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.

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

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The Midwives of Parshat Shemot

“You drew me from the womb, made me secure at my mother’s breast. I became your charge at birth; from my mother’s womb You have been my God”

(Psalm 22:10-11)

The very beginning of the book of Exodus is literally “teeming” with fertility, birth and abundance. In the book’s opening verses, curiously, images of inexplicable procreation go hand in hand with extreme suffering. The Passover Haggadah tells us that the story of the exodus is one that begins in “disgrace” and ends in “praise.” Yet in the beginning of Exodus we see a kind of dialectical back-and-forth between blessing and oppression that is a challenge to comprehend.

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