Bodies and Communities

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April 1, 2009
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Stephen Hazan Arnoff

Apassage from Midrash Tanhuma makes a compelling case for understanding the essence of Jewish community through the lens of one of our tradition’s central teachings — that human beings are created in the image of God, b’tzelem Elokim: The tabernacle is equal to the entire world; [and it is] also equal to the creation of a human being which is itself a smaller version of the world. What does this mean? When the Holy One Blessed Be God created His world, God created it just like a woman creates her baby — starting from the belly button and everything grows from here and there on four sides; so too did the Holy One Blessed Be God create the world from the foundation stone of the Temple first, and from this emerged the world. And why is it called the foundation stone? Because from it the Holy One began to create His world.

As described in the Bible, the mishkan, or tabernacle, is akin to a theater-in-the-round, exposed on all sides to the community that lives amongst it. Part of the resonance and complexity of the tabernacle that Tanhuma teases out is that the root of the Hebrew word for tabernacle, mishkan, shares its meaning not only with the word for God’s presence — shekhina — but also with that of the word for neighbor — shakhen. Quite literally, three key semantic elements of the Hebrew root s-kh-n enliven the complicated prototype for Jewish community and holiness grounding the Israelites in the desert.

Consider the mishkan as the world’s first Jewish Community Center, a JCC: Jewish by virtue of a covenant expressed in the hovering shekhina, God’s presence; Community in the tabernacle’s being fully exposed and open to every engaged shakhen, or neighbor, in the Israelite camp; and Center since the tabernacle serves as a hub — whether the community is stationary or in transit — for all life occurring around it.

If all of the Tanakh’s stories were unraveled into individual narrative threads, one of the easiest to follow would be the one describing the journey of humankind from creation in the image of God toward concretization of a divine mission — what the Book of Exodus 19:6 proclaims to be a “nation of priests.” From the individual callings and altars of the great figures of the Book of Genesis to the formalization of the mishkan in the desert to the establishment of the Temple — of which the mishkan is ground zero — the Bible is a story of how a people who are created with the raw stuff of the Divine understand their priestly mission, a communal expression of who the nation is at its core. Jewish history after the destruction of the Second Temple is in some sense a chain of attempts to embody the priestly calling in the institutions and systems of the nation when the priesthood can no longer play this central role.

Institutions truly reflective of the communities they serve can only meet their fullest potential when all participating, or not yet participating, see reflections of their own most intimate selves — body and being — within these institutions. Yet at the same time, in a manner paradoxical as great teachings must be, this reflection takes place in the literal center of the neighborhood, in an intensely public manner. A fully evolved Jewish community, modeled on the tabernacle, grounds itself in a vital circle with ineffable holy work at its center. In community, people see themselves simultaneously as individuals and as part of a whole; most important, each face that has gathered is empowered to be a reflection of the image of God.

A final thought: As the central holy place in what might be called the first Jewish community, the shared model of the human body and the tabernacle, created b’tzelem Elokim, ensures that both entities transcend concepts of being and permanence — always built and rebuilt and on the move. The tabernacle, constructed with basic physical materials, traveled with the Israelites modularly during the time in the desert. The raw materials of the human body replace themselves completely every seven years. Circulation of blood and water and the formation of bone and flesh are constant. Yet somehow, until death, the essence of the body as defined by the human name we give it remains the same. The body and the tabernacle are paradigmatic holy entities defined by the tension of being not only fully transient but also fixed and unique. Tradition hints that the ineffable complexity of this common tension reflects a thread of what it means to be created b’tzelem Elokim: in one place and all places, formed and formless, communal and individual — and embodying the image of God in every form.

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Stephen Hazan Arnoff is founding director of LABA: The National Laboratory for New Jewish Culture, and executive director of the 14th Street Y in New York, where LABA is housed.

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