Religion, and in particular, religious rites and the places and accoutrements that accompany them, tend, in general, to have some level of mystery and secrecy. Priestly classes develop which become the keepers of the mysteries, the secret knowledge. We find this across a broad range of religions, not just Western ones.
While architectural details or cultic structures (like the Mishkan/tabernacle) are sometimes, perhaps even often found in the writings of cultures in the ancient world, one will generally not find descriptions as detailed and complete, not only in architecture but implements, ritual objects, and ritual activities as one finds in the Torah, and, in particular, this weeks parasha, T’rumah.
Not only is history replete with with examples of religions closely guarding secrets and mysteries (though the actual realities may be exaggerated, consider Freemasonry, for example) even future history, in the form of literature, especially science fiction, is also replete with examples where even science has, in some future time, become like magic to the people, and a priestly class closely controls and guards the secrets and mysteries.
To some extent, this has even happened in Judaism. The story of the oven of Akhnai (Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b)shows just how far the rabbis would go to assert their authority. In fact, I actually believe they usurped authority here-not from the Divine, but from the people. The story of the oven of Akhnai is linked with the Deuteronomic statement in Deut 30:12-14 of “lo bashamayim hi” – the Torah is not in heaven – meaning that understanding of the Torah (and by extension G”d’s covenant and laws) is not beyond the ability of any human.
In our own time, though the role of the rabbi is largely changed, except, perhaps, in parts of the traditional/orthodox/haredi community, the rabbi is still perceived by many as a holder of secret or arcane knowledge. Jews the world over abrogate their responsibilities and allow the rabbi (or the cantor, or the educator, or simply the more knowledgeable congregant) to become their surrogate or substitute.
Yet, if we examine what we read in T’rumah, along with Deut 30:12, I believe the rabbis usurped an authority that was never intended for them (despite their protestations that in the face if the diaspora it was necessary.) I believe the evidence is clear. Judaism was not intended to have secrets and mysteries (beyond the essential mystery that is G”d.) The Torah goes into intricate details of the construction of the mishkan/tabernacle and all it contains (and all that takes place inside it) precisely because it intends this knowledge to be available to all, and not kept secret.
Yes, the Torah provides for the creation of a priestly class (though, as I argued in another musing, just last year, for the next parasha, Tetzaveh) perhaps it was just a crumb thrown Aaron’s way by G”d at the behest of Moses.) However, the Kohanim and the Levites are not given knowledge that isn’t available to everyone. They are the carriers out and teachers of the rituals and the knowledge, but the knowledge is not theirs alone-it is available in the Torah for all who seek it. (An example: the Torah later tells priests how to know determine the seriousness of skin diseases. Yes, the priests are the ones who perform the examinations. But the criteria are right there in the Torah for all to know-and presumably, when appropriate-used to question the priest’s decision.)
Yes, later in our history both the priests and the rabbis (and later the mystics) sought to become the controllers of the ritual knowledge, and, to a great extent, succeeded.
Modern liberal Judaism has been fighting back to regain control from the rabbis, with a modicum of success. However, these efforts cannot and will not succeed as long as (in particular liberal) Jews continue to abdicate their responsibilities to learn all that the Torah has to say to them and teach them.
I’m not suggesting, by the way, that we don’t need rabbis, and that they are irrelevant (though, as it is often pointed out, one does not need a rabbi for a wedding, and other Jewish rites.) In the traditional community, rabbis continue to play a very important role. I may disagree with their interpretations, but I cannot pretend knowledge of our traditions to even a small fraction of their scholarship. They and their adherents may interpret Judaism as they please-as long as they don’t tell other Jews that theirs is the only way.
In the liberal community, rabbis serve many functions. They are part of the fabrics of Judaism as it exists today, and perform many important functions and roles. It is only their role as “surrogate Jew” that I seek to eliminate. (I suspect many of the rabbis I know would equally welcome a congregation full of members as knowledgeable as they themselves are-though I do know some who do relish a certain amount of the authority that greater knowledge gives them.)
So my charge to all of you this Shabbat is to do your part to become an informed, well-read, knowledgeable Jew. What you do, armed with that information, is up to you. Here is where liberal and traditional Judaism part company, to a great extent. That’s okay with me. On the other hand, I might suggest that the differences need not be so wide. Even the most liberal Jew would do well to study and understand the classic rabbinic interpretations that are found in the Talmud, commentaries and other writings of these great (and not so great) sages.
Whatever your understanding of the origin of Torah, it’s difficult to avoid the realities thrown in our face by this parasha (combined with Deut 30:12.) The Torah lays it all out for us because the Torah intends for us to know it. Don’t that power away through inaction, abdication, or assigning it to a surrogate. Torah is our Wikileaks. That power is the Torah’s t’rumah to you.
©2011 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha (on my web site:)
T'rumah 5770 - Finessing Idolatry, or Outgrowing It?
T'rumah 5769 - Planning for Always
T'rumah 5767-You Gotta Wanna - The Sequel
T'rumah 5766-No Tools Allowed
T'rumah 5765-Ish Al Akhiv
T'rumah 5764-Redux 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5763-Semper Paratus
T'rumah 5762-Virtual Reality or Real Virtuality?
T'rumah 5760-Doing It Gd's Way
T'rumah 5761-You Gotta Wanna
Index to all my musings from 1997-present on my web site: http://www.durlester.com/musings.htm