The Dangers of Sacred Space

Ki Tissa By :  Benjamin D. Sommer Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages Posted On Mar 5, 2010 / 5770 | Torah Commentary

For more than a month during this time of year, we read about the mishkan, the Tabernacle, also called the ohel mo’ed, or Tent of Meeting. Parashiyot T’rumah and T’tzavveh, which we read the past two weeks, contain what amount to blueprints in prose format. These readings describe exactly how the Children of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai should construct the mishkan. In the two parashiyot we will read a week from now, Va-yak•hel and P’kudei, we read almost the exact same material, this time phrased in the past tense rather than the imperative. We might describe Va-yak•hel and P’kudei as architectural implementation reports: they verify that all the instructions found in the blueprints have been fully and correctly carried out.

But in this week’s parashah, Ki Tissa, this long section on the Tabernacle is interrupted. The mishkan seems to be forgotten as we read about the Golden Calf, a fight between supporters of Moses and opponents, discussions of whether God will accompany the Israelites through the desert, the revelation of God’s attributes, and laws concerning worship and holidays. Tucked away in the middle of the parashah (in Exodus 33.7–11), however, is a brief description of an ohel mo’ed or “Tent of Meeting.” This is one of the terms used to describe the Tabernacle in the other parashiyot in Exodus, but this Tent of Meeting differs greatly from the one we read about last week. Let me draw out some of the contrasts.

The mishkan described in the two parashiyot before Ki Tissa and the two after it was literally conceived of as being God’s palace on earth. It was a very large structure, made of wooden planks that could be disassembled and reassembled as the Israelites traveled through the desert. According to these parashiyot in Exodus, God’s Presence, known as the kavod, entered the mishkan at the very end of the book of Exodus, and God remained there indefinitely. (The kavod, according to this point of view, later moved into Solomon’s Temple, and it stayed there until shortly before Jerusalem was destroyed in 586 BCE.) Behind the curtains of the Holy of Holies inside the Tabernacle stood the ark and its cover, which served as God’s footstool and throne, respectively. These two parashot, we modern biblical scholars believe, were written by kohanim, or priests, who put tremendous emphasis on the importance of the Tabernacle, which was the predecessor to the Temple in Jerusalem.

The sections of the Torah written by the kohanim repeatedly highlight the Tabernacle’s centrality. On a literal level, it was located at the midpoint of the Israelite camp, as the elaborate map in Numbers 2 makes clear. More significantly, the Tabernacle plays a principal role in the cosmos. For these authors, creation was not quite complete until the Tabernacle was built. In ancient Near Eastern stories about the creation of the world, the high point of Creation is the construction of a sanctuary for the creator god, but in the Torah this high point is deferred for thousands of years, until the completion of the mishkan in Exodus 40. (The are extensive parallels of vocabulary between Genesis 1.1–2.4 and Exodus 39–40 that indicate that world-creation and Tabernacle-construction are really a single event.) According to the kohanim, the Tabernacle was also the place from which God’s law was revealed, starting in Leviticus 1. Further, it served as the single legitimate place of sacrificial worship. Not only does God speak to Moses there, but Israel approaches God as well. (Thus it is a Tent of Meeting in more than one sense.) In short, the mishkan is a sacred center, the capstone of the universe; and there God is constantly and reliably manifest.

The bulk of Parashat Ki Tissa, chapters 32–34 of Exodus, stems from another set of documents, not the teachings of the kohanim. These documents describe the Tent of Meeting very differently. According to this understanding of the Tent of Meeting (which also appears in Numbers 11.16–17, 11.24–30, and 12.5–10), the tent was located outside the Israelites’ camp, indeed at some distance from it. God did not dwell there but “popped in” on appropriate occasions to reveal Himself to Moses or other Israelites. Rather than being surrounded by Israel, this tent was isolated. Only one person, Joshua, resided there as a caretaker. Thus this week’s parashah does not portray God as living permanently among the Israelites; and even when God’s Presence manifested itself, it did so outside the Israelite camp. This tent is a small and simple affair; it contains no ark and no divine throne.

Why does the book of Exodus contain these two radically different descriptions of a Tent of Meeting? I think that Exodus is presenting us with two different memories of what happened as the Israelites trekked through the Sinai desert. The kohanim and the other authors who wrote the Torah lived long after the Exodus, and they sometimes preserved diverse recollections of what our ancestors experienced in the desert. More important, they also had different understandings of how God relates to the nation of Israel and to the world at large, and these different understandings become clear in their different memories of the Tent. According to the kohanim, God once was literally present among the Israelites, at a sacred center, whose construction represented the return—in fact, the climax—of the mythical moment when the world came into being. Their view of the universe celebrates that which is primeval and central. It is based on the conviction that the divine entered into space and time—more precisely, into a specific place, the forerunner of the Jerusalem Temple. Thus this viewpoint strongly endorses the notion of sacred space—that is, the idea that one land, one city, one hilltop, is special to God and pivotal for the people chosen by God. According to this viewpoint, by very carefully carrying out specific and definitive instructions, human beings can help God become accessible and even predictable to human beings.

But the view in this week’s parashah is something else altogether. Exodus 33 puts the tent in the wilderness outside the Israelite camp. It locates religious value in the periphery rather than the center and endorses a much more constrained understanding of how and when God becomes present in the world. In a way, this is a more open view, because it regards the divine as less predictable and not subject to manipulation by precise if demanding rituals. This point of view recognizes the reality, the unavoidability—even the value—of reversal, of chaos, and of that which is outside the boundary of the community. This viewpoint is much more skeptical of the idea of sacred space.

Which of these historical memories is correct? Where was the Tent of Meeting actually located? What’s crucial for us to realize is that the Torah is not interested in answering this question. Rather, the Torah presents us with both pictures, and with both points of view. When we accept the Torah as our own (as we do eight times every Saturday morning, and three times every Saturday afternoon, Monday morning, and Thursday morning, when we say amen to the blessing in which we acknowledge God as notein ha-torah, “the one who gives us Torah”), we are accepting the validity of both these views. We are not supposed to choose between them. Just as the Torah includes both of them, we must find a way to hold on to both as well.

To be a Jew is to accept Jerusalem as a uniquely holy place, special to us like no other spot on the planet. To be a Jew is also to be skeptical about sacred space, to recognize that God’s power extends everywhere and that the notion of sacred space, taken too far, leads to idolatry and immorality (as the prophet Jeremiah would later assert). To be a Jew is to accept the exact and exacting ritual requirements laid out in the halakhah and to live by them. To be a Jew is also to realize that a religion that only consists of those ritual requirements is insufficient, that we need to express our relationship with God in ways that are surprising, unorthodox, and on the edge. Eilu v’eilu divrei elohim chayim—“these and those are the living words of God,” the Talmud teaches in Eruvin 13b. The varied descriptions of the Tent of Meeting in the book of Exodus call us to live with two views of God’s relationship to the world. Even when those views seem to go in opposite directions, our job is to allow them to meet in our own religious life.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.