Every component of the mishkan (tabernacle) is iconic. Each article symbolizes a different aspect of religion. From the materials to the fabrics, from the dimensions to the ritual ceremonies, each detail of the mishkan contains profound religious symbolism.
Though every part of the mishkan is symbolic, the ark is the most evocative. Since it houses the luchot (tablets) and a Torah scroll, it reflects our relationship with Torah.
Moshe delegated the mishkan construction projects to his chief engineer, Bezalel, and a team of artisans and craftsmen. Though numerous workers were involved, God directed each command to Moshe. Each instruction is conveyed to Moshe with the term ve’asita (“You should build.”)
Oddly, the instruction to fashion an ark was conveyed to Moshe with a plural-tensed term: ve’asu which translates as “They should build an ark.” Unlike all the other vessels, the ark is presented as a communal and collaborative project.
This collective language empowers each individual Jew to take personal ownership of Torah. Torah should not be the private or exclusive possession of an elite or the protected trust of the educated, but should be democratic and should be easily available to all.
Often, Torah is compared to water because it is freely and effortlessly available to all, regardless of education, social position or religious rank. Torah must be collectivized, popularized and extended to every Jew.
In reality, though, the ark was not universally accessible. It was sequestered in the inner sanctum, which was rarely entered by humans. Tragedy struck when the ark was mishandled while being transported by King David to Jerusalem.
A Levite named Uzza tried to reposition the ark as it slipped off the wagon and, tragically, he died, since he had laid a bare human hand upon the casing of God’s word. As the divine word, Torah must inspire awe and transcendence.
Our relationship with Torah is built upon this irreconcilable paradox. We want it to be familiar and accessible, but we also must preserve its gravitas. Torah must be friendly but spiritual. It must be human but divine. It must be natural but also heavenly.
Throughout our history, this balance was always very carefully calibrated. During Raban Gamliel’s reign as the prince, entry into the Torah study hall was restricted to people of high moral standards. How can Torah be cheapened by teaching it to frauds? His successor, Eliezer ben Azarya suspended these restrictions, exposing thousands of newcomers to the beauty of Torah.
The prophet Ezra banned Torah study for men after marital relations. Only by immersing in a mikvah can a man achieve the purity and solemnness necessary to resume Torah study. This regulation as well severely limited Torah study and was eventually repealed.
Until the end of the first century, Torah could only be studied while standing. How can the word of God be read while casually reclining? This cavalier posture would mar the grandeur of Torah. Again, this policy boomeranged and was eventually relaxed.
THIS BALANCING act is perennial. We always face the challenge of popularizing Torah while maintaining its integrity and preserving our reverence for Torah. On various occasions, the solemnity of Torah and the austerity of Torah study were flexed to enable broader engagement in Torah study.
Recently, a woman began reformulating the daf yomi (daily page of Talmud study) in a humorous fashion, on the TikTok social media platform. These popular videos summarize the daf (page) with a mixture of sarcasm, sincerity and even sexual innuendo.
Many are disturbed by the disgrace of profanity-laden descriptions of the Talmud. Others believe that these videos have captured a broad audience and exposed them to Torah knowledge.
This reminds me of a similar question that arose several years ago. A Tanach covered with a material resembling blue jeans was printed. This more user-friendly and less formal Tanach, undoubtedly, was more attractive to a broader audience than those drawn to a more classic version of Tanach.
For others, wrapping a Tanach in clothing which many associate with leisure rather than serious study, reduced the honor of Torah. These two dilemmas – a Tanach with a jeans cover and irreverent daf yomi summaries – though very different, both reflect the enduring challenge of popularizing Torah while retaining its honor.
Too much familiarity and we dilute Torah’s intensity. Too much intensity and Torah feels distant and unreachable.
There is obviously no clear-cut solution but here are a few guidelines toward a healthy balance. I haven’t watched the TikTok daf yomis (aside from one video which I quickly glanced at) so my comments are more “generalized” about how to popularize Torah without cheapening it.
Obviously, the foremost issue is assessing intent. Is Torah being recast or reframed for its greater glory? Is the reformulation of the Torah conducted in the service of Torah or in the service of an alternate agenda? Torah should never serve any other agenda. It is the perfect, standalone, and eternal word of God and cannot be subjugated to any other purpose.
Is Torah being repackaged for the sake of Torah and to serve its interests, or for other reasons and for alternative purposes? The intent is always our first yardstick when judging the repackaging of Torah.
Does the unorthodox presentation of Torah, ultimately, generate respect for Torah or belittlement? It is legitimate to soften Torah even if it changes the tone of our reverence. It is legitimate to create greater access even at the cost of reduced “veneration.”
If Torah is too austere and solemn it can feel distant and, for some, irrelevant. If Torah is held too high, it becomes unreachable. Humor and cultural associations can make Torah more friendly, less formal and more accessible.
However, any strategy which reduces respect for Torah authority or creates scorn and ridicule is intolerable and dangerous. Respect doesn’t have to be solemn, but it must be solid. Off-color humor and sarcasm lead to cynicism and derision. This is the second yardstick.
Even if the intent is sincere, is the outcome one of greater respect or less respect for Torah and religion? For many, religious passion is driven by intensity, reverence and religious tension. For others, these emotions are too heavy and suffocating.
It is legitimate to create a softer and more relaxed inner religious landscape – as long as respect is solidified, and authority is reinforced.
Are the terms and words which are employed comical and “light” or crass and vulgar? In general, it is important to speak and write with dignity and to avoid crude and raunchy language. This is even more important when referring to the word of God.
Employing risqué language or curse words when discussing Torah content is appalling. We live in a sordid world and Torah provides an escape to a purer world and to a divine source of nobility. Torah must be guarded from the ugliness of humans.
Torah is both eternal and timeless. Though it must be reformulated to “speak” to each generation its sanctity and holiness must be vigilantly protected. If we are uncertain about the proper balance to strike, it is preferable to err on the side of preserving the Torah’s splendor and gravitas.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.