Sunday, January 31, 2016

In Praise of Extremism

Playtime is over.
The first seventy-four chapters of the Torah are quite theatrical. The origin story of the Jewish people is a compelling tale, all the way from Creation to the Giving of the Torah. While some passages of lineage or law do appear, the majority of the text is a dramatic narrative.
Until this week, when we arrive at the end of Exodus 24. From that point forward, the Torah is primarily composed of laws and lists, particularly those touching on ritual. There are narrative interludes, but the overwhelming majority of the text seems more like a technical manual.
That's why it's so important to find meaning in even the driest passages-- even the upcoming portions which focus on the Tabernacle. While the sacrificial law in the first half of Leviticus may no longer be practical, the concept of rebuilding the Temple is still a potent one in Judaism. The Mishkan (Tabernacle), on the other hand, is a historical artifact. How is its architecture still relevant three millennia after its destruction?
Well, let's take the synecdoche: the part of the Tabernacle which gives the entire Mishkan its name.
Make the tabernacle with ten curtains of finely twisted linen and blue, purple and scarlet yarn, with cherubim woven into them by a skilled worker. All the curtains are to be the same size—twenty-eight cubits long and four cubits wide. Join five of the curtains, each to her sister; and five curtains join, each to her sister. Make loops of blue material along the edge of the curtain at the end of a set, and do the same with the furthest curtain in the other set. Make fifty loops on one curtain and fifty loops on the end curtain of the other set, with the loops corresponding each to her sister. Then make fifty gold clasps and use them to fasten the curtains, each to her sister, so that the tabernacle is a unit. (Exodus 26:1-6)
Linen Curtrain
Yeah, I know. But if you hear it in the original Hebrew, a word sticks out: outermost, or kitzona. A kitzoni, in modern Hebrew, is an extremist, one on the fringes of society. The sole source for this word in the Bible is the Tabernacle.
However, the nature of this kitzoniyut (extremism) is somewhat tricky. Basically, the furthest left in the right-hand group is being joined to the furthest right in the left-hand group, like so: image002
So how should we translate kitzona? It really depends on your perspective. Two of the most prominent Jewish translations of the Bible take diametrically opposed positions: JPS renders it "outmost," while Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's The Living Torah renders it "innermost." They're both right. The kitzona is the furthest away from its companions, but the closest to the other side.
This may seem like a minor detail, but the fact is that the average Israelite encamped in the desert did not see the Holy Ark, Candelabrum or Table. They saw the ten-cubit high walls of the Mishkan and the Ohel (Tent), the former woven and the latter of goatskin, but each composed of two sets of curtains, joined at the kitzona. The furthest, the extreme, the bleeding edge of each is the key to making a unit of two disparate groups.
We desperately need this sort of kitzoniyut. It's easy enough to prove your bona fides within your group by going ever further away from the center, but that is a recipe for societal disaster. On the other hand, going up to the very edge allows you to reach out to someone from the other side--and hold on tight. That's a blueprint you can use for a tabernacle or a world.