The last thing I imagined to find when I moved to Mississippi? A tabernacle.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about the Mishkan, the encampment the Israelites set up in the while wandering in the desert, the physical space where God dwelled among them. But I never thought I would see a life-size replica… let alone in Pearl, Mississippi.
I read about it online, and was immediately tempted to go see it—but I also felt a bit strange about the fact that this “life-size replica of the Mosaic Sanctuary that God gave instructions to Moses to build in the wilderness” was constructed by a Seventh-day Adventist organization. I wondered what the agenda might be, as the group travels with the tabernacle across the nation.
But my curiosity got the best of me. And so I went to see the Mishkan.
Located in the middle of a large open field, next to a church in Pearl, Mississippi, sat several large tents. Two kind older women welcomed me and handed me an admission ticket that read “tribe of Benjamin.” My father’s Hebrew name, I observed silently. The women asked me why I was in Jackson, where I worked and I told them about the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. Although I wasn’t trying to hide the fact that I’m Jewish, I realized I was a bit uncomfortable. Was I coming here “as a Jew”? Was I walking in as a student of religious studies?
Either way, I was probably not their intended audience.
Our tour guide began by explaining the history of the Temple, and Jewish worship at the Temple. I was impressed with the guide’s level of knowledge. He had a lot of dates and important figures memorized, and his information seemed consistent with what I learned in my Jewish day school education.
We walked into the tent, stopping to look at the altar made of “brass” (or plastic spray-painted to look like brass). An unfortunate plush-toy sheep was awaiting a demonstration. The guide explained to us the process of sacrifice, starting with the sin, and ending with the fats and innards burnt on the altar. He shared all the information I was familiar with, but his interpretation was different: for the tour guide in the church’s re-created tabernacle, every part of the sacrifice and worship to God somehow connected to Jesus’ ministry.
We made our way through the tabernacle, beginning from the least holy spot to the most—the Holy of Holies.
Inside the Holy of Holies sat items I knew were supposedly there, but had never pictured. This was perhaps the most interesting thing for me; to see things like manna and Aaron’s staff, depicted in material terms. Manna is something I’ve always learned about as maybe bread, or maybe grain, but definitely heavenly, other-worldly. To see it in a bowl, so obviously of this world, was confusing. Some of the mystery, the ineffable quality was lost.
Perhaps the most jarring interpretation of all: the tour ended in a tent where the High Priest was dressed in a breastplate—and instead of pomegranates and bells around the bottom of his frock, instead Christmas ornaments dangled from the garment.
It was an odd experience, but I’m glad I went. I left this Mishkan feeling confused, but also full of pride. Though our religions look very different today, the Christians who created this tabernacle share many of the same historical roots that connect me to my faith. For my tour guide, the Mishkan was an extraordinary thing that led the way for Jesus’ salvation. For me, it was something that helped shape my people, as a people. Christianity and Judaism both changed drastically over the years, and neither look much like the religion practiced in the desert for 40 years—but both still find meaning in memories and experiences of the Mishkan.
Jews get lumped together a lot. Polls refer to “the Jewish vote.” We hear about the “Jewish response.” Labels of Jewish are smacked across everything from “Jewish humor” to “Jewish tradition” with little acknowledgment that Sarah Silverman’s fans aren’t necessarily Mel Brooks enthusiasts, and the traditions found in one Jewish household may vary wildly from the traditions found in a household one state over… or just down the block.
When representing a “Southern Jewish” organization, I’ve been asked frequently what makes “Southern Jews” different from “Northern Jews.” My response keeps evolving, but I do think there’s a difference.
There’s a difference because we are all products of our environment. With the exception of communities that choose to be expressly insular, we are all shaped by multiple forces. The Southern Jewish experience, particularly the small-town Southern Jewish experience, is one shaped by having fewer massive Jewish organizational infrastructure, and more overtly Christian neighbors. It is shaped by the music and the culture of the place, as is any other ethnic or religious group living here. In many ways, Southern Jewry has its own flavor, metaphorically and literally. It is connected to the larger Jewish experience, while being unique.
There’s a difference. But there’s also something more. There’s connection– and there’s conflict.
Ever since Jews started living in different places, we have always had things that have distinguished us. But now, more than ever, we seem to have an increasing number of things that not only distinguish us but also divide us. While the larger world might continue to lump us together, it is harder for many of us individual Jews to do so.
From egalitarianism to the equality movement, interfaith families to Israel, we are a polarized people. And in an era where we out our positions on Facebook, contend with new issues daily, our differences are surfaced quite quickly and clearly. When Jews are united on… well, probably nothing… how do we connect?
How do we remain “a people,” whatever that means?
I don’t know. But I do know this: somehow, we do. Somehow, there is still a Team Jewish affiliation that transcends Just-Southern-Jews or Just-Progressive-Jews or Just-Conservative-Jews. The team spirit doesn’t stop simply at our politics, be they progressive or conservative, or at our address, be it in the American South or South America.
It’s hard to define, this invisible thread. It’s a gut feeling. It’s our hearts twisting when the Holocaust is mentioned, and getting riled when it is invoked unjustly (even if our definitions of “unjust use” vary). It’s our ears perking up when there’s a mention of Something Jewish in the news. It’s feeling deep pride (maybe over different things) and feeling deep guilt (definitely over different things) and it’s wrestling, and wrestling, and wrestling.
Somehow, there still is a Team Jewish. But we sure are passing/throwing/swatting/
We feel it, but we don’t always show it. Or we show it in different ways. And we disagree, more and more heatedly. And there are seismic shifts and growing rifts in what that tricky “Jewish vote” looks like to the rest of the world, too.
What does that mean for the Jewish future?
Well. I don’t know that, either. But I’m pretty sure there will be a Jewish future. So that’s something.
At various times in my life, my own observance, stances, and struggles have varied. So too have the commitments and connections that kept me playing for Team Jewish. This has been one of those years where it’s challenging to define what exactly those “ties that bind” me might be, as the world continually unravels.
But I keep going to the mat.
Or the stadium. Or whatever.
What are your thoughts? From the cultural to the religious and the inane to the innate… what makes or breaks Jewish identity? How much is it shaped by where you live and what you experience?
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As Parashat Va’et’hanan opens, Moses is pleading for forgiveness, in order to be permitted to enter the promised land along with the rest of the Israelites. Moses’ request is unconditionally denied, but he is given a counter offer: he can look from a hilltop at the land he will never enter. Moses becomes a distant surveyor of the people’s relationship with God in the promised land, able to see but not experience their new reality.
At the end of the Torah portion, after God reminds Moses that he won’t get to enter into the promised land, and reminds Israelites of their promises to God, comes another reminder:
“For you are a people consecrated to the Lord your God: of all the peoples on Earth, the lord your God chose you to be his treasured people.”
In part, this is a beautiful sentiment; but as Mordecai Kaplan says, “chosenness always means the superiority of the chosen over the rejected, from the viewpoint of the chooser.” When taken into practice, it has the potential to elevate us above the rest, deems our religion and practices more meaningful. I worry that it creates this binary of chosen versus the rest; of “us” versus “them.” There is merit in being connected to a community, but also hazards in disconnecting from (and worse, looking down on) the larger world.
So how are we to accept that our texts, over and over again, assert this idea of chosenness, without falling into the trap of collective superiority?
Kaplan rejects this reading of chosenness. Instead, he argues that the Jewish path is one among many ways to reach the same humanistic values that lay at the core of many religions. We may have a unique bond with God, but that doesn’t mean we have the only bond.
I think Va’et’hanan gives us an instruction manual for how to act in relationships- how not to fall into the trap of creating separateness with chosenness. I like to think about the relationship between God and the Israelites as a sort of model for deep, committed relationships between human beings… not just those like us, but all humans.
“If you search for the Lord your God, you will find him, seek him with all your heart and all your soul.”
We will find God only when we are open to the process of learning about God, and only if we seek with all our heart and all our soul. The word used for seeking is tidreshnu, which shares a root with the word drash, the term used to describe searching for layers of meaning in the Torah. Our search in this relationship is not surface level. We must delve deeper. When entering a relationship, this teaches us not only to have empathy, but also to go deeper, seeing others as they see themselves. To search the many layers that contribute to a person’s being, to enter into relationships with an open heart.
Remember Moses at the beginning of this portion? Sitting upon the hill, looking down at the promised land? Moses becomes an observer. When we enter into relationships with minimal awareness or concern for one another, I worry we may become that man in the distance, trying to understand but not able to fully experience.
Being an outsider is better than not being a part of the situation at all. But when we become outsiders looking in, we only glimpse a surface level understanding. More ideal is to enter into relationships that challenge us, that push us to trust others unlike ourselves, to experience life at its fullest. Only here can we experience all the diversity and wonders that the world has to offer. This informs my work here in the South, and my commitment to community engagement.
I want to close with a call to action of sorts- a poem that reminds me there is no better time to change the way we interact with people who are not like us than the present:
Before the gate has been closed,
before the last question is posed,
before I am transposed.
Before the weeds fill the gardens,
before there are no pardons,
before the concrete hardens.
Before all the flute-holes are covered,
before things are locked in the cupboard,
before the rules are discovered.
Before the conclusion is planned,
before God closes his hand,
before we have nowhere to stand.
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.