Always Historicize

I want to share (belatedly) one of R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev’s comments on the torah portion that just passed; I study the Berditchever’s book, the Kedushas Levi, with my father every week.

The portion, Trumah, describes in great detail the plan for the desert sanctuary. For many readers, I think, this extended ekphrasis raises (at least) two problems: (1) Who cares about all these details? Why are they important? (2) This is not at all how we serve God. It’s alienating to feel that we are far removed religiously from our forebears. I think Levi Yitzchak has good answers to both questions. Below are the text, a loose translation, and a few comments.

‎ככל אשר אני מראה אותך את תבנית המשכן ואת תבנית כליו וכן תעשו (כה, ט). ופירש רש”י ‘וכן תעשו’ לדורות. ומקשה התוספות הלא לא היה שוה מזבח שעשה משה למזבח שעשה שלמה, וכן הקשה הרמב”ן. אך לפי דברינו הנ”ל ניחא, דכוונת הכתוב ‘וכן תעשו’ הוא המכוון לדבר אחר, דהנה באמת תבנית המשכן וכל כליו אשר הוכרח הכל להיות מצויר על נכון בגובה ובקומה ובמשקל ובמדה, וזה היה לבוש וציור לרוחניות הקדושה, וכפי הנבואה שראה משה בהר סיני וכל ישראל, וכפי שהמשיכו רוחניות הקדושה בעבדות שלהם, כך היה בערך זה צריך להיות הלבוש דהוא הכלי והמשכן עשוי כתבניתו. וידוע דברי חכמינו ז”ל (סנהדרין פט, א) דאין שני נביאים מתנבאים בסגנון אחד, רק כל אחד לפי בחינתו וכפי שעובד השם, באותו הבחינה עצמה נראה אליו רוח הנבואה. משום הכי משה ודור המדבר כפי ערך עבודתם ורוח נבואתם אשר השיגו בהר סיני, כך היו צריכין לעשות צורת המשכן ותבנית הכלים, אשר נעשים לבוש לאורות הרוחנים של הקדושה. ואם כן כך הוא פירוש הכתוב, ‘ככל אשר אני מראה אותך’ כו’, כפי גדר הנבואה, כך יהיה תבנית המשכן וכל כליו. ‘וכן תעשו’ לדורות, רצה לומר בכל דור ודור כשתרצה לבנות בית המקדש, יהיה עשייה כתבנית הנבואה אשר ישיג אז, כך יעשה הציור של המקדש והכלים. ושלמה כפי עבודתו ורוח נבואתו אשר השיג, כך היה עושה הציור. ולא קשה כלל קושית הרמב”ן דהלא המזבח לא היה דומה, עיין שם, וזהו אינו, דאדרבה כך היה הציווי שלא יעשה תמיד על ציור אחד, רק כפי השראת הנבואה כך יהיה נצטייר למטה תבנית הכלים. ועוד נראה לתרץ, כי ‘כן תעשו’, חוזר על ‘כל אשר אני מראה’, כמו שאתה אינך רשאי לשנות רק לעשות כאשר אני מראה אותך, ‘כן תעשו’ לדורות כאשר אני מראה על פי הנביאים אשר יהיו באותו הדור. וקל להבין:

‪”According to all that I show you, the pattern of the tabernacle, and the pattern of all its instruments, even so you shall make it” (Exodus 25:9). And Rashi interprets “even so you shall make it‬” as referring to future generations. And Tosafot raise a difficulty: But in fact, the altar that Moses made was not identical to altar Solomon made! (And Ramban raised the same difficulty.) But according to what we said previously there is no difficulty, because the intention of what is written, “‪even so you shall make it‬” is intended to a different thing. Because in truth, the pattern of the tabernacle and all its instruments, which all must be fashioned correctly as regards dimension and weight, is the garment and representation for the holy spirituality, and according to the prophecy that Moses saw at Mt. Sinai (as did all Israel), and according as they drew down holy spirituality by their service, thus it was—in that value—that the clothing needed to be, i.e. the instruments and the tabernacle made according to its pattern. And the words of our sages are well known (Sanhedrin 89a) that no two prophets prophesy in the same style, rather each one according to his aspect and according to how he serves God, in that aspect itself the spirit of prophecy appears to him. Because of this, Moses and the generation of the wilderness, according to the value of their service and the spirit of the prophecy which they grasped at Mt. Sinai, thus they needed to make the design of the tabernacle and the pattern of the instruments, which were made as a garment for the spiritual lights of holiness. And if this is so, that’s the explanation of the scripture, “‪According to all that I show you‬” etc.—according to the boundary of the prophecy, thus will be the pattern of the sanctuary and all its instruments. “‪Even so you shall make it‬”—for the generations, which means to say that in every generation, when you want to build the Temple, its making will be according to the patter of prophecy as grasped then, thus the design of the sanctuary and its instruments should be. And Solomon, according to his service and the spirit of his prophecy which he grasped, thus he made the design. And the Ramban’s problem (how come the altars are different?!) is not at all difficult, because on the contrary, that was the command, that it should not be made always on a single design, but rather according to the inspiration of the prophecy, thus should the pattern of the instruments be fashioned below. And it also seems to me to explain, that “‪even so you shall make it‬” returns on “‪According to all that I show you‬,” i.e., you are not permitted to change it, but rather only to do as I show you, “‪even so you shall make it‬” referring to the generations, “‪According to all that I show‬” through the prophets who will be in that generation. And it’s easy to understand.

The Kedushas Levi starts with a textual problem. Though Exodus (as interpreted by Rashi) seems to establish its plan for the sanctuary as binding on future generations, in fact we find that Solomon, in constructing the temple, followed a different plan. This problem has been the subject of much attention by both traditional and critical scholars. For my purposes, Solomon is an intratextual model for my own sense of distance and difference from the Pentateuch. His difference from his predecessors (even if it initially seems minimal compared to, say, the elimination of the sacrificial cult) helps me feel that mine is part of the tradition. Further, resolving the exegetical problem will also respond to my sense of alienation. For texts to be meaningful, we constantly have to look for ways in which their interpretive intricacies are our own actual questions. When that happens, the process of identification actually works both ways: as much as I shape the textual character of Solomon, that text’s nuances begin to guide me as well.

The Kedushas Levi’s distinctive move is to correlate differing externals or ritual forms with internal mental states or habits of thought. We shouldn’t judge rituals against a single timeless blueprint; rather, the imperative is that they correlate appropriately with the spiritual zeitgeist. A ritual form that’s right for one place and time might be improper for another. Not only are we permitted to change our inherited forms, we’re commanded to do so, in accordance with what God shows us. I don’t think it’s an accident that the Kedushas Levi (1740-1810) was a rough contemporary of German philosopher and literary critic Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), whose book Shakespeare pioneered the historicist study of literature and argued that different aesthetic modes correlated to different historical contexts and should be judged accordingly. Historicization was in the air, to historicize the historicizers.

I’m going to ignore some of the potentially limiting readings of this text: that since prophecy ceased, the Kedushas Levi doesn’t mean us to apply this lesson to our own lives; that he is talking not about a normatively neutral, multi-factor shift in spiritual context or zeitgeist, but a shift up or down on a fixed scale of values, etc. I think these readings are wrong, but there’s not much to be gained by hashing through the objections here. Also, I am here treating the Kedushas Levi roughly as I am treating Solomon; a textual prototype for my own experience, rather than just an isolated, historical monad.

My final point is that the Kedushat Levi also offers a good response to my first question, namely: why study these details? These externals are important because they record people’s experiences of God, and their foreignness testifies to ideas and world-view that are otherwise lost to time. By studying the external details, we can and should learn about the internal habits of thought and experiences.

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