Sacred Spaces: The Tabernacle Women’s Work and the Body as Sanctuary (Parashat Naso)

The author asks, what does it mean to create holy space? One point of creating physical sacred spaces is to help our bodies and minds to become sacred spaces themselves. The importance of creating mental and physical spaces is familiar to many queer folk.

June 6, 2008

By Ri J. Turner

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Parashat Naso
Sacred Spaces: The Tabernacle, Women’s Work, and the Body as Sanctuary
by Ri Turner on Friday June 06, 2008
3 Sivan 5768
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

In Numbers 7, we read about the sanctification of the tabernacle (the Mishkan). Moses anoints the tabernacle and its components, and then the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel each bring offerings: silver, gold, incense, oxen, sheep, and goats. The offerings function as a dedication, after which the tabernacle is anointed again. Moses goes into the tabernacle, and the Divine speaks to him.

What does it mean to create a holy space? The Divine is not your dinner date—Ze won’t come over to your apartment just because that’s where you live. You can invite Zir in, but that doesn’t mean Ze is going to come. Those of us who pray or meditate regularly are familiar with this reality. Some days we enter into prayer and prayer enters into us—but sometimes prayer takes a day off, no matter how hard we try (or try not to try, or try not to try not to try—well, you get the picture). I find it helpful to meditate every day in the same place (these days, it’s leaning against my refrigerator), in the same position, under the same blanket, on the same beanbag chair. There’s something about that consistency that helps me find my way to a deeper place. In my meditation community, Art of Living, which has roots in the Vedic traditions, we say that a room in which a sage has meditated carries a sacred energy. I’ve discovered that my meditation garb has become sacred: every time I wrap myself in my meditation shawl, I feel calmed, no matter where I am or what I’m doing. In Judaism there are similar ritual tools: some of us wear the prayer shawl for morning prayers, some of us wear tzitzit all the time, we pray in a synagogue, we engage in the ritual of mikvah. Spaces, garments, and rituals put us into a mental and physical place to receive the Divine.

In a sense, then, one point of creating physical sacred spaces is to help our bodies and minds to become sacred spaces themselves—dwelling places into which G-d may enter. (In Exodus 25:8, the Divine commands, “And let them make me a sanctuary; that I may dwell among them.”) As I learned to sing at hippie Jew gatherings (although the song itself is, I believe, taken from the Christian gospel tradition):

Oh Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true. And with thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for You.

Similarly, Rav Abraham Yitzhak Kook wrote, “Bilvavi mishkan evneh l’hadar k’vodo” (“In my heart I will build a Mishkan to glorify the glorious presence of G-d”).

The importance of creating mental and physical spaces is familiar to many queer/genderqueer folk. First, those of us who have faced various kinds of trauma and unsafety have learned to create corners of safety in our worlds. Growing up, I closed the door to my room and played music. I didn’t have a way of playing my own music until sixth grade, and when my sister and brother-in-law gave me their old double deck tape player, I couldn’t really believe it was for me. That second-hand piece of plastic and screws was so valuable to me, because it meant that I could create my own space just that much more effectively in a house in which I felt like I could never shrink quite small enough to be safe.

Second, those of us who have transgressed or thought about transgressing gender are very likely aware of the fact that in this culture as in many others, the task of taking care of spaces and bodies is generally “women’s work.” Growing up, I bled to see my mother cultivating our family space in ways that were both essential to our well-being and invisible to my father.

Dinner was home-cooked and fresh every night with only the best ingredients. Our house was surrounded by gardens and fruit trees. My mother fixed holes in our clothes and decorated our house with art. She even fixed toilets and hammered nails. My father yelled at her for spending money on these things, for feeding him too much and making him fat, for being too late with dinner, too slow to shop, too busy gardening when she should have been feeding him. I was caught in an excruciating dilemma. Not to help my mother was unthinkable. But to help her was to make her labor visible, which was to make my father face his dependence on her and his unfair treatment of her. This felt like betraying my father and put me in an emotionally untenable position. As a small child, my brother once yelled at me even for thanking my mother for her efforts.

As a result, I’ve had a conflicted relationship to the physical labor of creating space and taking care of bodies. I have resented my sense that as a female-bodied person, cultivating space was not a choice or even a talent—it was a given, and to shirk it was shameful and disgusting. Also, remembering my pain as a child around my mother’s silent ministrations, in a way, I’ve wanted to place myself as far as possible from those types of caretaking. But I have also wanted to honor my mother’s expertise by learning from her and carrying forward her recipes, her methods, her habits. It has been a challenge for me to find my own ways of celebrating the process of cooking, sewing, hosting events, and nourishing my own body and the bodies of others.

Third and finally, those of us who are genderqueer or transgender are very familiar with how important and difficult it is to create our bodies as sacred space—especially when our bodies, in all of their transgressive beauty, are often treated as dirty, diseased, or profane. We are perpetually in the process of exploring all the possible ways to present our bodies, responding to our own desires and identities, and also responding to the pressures and influences we receive externally. For the past few years, the years in which I have been engaged most deeply in this process, I have felt an almost constant sense of physical malaise—it is as if my very skin is constantly nauseous. Sometimes I can’t wait to get home and strip off my clothes and put on some other-gendered costume. One of the things that has helped me the most this year with this constant desire to jump out of my skin has been ritual fabric crafts. I made a quilt that consecrates my bed, and I made myself several garments that immediately make me feel safe when I put them on—patchwork bandanas, a coarse grey wool tweed tank top, a long-sleeved shirt made out of a rainbow fleece bedsheet that I got second-hand.

The divine is always within me—but just as the Israelites needed a physical sacred space to know that Ze was in their midst, I often need to use physical ritual and space cultivation to help me reconnect with Zir. That is one of the lessons of the story of the Mishkan—an action item, if you will. How can each of us use the physical tools that are granted to us by the wonder of our embodiment to help us more effectively connect with and spread the sacredness, peace, and creativity of the Breath of the Divine?