Thursday, March 2, 2017

Does God need a House? - Torah portion Teruma

"House of YHVH" ostracon c. 800 BCE
The obvious answer to most modern religious believers is clearly an emphatic no, God does not need a house. In standard Jewish theological terms, God has no "needs." God is whole and perfect. Not only does God have no physical body to "reside" anywhere, but God is infinite, existing in all places at all times. In fact according to the Maimonidean school of thought, God is so ineffable that one cannot even speak about what God "is," only what God is "not."

And yet this Torah portion describes the plans for what sounds like an abode for God, the Mishkan or mobile sanctuary. The purpose of the Mishkan is stated explicitly at the start of the instruction:
"Make for me a sanctuary, and I will dwell among them." (Ex 25:8)
And again toward the end of the instruction:
"And there I will meet with the children of Israel, and [the Mishkan] will be sanctified by my glory... And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God." (Ex 29:43, 45)

So despite our notion of God being omnipresent, the Torah speaks of God "dwelling" with the Israelites, in and by way of the Mishkan. This sanctuary (whether the mobile Mishkan or permanent Temple in Jerusalem) is explicitly referred to as the "house of YHVH" three times in the Torah itself:
"The choicest first-fruits of your land you should bring [into] the house of YHVH your God; you should not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (Ex 23:19)

"The choicest first-fruits of your land you should bring [into] the house of YHVH your God; you should not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (Ex 34:26)

"You should not bring the wages of a harlot, or the price of a dog, [into] the house of YHVH your God for any vow..." (Deut 23:19)

(No, that wasn't a misprint. Exodus 23:15-19 and 34:18-26 are parallel passages, with certain parts repeated verbatim.)

All told, the phrase "house of YHVH" occurs over 100 times in the Bible, including in several often-recited verses in Psalms:
אַחַת שָׁאַלְתִּי מֵאֵת יְ-הוָה אוֹתָהּ אֲבַקֵּשׁ שִׁבְתִּי בְּבֵית יְ-הוָה כָּל יְמֵי חַיַּי
"One [thing] I have asked from YHVH, which I will seek after - that I may dwell in the house of YHVH all the days of my life..." (Ps 27:4, L'David, said in Elul-Tishrei)
שְׁתוּלִים בְּבֵית יְ-הוָה בְּחַצְרוֹת אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ יַפְרִיחוּ
"Those who are planted in the house of YHVH, in the courtyards of our God, shall flourish." (Ps 92:13-14, Mizmor Shir of Shabbat)
נְדָרַי לַי-הוָה אֲשַׁלֵּם נֶגְדָה נָּא לְכָל עַמּוֹ. בְּחַצְרוֹת בֵּית יְ-הוָה בְּתוֹכֵכִי יְרוּשָׁלָ‍ִם הַלְלוּ יָ-הּ
"I will pay my vows to YHVH in the presence of all his people. In the courtyards of the house of YHVH, in the midst of Jerusalem, praise YH." (Ps 116:18-19, part of the Hallel prayer)

And of course the Temple Mount is known in Hebrew as Har Habayit, lit. "the Mountain of the House." Suffice it to say, whether or not God "needs" a house, the Temple is certainly referred to as God's house. What do we make of that?

I think the place to start is to recognize that modern-day or even Medieval Jewish theology does not necessarily express the same concept of God as understood by the ancient Israelites. First off, the Biblical God is anthropomorphized as having hands, arms, feet, face, eyes, nose, etc., as ascending and descending, walking and hovering, and as having emotions such as anger and regret. Also, there is Biblical and archaeological evidence that monolatry (worship of God while acknowledging the existence of other gods), and not strict monotheism as we understand it today, was a common or even dominant worldview in ancient Israel, at least at earlier stages. Which is not to cast aspersion on our Israelite forebears. They were simply affected by the world they inhabited, just as we are. In the same way, we have to understand the Torah's temple-orientation in the historical context that it was formulated.

All peoples in the Ancient Near East had gods. And gods all had their temples, their houses. In some cases, such as Beit Shemesh ("the house of Shemesh," the sun goddess), the sanctuary or house of the god became the place name proper. The temple and its proceedings were seen as a means of gaining favor in the eyes of the god, who if all went well would be persuaded to reside with the people and thus bestow them with blessings. Proper "care" of the gods required daily offerings. Did the god "need" these offerings? This is a bit of a supposition, but I would guess that if we took a poll of Ancient Near Eastern pagans, they would balk at the idea that their god would starve to death if not "fed," or would be suffering out in the cold if not "housed." But these things were necessary, again, in order to earn the presence and blessing of the god. The god is a sort of monarch, and the monarch must have a suitable abode, one which bespeaks their honor and power.

Such is the world that the Mishkan and Temple were created to function in. While Israelite temple ritual certainly had its own distinct "spin" to it, there was a great amount of overlap with neighboring cult practices. For one, the layout of the Israelite sanctuary, with its outer altar, antechamber and holy of holies, mirrored those of Canaanite and other adjacent cultures. Israelite burnt sacrifices and peace sacrifices would have been familiar to their neighbors. The Torah describes a fire from God "consuming" (i.e. eating) the sacrifice on the altar (Lev 9:24, Jud 6:21, 1 Ki 18:38 and others), about it being God's "food" (Lev 3:11, Num 28:24 and others), and the smell of the sacrifices being a "satisfying aroma" to God (Ex 29:18, Lev 23:13, Num 15:3 and others). This kind of language doesn't come out of theological treatises about God's infinite nature. It reflects a widespread expectation that your god must be fed and sheltered. To neglect to do so would have been a religious affront!

So even going back to ancient Israel, I would venture to guess that they did not believe that God "needed" a house. Rather, they needed God to have a house in order to do what was "proper" for one's God. What's more, they needed God to dwell among them and bestow upon them the blessings of fertility, crops, rain, success in their battles, and so on. And in the ancient world, that meant you needed to build God a fitting residence and offer God the choicest of your food. For Israel, it also meant behaving in a holy manner, following divinely-given instructions, and - importantly - not straying after other gods.

Of course, only part of that comports with the modern concept of God. We don't live in a world where God is expected to have a house or daily food offerings. Modern "houses of God" are not quasi-palaces with throne rooms where God the monarch is understood to reside, but rather places where people gather together to worship God. That is the standard model today.

But again, does God "need" worship? No, in theological terms, a singularly perfect and infinite God does not need anything. The tradition does however speak of the idea of God "desiring" the prayers of the righteous, and certainly Halacha mandates daily prayer, but ultimately the idea - just like the original concept of the Temple/Santuary - is that our prayer should benefit us.

We ceased living in a Temple culture some 2000 years ago. And some would say that in the post-Enlightenment age of increasing secularization and orientation toward science and technology, the prayer/worship culture is also on its way out. People are discovering alternative modes of spiritual expression and community building that speak to their modern individual needs and aspirations. Where does that leave prayer and shul? I think it's much like a great deal of Judaism today. Practices that when  originally instituted were more natural and intuitive, reflecting the wider society and where people's general mindset was at the time, don't necessarily "cease to exist" just because we've changed. Instead, these practices become even more "Jewish." They turn into rituals which make us religiously and culturally distinct, and as such they function to bolster our religious continuity and identity. Prayer and shul are like lighting Hanukkah candles or holding a Passover Seder. They're "Jewish" things to do. Prayer in shul has its unique tempo, melodies, movements, and messages - like a series of slightly changing mini-musicals that we play out over the course of the day, the week, the year.

So I suppose the challenge for Judaism is to strike the right balance between ritual that we keep because it keeps us Jewish, and practices which speak authentically to our needs, which are truly relevant in ways that challenge us to grow and develop, and which inspire and reinvigorate our sense of national purpose. One could answer simply - let the Jewish stuff be Jewish, and let everything else be the "extracurriculars" we engage in. The risk there is that participating in Judaism because it fosters Jewish continuity, or because we enjoy the familiar cultural Jewish "shtick," or even because we "have to," is not as compelling as taking part in an activity because it's understood as having inherent value, because it's something we would want to do anyway. So we'd probably be better served if we managed to inject more authenticity, in the modern, 21st Century sense, into our Jewish practice. What and how? That's another question!

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