The sedra of Terumah describes the construction of the tabernacle, the first collective house of worship in the history of Israel. The first but not the last. It was eventually succeeded by the Temple in Jerusalem. I want to focus on one moment in Jewish history which represents Jewish spirituality at its very highest: the moment the Temple was destroyed.
It is hard to understand the depth of the crisis into which the destruction of the First Temple plunged the Jewish people. Their very existence was predicated on a relationship with G-d symbolised by the worship that took place daily in Jerusalem. With the Babylonian conquest, Jews lost not only their land and sovereignty. In losing the Temple it was as if they had lost hope itself. For their hope lay in G-d, and how could they turn to G-d if the very place where they served Him was in ruins? One document has left a vivid record of the mood of Jews at that time: Psalm 137, 'By the waters of Babylon we sat and wept as we remembered Zion . . . How can we sing the songs of the Lord in a strange land?'
It was then that an answer began to take shape. The Temple no longer stood, but its memory remained, and this was strong enough to bring Jews together in collective worship. In exile, in Babylon, Jews began to gather to expound Torah, articulate a collective hope of return, and recall the Temple and its service.
The prophet Ezekiel was one of those who shaped a vision of return and restoration, and it is to him we owe the first oblique reference to a radically new institution that eventually became known as the Bet Knesset, the synagogue: 'This is what the sovereign Lord says: although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet I have become to them a small sanctuary [mikdash me'at] in the countries where they have gone' (Ezek. 11: 16). The central sanctuary had been destroyed, but a small echo, a miniature, remained.
The synagogue is one of the most remarkable examples of an itaruta de-letata, 'an awakening from below'. It came into being not through words spoken by G-d to Israel but by words spoken by Israel to G-d. There is no synagogue in Tenakh, no command to build local houses of prayer. To the contrary, insofar as the Torah speaks of a 'house of G-d' it refers to a central sanctuary, a collective focus for the worship of the people as a whole.
We tend to forget how profound the concept of a synagogue was. Professor M. Stern has written that 'in establishing the synagogue, Judaism created one of the greatest revolutions in the history of religion and society, for the synagogue was an entirely new environment for divine service, of a type unknown anywhere before'. It became, according to Salo Baron, the institution through which the exilic community 'completely shifted the emphasis from the place of worship, the sanctuary, to the gathering of worshippers, the congregation, assembled at any time and any place in G-d's wide world'. The synagogue became Jerusalem in exile, the home of the Jewish heart. It is the ultimate expression of monotheism - that wherever we gather to turn our hearts towards heaven, there the Divine presence can be found, for G-d is everywhere.
Where did it come from, this world-changing idea? It did not come from the Temple, but rather from the much earlier institution described in this week's sedra: the Tabernacle. Its essence was that it was portable, made up of beams and hangings that could be dismantled and carried by the Levites as the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness. The Tabernacle, a temporary structure, turned out to have permanent influence, whereas the Temple, intended to be permanent, proved to be temporary - until, as we pray daily, it is rebuilt.
More significant than the physical structure of the tabernacle was its metaphysical structure. The very idea that one can build a home for G-d seems absurd. It was all too easy to understand the concept of sacred space in a polytheistic worldview. The gods were half- human. They had places where they could be encountered. Monotheism tore up this idea at its roots, nowhere more eloquently than in Psalm 139:
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Where can I flee from Your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, You are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, You are there.
Hence the question asked by Israel's wisest King, Solomon:
But will G-d really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! (I Kings 8: 27)
The same question is posed in the name of G-d by one of Israel's greatest prophets, Isaiah:
Heaven is My throne,
and the earth is My footstool.
Where is the house you will build for Me?
Where will My resting place be? (Is. 66: 1)
The very concept of making a home in finite space for an infinite presence seems a contradiction in terms.
The answer, still astonishing in its profundity, is contained at the beginning of this week's sedra:
They shall make a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell in them [betocham]".
The Jewish mystics pointed out the linguistic strangeness of this sentence. It should have said, 'I will dwell in it', not 'I will dwell in them'. The answer is that the Divine presence lives not in a building but in its builders; not in a physical place but in the human heart. The sanctuary was not a place in which the objective existence of G-d was somehow more concentrated than elsewhere. Rather, it was a place whose holiness had the effect of opening the hearts of those who stood there to the One worshipped there. G-d exists everywhere, but not everywhere do we feel the presence of G-d in the same way. The essence of 'the holy' is that it is a place where we set aside all human 'devices and desires' and enter a domain wholly set aside to G-d.
If the concept of the mishkan, the Tabernacle, is that G-d lives in the human heart whenever it opens itself unreservedly to heaven, then its physical location is irrelevant. Thus the way was open, seven centuries later, to the synagogue: the supreme statement of the idea that if G-d is everywhere, He can be reached anywhere. I find it moving that the frail structure described in this week's sedra became the inspiration of an institution that, more than any other, kept the Jewish people alive through almost 2000 years of dispersion - the longest of all journeys through the wilderness.
It is time for Britons to pitch their tabernacle
CREDO - THE TIMES
THERE has been much debate in recent months about Britain as a multicultural society. The head of the Commission for Racial Equality has argued that we have gone too far. We need now to reaffirm a national identity -inclusive of all groups, to be sure, but British, not just a cacophony of different voices. He is right.
Our once monochrome society has been hugely enriched by Britain's new religious and ethnic minorities: Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian and Baha'i. Most of them want nothing more than to integrate into British society.
That is why they came here. But what are they supposed to integrate into? A culture of moral relativism and disrespect for traditions of all kinds? How are they to admire Britain's institutions -politicians, Parliament, the Royal Family, the established Church -when they see them treated with disdain by the British media? How can you love a society that has fallen out of love with itself?
My parents wanted to be British. They wanted us to absorb British values and make them our own. Jews sought to contribute to British society -and they did. That did not mean they wanted no longer to be Jewish. Quite the contrary. Indeed, the greatness of Britain in those days was that it was not an either/or choice.
Already in 1884 The Times published a leader in praise of the great Victorian-Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore. It ended by noting that he had shown that "fervent Judaism and patriotic citizenship are absolutely compatible with one another".
Victorian Britain, seen today as a bastion of high-minded hypocrisy, was actually open to outsiders. Those who know who they are, welcome the stranger. Those who don't, become insular and insecure. "Love your neighbour as yourself" presupposes that you love yourself. If you don't, you won't love others either.
The Bible is eloquent on the subject -36 times the Mosaic books command us to love the stranger. At the same time, Moses endlessly instructs his people never to forget their history. That is what we do on Passover and in all our prayers. We endlessly remind ourselves of who we are and why. Identity is like a home. If you feel safe, you offer hospitality to others. If you are afraid, you keep the doors locked. Only a confident society is an inclusive society.
Moses was faced with a problem not unlike ours. How do you turn a group of people -in his case, liberated slaves -into a nation with a collective identity? His answer -G-d's answer -was dazzling in its brilliance. You get them to build something together. What they built was the Tabernacle, a portable sanctuary.
Normally when we read this story (told in the book of Exodus) we think of its religious dimension: how you build a home for G-d. But it also has a political dimension. It is about how you create a sense of national belonging. The best way of making people feel "I belong" is to enlist them in a shared project so they can say: "I helped build this".
The Tabernacle is a symbol of society, made out of the contributions of many individuals. What they gave was unimportant; that they gave was essential. Society is what we build together -and the more different types of people there are, the more complex and beautiful will be the structure we create. A national culture can grow without losing its identity, just as an ancient building -Windsor Castle, for example -can be enlarged by additions made in different ages, different styles. It changes, but stays the same. It is always Windsor Castle -not a supermarket or an office block.
The important thing is that we build together. A nation is made by contributions, not claims; active citizenship, not rights; what we give, not what we demand.
Britain can become a country in which many ethnic minorities feel at home - without making Middle England feel that they no longer recognise the place where they were born. A national identity can be made out of the contributions of many cultures, many faiths. What matters is that together we build something none of us could make alone.