Friday, February 01, 2008

Cherub: American Idol/ Israelite Foundation

In this week's parasha (portion) for liturgical reading of the Torah, Terumah, we learn about the construction of the Mishkan [the Tabernacle] and its furniture. One of the striking features is the ark (aron) and, especially, its decoration:

[the ark and its cherubs - a modern interpretation. Bookplate by E. M. Lilien]

Exodus 25:18-20 And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover. 19 Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. 20 The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, And the cherubim shall stretch forth their wings on high, covering the mercy-seat with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; towards the mercy-seat shall the faces of the cherubim be.

Every year we read about these golden cherubim (that's Hebrew plural - cherubs), virtually unique examples of statuary art in the otherwise aniconic tradition of ancient Israel (these and the bronze snake), and every year one of my shocked congregants will ask me, "Isn't that an idol?"

It's a great question, quite logical really, but the answer is - no. Why not? For the same reason that circumcision is not a violation of the Deuteronomic prohibition against making permanent marks on the body (people worry about that seeming contradiction also) - - if God tells us to specifically do these things in the face of other commandments, that simply makes them exceptions rather than violations.

Virtually all seemingly absolute rules have their exceptions: despite the garaunteed and seemingly unfettered freedom of speech vouchsafed us in the bill of rights, we are not free (legally) to speak or print knowingly print defamatory falsehoods (slander/libel). The law makes express exception for those types of speech. Despite the prohibition against murder, every human society makes an exception for homicide committed as part of lawful combat. Likewise, cherubs and circumcision are God's specific exceptions to otherwise blanket prohibitions.

So what were these cherubs? Well, they're not gods, they're part of the divine retinue, maybe even part of God's throne:

Psalm 99:1 The Eternal reigns, let the peoples tremble; He is enthroned above the cherubim, let the earth shake!

Based on the description found in Exodus, we construe that they actually constituted a representation of God's "throne" in the inner sanctum of His house (the Temple). This indeed feels very literal to us, perhaps too much so - even if the statuary cherubs were not idols, does this mean God has a tushie?

Not to worry (too much - if we didn't worry we wouldn't be Jewish). Later tradition takes the cherubim on the ark to be more metaphor than model. For example, the Talmud teaches the cherubs symbolized the cosmic reality of divine love upon which the world stands and is sustained:

Rav Katina said, ‘When the Israelites would ascend (to the Holy Temple) on the Festival, the Priests would roll up the curtain for them, and display for them the cherubs, who were intertwined. The Priests would then tell them, ‘Behold, the beloved feelings for you on the part of the Omni Present. Are like the beloved feelings of a male for a female’”(BT Yoma 54a).

God created all things male and female (Baba Batra 74a). The Sages thought this bi-sexual structure to life is the foundation of creation, the great essence and secret of life. The cherubs are zoomorphic (they probably didn't actually look like humanoid angels in the First Temple, they were kind of sphinx-like hybrid creatures) symbols for that secret.

By contrast, in Kedushat Levi, a Hasidic commentary, the Cherubs signify something equally fundamental as love or bi-sexuality, but even more abstract: the two-fold reality of God as the All and No-thing. What the heck does that mean? Hang tight, we'll do an extended reading of Kedushat Levi on Bereshit to make sense of that paradox.

Zal g'mor - to own the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050


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