Judaism as a Visual Religion: Reflections on the Tabernacle and “The Temple”

The Book of Exodus contains some of the most fundamental religious-historical narratives of the Jewish people. However, as significant as these narratives clearly are, the book’s largest component verse-wise describes a detailed set of instructions for how to build, and then the actual construction of, the Tabernacle, or Mishkan.  The looming presence of the Mishkan in such a central text, with its gold, precious gems and other valuable materials, challenges certain medieval and/or modern assumptions about Judaism. Judaism has come to be conceived of as a religion of ideas, a textual rather than a visual tradition that is more concerned with matters of the spirit than physical decoration and embellishment.

The erection of the Tabernacle and the Sacred vessels, as in Exodus 40:17-19; from the 1728 Figures de la Bible

Perhaps this understanding partially underlies the approach of the biblical commentator Rashi toward the Mishkan. Rashi here cites the principle of “אין מוקדם ומאוחר בתורה”, “there is neither before nor after in the Torah,” i.e., we need not always presume that the Torah is written in chronological order. He thus reorders the chronology of the Exodus in order to have the episode of the sin of the golden calf precede the commandment to construct the Mishkan.  For Rashi, who himself is drawing on the midrash, the elaborate Mishkan may represent an acquiescence to human weakness rather than an ideal form of worship. (It is important to note, as Rabbi Menachem Liebtag points out, that this position of Rashi’s cannot necessarily be applied to the Mikdash, or Temple, or the notion of a centralized place of worship more broadly.)

Nachmanides, on the other hand, does not conceive of the Mishkan as representing a less than ideal state of affairs. For Nachmanides, the Mishkan famously represents a portable Mount Sinai, a tangible representation of God’s revelation that is evident in its architecture and its construction. Nachmanides sees parallels between the tripartite structure of Mount Sinai and the tripartite division of the Mishkan. The very centerpiece of the Mishkan, where the ark is located, houses the two tablets that were given at Mount Sinai.

Judaism Through the Lens of the Mishkan

Nachmanides has no qualms with the notion of the Mishkan as a visual manifestation of God’s glory and presence among the people of Israel. Certainly, a straightforward reading of the Book of Exodus’ composition would attest to this as well. The notion that something you can “see” should be a central focal point of our relationship with the Divine, as opposed to a set of ideas or laws, seems to have lost much of its currency in the wake of Maimonidean theology. Religious visual art is now usually seen as the domain of Christianity, with fine Jewish artists popping up here and there, but rarely rivaling the kind of virtuosity Jews have always displayed with the written word or legal analysis. Yet, whether one agrees with Rashi or Nachmanides regarding the chronology of the Book of Exodus, the centrality of the Tabernacle therein raises important questions about the role of visual and/or material culture in Judaism.

Shifting from the Textual to the Visual – Judaism: A Way of Being

In 2010, the Yale computer scientist David Gelernter published Judaism: A Way of Being. This intriguing book presents itself as an attempt to understand the “grand scheme” of Judaism. Most books about Judaism focus on one aspect or another of Jewish life: ritual, philosophy, history, halakha, sociology, etc… Gelernter is interested in Judaism as an “emergent system,” in the way in which its manifold components interrelate and produce a larger whole. Gelernter is a polymath who is particularly passionate about art and is a talented artist himself. He suggests that a visual vocabulary may be the best way to articulate what it is that Judaism is about in the broadest sense. Over the course of the book he presents four “image-themes,” each of which represents a core feature of Judaism as well as a response to pressing philosophical questions. They are not ideas per se, but “things,” actual images that he sees as repeating themselves again and again, like a musical theme, in the visual, intellectual and social/familial structures of Judaism.

For example, for the image-theme of “separation” he has us visualize a Torah scroll being raised up in the act of hagbah, lifting high, an image that is familiar to nearly anyone who has ever observed a traditional synagogue service. This image, of twin columns, and a distinct space in between is one that Gelernter claims reverberates throughout Jewish life. In the Bible, when God has the waters split from one another (Genesis 1:6) when the red sea splits into two walls with the Jews passing in between (Exodus 14:22), in synagogue architecture such as the Central Synagogue in NY and the Dohany Street Synagogue of Budapest. This theme also informs the intellectual and philosophical fabric of Judaism, where holiness is often understood as “separateness” and Jews are urged to separate from their surroundings even when it may feel unnatural.

In the chapter entitled “Veil” Gelernter extends this approach to the “screen” that is described as separating God from Moses in Exodus 33:22. Rashi likens this screen to a tallit shawl that God wraps around Himself, and Gelernter suggests that the tallit, as well as other ritual coverings such as tefillin and mezuzah, fulfill a similar function of mediating between human beings and the Divine. We see this veil manifest itself as the lattice in the Song of Songs, or in the series of screens that demarcated the three section of the Temple in Jerusalem. It appears again when a Jewish bride walks down the aisle. Gelernter suggests that the theme of the veil informs the complicated relationship Judaism has with art itself. While Gelernter believes that visual imagery is a crucial part of Judaism, this imagery never purports to represent God directly. It instead functions as a veil, representing or evoking divine radiance without being confused with God Himself.

Gelernter’s connections are rather loose at times and some are more convincing than others. Yet his core project is a fascinating one. Everyone knows that the cross is the defining image-theme of Christianity, reflected in its art, architecture and even in the realm of ideas. Gelernter seeks to prove that Judaism has its own set of image-themes, equally profound, we simply need to shift our perspective from the textual to the visual in order to be able to see them.

George Herbert’s The Temple


For anyone interested in the tension (be it imagined or real) between pictures and ideas, an exciting period to examine is the Protestant Reformation, particularly as it played out among writers in England in the 16th and 17th centuries. For Christian thinkers poised between the aesthetic beauty of Catholicism and the (aspiring) anti-visual culture of Protestantism, negotiating between the two poles was of crucial importance. George Herbert was an Anglican poet who believed that what was inside the human heart mattered more than stained glass windows or priestly hierarchies. At the same time, as a poet he also understood the power of images. In many of his poems Herbert vacillates between the abstract austerity of Protestantism and the sensual pull of Catholicism.

Interestingly, Herbert uses the Tabernacle as the primary site of this negotiation. Specifically, in a collection of poems entitled The Temple, Herbert draws on the architectural contours of the Tabernacle/Temple as outlined in the Bible as a template for an amazing set of poems that explores various aspects of a life of Christian faith. In one of the opening poems in this collection, “The Altar,” Herbert draws on the physical shape of an altar in order to dedicate his own volume as a kind of sacrifice to God:

A broken ALTAR, Lord, thy servant rears,
Made of a heart and cemented with tears;
Who parts are as thy hand did frame;
No workman’s tool hath touch’d the same.
A HEART alone
Is such a stone,
As nothing but
Thy pow’r doth cut.
Wherefore each part
Of my hard heart
Meets in this frame
To praise thy name.
That if I chance to hold my peace,
These stones to praise thee may not cease.
Oh, let thy blessed SACRIFICE be mine,
And sanctify this ALTAR to be thine.

While Herbert is drawing on Temple, as well as church, imagery in order to construct this piece, the message of the poem undercuts these allusions. Herbert here is evoking the language, and the visual image, of Biblical sacrifice in order to signify that the offerings of a human heart are superior to any form of tangible physical worship. In delivering this message  he also seems to be drawing on a different Biblical precedent, specifically Psalms 51:19, which says: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; God, You will not despise a contrite and crushed heart,” “זִבְחֵי אֱלֹהִים רוּחַ נִשְׁבָּרָה לֵב נִשְׁבָּר וְנִדְכֶּה אֱלֹהִים לֹא תִבְזֶה”.

Original Manuscript, “The Altar”

Part of Herbert’s project in The Temple is to make abstract, and thus “spiritualize,” the concrete visual imagery of both the Biblical Tabernacle and Temple as well as the Catholic Church. As he write in the poem “Sion”:

Lord, with what glorie wast thou serv’d of old,
When Solomons temple stood and flourished!
Where most things were of purest gold;
The wood was all embellished
With flowers and carvings, mysticall and rare:
All show’d the builders, crav’d the seers care.

Yet all this glorie, all this pomp and state
Did not affect thee much, was not thy aim;
Something there was, that sow’d debate:
Wherefore thou quitt’st thy ancient claim:
And now thy Architecture meets with sinne;
For all thy frame and fabrick is within.

This skepticism toward the materialism of the Temple, quite predictable for a Protestant poet, is of course present in the Jewish tradition as well, beginning in the Bible itself. Yet what is remarkable about Herbert’s Temple is how integral and necessary the Temple architecture is for him to be able to accomplish his goals. Herbert’s poems don’t succeed despite the visual framework of the Tabernacle, they succeed because of it. The boundaries, the richness, and the visual details of the sacred space, “the flowers and carvings,  mysticall and rare,” that he draws on are precisely what makes his poetry so memorable.

At various points in the anthology, Herbert refers to God as an “architect.” Physical space is the great metaphor for Herbert in this collection – it guides his image choice, the structure of individual poems, and the shape of the anthology as a whole. Therefore I find Herbert’s purported attempts to break away from the Temple as a physical space to be interesting – he never successfully does it, and he seems to be at peace with this failure.

In the end, Herbert’s use of the Temple as a set of architectural plans for making sense of his own faith is not unlike David Gelernter’s own project of demonstrating that the visual symbolism of Judaism articulates its core values. As Gelernter says at the conclusion of his study:

“Judaism is a building (temple, palace) that shows a blank and inscrutable face to the street. My goal has been to lead you to the inner courtyard or garden, which is invisible from the outside. How do we get there, and what do we see when we arrive?”

The visual blueprints of the Mishkan provided in the book of Exodus may also serve as entry points to otherwise inaccessible dimensions of Judaism.  

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