Kingdom of Priests

The Torah emphasized in last week’s reading, Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19), that the Tabernacle in the desert was to be held up by planks of acacia, or shittim, wood. Hasidic tradition notes that the verbal root on which that Hebrew word is built appears also in the word for foolishness, shtut. The Talmud has it that sin is committed through foolishness. But more benignly, a willingness to be found foolish is an essential ingredient of religious life. We like to think we have rational grounds for belief, and I think we do up to a point, certainly more than evangelists for secularism would have you think. 

Yet one takes a considerable chance, in identifying with any spiritual teaching, of being totally mistaken in the end. Something I find incredible about certain versions of Christianity is the threat of eternal torture if despite the best intentions, and having earnestly sought to discern God’s will in the Bible, you nevertheless get things wrong. The idea that God could come up with such an “economy of salvation” is pretty hard to believe. In fact, the image of the Tabernacle, designed by God himself, suggests the opposite: that faith fails if you can’t take the chance of being mistaken in the end.
William James said as much in his famous 1896 lecture, “The Will to Believe”:

He who says, “Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!” merely shows his own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe. He may be critical of many of his desires and fears, but this fear he slavishly obeys…..I can believe that worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world….Our errors are surely not such awfully solemn things. In a world where we are so certain to incur them in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.

Back when my first book came out, there was another memoir also about a Jew returning to Judaism that was published around the same time. It was Turbulent Souls by Stephen J. Dubner, who has since gone from strength to strength as co-author of the Freakonomics books. The title of his earlier book is apropos of my previous post on Glenn Beck and all Beck’s noisy talk about alcoholism and recovery. I don’t mean that unkindly. Spiritual journeys of return and repentance are often turbulent, noisy. 

The point comes out on in the context of this week’s Torah reading, Tetzaveh, which includes the description of the priestly garments God commanded the Jews to fashion for use in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. The high priest wore a robe furnished with bells on its edges. The bells were intended not merely as a decoration but that they should be heard upon the high priest’s entering the holy of holies as part of the atonement of Yom Kippur:

It shall be on Aaron when he performs the service, and its sound shall be heard when he enters the Holy before the Lord and when he leaves, so that he will not die [Exodus 28:35].

That he should “not die”? Why such a harsh warning?
As some understand the Torah verses here, the bells were in the shape of pomegranates. Why pomegranates? On the basis of a verse in Song of Songs that compares sinners to that particular fruit, since even a sinner in Israel is assumed to have merits like the seeds in a pomegranate. On the verse in Exodus, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that the high priest was strongly cautioned to have in mind not only those among the people who have a relatively easy time being good but also those of us who struggle — sinners, penitents, and would be penitents — with our “noisy” personal stories.

Did you ever think you’d see those two names juxtaposed? I watched Beck’s CPAC speech online just now all the way through — an hour plus. Beck by virtue of his headlining CPAC appearance has been more or less designated as the conservative movement’s preeminent spokesman. The man is a phenomenal talker but I was squirming throughout. Something about the theme of comparing America to a drunk on his way to hitting bottom — through an addiction to taxing and spending — rubbed me the wrong way. The theme was that like Beck himself, who very frequently and emotively refers to his personal experience of having gained wisdom by looking into the “abyss” of alcoholism, the country will soon face a disastrous “morning after” following a long debauch. There were numerous references to vomiting — tasteless, I thought — and to confession and repentance. You have to admit you have a problem before you can seek help. 
His theme, as ever with Beck, was apocalyptic. He asks us to contemplate a coming “economic Holocaust.” And so on. What’s wrong with this? At NRO, Bill Bennett admonishes Beck for extrapolating from his private struggles as if they could be directly mapped onto to the national scene. Trying to put a finger on what irritated me, I opened Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, in the Laws of Repentance, and immediately found two items of interest. 
If there are two things in public life that I despise, they are a) being clubbed over the head with someone else’s personal story when it seems designed to elicit my admiration; and b) being manipulated through fear. Maimonides, distilling the Talmud, writes of both these things. Public confession of sins committed against another person can have a tonic effect. One thinks of Tiger Woods, whose case of confessed adultery Beck discussed in the speech. But sins that are not committed against another person but rather primarily against God – or you might say, against yourself – are not fit for public confession: “In regard to sins between man and God, it is not necessary to publicize one’s [transgressions]. Indeed, revealing them is arrogant” (2:5). Presumably, abusing your body through various addictions would fall into this latter category. Don’t you find there’s something arrogant and preachy about people who flaunt their “recovery,” even if for seemingly fine reasons?
Later in the same text, Maimonides writes about categories of people who by their actions give up the hope of reward in the World to Come. Most sins do not carry this degree of severity. One of the categories is people who rule or influence others through fear: “‘Those who cast fear upon the people for reasons other than the service of God’ – This refers to one who rules the community with a strong hand and [causes] them to revere and fear him. His intent is only for his own honor and none of his desires are for God’s honor” (3:13). I of course have no way of knowing what’s in Beck’s heart, but his apocalyptic style, the habit of constantly trying to scare us, is not in the best conservative tradition as I know and believe in it, that’s for sure. Can you imagine William F. Buckley ever descending to these levels? 

The week’s Torah portion poses a serious challenge, I think, to secular scholars of the Hebrew Bible and other skeptics who maintain that the Pentateuch was composed no earlier than about 500 BCE. Terumah (Exodus 25:1-27:19) begins the Torah’s overwhelmingly, sometimes mind-numbingly detailed description of God’s instructions to Moses on how to build the Tabernacle, a tent that the Jews employed as their place of worship from just after the Exodus from Egypt until King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem. It came in particularly handy during their 40 years of wandering in the desert before entering Canaan.

Now Solomon lived more than four centuries before the purported composition of Exodus. The Jerusalem Temple was generally modeled on the Tabernacle but the instructions here are not for a permanent building but for a tent constructed from linen, wool, ram and other animal hides, and acacia wood. The wooden planks were held together by silver sockets. There’s no mention of a floor. It’s a construction plainly intended to be assembled, disassembled, moved from place to place, and then assembled again. It is well purposed for a people frequently on the move. The obvious question is why the Jews, long established in their land and with an already old and quite stationary temple in their holy city — that is, when they weren’t in exile in Babylon, where they also were not mobile and in any event did not have a central shrine — why this people would need chapter after chapter after chapter describing how to build a portable tent?