Weekly Torah Commentary Perashat Terumah: Art as Ultimate Failure

The world has seen some ugly battles fought recently over religion-related buildings. From the destruction of the Buddhist monastery at Bamiyan to the conflict over the so-called ground zero mosque, going back to Kristalnacht, the attempt at dehumanization of adherents to a religion frequently begins with a strike against the buildings associated with that faith. On the other hand, some of the most important architectural achievements of humanity across the globe, from Wat Phra Khao to Notre Dame, are a result of spiritual ardor manifested in stone. It would appear that religious structures can provide solace or evoke resistance. What does the Jewish tradition teach us about the role of buildings in spiritual life?

We will see that from the very start, from the Torah text itself, a conflicted reading of the importance or challenge of religious buildings per se is presented. The Torah text provides very lengthy and detailed descriptions for the building of the Mishkan, the portable temple carried by the freed Israelites in their journey through the desert. These details, with instructions regarding the building of the temple walls, roof, altars, ark, and other items related to the sacrificial service, are spread out over five perashiyot (Torah sections, as divided for weekly communal reading). We will see that this organization of the text itself teaches rather surprising and profound lessons about the values of sacred space and its rituals.

The structure of the five perashiot, commencing with PerashatTerumah, begins with the command to build the Mishkan, followed by the aborted attempt of the giving of the Ten Commandments, which was a failure due to the golden calf episode, followed by a repetition, in full detail, of the commands to build the Mishkan as narrated in the earlier two sections.

Structurally these texts can be divided as temple-sin-temple. This set of repetitions flanking the golden calf episode, provoked to a classic debate in the commentaries over which came first, the sin of the golden calf or the commands to build a temple.

Rashi on Shemot 31,18 states:

There is no chronological order to the narrative of the Torah – the episode of the golden calf precedes the commands to construct the Mishkan by a long period of time.

This concept appears earlier in the Midrash Tanhuma on PerashatTerumah8 which provides a more elaborate textual chronology proving that the sin episode must have been first, and then adds that the Jewish people were forgiven on Yom Kippur; according to the Midrash on that very same day of forgiving their sin, God commands the construction of the Mikdash “in order that all the nations know that the Jews were forgiven for the Sin of the Calf.” In other words, the erection of a temple building was primarily a marker of forgiveness, precipitated by a fall of the people, but not the primary intention for the new Jewish people. This position, of the secondary nature of the temple commands, is carried to its logical extreme by Rambam (Maimonides) in his Guide for the Perplexed (III:32) in which he states that in reality the whole concept of a physical temple with sacrifices, etc. was only a concession to a slave people only recently redeemed from a hegemonic culture with a sophisticated conception of prayer involving temples, priests and sacrfices from which the newly freed slaves needed to be weaned.

The Ramban (Nachmanides), on the other hand, argues that the narrative of the Bible is in fact chronological and that the command to construct the Mishkan was given prior to the sin of the Golden Calf. After their sin the Jews despaired that they had lost the opportunity to establish a sanctuary for God’s presence in their midst. The Mishkan, representing God’s manifestation on Sinai, was from the start intended to be the eternal monument commemorating this relationship between God and his people. The people thought this relationship had been severed as a result of sin, so God reconfirmed his commitment by commanding again the construction of the Mishkan, hence the repetition of the commandments in full detail after the sin.

So here we are, with the greatest names in Jewish thought with irreconcilable views on a large chunk of text and its commandments. How then can we make sense of these two views, and what can they teach us? Perhaps we can gain clarity on the subject by turning away from the textual commentators and reading with the architectural theorists, from the medieval period till current trends in architecture.

From the medieval period onward, all artistic endeavor, especially of a constructed type like architecture, was perceived of as a means by which complex ideas could be allegorized for more immediate apprehension. Aquinas thought that “it is the mark of the poetic arts to indicate the truth of things by means of invented similitudes”. A very elaborate demonstration of this can be found in the work of the Abbot of St Denis, Suger, who was the mastermind behind much of architecture of the Ile de France. He wrote an extensive treatise detailing the meaning behind every curve and detail of the Notre Dame. To quote Eco, from his “Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages”:

The cathedrals became a surrogate for nature, a veritable liber et picture, there was significance in their architectonic structure, even in their geographical orientation. But even more in the figures above the portals, the designs on their windows, the monsters and gargoyles on the cornices, cathedrals actualized a synthetic vision of man, of his history, of his relation to the universe…

In one form or another, the approach whereby the center of interest was what the ‘meaning’ which the structure signified, or ‘monumentalised’ if you will, persists through the modern period. Buildings had to express something in their design and presentation, whether it was the conquest of nature in the Futurists and Constructivists, or the soul of the genius in the Expressionists, a building’s design was its own statement, as manifested by the presence or absence of ornamentation, or how the building exists in the context of other buildings. It becomes clear, for example in Foucault’s analysis of the panopticon, an architectural strategy for prison design, that these messages can be transmitted with a certain force or even violence by the building itself, as in Lefebvre:

Monumental buildings mask the will to power and the arbitrariness of power beneath signs and surfaces which claim to express collective will and collective thought.

Kundera has a passage in which he describes how the beautiful cathedrals of Prague were really designed in order to suppress the rise of Prostestantism.

A novel perception of the possibilities of architecture was proposed by Heidegger. In 1951 Heidegger gave an influential lecture titled “Building Dwelling Thinking” in which he suggested that the primary concern of architecture be, not with the building itself per se, but with the formation or “opening up” of the space within the structure; one which promotes “dwelling”, the state of existing in an interactive fashion so that the individual’s possibility of self-actualization, of “being”, is maximized by the building. The placing of an edifice in a certain locale gives the entire space its meaning:

“Place opens a region in which it gathers the things in their belonging together”.

There is an emphasis on the concern with the “home” as a set of attitudes related to dwelling, as stated by Heidegger: “we do not necessarily solve ‘homelessness’ by building more homes”. Thus, the center of interest is less the physical structure of the building itself, but rather the space within which allows for a reciprocal relationship between the inhabitants and the necessary functions of “dwelling”, whereby individuals can feel “housed” or “at home”.

This debate may shed some light upon the halachic approaches of the aforementioned medieval commentators as well. In his Sefer Hamitzvot, Mitzva 20, the Rambam essentially reduces all the details related to constructing the Temple to one mitzvah:”to construct a house for worship, in which can take place the sacrifices and the gatherings each year”.

What matters most is not the size and form of the architecture and utensils within, but rather that the space created will allow for the fulfillment of all the commandments that need to take place within its walls. The specifics of what the building looks like on the outside, or the presence or absence of decorative details, would be secondary or irrelevant.

On the other hand, the Ramban reads symbolic significance into each detail related to the Mishkan, and in this approach he is followed by many texts, from the Zohar to Ramhal (R. Moshe Chaim Luzzato), who wrote an entire book, Mishkenei Elyon, which attempts to demonstrate how every detail related to the Mishkan and Temple is illustrative or parallel to the ways in which the divine plan blueprint for mankind is manifested in the universe.

So are we left then with a simply yes or no with regards to the concept of a sacred sanctuary? I would like to provide another alternative, one which has an interesting parallel to a new mode of thinking with regards to architectural theory as well.

In recent years there has emerged a new mode of thought in architectural theory, related to the work of Jacques Derrida, Peter Eisenman, Bernard Tshumi, and others, the results of which are particularly prominent in many new buildings (particularly in scientific buildings and universities, so I’ve worked in a number of buildings constructed in this style). Peter Eisenman, the noted NY architect, describes this approach in his “The End of the Classical”:

…What can be the model for architecture, when the essence of what was effective in the classical model- the presumed rational value of structures, representations, methodologies of origin and ends and deductive processes- have been shown to be illusory? What is being proposed is an expansion beyond the limitation presented by the classical model to the realization of architecture as an independent discourse, free from external values, that is, the intersection of the meaning- free, the arbitrary, and the timeless in the artificial…

In other words, ‘building’ and ‘architecture’ need not be identical. Certainly, people need shelter, and the act of building must continue. But building and architecture, are two different things. “Any act of building will necessarily be an act of presencing”. However, at the same time, “the initial act of architecture is an act of dislocating”. Since architecture, or more specifically, the history of architecture “exists in the world of the real and the world of the idea, this means that architecture operates both as a condition of presence and a condition of absence”.

The absence he discusses is a reflection of the repression and value structures of the underlying axioms built in to the system of architectural thought:

There is no equivalency between structure and ornament; ornament is added to structure. Each of the terms of these dialectical opposites carries an intrinsic value- structure is good, ornament is bad. For example, the traditional oppositions between structure and decoration, abstraction and figuration, figure and ground, form and function, could be dissolved. Architecture could begin an exploration of the ‘between’ within these categories (Eisenman, Blue Line Text).

He defines the term “between” (or as he likes to put it, the rhetorical trope of “catachresis”) as referring to cutting into the truth and seeing what it represses, he illustrates as an example Poe’s use of the haunted house, which describes a state of otherness implicit in architecture, that which is beyond or between the bricks and mortar of the house, which denies traditional notions of interiority and enclosure.

At any rate, to see where this ties in with the hassidic reading that follows, it is worthwhile looking at a passage by Derrida, an influential figure in what became known as “postmodern architecture” on a building related subject that provides an interesting “Midrash” of its own.

In an interview with Eva Meyer printed in Domus (reprinted in “Rethinking Architecture” edited by Neil Leach), Derrida refers to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. Let me quote this summarizing passage at length, as Derrida explains himself very clearly here:

…In order to talk about the impossibility of absolute objectification, let us move to the building of the tower of Babel. There too the sky is to be conquered in an act of name giving, which yet remains inseparably linked with the natural language. A tribe, the Semites, whose name means ‘name’ (Shem), a tribe therefore called name, want to erect a tower supposed to reach the sky with the aim of making a name for itself. This conquest of the sky, this taking up of a position in the sky means giving oneself a name and from this power, from the power of the name, from the height of the metalanguage, to dominate the other tribes, the other languages, to colonize them. (note- this reading sits well with the actual Midrashic one) But God descends and spoils the enterprise by uttering one word: “Babel”, and this word is a name which resembles a noun meaning confusion. With this word he condemns mankind to the diversity of languages. Therefore, they have to renounce their plan of domination by means of a language which would be universal, this means also that the construction of architecture will always remain labyrinthine; if the tower had been completed there would be no architecture. Only the incompletion of the tower (i.e., the “ultimate building”) makes it possible for architecture as well as the multitude of languages to have a history…

In other words, architecture, as opposed to building, is an issue of critique, of history, analysis, and comparison. The building is there, reflecting the capacity of the architect to design it, but once completed, once it is a ‘presence’, it then becomes capable of being critiqued, there is always someone who can design a better building, or who can see flaws in this construct, or achieve the same ends more aesthetically, etc. My suspicion is that the fable R. Nachman of Breslov told about a visiting artist who builds a menorah entirely created out of the artistic deficiencies of the local artists, can be read in this light.

With this concept, of architecture always implying the possibility of deficiency in mind, let us return to our text. In perashat Tetzaveh, we are given the design plans for the bigdei Kehuna, the Priestly vestments. The Talmud and Midrash tell us that Moshe served as the High Priest for the forty years that the Israelites wandered the desert, and that when God tells him (in verse 28:1) to annoint his brother Aharon as the new High Priest, Moshe was upset.

The Sefat Emet (year 1891) explains that Moshe was upset not because he was jealous of Aaron, but rather because he understood that this transfer of power would be accompanied by a lower spiritual level for the priestly service as a result. What signaled this to Moshe? The fact that there would be special garments for the priest.

In other words, if up until now Moshe was the High Priest, it means he performed this service in regular clothes, as the special clothes hadn’t been described yet! Moshe realized that this lower state was precipitated by the sin of the golden calf, which had introduced a distance between the people and God. Thus, what could have been an intimate personal connection with God (signified by service without a special uniform) was demoted to an formalized ritual requiring a special garment, a garment being an external attribute (as in the saying, the clothes makes the man, it is the outfit in which one is dressed that provides the relationship, rather than the individual coming forward). The Sefat Emet offers the example of tefillin (the ritual objects worn during morning prayer, strapped to the head and forearm). Tefillin, which the texts teach us symbolize the highest names of God, the ultimate of holiness, are worn as an “ot”, a sign, on our arms and heads during weekday prayers. However, on Shabbat, when humanity is raised to a higher consciousness, tefillin are not worn, because we don’t require this external signification, as a higher level of spiritual holiness is found within each and every one of us. In the Sefat Emet’s words:

on Shabbat each person is himself an ‘ot’ (sign) and thus the commandments glow from within each and every Jewish soul. Similarly, (prior to the sin of the golden calf) one could have been a priest of God without need of vestment.

The Sefat Emet, in his writings on the section of Ki Tisa (year trm”g), reiterates this idea regarding the entire project of building the Mishkan:

It seems that the first Luhot were meant to be situated among the people of Israel without the ark and without the Mishkan, as the Israelites were meant to achieve a state transcendent of the physical world, as apparently before the sin (of the golden calf) they were not separated from God at all, only after the sin, when this separation was accomplished, the way back was via the Mishkan and its utensils.

In summary, prior to the distance caused as a result of the sin, an unmediated personal relationship of each individual with God was the initial intention. However, when the people attempted to externalize a palpable image of a god, with the golden calf, this infiltration of the more direct relationship with an object created a distance, a rupture, which required the agency of externalized sacred objects to lead one back gradually to the higher state of direct unmediated spiritual relationship between soul and God.

Any externalized structure, no matter how lofty the intent in its contruction, monumentalizes distance as well as holiness, a failure as well as a striving- for a structure or a garment is also a boundary, a barrier. The route to holiness becomes symbolized by distance rather than immediacy.

As Eisenman explains, an architectural object, for that matter, any work of art, is simultaneously a creation and a critique of the institution. The mishkan may represent the holiest space and thus “presences” the highest level of service attainable by man, but by the physical presence of its walls, “the in between”, so to speak, it at the same time symbolizes a lack, a deficiency at our core being. The walls, while serving as an enclosure, as the most visible external object of this work of sacred architecture, are, at the same time, boundaries, barriers, a border which prevent uninhibited access to the space within. A grand symbol of the possibility of relationship with the divine, it is also a reminder of human failure.

Even today historical sites of great spiritual triumph have become the deepest barriers tearing peoples apart.

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