- Sufis in the Hasidic Mishkan
Alongside the considerable place devoted to sacred space in Jewish traditional sources, one might detect also a questioning voice concerning the very idea of the mishkan (Tabernacle)—and in its wake, also of the Temple in Jerusalem. In his prayer at the dedication of the Temple, Solomon himself is reported as having asked, “But will God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens to their uttermost reaches cannot contain You, how much less this House that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). A midrashic passage has Moses ask the same basic question when commanded to build the Tabernacle, a question to which God responds simply with instructions about placing a number of boards in various directions so that God might then contract the divine presence to dwell in that space.1 Another midrashic passage raises the same apparent paradox of constructing a dwelling-place for God, whose presence is everywhere—evoking a resolution in the form of an analogy likening the Tent of Meeting to a cavern near the shore of the sea into which water rushes, while the amount of water in the entirety of the sea is in no way diminished.2
Implicit questions concerning the Tabernacle might be overheard also in the suggestion, voiced in a number of texts, that the command to erect the Tabernacle was occasioned by the sin of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32–33), even though in the text of the Torah that episode appears following the initial command to build the Tabernacle. A passage in Midrash Tanḥuma specifies that the command to build a Tabernacle was given on the tenth of Tishrei (along with the command to observe that day, Yom Kippur, each year as a day of seeking forgiveness), for on that day, God forgave the Israelites after the incident of the Golden Calf.3 A similar statement appears [End Page 110] in Seder Olam Rabbah,4 and a passage in Midrash Aggadah artistically delineates a series of correspondences between making the Golden Calf and the building of the Tabernacle.5 Together, those texts infer that if not for the Golden Calf episode, the command to build the Tabernacle would never have been given. In addition, some sources go even further, suggesting that the very idea of constructing a Tabernacle originated not with a divine command but with a request on the part of the Israelites themselves, either as an empirical sign of divine forgiveness or as insignia for their Sovereign as other peoples have.6
The rich and edifying body of interpretation of the biblical Tabernacle found in an array of post-biblical traditional texts might itself suggest that, over time, the very concept of sacred space had become somewhat problematic and called for creative embellishment. Was God’s desire to dwell in the lower world fulfilled in the building of the Tabernacle?7 And could the physical structure of the Tabernacle serve, in any other than a purely symbolic sense, as a dwelling-place for the divine presence? It has been suggested that the Book of Deuteronomy, with its recurrent reference to the single valid place for cultic worship as “the place where God causes the divine Name to dwell,” represents a more abstract retreat from the earlier, simpler conception of the Divine as actually dwelling in the Tabernacle.8 And in light of our own knowledge of the ancient Near East, we might ask: are the many chapters and verses in the Torah relating to the Tabernacle merely a purified reflection of ancient practices and conceptions ultimately rooted in pagan culture and its assumption that every god or goddess requires his or her own temple?9
Out of considerations perhaps not that remote from our own, the early Hasidic masters also wrestled in their own way with the very concept of the mishkan as a physical structure.
With the premise that just as God transcends time, so too the mizvot emanating from God must likewise pertain to all time (past, present, and future), and must furthermore address every single individual, Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, who authored the first printed Hasidic book, posed questions concerning the meaning of the...