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Dvar Torah - Terumah

What is the essence of the religious experience? Humans have debated this question for as long as we have existed. The debate usually has two sides: the rational and the spiritual. These two archetypes coexist, and different people fall at various points between the two.

Rational man is usually understood to be someone who seeks to understand and manipulate the world around them. As the Torah tells us, Hashem gave us the world to fill and rule over. Rational man asserts his domination over the natural order as a religious imperative. This means that it is religiously necessary to study, it is religiously required to work, and it is spiritually edifying to understand the world around you better. How do you find G-d? Study physics. Indeed, rational man has a rich pedigree in Jewish thought. No less important a figure than the Rambam (Maimonides) is held up, somewhat simplistically, as an exemplar of the rationalist approach to religion.

On the other hand, we find spiritualists and mystics. Mystics, so the theory goes, prioritise the religious experience. They might spend time in trances and meditation. They prioritise long and thoughtful prayer. While they recognise the practical necessity to work and make a living, they might not find religious fulfilment in that activity. Instead, their relationship with G-d lies far above, unsullied by the mundanity of the world around them.


This week, we have a disagreement about how to read the instructions for building the Ark of the Covenant, which fits neatly into this rubric. The Torah tells us: "And you shall place in the Ark the testimony which I shall give to you." What is the testimony to which G-d refers? Rashi (11th century northern France) explains that it is the Torah. An entire Torah scroll was placed in the Ark of the Covenant at the centre of the Jewish religious experience in the desert. The Ark is the focal point of the Mishkan, and the Mishkan is the focal point of the entire camp, so the contents of the Ark provide the locum of Jewish life in the wilderness. Furthermore, we should read the Torah as guidance for our lives. As such, the focus of life in the desert is also relevant to us today. Saying that a Torah scroll was placed in the Ark prioritises Torah study, the intellectual approach to our religion. It exemplifies the Rationalist approach to Judaism.

Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra (11-12th century Andalusia) offers a different view. He thinks the testimony is the two tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. The miraculous pieces of stone that Hashem gave to Moshe Rabbeinu are to be the central focus of Jewish life. The tablets lack detail and aren't the subject of significant study. There isn't enough text on them to allow them to provide substantial intellectual stimulation. However, they offer a constant reminder of the awesome experience of the Jews at Mt Sinai. Ibn Ezra thinks that the heart of the Jewish experience is momentous divine revelation, not intellectual turmoil.Rabbi Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik (20th Century America) thought we should combine these two religious approaches. He believed that the authentic approach of Judaism is to prioritise neither the intellectual nor the mystical, but both. That our tradition can find such easy room for both perspectives testifies to the truth of his approach. As such, let us honour this week the building of the Mishkan by strengthening our productive involvement in the world around us and re-engaging with the rich intellectual tradition that our religion offers us. 

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