EXCERPT: Thinking About the Torah

The following excerpt comes from Thinking About the Torah: A Philospher Reads the Bible by Kenneth Seeskin (Jewish Publication Society, 2016).

From Chapter 6: The Need For Community


No magical formula dictates how much statutory law is too much and how much is too little. There will always be people who insist that religious life is not authentic unless it goes into meticulous detail about how to live and people who think that it is not authentic unless it retains a degree of spontaneity. By the same token, there will always be people who find transcendent value in magnificent works of art and people who ask why the money to make them was not used to feed the poor. What helps one person turn to God may induce another to turn away from God.

The difficulty of the question “How much is too much?” is represented in the Torah by the juxtaposition of the design of the Tabernacle with the story of the Golden Calf. According to the narrative, while Moses is on the mountain hearing about the gold that will go into the Tabernacle, the people below have begun to make an idol out of gold, and they ask Aaron to preside over a ceremony at which they will bow down to that idol. If one represents the zenith of communal responsibility, the other represents the nadir.

Following Rabbinic sources, Rashi argues that the order of the narrative is the opposite of that the story suggests.15 According to him, the instructions for the Tabernacle were given on Yom Kippur after the people were forgiven for the sin of the Golden Calf. One advantage of this reading is that it allows us to see the Tabernacle as a concession, as if God were to say: “If, unlike Moses and the patriarchs, you insist on having a tangible symbol of My presence, I will give you one where the priests can worship in an approved manner.” Still, the similarity between the Tabernacle and the Golden Calf and the fact that Aaron, the High Priest, plays an important role in both contexts cannot be ignored.

Nor can the problems created by lavish building projects. Solomon used forced labor, including forced Israelite labor (1 Kings 5:13–14), to build his Temple—exactly what made people cry out against Pharaoh. Unlike Moses, who had Bezalel, Solomon relied on foreign (i.e., pagan) help to supervise the work (1 Kings 7:13). The tax burden needed to buy the materials and pay the craftsmen was not distributed evenly, which may have led to the breakup of the kingdom after his death. Isaiah’s claim that God is fed up with burnt offerings, incense, and festivals is echoed by both Amos (5:21–22) and Micah (6:6–8). Finally, Hosea (6:6) tells us in no uncertain terms that God desires mercy (chesed), a moral virtue, not animal sacrifice.


We should be careful not to misinterpret these passages. It is not that the Prophets were calling for the destruction of the Temple or the abolition of the priestly cult. Rather, they thought worship had become perfunctory and that the people had lost sight of its real purpose. The reason is not hard to discern. It is easier to sacrifice an animal, burn incense, and celebrate a festival than it is to treat people in a merciful or humane manner. If the latter requires a change of heart, the former requires nothing but an outward show of piety.

How do you get someone to undergo a change of heart? Exodus 25 teaches us several things. First, the people needed to feel that God was among them. If they abandoned monotheism during the Egyptian captivity, it might be because they had begun to doubt that this was so. By the time of Exodus 25, they still did not have a homeland. The Tabernacle was intended to serve as a symbol that God had not forsaken them and would dwell among them as they reached their final destination.

Second, they needed to develop responsibility for themselves as a people. Having been liberated from slavery, they were now asked to embark on a community project. Although not everyone was able to enter the Tabernacle, everyone was able to contribute something to its construction and take pride in what was accomplished—a structure fit for the supreme ruler of the universe. This would not have been possible if the Tabernacle had been made of tin.

Third, they needed something that established a boundary between the sacred and the profane. The Sabbath is holy because it is set apart from the other six days of the week. Israel is supposed to be holy because it is separate from the other nations of the earth. Likewise, the Tabernacle was to demarcate a special place where God could speak to Moses and divinely ordained rituals could be performed.

Is this enough? We know that the answer is negative, because in the ensuing chapters, the people continue to provoke God, lose confidence in his saving power, and quarrel among themselves. Eventually, God becomes so annoyed with them that they are forced to wander in the desert until a new generation takes their place.16 As the Prophets indicate, even the Promised Land and Solomon’s Temple are not sufficient to solve the problem. Nor for that matter are the Vatican, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Hagia Sophia, or any other house of worship. Houses of worship can excite, inspire, and instill pride, but in the end, the effect they have on people is only as good as the people who worship in them.

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