Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
The Mystical vs. Maimonidean Mishkan
What is the Mishkan (Tabernacle) all about? The answer to this is worlds apart depending on whether you are a mystic or a Maimonidean rationalist.
If you're a mystic, then the intricacies of the Mishkan's architecture were designed from scratch by God Himself and serve to represent and even channel Divine supernatural energies. The significance of its architecture can thus not be overstated.
If you're a Maimonidean rationalist, on the other hand, physical objects cannot have any metaphysical effects, only symbolic significance. Yet the architecture of the Mishkan is still extremely significant - especially in the 21st century. Because it presents a rejoinder to one of the most serious challenges to traditional Judaism - and in doing so, explains itself. The way in which it does so will deeply offend many people of a mystical persuasion, but I ask them to either not read any further or to bear in mind that it's "different strokes for different folks."
There are many contemporary challenges to traditional Jewish belief. One of them is regarding the historicity of the Exodus. There is certainly plenty of ways in which the impossibly high numbers of people described in the Torah can be more reasonably interpreted - see Rabbi Moshe Shamah's Recalling the Covenant and Rabbi Dr. Joshua Berman's Ani Maamin for examples. But what about the more basic idea of whether there was any Israelite tribe that left Egypt? Many contemporary academics argue that it never happened and that there were never any Israelites in Egypt. They say that the entire story is a fabrication, a back-projection from a much later and geographically distant place.
Pharaoh Rameses II engaged in a number of military campaigns. One of them, the Battle of Qadesh, was waged against the Hittites. Rameses boasted of his victory in various hieroglyphics which depict his military tent. When unscrambled from the heiroglyphics, it looks like this:
As observant readers will immediately notice, it is exactly the same as the Mishkan. It sits in a larger compound of the exact same proportions and in the exact same place. Its overall proportions are identical, and it is divided into two sections of the exact divisions of the Mishkan. Even more amazingly, in Pharaoh's tent, two falcons spread their wings protectively over Pharaoh, exactly like the two cherubim spreading their wings over the Ark of the Covenant. Other details of Mishkan architecture likewise precisely match ancient Egyptian architecture.
Clearly, the most reasonable conclusion is that this part of the Torah was actually composed in the context of Ancient Egypt, not later Babylonia. And thus there is indeed evidence that there were Israelites in Ancient Egypt. (I'd be curious to know what mystics make of the parallels - probably they believe that Egyptian sorcerers were also able to tap in to Divine secrets.)
But why would the Mishkan be an exact copy of Pharaoh's battle-tent? Can't God come up with an original design?
The answer to this emerges from a consideration of Rambam's approach to ritual commandments in general. As noted earlier, the rationalist approach is that they possess symbolic rather than metaphysical significance. The Mishkan relates to God's symbolically being described as Ish Milchamah, a Man of War. In the ancient world, Pharaoh was seen to by all-powerful. The Mishkan attested that Pharaoh's royal battle-tent itself had been commandeered by the God of Israel.
Mystical and rationalist perspectives are often very far apart. But this is a particularly fascinating instance in which, from a mystical perspective, the rationalist approach is blasphemous, whereas from the rationalist perspective, it is saving one of the basic foundations of Judaism.