Cherubim in the Knesset

In Terumah, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the construction of the Aron, Holy Ark. There we read:

 17 And you shall make an ark-cover of pure gold: two cubits and a half shall be the length thereof, and a cubit and a half the breadth thereof. 18 And you shall make two cherubim of gold; of beaten work shall you make them, at the two ends of the ark-cover. 19 And make one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other end; of one piece with the ark-cover you shall make the cherubim of the two ends thereof. 20 And the cherubim shall spread out their wings on high, screening the ark-cover with their wings, with their faces one to another; toward the ark-cover shall the faces of the cherubim be. ( Exodus 25:17-20)

This is at once our most holy image and one which is just too hard to understand. On this the Talmud says:

Rabbi Kattina said: Whenever Israel came up to the Festival, the curtain would be removed for them and the Cherubim were shown to them, whose bodies were inter-twisted with one another, and they would be thus addressed: Look! You are beloved before God as the love between man and woman. (Yoma 54.)

I love this image. Not because of its hetero-normative assumption around coupling, but rather because of the public modelling of affection. There we were the whole nation coming together in Jerusalem to see this powerful image. Where as all year these angelic figures are locked in a the moment before an embrace, in the company of the people joining together they do the same.

This gendered image took on a whole new valence when I had the pleasure of watching Dr. Ruth Calderone’s recent speech as a new member of the Knesset. I encourage you to watch it.

Simply put, Dr. Calderone a secular Talmud scholar gave a great shiur, class, to a room full of Kippot. There she quotes the Talmudic story.

Rabbi Rechumei was constantly before Rava in Mechoza. He would habitually come home every Yom Kippur eve. One day the topic drew him in. His wife anticipated him: “Here he comes. Here he comes.” He didn’t come. She became upset. She shed a tear from her eye. He was sitting on a roof. The roof collapsed under him, and he died. ( Ketuvot 62:)

At the end of her talk she artfully applied her interpretation of this story to the current state of affairs in Israel. She said:

I learn that often, in a dispute, both sides are right, and until I understand that both my disputant and I, both the woman and Rabbi Rechumei, feel that they are doing the right thing and are responsible for the home. Sometimes we feel like the woman, waiting, serving in the army, doing all the work while others sit on the roof and study Torah; sometimes those others feel that they bear the entire weight of tradition, Torah, and our culture while we go to the beach and have a blast. Both I and my disputant feel solely responsible for the home. Until I understand this, I will not perceive the problem properly and will not be able to find a solution. I invite all of us to years of action rooted in thought and dispute rooted in mutual respect and understanding. I aspire to bring about a situation in which Torah study is the heritage of all Israel, in which the Torah is accessible to all who wish to study it, in which all young citizens of Israel take part in Torah study as well as military and civil service. Together we will build this home and avoid disappointment. (Translated by Elli Fischer)

The Rabbi Rechumei and woman in Israeli society seem to represent the male and female faces of the Cherubim. For so long the male and female seemed to pitted against each other. After her talk I cannot say that they are locked in an embrace. There was clearly a lot of tension in the room. But there was this amazing moment when the Chairman of the Knesset Yitzhak Vaknin of the religious Shas party interrupted her and joined in the discussion of the Talmud she was teaching. Some where offended that he interrupted her. Dr. Calderone responded, ” I am happy about this participation in words of Torah.” It seemed like a very holy moment. At this moment the Cherubim were  looking at each other. It would seem that we need to make the rest happen. We the people need to reconnect and come together. We need to fall in love again and get lost in the eyes of the other. When we all grow toward appreciating the diversity of our Jewish culture the fractured elements of our society will become  inter-twisted with one another. That would be a festive day.

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