A Mishkan (Tabernacle) Specialist: Ten Questions with Dr. Amy Cooper Robertson
Dr. Amy Cooper Robertson is the Executive Director of Congregation Bet Haverim, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Atlanta, where she spends a lot of her time looking for fruitful intersections between modern ideas, methods, and values, and traditional Jewish teachings and texts. She holds a PhD in Religion in the area of Hebrew Bible from Emory University. Her dissertation, “He Kept the Measurements in His Memory as a Treasure”: The Role of the Tabernacle Text in Religious Experience is available online through the Emory library.
Out of the millions of Jews going to synagogues / temples to hear the Torah reading in the next four out of the five parshiyot dealing with the mishkan, there are not many individuals who have studied in depth the Torah’s description of the mishkan, and even fewer who have studied the text in formal academic setting. As far as we know there are no Orthodox yeshivot in the world that have a course on the tabernacle.
Had these parshiyot described heaven, had they talked about the nature of God, had they contained lively narrative, or even had archaeologists found evidence that such a structure existed, perhaps this text would have fared better with the modern reader. As it is, the text offers a concrete, detailed, repetitive, and yet gapped text about a space that may never have existed, and which fits uncomfortably into most modern theologies even if it had.
With this in mind we asked Dr. Amy Cooper Robertson if she would share with some insights into her academic journey in studying Torah and specifically the Mishkan.
1. To begin, did you grow up in a religious home? Were you raised to believe in the divinity of the Torah that somehow gave you the motivation to study it?
I didn’t – I grew up in a completely secular home, my relationship to Judaism was weighed down with 20th century (i.e. post-holocaust) Jewish history. Outside of the stories that became popular in American culture, I had no exposure to Torah growing up.
When I got to college, I became interested in literature, and came to the study of Torah from that angle. From the start, my relationship to this text felt different in a way I can’t quite describe. I felt committed to it, I suppose – committed to engaging with it and wrestling with it instead of walking away when something bothered me. I was very lucky to have a teacher, Matthias Henze at Rice, who allowed me space to pursue whatever questions I had as I read. By the end of my introductory Tanakh class, I had wandered pretty far afield into post-Holocaust Jewish Theology. It took me a couple of years to make my way back to the Tanakh, but I did.
2. Indeed, what on earth (or in heaven) about the Mishkan captured your interest?
To be honest, I started to study the texts about the Mishkan as a sort of self-devised test. I was at a point where I needed to decide whether I really wanted to study Torah full time for the next 8 years or so (i.e. whether to continue graduate school after my masters), and I wanted to be sure I really had the passion and/or fortitude to do it. It was easy for me to feel hooked into the stories in Genesis or the Psalms, but I wanted to see if I felt that commitment to a text that felt as distant from my life today as the Mishkan texts.
So, I signed up for a doctoral seminar at Harvard that covered Mishkan and the sacrifices in Leviticus, taught by Gary Anderson. For the first couple of classes, my attention was mostly fed by a fear of embarrassing myself (as I didn’t quite have the skills I should have had for a doctoral seminar). But Dr. Anderson’s love of the text for its own sake was contagious. He was (and is) a brilliant teacher. Nobody left that seminar without loving this text.
3. Do you believe the Torah is of divine origin?
I want to say yes, but I think that question means different things to different people, and so I’m not sure my saying yes or no clarifies much about what I believe. I believe the Torah is a holy text. I believe there are many ways to encounter God in this world, and Torah is one of them. It is a primary one for me.
4. Did studying the Torah academically weaken your relationship to Judaism?
When I first decided to go to graduate school to study Torah, my rabbi at the time– a Reform rabbi outside Boston – expressed some significant concern about this. I think his fear was that I would satiate my interest in Torah at school, and never circle back to the Jewish community. (His solution was for me to commit to teaching Hebrew school to 1st graders – something that, I have to say, was much more challenging to my relationship with Judaism!)
Quite the opposite has been true for me. Studying Torah in grad school gave me a foothold in the tradition and a set of tools that made sense to me and have kept me engaged far beyond my graduate courses. Studying alongside colleagues from different religious traditions broadened my worldview and sharpened my relationship to my own tradition. I feel a sense of investment and connection and engagement with the Torah that I cannot imagine having come upon otherwise.
5. In your thesis you compare the text of the Tabernacle to the texts that accompany mandala construction. Can you briefly explain to us what is similar about them and what can we learn from it?
A mandala is a two- or three-dimensional representation of a god’s palace and its grounds from Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Like the Temple in biblical tradition, it is also understood to be a microcosm of the universe. You may have seen Buddhist monks make a physical mandala out of colored sand – it is quite exquisite to see. (You can read more about the construction process here.) In addition to these physically constructed mandalas, however, there are mandalas formed in one’s imagination – and some feel that this visualized mandala is actually the real one, and that which is constructed is intended primarily to serve as a prop or support for the visualization exercise.
The texts associated with mandala construction are similar to the tabernacle text in their formality, in their high instance of repetition and – perhaps most notably – in their points of ambiguity, especially where different components of the structure come together. These difficulties in the textual detail point directly to the purpose of these texts: they are meant to engender visualization – an imaginative construction of a tabernacle – not to facilitate the physical construction of three-dimensional structures. In a visualization exercise, the precise measurements involved in the integration of two components of a larger whole are easily lost in the shuffle: nobody picturing all the details of the tabernacle would hold in his mind enough detail for this to matter.
Seeing the similarity between these mandala texts and the tabernacle text is helpful because the mandala texts still have a clear role in the ritual lives of their community. In my dissertation, I suggest that the nature of the Tabernacle text is similar – a ritualized text intended to engender a visually-based religious experience for the reader, but not intended as building instructions.
6. Have you built a model Mishkan?
No, models of the Mishkan have never appealed to me much. The aspects of the text that I am most connected to gesture toward something bigger than the actual structure itself, so looking at a model of the Mishkan feels like focusing on the trees instead of the forest.
This section of the Torah, to me, is about a lot of things. It is about the relationship between God and the Israelites – the way in which God made Godself available to the Israelites in the desert. It is about the way in which we humans express care and intimacy through attention to myriad details. (The attention to certain small details in this text reminds me of when my children were babies, and I always knew off the top of my head which of their fingernails were getting too long so that I would be prepared to act quickly when I found an opportune moment to trim them. This is part of how love plays out in my life. There is laughing and snuggling, boundary-setting and many many stories – but there is also this deeply intimate knowledge of and attention to minute details.)
And, as I said in my devar Torah, “Eternity in the Face of Change: Repetition and the Tabernacle,” it is about the things that do not change, even while many things in history do change (including the role of the Tabernacle/Temple system). Yes, it describes the Tabernacle structure, but focusing only on the Tabernacle structure itself doesn’t really pull me in.
7. If you could own one piece from the Mishkan what would it be?
This is not a question I’ve really thought about before, and my first response was that it makes me a little uncomfortable to think about part of the Mishkan being in my house. The text puts so much love and attention into the idea of boundaries between the holy and the profane, and even though that theology is not operative anymore, it seems wrong somehow to wish for a piece of it as my personal possession.
8. Are there any recent, more well-known examples of literature that display the same elements you identify in the Mishkan?
Possibly, ritualized speech/ prayer? I recently had a conversation about this with an Orthodox friend of mine. She had visited my (Reconstructionist) shul for part of the afternoon on Yom Kippur, and observed how much talking we do. And it’s true, we do – we pause between parts of the liturgy to read a poem, or to offer a reflection, or to try to set our kavanah. She said that she personally found it distracting from her experience of davening, which is largely to step out of time for a bit and just be in the presence of God in her own mind. The familiarity and repetition of the prayers, for her, opened up a possibility for this sense of eternity – but not if she thought about them too hard. The poems and kavanot that my community uses to help people achieve that very state were interrupting hers.
In the realm of literature the children’s book Goodnight Moon is an interesting example. It doesn’t have all the features I talk about, of course. But it has a formality about it, and the second half of the book almost exactly (but not quite!) repeats the first half in a way that is not dissimilar to the way the account of the tabernacle repeats in its entirety after the Golden Calf episode.
This brings to mind a scholar named Sean McEvenue, whose work I read in the course of my studies. He compares the writing of the author of the Tabernacle text (commonly called the Priestly source, or P) with children’s nursery rhymes. He is not talking about the tabernacle text per se, but other writings – for example, Genesis 1/Bereshit. He talks about how children generally enjoy highly structured and repetitive language.
9. After studying the mishkan for 9 or so years, is there an unresolved question that you can share that bothers / challenges you for which you would like to know an answer?
I wonder whether my ancestors so very long ago experienced the text in this ritualized, almost meditative way, as I do. How and when was it recited? Who had access to it when, aurally or in writing? I tend to think of this text as poetry, read quietly and with pause and lilt, but not sung, but maybe there are other ways to think about it or experience it.
I wonder about the role that this text could have played for Jews in the diaspora after the Temple was destroyed, opening up the possibility for them of God dwelling with them where they were. But how many Jews had access to this text at that particularly traumatic moment in history? Some scholars imagine that this text was actually written during that time (i.e. in Babylonia after the destruction of the First Temple), which to me is no less beautiful – but it is a very different way to think about it.
10. If you could do another doctoral thesis on Torah what subject topic would you choose?
I might try to look at how Jewish identities and theologies form and re-form in the face of big, disruptive (and often traumatic) historical events, either as described in the text of Torah itself as such events are narrated or in terms of how the Torah is interpreted at different points in history. More likely, I would start with a big topic like that and then alight upon a text to really climb into, like I did last time around.
But in my current life, outside the academy, I enjoy sinking in to many different parts of the Torah for shorter periods of time.