In an early essay called “Sacred and Profane,” the great cultural Zionist Ahad Ha-Am (Asher Ginzberg) makes an insightful point:
“Between things sacred and profane there is this difference among others. In profane matters the instrument derives its worth from the end, and is valued for the most part only in so far as it is a means to that end; and consequently we change the instruments as the end demands, and finally, when the end is no longer pursued, the instruments automatically fall into disuse. But in sacred matters the end invests the instrument with a sanctity of its own. Consequently, there is no changing or varying of the instrument; and when the end has ceased to be pursued, the instrument does not fall out of use, but is directed towards another end. In other words: in the one case we preserve the shell for the sake of the kernel, and discard the shell when we have eaten the kernel; in the other case we raise the shell to the dignity of the kernel, and do not rob it of that dignity even if the kernel withers, but make a new kernel for it.”
As an example, Ginzberg reminds us that though we publish non-sacred texts with a printing press (or e-mail), we still mandate that holy texts, like a Torah scroll or a scroll of Esther, be written on parchment, with quill and ink, just as they did in the ancient world. “In the case of books devoted to sacred purposes, everything, even the mode of writing, is sacred,” he writes. With profane books, the content does not sanctify the form; but with holy books, the content sanctifies the form to such a degree that the form itself becomes holy, and the content proceeds to change in every generation, like new wine in an old cask. In Ginzberg’s opinion, this is what allows Torah to be renewed and reinterpreted, to continue to be a Living Torah.
I thought of this essay of Ahad Ha-Am while considering a disagreement between Ibn Ezra and Ramban about the nature of the Urim v’Tumim mentioned in Parashat Tetzaveh. The Urim v’Tumim, you will recall, are an undefined element of the High Priest’s garb. The verse (28:30) gives us very little: “And thou shalt put in the breastplate of judgment the Urim and the Thummim; and they shall be upon Aaron's heart, when he goeth in before the Lord; and Aaron shall bear the judgment of the children of Israel upon his heart before the Lord continually.” Rashi explains that the Urim v’Tummim were the name of God written (presumably on a piece of parchment, though Rashi doesn’t say so) and placed inside the folds of the High Priest’s breastplate. Ramban, like most others, follows this view. Ibn Ezra, however, claims that the Urim v’Tumim were an object made of gold and silver, following the form of vessels used in pagan rituals to divine the thoughts of the questioner.
Ramban goes to great lengths to reject Ibn Ezra’s interpretation. The essence of his point is this: “They were not the work of craftsmen or artisans, and the general population did not have anything to do with their manufacture or contribute anything towards their creation (as opposed to the other items in the Mishkan). Rather they were a very deep secret given to Moses from God, and he wrote them in holiness. Or they were the work of Heaven, and thus they are referred to as The Urim v’Tummim, and not simply as Urim v’Tummim without the ‘The’ in front.”
What is at stake for Ramban that he needs to contend with Ibn Ezra? Rabbi Abraham, as Ramban refers to his interlocutor, wants to make the Urim v’Tumim into a material form, and ultimately a symbol that can be interpreted like the other items in the Mishkan. He wants to involve human beings in their creation, and say that, like the design of the Mishkan itself, the Urim v’Tumim represents another appropriation—and sanctification—of pagan ritual forms by the pure-minded monotheistic Israelites.
To Ramban, this represents a dangerous view. (“He has said nothing,” is his immediate response after quoting Ibn Ezra.) Just as the objects of the Mishkan focused their attention on, and drew their energy from, the immaterial void between the cherubim from which emanated the voice of God, so too the clothes of the High Priest must be fundamentally rooted in something without form or mass. For Ramban, the Urim v’Tumim, which consists of the unpronounceable name of God written by the hand of Moses (or perhaps God Himself), is what transforms the costume of the High Priest into a holy ensemble.
Ramban, it would seem, is concerned that by understanding the Urim v’Tumim as metal objects molded by human hands, Ibn Ezra is starting down the road towards the de-sanctification of the priestly garb. These are no longer holy garments that exist to facilitate mysterious communication with the Divine, but are simply ritual items used in religious ceremonies. To Ramban, the Urim v’Tumim are the enigmatic essence of the clothing of the High Priest. If you take away the core of the ritual, its mystery, its paradox, its simultaneous this-worldly and other-worldly nature, all you have is an empty shell, a costume without a living being inside. If you take morality out of halakha, all you are left with is behaviorism. If you take the encounter with the Almighty out of tefilla, all you are left with is davenning.
Which brings us back to Ahad Ha-Am. Ahad Ha-Am was an opponent of Theodor Herzl’s secular Zionism. He questioned what was Jewish about Herzl’s book “The Jewish State.” Is Israel meant to be simply a place for Jews to live and find refuge, or must it be something more than that, a grand experiment in expressing the deepest values of the Jewish people by building a society and exercising power? The question is a very live one today: should the buses in Israel run on Shabbat? Should the malls be open? Should there be civil marriage and divorce? And if there is nothing particularly compelling or inspiring about the Jewish character of the state, then what do we tell 18-year old Israeli soldiers when they ask what exactly they are defending with their lives? Ramban, through the language of his Torah commentary, sides with Ahad Ha-Am: the clothes of the High Priest are transformed into sacred garments, our lives are transformed into sacred expressions of godliness, and Israel is transformed into a sacred enterprise, through our sensation of the Ineffable presence of God at the core of our being.