You shall make a sanctuary for me and I will dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).
Is it possible for God to dwell among us? King Solomon had his doubts. He wondered aloud at the inauguration of the Temple, “Will God really dwell on earth? Even the heavens … cannot contain You, how much less this House I have built” (Kings 8:27). Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik shares this puzzlement. What is the likelihood, he echoed, that “infinity [could] be encompassed in a ‘world of finity.’ ” Can the numinous dwell in the mundane?
Isn’t this the task of religion?
When I begin my classes on spiritual direction at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR, CA), I ask my students to describe the difference between spirituality and religion. The answer I posit: Spirituality is an experience and religion is the embodiment of that experience.
Spirituality is present in the paradoxical and profound personal moment when we realize that we are never alone. It is an ability to perceive the still, small voice in a silence that trumpets the sound of a million voices proclaiming a truth of such resonance that everything in the universe seems to vibrate in unison. These moments leave us with our mouths agape. We grasp for words to describe our experience. We want to decode it and understand it. We want to share the experience with others — to repeat it, to pass it on to our children. But there are no words equal to the task.
So, we build a tabernacle to ground the experience so that it can dwell among us. We create religion. We create ritual, ritual objects, religious practices and rites. We record written testimonies that describe the experiences and the values we derive from them.
I see spirituality as a universal numinous experience and religion as the particularistic garment with which we encircle that experience to catch it and make it tangible — the container housing infinity in the finite. Without the container, the mishkan, that religion provides, the power and significance of the moment of awe — such as the time at Sinai when the violent trembling of the mountain and the smoke, thunder and lightning that accompanied it made the blood of the newly liberated slaves run cold and the hair on their arms stand up straight — dissipates (Exodus 8:16-19). Without a mishkan and the garments of ritual and practice, there would be no path for walking The Mystery into the world. We must have these mishkanot if we are to make Holiness/God real on the earth. Yet danger lurks when the garment becomes top heavy and becomes more committed to the outer form than to the Holy Numinous within. Religion ceases to be a force for good.
AJR, CA is privileged to be a partner with Claremont Lincoln University (CLU), where we explore the meaning of religion with other faith groups.
We have heard concerns that the exposure to other paths will dilute the strength of our Jewish affiliation, but I know this is not true. By understanding each other, we illuminate ourselves. I more fully understood the Shema when I did yoga and had a visceral sense of the meaning of Oneness. My study of Christian spiritual direction has informed my understanding of the role of the priest and what it means to be a kingdom of priests, as we are instructed to become in Parshat Yitro. Learning Arabic cognates for certain Hebrew words has deepened my understanding of Jewish prayer. Being a sister traveler at Pacific School of Religion in the late 1960s helped me understand the centrality of tikkun olam (healing the world) to my identity as a Jew.
At this time in history, religion is often colonized by those more concerned with boundaries than with our shared phenomenology of the holy and its mandate for peace and healing. At CLU, we are engaged in a holy endeavor, which I believe is central to our continued existence as a species. We are trying to reclaim religion for the good and wrest it away from those who have calcified religion’s boundaries, making it a tool of tyranny rather than a tool for making peace and healing the planet.
We begin by concentrating on the shared numinous experience, naming it in our own unique languages so that we meet at the boundaries, while celebrating the uniqueness of our mishkan. We find our shared values and use them to create a united front for tikkun olam. Together we seek to create a world in which God can dwell.
Rabbi Anne Brenner, LCSW, is director of spiritual development at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. She serves Congregation Macomb Or Shalom as rabbi and is a bereavement chaplain at Scribal Hospice. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001) and assists institutions in creating caring communities