Light from the Sidra

Vayak'hel (‘And he assembled...’). 5th March 2016. 25th Adar 5776

Torah: Exodus 35:1–38:20. Haftarah: 2 Kings 12:1(11:21)-17(16)*

Is Judaism biblical?

Following the death of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson in 1994, I attended a meeting at a North London synagogue to hear one of the Rebbe’s shelachim, Rabbi Emmanuel Shochet, answers questions from a Jewish audience. One questioner felt that Judaism needed to lighten up a little, to change its image and its way of worship in order to attract younger people and be more relevant. Politely but firmly, Rabbi Shochet explained that we cannot decide how we are going to worship HASHEM. We can only truly worship him if we do it in the way he prescribes.

While I admired Rabbi Shochet for sticking to his guns, I could not help but wonder if he understood the implications of his answer because Judaism today has chosen to worship God in a way he has not authorised in the Tanakh. This week’s parasha reviews the pattern of the tabernacle and records the manufacture of the various pieces of furniture as well as the Mishkan itself. The Mishkan, or tabernacle, was constructed according to the pattern revealed to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. Although the Mishkan was constructed by gifted artisans, human creativity played no part in the design. Each item of furniture, down to the very tent pegs, had to be according to the pattern revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. During the reign of Solomon, the tabernacle would become the temple but the principles governing the worship of God would remain unchanged. In the temple, God could be approached only via the altar of sacrifice and atonement would continue to be made through specific offerings made on the altar. The altar itself, the huge bronze basin, the table of ‘the bread of the face’, the menorah and the altar of incense, all had to be laid out in a cross-shaped pattern.

Shortly before 70 CE, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai recognised that the writing was on the wall for Jerusalem and the Temple so he had himself smuggled out of Jerusalem in a coffin. From there he travelled to Yavneh on the Mediterranean coast where he established his famous yeshiva and set about ensuring the survival of Judaism without the need for a temple, sacrifice or priest. Ben Zakkai ensured the survival of Judaism by changing it. According to Pirkei Avot 1:2, ‘Simon the Just [who] was one of the last survivors of the Great Synagogue… used to say, Upon three things the world is based: upon the Torah, upon the Temple service [of which atoning sacrifice was the central part] and upon the practice of charity.’

When the temple was destroyed, Rabbi Yochanan substituted repentance for sacrifice. Consequently, ‘biblical’ Judaism became ‘rabbinic’ Judaism. Even though Jewish scholars have been trying to justify the changes to Israel’s religion made by Yochanan ben Zakkai and the Sages of Yavneh, the fact remains that Judaism today bears little resemblance to the religion of Moses and the prophets.

Many Jewish people respond by pointing out that Christianity doesn’t have a tabernacle or sacrifice either. Even if that claim were true, it would not justify the changing of Judaism; it would just mean that Judaism and Christianity were two boats up the same creek without any paddles. However, believers in Jesus the Messiah do have a tabernacle a priest and a sacrifice and next week I’m going to show that there was no need for Rabbi Yochanan to change Judaism because, even though the Jerusalem temple had been destroyed, the realities it symbolised remained firmly in place.

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