He has chosen at a particular moment in time. The Passover holiday is radically contingent on the shared experience of the Exodus from Egypt and to imagine it celebrated centuries before the exodus shows a lack of wonder at the radically contingent world and Torah we have been given. A belief in an immutable and eternal world and Torah is an implicit rejections of the possibility of God’s presence in history, the covenantal experience, the evolution of our law and beliefs and ultimately, a rejection of the responsibility our contingency places on us; the protagonists.

The natural progression of this thought process, is of course that since the world of Ideas or Platonic Forms is superior to the messy world below (Beit hamikdash shel matah) then our focus should be towards this ideal world. The early Christians took this leap by emphasizing the New Jerusalem. This Jerusalem was no longer a contingent and particular Jewish Capital city, but a universal idea… a Form a Logos. Such thinking produced a new covenant (aka The New Testament – Brit Hadash) which, unlike the Old Covenant, was not based on a reciprocal relationship and shared history between God and a particular people, but was an immutable ideal. A new covenant, based not on shared history, practical deeds and commandments, but based on faith… on an Idea. No surprise that The Fourth Gospel of John comes directly from the previously referenced rabbinic interpretation of Genesis Rabah 1:1 “In the Beginning was the Idea (Logos).

What’s my point?  My point is that there are some really radical and unique ideas in Judaism that we have to fight to preserve and provision.  There are also preserved in Judaism artifacts of prior and more general beliefs. As any good environmentalist, we need to keep our guard up and insure that incompatible ecosystems like revealed law and wisdom literature are kept apart and that alien species are not introduced, or if introduced are monitored with care.  Most of all we need to beware of temples from the sky…

new jerusalem

1 Comment

Filed under Bible, Judaism, Torah, Uncategorized

One response to “beware of temples from the sky

  1. Ash

    The “Channukah” spelling hitggihhls that fact that the word begins with a “chet” letter and not a “heh” letter.There is a “ch” sound in just about every (e.g. German, Dutch, Swiss) European language. Even the United Kingdom has an equivalent in the Lo”ch” Ness Monster. In South Africa, the “ch” sound has an equivalent in Afrikaans. It’s seems like the Hannukah spelling is almost exclusive to the United States, because the American language (understood largely by people who otherwise speak real English) does not have a “ch” equivalent sound or letter.So, your cartoon comes at as a dig on Americans ignorant of Hebrew pronunciation.Another American peculiarity is the (obviously commercial) mixture of Channukah with the holiday celebrated (at least in gift form) with the general populace.Is it really part of the Chag to give and receive gifts (channukah gelt maybe) and have parties, or is that something we do because we’ve assimilated into the local culture or to try to keep the kids Jewish? Wasn’t that “culture” something we we’re trying to distance from in the Greeks?Channukah Sameach.

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