A cube is a geometric shape comprised of six identical squares. If the cube is hollow, these squares create an inner space, identical in length, width and height, equal in every dimension.
Too often, we think of architecture in pure utilitarian terms. What is this structure’s use? How does it function? How many occupants can it contain? But a hyper focus on content may obscure a greater meaning elicited by form.
So, if one may ask, what is the message of a cube?
The Tabernacle’s design and architecture, described at length in this week’s Torah portion, were meant to express a monotheistic theology in three-dimensional form. Much work was done exploring this theology in the last century by Jewish scholars such as rabbis Umberto Cassuto, Benno Jacob, and Jacob Milgrom.
For example, they point out that within the Holy of Holies — where the ark stood as a symbolic footstool or throne for God — one does not find a table for food, vessels for libations, a menorah for light or altars of any kind. Instead, a large curtain (parochet) separated the inner sanctum from the rest of the objects in the Tent of Meeting, e.g. the showbread table, incense altar and candelabrum. The copper altar for animal sacrifices was in a courtyard, entirely outside the Tent of Meeting.
The religious message was as emphatic as it was unequivocal. Israel might worship the Creator of Heaven and Earth with sacrifices and libations — akin to its pagan neighbors — but the Lord had no need for any of it, not food, drink, or light. This is one message of the Holy of Holies.
However, the architecture of the Holy of Holies expressed something else as well, because if one does the math, one realizes that its acacia wood walls formed a perfect 10-by-10-by10 cube. These dimensions suggest a type of theological equality. Indeed the Sanctuary was a place where God and Israel might meet, but more importantly, it was a space where all of Israel’s laity, young and old, men and women alike, could worship equally.
How so? For one, the large active courtyard where animal slaughter took place was mix-gendered. The book of Exodus describes groups of women who “assembled” in the courtyard “in front of the door Tent of Meeting” to pray (Exodus 38:8. Cf. Ibn-Ezra, Onkelos). If they desired or were required to bring sacrifices, women could slaughter the animal themselves, just like their male coreligionists.
A number of commentators point out that Leviticus begins with the inclusive phrase, “a person (adam) who brings an offering to the Lord … .” “Adam” is the generic term used in the Torah for “human being.” In Leviticus, it can also include non-Israelites, as well as Israelite women.
Maimonides, in his great Code of Law, states emphatically “men, women, and slaves bring sacrifices” in the Temple (Laws of Offerings 3:2), and the Medieval Scholars of Ashkenaz were of the same mind.
Perhaps because I am an Orthodox rabbi, I find that each year, as we read the latter half of the book of Exodus and make our way into Leviticus, I come face-to-face with the question of just what happened to this very old (yet revolutionary) egalitarian “cube”? In the Tabernacle, Hannah brought prayers and sacrifices to the very gate of the Tent of Meeting. In the late Second Temple period (42 CE), Queen Helene became a nazarite, and when her vow elapsed, she brought the obligatory pigeons to the altar. Her example led so many women to emulate her piety that sacrificial pigeon prices soared.
Yet somehow, after the destruction of the Temple, the synagogue became a place where mainly men assembled, and women’s participation fell away. It is something of a historical mystery how the barrier — mechitzah — evolved separating the genders. Though indeed it is a very old custom, one finds no statute relegating the separation of men and women in a synagogue in the entirety of the Talmud or the great Codes of Law written by Maimonides or the Shulchan Aruch. In one letter, the brilliant Talmudist and founder of a yeshiva in Lakewood, N.J., Rav Aharon Kotler, freely admitted to this lacuna: “The Codes do not specifically discuss the special women’s gallery.”
While there are good reasons for why the Orthodox community has preserved the mechitzah, even as other denominations have long ago integrated women and men in synagogue worship, an honest analysis of the past is troubling. Women had a far more active and integrated role in the Temple and Tabernacle than they currently do in the contemporary Orthodox synagogue.
And here, if I may say something to my Orthodox fellows — something which is obvious to everyone but ourselves: Like it or not, the shape of our synagogue is not equal of measure.
Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is the spiritual leader of the The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.