Why did God command the People of Israel to build a Mishkan? The answer seems obvious: “They shall build Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst” (Shemot, 25:8). The Mishkan, from the root sh’k’n, to dwell, was to be a place where mere mortals could feel God’s actual presence, a place in which God could dwell in the physical realm.
Logically, this should not be possible. How can an infinite and transcendent God inhabit a physical space? The very reality of the Mishkan,the very purpose it purports to serve, is a religious absurdity and, thus, also a religious wonder. It is this absurdity and this wonder to which King Solomon gives such powerful voice in his dedication of the First Temple:
The Lord has said that He would dwell in a dark cloud; I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever… But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain You. How much less this temple I have built? (Melachim I, 8:12-13,27)
There is no way for God to dwell on the earth or for us to feel God’s actual presence, yet God allows it to happen for our sake. We are physical beings, and we cannot connect to something that is not part of our physical world. This is the attraction of idolatry: it allows for a physical, concrete image to represent God and thus provides a means of tactile connection.
The Torah recognizes this human need but forbids any physical representation of God as a corruption of God. The solution is to create a Mishkan,a physical abode, a structure in which we can worship and offer sacrifices and a place toward which we can direct our prayers. But this does not address the theological problem, for the significance of this place is that it is God’s abode. For God to dwell there, God must have some actual physical presence on Earth.
This theological paradox is not solved in Melachim; King Solomon states the impossibility and moves on. It is therefore not surprising that the Rabbis of the Talmud addressed the issue as well. Their first step in grappling with this problem was to introduce the idea of Shekhina, a word and concept not found in Tanakh. Like Mishkan, the word Shekhina derives from the verb to dwell, sh’k’n. Shekhina is not God but God’s presence. God cannot be present on earth but the Shekhina can. The concept of Shekhina is a paradox: it is God’s presence without God being present.
But for some the problem still remained, for how could even a manifestation of God be a part of our world? Perhaps it could not. Thus, in the Talmud we read:
Rabbi Yossi stated, Neither did the Shekhina ever descend to earth, nor did Moshe or Eliyahu ever ascend to Heaven as it is written, ‘The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth hath He given to the sons of men.’
But did not the Shekhina descend to earth? Is it not in fact written, And the Lord came down upon Mount Sinai? – That was above ten handbreadths (Sukkah 5a).
For Rabbi Yossi, even the Shekhina never truly dwelt in the Mishkan. It always remained above the earth, hovering on top of the Ark but never entering into the human sphere. This should be understood not just physically and geographically but theologically as well. The gulf between the human and the divine is ultimately unbridgeable. No matter how great the human being, she will never escape her corporeal bounded-ness and rise above her physical reality. And although God descended upon Mount Sinai and God’s presence dwelled in the Mishkan, God, infinite and divine, can never truly be present in our physical reality.
Not everyone agreed with Rabbi Yossi. The anonymous voice of the Talmud and other passages reflect the belief that Moshe did in fact ascend to heaven and that God did in fact descend to earth. In this view, points of contact are indeed possible. In other words, in the Creation of Adam, should Michelangelo have painted God’s and Adam’s fingers touching rather than leaving an unbridgeable gap between the two?
This debate has continued for centuries. In many ways it is a debate between rationalists and mystics or the mystically inclined. For the Kabbalists, contact was possible. One could enter into an ecstatic state and rise up into the supernal realms. More significantly, God was present in this world. Not only could one encounter God in the physical world, but the very performance of the mitzvot, done with the right intentions, could bring about the unification of the sephirot and shape God’s nature. Rationalists like Maimonides would have none of this. For Maimonides, the Torah’s use of human language and qualities may have been necessary to describe God, but this was already a major concession in relating to the divine. The idea that God could be anything but wholly transcendent was anathema to him.
Think about the question of God in nature. For a Kabbalist like Ramban, the laws of nature do not exist. God “renews every day the acts of creation” (commentary on Shemot,13:16). In contrast, Rambam states that the entire natural order – including miracles – was preprogrammed, and he devotes a large section of the Guide to rejecting the position that nature is constantly renewed (Guide for the Perplexed, II, 29). Ramban sees God in nature by seeing God’s constant activity; Rambam does not see God in nature but is in awe of God’s wisdom and of how God set everything in motion (Laws of Foundations of the Torah, 4:12). For Rambam, God remains ultimately transcendent.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that Ramban and Rambam disagree as to the purpose of the Mishkan. Ramban understands the verses literally: the Mishkan is the place for God’s presence to dwell. At its center is the Ark, upon which the Shekhina rests and where Moshe encounters God and hears God’s word (commentary on Shemot, 25:1). Rambam frames things differently: “It is a positive commandment to construct a House for God, prepared for sacrifices to be offered within, and to celebrate there three times a year, as it states: ‘And you shall make Me a sanctuary'” (Laws of the Chosen House, 1:1). Notice that he talks only about the practical functions of the Temple: it is a place for sacrifices and a place to which the people can make festivals of pilgrimage. There is no sense that this House is in any way an actual dwelling place for the Divine presence. Notice, too, how Rambam significantly truncates the verse from our parasha, quoting the first part, “You shall make Me a sanctuary,” but dropping the last, “that I may dwell therein”!
This also explains the debate between Rambam and Ramban regarding prayer. For Rambam, there is a Biblical mitzvah to pray daily, while for Ramban, prayer is a religious experience but not a commanded obligation (Rambam, Positive Mitzvot, 5). If God is wholly transcendent, as Rambam understood, then an obligation to pray – a duty to recognize God and our dependency on God on a daily basis – makes sense. But as a religious experience this makes less sense: What type of connection could be achieved with a fully transcendent God? On the other hand, if God truly dwells in this world as Ramban understood, then the religious person attuned to God’s presence would be inwardly compelled to reach out and forge a connection. This is a self-propelled, intrinsically valuable religious experience which need not be commanded and which is lessened when it is the result of an external obligation. The religious person prays to God because she has the opportunity to do so, not because she has the duty to do so.
We must acknowledge that both types of people exist within a community. There are those who are more religious, more spiritual, who feel and connect to a sense of God’s presence in this world. And there are those who are less religiously inclined but who can relate to a transcendent God through a sense of commanded-ness and duty. But then there are also those for whom God is not a felt, experiential reality and for whom a life of mitzvot is a lifestyle but not a religious duty. This is certainly less than ideal. Each of us needs to find a way to create a personal Mishkan that is true to who we are, a Mishkan that allows, one way or another, for God to dwell in our midst.