Smithing vs. Smelting: Liberal Religious Judaism

This is my Rabbinical Senior Sermon, which I delivered before the HUC-JIR community on Thursday, March 2, 2017, for parashat Terumah. You can watch the entire sermon at the link below (begins around 49:30).

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I believe in angels. The angels with wings, who can soar through the skies? I believe in them.

The angels who look out for us? Yes – those angels. I believe in them.

Let me explain.

Several years ago, on a flight from Montreal to Toronto, I felt a twisting pang in the depths of my stomach. It felt like the moment of terror when your chair tips back and you almost fall. My palms were sweating, heart beating furiously. The hair on my arms stood on end. I was having a panic attack.

It is difficult for me to describe just how destabilizing this moment was. I had never been afraid of flying. I was confused and hoped this was a random event.

It wasn’t.

Every time I buckled in for a flight, the familiar waves of dread rushed over my body. I felt a complete loss of control, as though my entire future was uncertain. When you feel this destabilized, when a perceived crisis careens your head and your heart out of sync, you desperately search for something to grasp on to.

I found some support in the biblical verses that accompany tefilat haderekh – the traveler’s prayer. Traditionally, they are repeated three times before departing on a journey.

When I hear the clicks and clangs of the plane door shutting, I pull out my iPhone and the screenshot I have saved of tefilat haderekh.

The plane taxis away from the gate and I utter this ancient mantra from Exodus: “Behold, I send an angel before you, to protect you on the way, and to bring you to the place I have prepared” (Ex. 23:30)

In my mind, I see a soaring creature speeding toward the plane. Each time I repeat these words, the celestial being gets closer and closer, until, spreading out its enormous wings, it envelops the 400 tonnes of steel and human bodies in its glowing presence.

This image protects me from my wild thoughts. I feel grateful for the direction that calms my rushing mind.

Now, I don’t literally believe in spiritual beings dispatched by God. I think God has more pressing things to do than support the weight of an airplane filled with my anxieties. But the symbolic imagery is powerful. It reminds me that my life is not completely random, and that I can open myself to divine blessings.

Angelic figures make a stunning appearance in this week’s parashah, Terumah. Terumah is all about God’s instructions to build the portable wilderness tabernacle – the mishkan – and its Aron Kodesh – the holy ark.

 עָשִׂ֥יתָ כַפֹּ֖רֶת זָהָ֣ב טָה֑וֹר…עָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב.
(For the ark), make a cover of pure gold… [and] make two k’ruvim of gold. (Ex. 25:17, 18)

These k’ruvim – the cherubs – have long seized the imagination of commentators and artists. What exactly are they?

To begin with, let us rid our minds of the chubby babies with bows and arrows of Valentine’s Day cards and Renaissance art. Most scholars agree that the creature envisioned by the Torah is probably a winged hybrid of a lion and a human. A sphinx.

God tells the Israelites to carve the k’ruvim out of a solid piece of gold. With enormous wings stretching out above their bodies to shield the aron kodesh, the k’ruvim turn toward each other from opposite ends of the aron. This creates a pulsating negative space between them, out of which God’s still, small voice will emerge. The gaze of the k’ruvim is turned down, as though they accept their sacred duty with a most profound humility.

Even though the Torah precisely details the materials, dimensions, and layout of the k’ruvim, it doesn’t tell us of their specific form.  Even more remarkable is the command to build statues in the mishkan in the first place! Doesn’t this contradict God’s fiery injunction: “You shall not make for yourself a sculpted image”!? (Ex. 20:4)

The paradox becomes even more enigmatic, since in just a few parshiyot, our ancestors will commit what comes to be viewed as that most heinous of sins – the construction of the Golden Calf. Why is one animal statue kosher and one not?

Both are emblems of mysterious golden beings. Both are the products of communal building projects. The Israelites offer the same sacrifices before the calf that they offer to our God in the mishkan.

The calf and the k’ruvim are virtually identical. Why is one lauded while the other so reviled?

I’d like to suggest that the answer can be found in the way these two icons are constructed. The medium is the message.

God’s instructions are quite specific: The k’ruvim are to be made of solid gold, hammered by hand – mikshah –  to God’s exact pattern. עָשִׂ֛יתָ שְׁנַ֥יִם כְּרֻבִ֖ים זָהָ֑ב מִקְשָׁה֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה אֹתָ֔ם.”(Ex. 25:18)

The Golden Calf, on the other hand, is a molten image – masekhah – cast in a fiery furnace that melts together the Israelite’s gold with no discrimination. (Ex. 32:4)

The difference between the two is a question of craftsmanship: of smithing versus smelting, of mikshah versus masekhah: two methods of construction with two vastly different visions.

One method – masekhah – is quick work, a response to a perceived crisis. I imagine the anxiety and pain our ancestors must have felt. Moses, their only physical connection to our invisible God, has disappeared into the clouds. Their panicked sense of uncertainty is manifest in the harried and hurried cooking up of this idol.

They are so desperate for leadership; so desperate for a sense of God’s presence; that they give up their most precious belongings. Melting away their history, they pour their golden heirlooms into the form of a calf. It is a reactionary, rash attempt to meet short-sighted needs.

The k’ruvim demand a vastly different method – mikshah. They will be built with gifts of the heart, slowly and deliberately, by the precise hand of a craftsperson. Moses learns of the careful eye and steady hand required to hammer out their complex details point by point.

But, the midrash imagines, Moses has difficulty with this vision. He fears that he will not be able to transmit the intricate instructions; that the building of God’s sacred place will fail. And so, God etches into Moses’ hand, an image; personally engraving a blueprint into his skin. The work of Moses’ hands is tattooed with Divine vision. (Based on Tanhuma Yashan Shmini 11)

The calf and the angels. Two approaches to living in relationship with God. Two ways to frame our religious vision.

I think one of the reasons that the Golden Calf was considered so odious is that it was built upon fear rather than hope.

While the k’ruvim symbolize a long-vision with eternal, cosmic significance,  the Golden Calf represents a rushed, reactive project that becomes associated with communal sin and failure.

I empathize with the Israelites and their anxiety that prompted the construction of the calf. I know what it feels like to lose a sense of control on a journey, to desperately search for any symbol that might offer protection from the turbulence. Our ancestors were in search of certainty, of a presence to guide and nurture them. Can we fault them?

Our community goes through its own kind of panic attacks as we look toward a turbulent future for Jews and Judaism. What will it hold? Innovation and creativity. But also a shocking resurgence of open hostility toward us in this country and around the world.

The breaking down of institutional barriers and cooperation across once rigid lines, yes. But also increasing ossification on Israeli and domestic politics.

It is a thrilling, confusing time to be a Jew.

In this climate, Jewish organizations strive to act like Moses with the k’ruvim: We do lengthy and expensive strategic planning. We hold visioning retreats. But then life happens: bomb threats at JCCs, a crisis in Israel, a new Pew Report. Suddenly, we turn from thoughtful smithing to hurried smelting. In these watershed moments, we seek the stability of quick responses.

To be sure, sobering recent events have shown us there is a need for our Judaism to be nimble.

Good leaders need to be proficient at smelting and smithing. But as liberal Jews, we tend to focus too much on the former, and not enough on the latter. We do well with the masekhah approach of the Calf. We are adept at responding to the calls of the world. We have a refined sense of the spiritual needs of the day. The very roots of our worldview are steeped in historical responsiveness. This is proudly who we are.

But we are particularly prone to acting hastily, as we persistently strive to make our Jewish practice resonate with the demands of the moment. We are constantly pressured to craft a shiny, polished Judaism that is palatable to the masses; that is inoffensive and unobtrusive.

We tend to be more reactive than deliberate. The enduring message of the calf/k’ruvim distinction teaches us the opposite: responsiveness should not come at the expense of vision.

We need sensitivity to the world alongside a proactive, eternal vision of something that is particularly ours.

What if one day, God willing, we solve the refugee crisis?

What if one day, God willing, we have engaged all the youth?

What if one day, God willing, we reach full hospitality toward all in our tent?

Then what?

Our hospitality and engagement are only worthy to the extent that we welcome others into a vision of something greater than what we currently are.

I don’t hear many Reform Movement leaders laying out a narrative or vision of liberal Judaism that moves beyond a response to pressing social concerns. I don’t hear many of our clergy speaking of what is religiously at stake to be a Jew today.

The Movement has a stated vision, but its buzzwords rely too much on a Golden Calf approach: “innovation while preserving tradition… diversity while asserting commonality.” Putting “values into action,” and “sacred acts” are upheld as praiseworthy, with little mention of what these guiding values are, or how they are manifest in sacred acts.

Surely, a vision of what it means to be Jewish in 2017 is more than innovation, diversity, hospitality, and commonality. These are attitudes – fundamentally important ones – but they do not encompass the breadth and depth of what it can mean to be a liberal Jew in 2017.

The question, then, is how do we – inheritors of Moses’ leadership, and invested with authority and privilege – how do we take Torah, take what is eternally true, and grow our responsiveness from a vision that radiates from it?

Isn’t our dedication to this question why we walk the halls of this very building, rather than those of a State Senate or Provincial Legislature?

The challenge confronting us is how to articulate a deeply held, sustainable vision, while also responding to urgent needs. This is not a challenge with a technical solution – there is no single change in technique which will sustain us.

What we need is a shift in how we think about the very nature of liberal religious Jewish leadership.

Our Judaism must have a blueprint to sustain us as we soar through the turbulent atmosphere of the next decade and beyond. Yes, we need our hearts to stir us toward action – אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ as our parasah teaches (Ex 25:2) – but what comes after our hearts move us? Because we can build the Golden Calf, or we can build the k’ruvim; both are heart-driven.

Are we to lead like the reactive populism of the Golden Calf, or like the proactive, visionary builders of the k’ruvim?

We need to be better at making kruvim. We need to be better at cultivating the skill of mikshah, the fine craft of imbuing the work of our hands with eternal vision.

“A liberal Judaism without that ability to say ‘this is the ideal we are striving for’ will be a Jewish life that fails to challenge, a Jewish life always looking to justify and sanctify” (Rabbi Leon Morris, Reform Judaism and the Challenge of Our Time)

The k’ruvim teach us the opposite: That we can building something much greater and grander than what we currently are. Something big, something demanding, but something toward which we can strive together. (Ibid.)

The k’ruvim are the culmination of a challenging, perhaps audacious, vision of precision and personal attention. And it is precisely this vision which enshrines God’s presence on earth.

Can we recapture this process?

It is slow work.

It is dedicated work.

It is hard work.

But from this visionary work, together, we can create the space for God’s still, small voice to speak once more.

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