We Are the Cherubim (Parashat Terumah)

The author discusses the detailed gift requests from God, which will be used to construct the mishkan (Holy Tabernacle). Like the different gifts God requests, queer Jews are varied and diverse. She also describes the cherubim on the mishkan and argues that these figures seem to describe the form and function of queer Jews. Lastly, she argues that like the mishkan, LGBTQ Jews are also going in and coming out along the journey.

February 27, 2009

By Karen Lee Erlichman

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Parashat Terumah
We Are the Cherubim
by Karen Erlichman Tutu on Friday February 27, 2009
3 Adar 5769
Exodus 25:1 – 27:19


A Queer Way to the Divine: Accessorize!

This is how Parashat Terumah begins, with Adonai advising Moses about the creation of the mishkan, the sanctuary (sometimes translated as “tabernacle”):

Daber el-b’nai Yisrael va’yik’chu-li t’rumah may’ayt kol-ish asher yid’vanu libo tik’chu et t’rumati.

Tell the Israelites to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for me from every person whose heart so moves them. (Exodus 25:2)

The statement is clear: every person without exception may bring a gift; however, in a typical Biblical paradox, the text goes on to spell out the limits on what you can bring. The gifts will be used to construct the mishkan.

The text rolls out God’s gift registry, detailing all the way down to the exact color, quantity, and where to find it. God wants fabulous, luxurious colors and precious metals, exquisite fabrics and radiant gemstones. Is it just me or do the Divine’s tastes run toward the queer end of the spectrum?

But just like that Godly gift registry, queer Jews are also a varied collection of Divine Sparkly Bits. Our diversity includes a variety of genders and sexual preferences, and that’s not all! We are racially, ethnically, nationally and culturally fabulous as well—as richly, luxuriously, Jewishly different as the colors in a palette of designer eye shadow. We are as complicated to assemble as the mishkan. But as Jews, we have an instruction manual. As progressive Jews, we understand those instruction to be written in the language of our hearts. We are invited to metaphorically interpret the Torah’s guidance in this parasha to find the queer parts of the mishkan.

I am a high femme dyke, an accessory queen, a lipstick lesbian long before the term even existed in the queer lexicon. I have a longstanding love affair with the details of presentation and ritual. So I have a particular fondness for Parashat Terumah, a magical mahogany treasure chest filled to the brim with sacred accessories that-only when accompanied by the right outfit, of course-invoke into our midst the presence of the Shechinah. I’ve always maintained that proper accessorizing is the route to the Divine. Now I have my proof! What else could hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the mitzvah) possibly mean?

In a similar way the mishkan has its accessories, its component pieces, its ‘identities’: there is Ohel al ha’mishkan, the tent over the Tabernacle, the Aron ha Kodesh (the Ark), as well as the beloved keruvim (cherubim) who have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover of the mishkan. Taken together, these things describe and embody a system of holiness-making through which b’nei Israel participates in the Divine creation of Her own sanctity. As queer interpreters of this tradition of holiness making, where can we find ourselves?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, has written a beautiful commentary on this parasha:

As Shabbat is to time, so the Tabernacle was to space: kadosh, holy, set apart, G-d’s domain.

The holy is the metaphysical arena where heaven and earth meet.

Each building block of the mishkan is viewed by traditional commentators on this text as Divine in its own right, blessed by the Source of All, and each part fits together into the Holy Wholeness being Created. Each piece of the mishkan is also linked to the individual and the tribe who presented it as a gift to God. Just think: if one piece of the mishkan goes missing, the structure is no longer considered sacred. If one tiny accessory fails to serve its function, the mishkan, the house of God on Earth, cannot exist. Doesn’t this underscore our worth and value as uniqe queer voices serving a unique queer function in the world? (And could it be more clear? The Divine is reminding us to accessorize!)

The Queer Cherubim and their Role in Generating Holiness

Now I want to concentrate on two passages. The first describes the cherubim and the space between them as the focal point where God most intimately meets Israel:

V’ha’u ha’keruvim p’r’shey ch’nafayim l’ma’lah soch’chim b’canfei’hem al-hakaporet u’f’nei’hem ish el achiv el-hakaporet yi’h’yu p’nei hakeruvim. V’natata et-ha’kaporet al-ha’aron mil’ma’a’la v’el-ha’Aron titeyn et-haedut asher etayn eylecha. V’noad’ti l’cha tham v’dibarti it’cha mey’al ha’kaporet mi’beyn sh’nay ha’keruvim asher al-Aron haEdut yet kol-asher azaveh ot’cha el-bnai Yisrael_ .

The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark, after depositing inside the ark the Pact which I will give you. There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.” (25:20-22)

As I contemplate all of this Divine Diversity, the Cherubim stand out. If the components of the mishkan are a symbolic representation of the children of Israel, who among us are the cherubim? The text is very specific about the cherubim in the mishkan. The root of the word keruvim means ‘to draw close’. Their wings extend, apparently to protect the tabernacle. They face toward one another—the text says they ‘confront one another’. They are identical beings rather than physical opposites. They reveal themselves in the world, but what they are remains concealed. In fact, the footnote to the Plaut translation says that they do not translate the word keruvim “because the figures do not represent the likeness of any known creature.” (p. 605)

To me, these figures seem to describe the form and function of queer Jews. The truth of our reality is beyond simple translation, like the word kerubim. We draw close to face one another in our similarity, and love what we find there. Our truths are enclosed at times behind a curtain that we call a closet; and our wings extend to protect the truth that is in our Holy of Holies, our Center, the Torah of our lives. Perhaps we queer Jews are contemporary cherubim.

The second passage I found interesting in this week’s parasha talks about coverings and curtains that separate what is holy from what is most holy.

V’natata et-haparochet tachat ha’k’rasim v’heyveyta shama mibeyt la’parochet et Aron haEdut v’hivdilah haparochet la’chem beyn haKodesh u’vayn Kodesh ha’K’doshim .

Hang the curtain under the clasps, and carry the Ark of Witness(Aron ha’Edut) there, behind the curtain, so that the curtain shall serve you as a partition between the Holy and the Holy of Holies. You shall place the kaporet on the aron ha-eidut, in the Holy of Holies. (Exodus 26:33)

Our boundaries of separation and difference are actually the very same things that signify, sanctify and unify us. As a high femme lesbian, I am related by those identifications to other femmes, to other lesbians, and to queers and non-queers and to all beings. My identities shape me like a puzzle piece, interlocking with every other puzzle piece that moves into my domain. My identities allow me to see myself in holistic slow-motion: an individual part of an ever- changing Whole.

That which covers and protects us is as important as what is inside, hence the significance of the “cover” and the “curtain.” The text moves on to instruct Moses to “couple the cloths to one another with the clasps, so that the Mishkan becomes one/whole/oneness” (Mishkan Echad) (Exodus 26:6).

What is it that clasps or binds us into Oneness as queer Jews? How do we couple?

Repeatedly the text reminds of God’s presence in and among us, and about the boundaries between the different items and locations within the mishkan, such as the kaporet, which covers the aron (ark) and is also an entirely independent component of the mishkan itself. Later in the parasha, when the parochet (curtain) is described, it too is described as a distinct element in its own right, yet serving the important function of holding the space ( boundary) bwteen the Kadosh and K’dosh haK’doshim (the holy and the holy of holies).

Like the mishkan, LGBTQ Jews are also going in and coming out along the journey. And we also call ourselves by many names: the Tent of Meeting, Ohel Moed, the Ark of Witness, of testimony, trannyfag, gay, boidyke, lesbian, genderqueer and many more. Underlying those names is a deeply felt covenant of Oneness and queerness that is held in a recurring tension of generational and political change.

I was unable to suppress a giggle while reading about what appears to be a particularly intimate encounter between the Divine and the mishkan in verse six of chapter 26 (above). If these parts of the mishkan are bodies, then this intimate meeting is Sacred Sex! To paraphrase:

The Ark of Covenant is placed within the K’dosh haK’doshim, the deepest place within the mishkan. The line begins with “V’nata’ta el ha’aron yet ha’edut,” and v’nata’ta is translated in Plaut edition as “deposit” but it can also be translated as ‘divinely given.’ So all of this work to shape these beautiful accessories, to form them and build them and present them in all their finery before God, has been undertaken to prepare the mishkan, to prepare the body of the People of Israel, for its sexual encounter with God. How do we prepare our queer bodies for the sacred ritual of sex?

Parashat Terumah offers a blueprint for honoring the gifts that each body brings, and consecrating the diversity of all community members. May we as queer Jews claim the mishkan as a story and a spiritual practice that reflects the Divine diversity of Jewish bodies in our own lives. May we reveal our true cherubic selves to one another, honoring that which covers and separates us in the paradox of divine Oneness.

Sources: www.chiefrabbi.org The Torah: A Modern Commentary, by W. Gunther Plaut. URJ Press.