Those familiar with the cycle of Torah (Bible) readings will know that at this time of the year, we read about the construction of the Mishkan — the portable desert Sanctuary that accompanied the Jewish people throughout their wanderings.
At first glance, the minutiae contained in the hundreds of verses dealing with the Mishkan seem complex and, dare one say, tedious. Yet part of the brilliance of the Torah is that even the most arcane passages convey profound and accessible truths applicable in any circumstance.
The nerve-centre of the Mishkan was the Aron, a container that housed the tablets brought by Moshe from Mount Sinai. In common with the other Mishkan utensils, it was fitted with rings into which carrying poles were inserted; when the Jews travelled through the desert, the Aron would be carried by four bearers. Rather oddly, the Torah instructs that despite their obvious function, the poles were never to be detached from the Aron, even when it was at rest in the Mishkan. This contrasts with the carrying-poles for the other utensils, which were removed and stored as soon as the journey was over.
The Talmudic sources question how the poles could be made so that they couldn't be removed from the Aron. Apparently, their ends were thicker than their middles, so once the poles were forced through the rings, the Aron could slide around on them but never actually fall off.
Now all this seems obscure, irrelevant and so far removed from 2006 that you may even have stopped reading. But please don't, because, believe it or not, this ancient building instruction contains one of the most fundamental truths about Judaism and the survival of the Jewish people. Bear with me!
The permanently attached carrying-poles testify to the unqualified portability of Judaism. The relevance and applicability of Judaism is absolutely independent of place and time. While, of course, Judaism is ideally lived in the Land of Israel, it is always possible to pick up the Torah (the contents of the Aron) and move it to new surroundings. No matter where we end up, we can set the Torah down and immediately make it the focus and driving force of our lives.
Throughout our long and often torturous history, we have lived in places that have been friendly to us as well as those that have been hostile; we have encountered theologically sophisticated as well as primitive peoples, lived through eras that were technologically advanced and others that were functionally backward. We have been hosted by nations sympathetic to our spiritual pursuits, those for whom they were utterly alien, places where we were respected as people of G-d, others where we were viewed as the devil incarnate; environments where the beliefs of the locals enticed us away from our faith, still others where they offered nothing whatsoever of interest to us.
The common feature shared by these disparate national experiences is that the Torah has been successfully transplanted into each of them. Part of its genius is its immense portability — whether in sixth century Babylon or 21st century New York, the Torah has been equally applicable, inspirational and indispensable to the Jewish experience.
A sad fact of Jewish history is that we have needed to travel from place to place to escape persecution; we have had to demonstrate the portability of the Torah in every century, for our past is littered with tales of displacement, expulsion and flight from discrimination and hatred. To ensure our spiritual survival, we have 'lifted the Aron', often at a moment's notice, set it down in new surroundings and then began the arduous task of building a new Torah-centred life from scratch. This is a truly remarkable, and perhaps one may suggest, miraculous achievement, one that for at least for me, testifies to the historical truth of the Torah and the eternal survival of the Jewish people.
The nature of the carrying-poles educates us how this is to be done — remember that they were thick at the ends and thinner in the middles, enabling the Aron to move about on them without ever falling off. This teaches the critical concept of the need for flexibility within certain boundaries; the Torah itself has many different valid expressions, corresponding to the different positions that the Aron could occupy on the poles. It is hard to overstate the importance of this to a mature and properly-functioning Jewish community. The fact is that there are many manifestations of authentic Judaism.
Of course, they all share the core belief in the historical truth of the Sinaitic revelation and the eternal imperative of Jewish law; nothing without these can be considered Judaism. Yet within these parameters, Judaism contains a great wealth of styles, philosophies, attitudes, complexions, emphases and even variations of observance. All of these are part of the amazing, and unsurpassable multichromatic Divine system we call Judaism.
FLEXIBILITY WITHIN LIMITATIONS
Differing manifestations of Judaism (all, of course, committed to the core principles outlined above) are required in different places and times. In some societies, such, as I believe, our own, a whole range of different types of Judaism will be required, sitting comfortably next to each other, benefiting immeasurably from each other's company. While the truth of Torah is absolute and eternal, it is hardly likely that the same style of Judaism would have suited 12th century Provence as 19th century Galicia.
The idea of flexibility (albeit within limitations) is fundamental to the survival of Judaism. The Aron could only be carried to its next destination because it could move about on the poles; without this latitude, attempts to carry it would have resulted in the poles snapping and the Aron being left behind. This conveys a stark message — that portability is absolutely contingent on flexibility. Lack of flexibility will result in the Aron (and the Torah it represents) remaining forever at its previous location, absent from its rightful place as the focus of activity at all future destinations. In short it could spell the death of Judaism.
Sadly, in parts of the Jewish world today, we see a tendency to ignore this truth. There are many people who believe that Torah can be anything one wishes to believe, whatever one chooses to observe, a kind of insipid humanism with a Jewish flavour added at will. By denying the fundamentals of Judaism, they have, in effect, detached the Aron from its poles, for they believe that the Torah can be prostituted into anything they wish.
If we link Torah observance to specific conditions, be they socio-economic, cultural, educational, or any other, we jeopardize the portability of Torah, for when they change, as they must, Judaism disappears together with them. When we force the poles into the Aron so that it cannot move about, we deny ourselves the flexibility that has enabled us to carry the Torah with us proudly through history.
It is vital that we capitalise on the immense cultural heritage that we have gained from our travels through history. The Jewish world is immeasurably enriched by every experience that our past has thrown at us. We should enjoy, explore and revel in every nuance, style and custom gained on our journey. But when our Judaism becomes contingent on a certain set of external factors, when only one way of doing things becomes conceivable, the existential warning sign should light up.
We should have known this idea from the experiences of recent history, profited from the sad example set by a generation of European Jews who left their Judaism in the shtetl; learned the lesson of those who threw their tefillin into the sea as they approached the United States. But not all of us have internalised this message; the attempt by some to turn Jewish practice and thought into an unbending monolith is testimony to that.
We have much to gain from investing our energies into developing a diverse and heterogeneous Jewish society and a great deal to lose by not. We live in a dangerous and unpredictable world, one in which we cannot be sure of our long-term security wherever we may be. We hope and pray that we will remain comfortable in our host countries, but history has taught us that we must be ready to travel at any time. Are we up to the challenge? Is our Judaism portable? Only flexibility within the system will ensure its portability.
Our very survival may depend on it.
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