I’ve been thinking about a famous section of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed – his most famous philosophical text, which tries to reconcile aspects of the Hebrew Bible that seem incompatible with a philosophical point of view.
In this section (Book Three, Chapter 32), Maimonides explains why the Tabernacle, and subsequently the Temple, were not for their own sake, but to wean the Israelites away from idolatrous sacrificial practices and to achieve our ultimate goal of knowledge of the existence and unity of God: “The custom which was in those days general among all men… consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images.
“God did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used.
“God transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings… and commanded us to build Him a temple.”
When we read of the building of the place where God ‘will dwell’ (Exodus 25:8) in the Torah, it is quite likely the ancient authors really believed that God was contained in the space of the tabernacle or Temple.
Some modern believers also hold the simplistic view that God is still uniquely contained in a certain space, and long for a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. But Maimonides reminds us that all reading of text occurs in a context and with an evolution of time.
To read any of our Biblical text in isolation and not consciously explore the possible original meaning and the evolving tradition is to naively succumb to fundamentalism. How much more so when we think about sacred space and encounters with the divine.