A Light to the World

Parashat Terumah, contains God’s detailed instructions for the building of the mishkan in the wilderness. We learn here that the Israelites are to construct a sanctuary so that God might dwell in their midst. The material and dimensional specifications are provided in staggering detail.

Unlike the terse style that characterizes so much of the Torah, these instructions are verbose as verse after verse describes wooden planks and silver sockets, woolen curtains and golden rings, poles and bars and shovels and firepans, each with its own customized measurements. It is enough to make many of us resort to my own bad habit of skipping the instructions entirely. The temptation to do so is especially strong given the fact that none of us is likely to attempt this particular building project in our lifetime.

To avoid these instructions, however, would be ill-advised. As committed students of Torah, our tradition impels us to grant these verses the same weight as those narrative, ethical, and legal sections with more readily apparent meaning for our modern lives. Furthermore, it has been said that “the truth is in the details,” so as contemporary ohavei Torah, we ask ourselves, “What potential truths for our own day lie hidden in the technicalities of the tabernacle?”

After outlining the material gifts that will constitute the terumah offering of building materials for the mishkan, God begins to describe the tabernacle’s vessels, utensils, and adornments. First, the text depicts the ark which will carry the word of God. The aron should be made of acacia wood and covered, inside and out, with pure gold. The cover of the ark will also be made of pure gold with two golden cherubim protruding from each end of the cover, one cherub facing the other, with their heads tilted downwards towards the precious stone tablets beneath.

A few verses later, God lays out the intended design for the menorah, the first time this historic symbol of our people is mentioned in our sacred text. This candelabrum, too, must be fashioned of pure gold. It will have a central stem with six arms branching off from the center, three in each direction. Each branch will be ornamented with cups in the shape of almonds and flowers at each end, giving the menorah the appearance of a golden tree. The lamps on the tip of each branch must incline inward, stresses Rashi, adding their light to the flame in the center.

The final item to be crafted and placed inside the mishkan is the altar. It too must be made of acacia wood, and like many altars that would later be constructed throughout Eretz Yisrael, this square structure was to feature four protrusions, or horns, one in each of its corners. The entire wooden altar is to be overlaid with copper.

Again, I must make a confession. To prepare for this sermon, I had to struggle against my own nature and carefully read these instructions, not just once, but several times. When I did, however, I began to see a pattern. What connects these three seemingly unrelated projects: the ark cover, the menorah, and the altar? In each of these three cases, that which might be perceived as separate and disconnected must actually be united at its core. The cherubim on the cover of the ark are to be molded from the same piece of gold as the ark cover itself. They must not be made separately and subsequently attached.

Similarly, the menorah, its base, its stem, its branches, and its ornamentation, Y’hiyu Kulah Miksha Achat, they all must be made “of one piece,” hammered from a single golden mass. Likewise, we learn that the horns of the altar are to be constructed “of one piece” with the altar itself. The four horns can not be fashioned separately and then attached to the base of the altar, but must be formed from the same piece of wood. What insight can we glean from this observation? How might this common thread—the fact that all three objects are to be built of one piece—how might this serve as a guide to Jewish life today, in an era without the physical mishkan in our midst?

Italian luminary Ovadiah Serforno gave us a hint. He midrashically interpreted the multi-branched unity of the menorah in this portion to represent the oneness of the People Israel. Seforno explains: “Hamiksha hamorah achdut,” the fact that the menorah was hammered of one solid piece is intended to teach us oneness. Building upon his metaphor, the truth which I seek in the details of parashat Terumah is this: What is the ideal model of k’lal Yisra’el in our own day, and how can we thoughtfully work towards that goal?

Some Jews reminisce nostalgically about a pre-modern and pre-denominational period in our history—a period “once upon a time” when we were all just Jews, living as one in undifferentiated unity, Jews without pesky adjectives like Reform, Conservative or Orthodox. Outside of our revelatory moment at Sinai when we accepted God’s word with “one voice,” when, exactly, did the Jewish community look like that? We were twelve tribes, who spent much of our limited time in the Promised Land divided into two kingdoms. We were Pharisees and Sadducees and Essenes. We were Rabbinites and Karaites. We were Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Maimonists and anti-Maimonists, Hassidim and Mitnagdim—a group who actually embraced a title which roughly translates: “We’re against those guys!”

Those in our own day who wistfully long for a return to that pre-modern, pre-denominational unity, fictitious as it may be, are often the same people who anxiously await the collapse of the streams of Judaism as they currently exist. While there is no single centralized address or movement that espouses this post-denominational philosophy, it is, nonetheless, a significant mode of thinking in dialogues concerning the future of North American Jewry. As upcoming Jewish leaders in the Reform Movement, committed as well to K’lal Yisrael, it is important for us to be part of the conversation.

Many of the recent critiques of the Jewish denominations are not new and actually echo earlier Christian trends in this country. H. Richard Niebuhr, for example, in his 1929 work The Social Sources of Denominationalism, asserted that denominationalism represented the “moral failure of Christianity” as the existing Christian movements served only to reinforce existing economic, social, and racial divides which already existed amongst their constituents. Echoes of this argument can be heard in our own day, though some of the economic and cultural differences which have divided America’s Jewish movements in the past have been replaced by entrenched ideological disparities. One general critique of the existing streams of Judaism, then, is that they are nothing but a force of divisiveness in the Jewish world. The squabbling of their elite over matters of Jewish status, halacha, and rabbinic authority leads only to strife and discord.

It is ironic, perhaps, that while this first critique of the existing streams is that they serve only to alienate and divide Jews, a second significant contention of post-denominationalists is that there is no longer enough difference between the non-Orthodox movements in America. Our synagogues are now populated by second, third, and fourth-generation Americans. The ethnic distinctions which created clear variation amongst typical Conservative and Reform congregations 50 years ago, no longer exist. Furthermore, they note, switching between the movements is increasingly common.

If people are so willing to shift back and forth between streams, could they really have any ideological connection to a particular movement? Aren’t they more likely to be selecting a synagogue affiliation based on the pleasantness of the clergy and staff, the music at Friday night services, or the number of times they have to drive the carpool to religious school each week?

Additionally, it is argued, who amongst our synagogue populations can articulate the ideological nuances of their particular movement outside of the most involved members? An average sampling of Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist congregants would prove largely indistinguishable in their thought, belief, and practice.

With such commonality and permeability among movements, why continue to foster these seemingly arbitrary denominational distinctions? The notion of a k’lal Yisrael, unified in both thought and practice, is seductive. Why not strive for a new Jewish unity that includes all Jews and does away with these divisive denominational structures?

I would argue that while the boundaries between movements may be more permeable now than in the past, these borders have neither disappeared nor lost all relevance. For example: The Reform Movement remains distinct in its assertion that all Jews, regardless of gender, sexuality, and line of descent deserve unconditional equality in every facet of Jewish life.

The Reform Movement’s early vision of a renewed prophetic Judaism, and the emphasis on social justice in our world which it produced, continue to distinguish us from other denominations. The Outreach program, established by Rabbi Alexander Schindler (z”l) has changed the face of North American Judaism and continues to expand in its work. Likewise, the commitment to true partnership between professionals and lay people remains a hallmark of Reform synagogue life.

These are only some of the characteristics which continue to define Reform Judaism, and these distinctive elements need not be whitewashed into oblivion for the sake of k’lal Yisrael in our world. Each movement has its own distinguishing outlooks and accomplishments, of which each movement and its members can be proud. We should not underestimate the extent to which these ideological differences affect people’s sense of which denomination makes an appropriate home for this stage of their Jewish journeys.

If our congregants can not sense this distinctiveness, then we have missed an opportunity to provide them with a unique perspective on Jewish living. In the words of Rabbi Eric Yoffie, “We can best serve the members of our movement and draw upon the springs of their Judaic spirit if they understand—truly understand—what it means to be a Reform Jew.” In the parlance of Parashat Terumah, it is not sufficient that the Mishkan be illuminated by a single light. Rather, one lamp, fashioned “of one piece,” must be divided into multiple unique flames, each of equal strength and stature.

While we may have a ways to go in effectively communicating each branch’s unique blessings and achievements to the Jewish people at large, we have, nevertheless, succeeded in fashioning these distinct limbs of thought, ideology, and practice that diverge from our common stem. By all reasonable estimates, the existing movements of Judaism will continue to be here for quite some time, and new branches continue to sprout regularly. Given that reality, how do we now shed light on the fact that, like the menorah, k’lal Yisrael is fashioned “of one piece” at its golden core? Rather than ignoring our differences in an attempt to create an amorphous multitude of people with undifferentiated thought and practice, as some would suggest, how do we strive towards a k’lal Yisrael marked by unity, but not by uniformity?

I return, here, to Rashi’s teaching on the menorah. The flame on each branch should be inclined inwards, shedding its unique light on the central flame common to them all. All the branches of modern Judaism share a central goal of carrying our rich tradition forward into the future. We all strive towards that end through education, through ritual, and through building sacred communities. If the flame of one of Judaism’s branches were to be extinguished, the others would be diminished as well, for the light shed on their common center would be dimmed. It is our task, then, to contribute to the growth of the entire Etz Chayim that is Judaism, not through petty competition or by insisting that everyone else see things our way, but by recognizing, engaging, and supporting those who make their homes on other branches, while maintaining our own particularity.

This is no small task. It can be intimidating to begin such a process, and even more daunting to sustain it. Fortunately, we have some good models of this type of trans-denominational dialogue on which to build. Organizations like the Shalom Hartman Institute, CLAL, the Wexner Graduate Fellowship program and the Limmud Educational Conference, all provide compelling models of pluralistic learning and leadership development. Each is successful in this regard because it acknowledges and affirms differences in denominational background, encouraging participants to bring variant ideologies to the table in pursuit of their communal goals. The universal aims, in these settings, are achieved through each person’s particular beliefs, not in spite of them.

While it is the movements which inform people’s Jewish identities, it is ultimately, of course, not whole movements but individual Jews who must engage in this process. As God asks at the beginning of today’s portion, V’yikchu Li Terumah Me’eit Kol Ish Asher Yidvehnu Libo—”take for me a Terumah offering from every person whose heart is impelled to give.” The necessary materials in the building of k’lal Yisrael, as with those required in the construction of the mishkan, will only be provided by those who feel compelled to participate.

For Jewish professionals, and particularly for lay people, engaging in the process of building unity amongst the divisions of k’lal Yisrael remains a formidable task. Once we find ourselves in a group of fellow Jews who think, believe, and behave in ways similar to our own, it is all too tempting to quarantine ourselves with those likeminded individuals and call it a day. We sometimes fear what will transpire if we venture beyond our borders. Will I be judged or delegitimized? Will I be able to hold my own in a debate? What if I am persuaded by what the other has to say? When such apprehensions immobilize us, dialogue stalls, and our building project comes to a halt.

Yet, like the cherubim on the aron, whose differentiated forms are destined to face one another for all time, each of us is enjoined not to turn away from this dialogue. And, like the cherubim, we sometimes discover that our perspectives on Judaism may be the polar opposite of those held by the person sitting across from us, in spite of the fact that, as Jews, we are molded “of one piece” at our base.

What, then, might motivate us to move beyond such differences and to participate in the conversation that is the building of k’lal Yisrael? Rabbi Larry Kushner teaches that Revelation from God in the mishkan issued not from one cherub or the other, but from the space created between them “when they confronted each other.”

As movements, and as individuals, we ought to be inspired to begin and to sustain our own challenging dialogue with another because none of us possesses God’s revelation in its entirety. It is in the very space created between us when we interact—when we respect, and yet transcend, the boundaries we have established for ourselves—it is in that space that new revelation can pour forth. In that dialogical place between you and me, we might construct a mishkan for our own day, a place where God can once again dwell among us.