(Sometimes sermons are more and sometimes less written out. This one descends into note form, but is one of the things I've been more proud of, of late.)
The Mishkan - sanctuary, the place for the settling of Divine presence while the Children of Israel wandered in Sinai - is the single greatest focus of the Torah.
Beginning with Parashat Terumah there are ten consecutive parshiot dedicated to explaining why and how it was built and functioned ... and all this bearing in mind it takes the Torah a mere 10 verses to tell the story of the Tower of Babel.
For a Temple based religion this enormous concentration of energy on detailing the Mishkan makes a certain amount of sense. The Mishkan becomes the blueprint for the Temple, built, served in and protected in very similar ways. But when the Temple goes, when Rabbinic Judaism moves on - what do you do about all this discussion of Mishkan?
Perhaps most significantly the Mishkan becomes an archetype for contemporary Jewish existence, just as the Mishkan was X, so we today should be X and so on. This is Midrash - the Rabbinic drawing meaning from the ancient words of the written Torah into contemporary days. And here’s the surprising thing. One of the most significant tropes in Midrashic commentary on the Mishkan is the feminisation of the Mishkan. I’m going to share some of the Rabbinic material in Judith Antonelli’s Torah Commentary, In the Image of God.
‘What did Mishkan resemble?’ asked the Rabbis, ‘A woman who goes in the street with her skirts trailing after her’ - that’s a reference to the overhanging curtain at the rear of the building.
In describing the curtain at the front of the Mishkan, Rashi uses the analogy of ‘a bride with a veil covering her face.’ The stitching together of the curtains is compared to the attachment between ‘a woman and her sister.’ Perhaps most tellingly the Talmud compares the poles of the ark, which pressed through and protruded beyond the covering over the Holy of Holies, to ‘two female breasts’ - that one drew the attention of Immanuel Levinas who considers that passage in his famous collection of Talmudic Readings.
Antonelli even brings an analogy from the Zohar which suggests that ‘all women stand in the image and form of the altar,’
She creates what I think is her own parallelism between the Mishkan and this post-Temple Jewish existence reading the flour of the daily Minha offering, the blood from the regular sacrifices and the everlasting light that shone over the Mishkan as corollaries of the classic triumverate of Halachic obligations for which women were and are particularly associated - the flour for making Challah, the blood for menstrual purity - Niddah, and the light as the Shabbat candles. It’s a provocative Midrash; if the Mishkan, with its flour and blood and light, is the central organising pivot of the entire written Torah then these three contemporary Mitzvot of Challah, Niddah and candles become ever more boldly acclaimed as the centre of contemporary Jewish life.
There’s certainly truth in that. Growing up I was entirely unaware of the laws of Niddah, menstrual purity, but the other two obligations, Challah and Ner were indeed the cornerstones of my Jewish existence.
For Antonelli this womanisation of the alter, the Mikdash and all connected to it, points to the way; ‘the Mishkan maintained the cosmic purpose of the matriarch’s tents’ of Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel. It is a structure to allow the presence of the Divine amongst the people, that’s the comforting immanent aspect of the Divine understood as the Shechinah - a feminine noun of course, and related to the only one of the seven lower aspects of the Divine which is understood as the feminine. In the time of Mishkan and the Temple - this analogy suggests - the central space of Jewish life was feminine, God’s feminine aspect dwelt in a tabernacle designed as a woman to hold that very female kind of comfort. And today?
Should Rabbis like me make more a deal of the centrality of the female in preserving and fostering continued Jewish life, yes of course.
But when I read all this feminisation of the Mikdash I wasn’t only moved to celebrate the centrality of woman in this narrative of Jewish life. I was also troubled by this niggling concern.
After all, all these analogies and comparisons are authored by the very Rabbis who, on different folios of the very same books, will compare women to ‘a sack of blood’ or would suggest that anyone conversing with a woman is engaging in acts of a lewd nature. There are some wonderful moments of what we would now call gender equality, or human rights as applied to women in the Rabbinic canon, but these texts I love, written by men alive millenia before the term feminism was coined, are just not a feminist blueprint.
As touched as I am by the notion that entire apparatus of Mishkan is designed to highlight the role of women’s contribution to Jewish life there’s something else I feel when I consider these Rabbinic texts.
The purpose of the Mishkan is to be settled by God - penetrated one might even say. The Mishkan is the shell into which good stuff is poured. If one could imagine the Mishkan alarmed by what is to come at the moment of its inauguration perhaps the most obvious Midrash would borrow a phrase from advice Edwardian mothers would give their daughters on the eve of their marriage - ‘lie back and think of Sinai.’
Moses has personality, as does Aharon, as do his sons. They do things and say things and cause things to happen. The priests have what is referred to in gender-criticism as agency. They are the subjects of verses. The Mishkan is silent, it, or she, has no personality, it is the passive bearer of what is done to it, it is the slate on which the men draw. Perhaps, viewed this way, these Midrashim which imagine the Mikdash as a women with skirts - with breasts, become less a celebration of womanhood, and more discomforting, maybe these midrashim should strike us as voyeuristic, sleazy even, especially in the context of the totally male dominated worlds of discourse in which they arose.
Let me share another text from the massive Rabbinic corpus shared by Antonelli;
In Shmot Rabba the Rabbis tell a parable of a King who’s only daughter was to be married to another King who intended to return to their own country to be with her. The father of the bride could not bear to part with his daughter, yet couldn’t prevent the husband from taking her away, so the father tells the husband, ‘Wherever you live, have a chamber ready for me that I may dwell with you, for I cannot leave my daughter.’
In this text the first King is God, the second is the People of Israel who marry the Torah and take her away from Sinai. God wants always to be able to be part of the wandering of the people and so ... the Mishkan. It’s a beautiful parable. But it also illustrates dramatically the blank nature of the woman - she is owned by the men and passed from one to the other, indeed forced to accommodate both her owners.
I wonder if there is something in the etymology of so many of the Hebrew words for male and female.
Male is zachar - the term in cognate languages form what my Biblical lexicon modestly refers to as the ‘male organ’ Female is Nekeivah - literally ‘pierced.’
I’m not sure it’s helpful to take that particular linguistic idea any further.
But there’s a similar problem
Man and woman - ish ishah
Husband and wife - baal ishah - man becomes a master, the woman's true existence is revealed only in her marriage! Hmmm.
Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf that states that the structure of a language determines or greatly influences the modes of thought and behavior characteristic of the culture in which it is spoken.
Edward Spair that is who was born in Poland in 1884 whose first language was Yididsh.
With language like this, with cultural and history like this any surprise that when the male Rabbis of the Talmud discuss marriage they open their conversation like this;
‘A woman is acquired in three ways - with gold, with a document and with intercourse’ men, of course, aren’t acquired in the same way, not at all. Women, in traditional Jewish are passive, they are acquired, they don’t acquire. They lack agency. Their voices are not heard - they are even commanded to be silent in the presence of men, kol ishah evra, say the Rabbis - the voice of a woman is licentious.
Here’s the problem, the maleness of Judaism, the way in which women are the passive, silent vessels for the male active performative important stuff, is so steeped into Jewish history and life that it can’t simply be ‘got over.’
Needs to be a clearing of the decks for a different kind of Judaism that is much more committed to hearing the voices of all Jews - certainly the voices of 50% of the Jews who have never been seriously listened to. I am, this community is, by nature conservative. We don’t like wrecking balls applied to what makes us comfortable. But, when it comes to the historic absolute androcentricity of Judaism, I don’t feel there is another choice. We have to deconstruct. We have to overturn. We have to be bold in saying we welcome the active, vocal, performative involvement of women - or otherwise we remain the other thing - the male dominated and male dominating patriarchy which requires women to lie back and think of Sinai.
For those for whom that process is painful and uneasy, I’m sorry. But our future as a religion of rational contemporary value is at stake, for both our sons and our daughters. And even ourselves.