by Rabbi Avi Billet
One of the more destructive qualities of any leader, teacher, mentor is being hypocritical. Anyone who looks up to someone else can be easily disenfranchised when they catch the person they admire engaged in hypocritical activity.
For example, a preacher who preaches of morality and ethics who commits adultery would be laughed out of town. A cardiologist who tells all his patients not to smoke, while he is a smoker, would seem to embody hypocrisy. A teacher of Judaism who teaches specific aspects of halakha in great detail, but is not observant of them him/herself would seem to be a bit of a phony. One who talks about the evils of lashon hora, and yet engages in it all the time, ought to look in the mirror and drop the “do as I say and not as I do” speech.
So what are we to make of the God who commands “don’t make any images, etc” who also commands to put Keruvim on top of the Ark, and Keruvim embroidered in the curtains of the Mishkan?
In Jewish Action Fall 2015, my colleague Rabbi Akiva Males wrote an article addressing the eagles on top of American flagpoles and the images of lions that artfully adorn many synagogues, noting that when you live in a world in which animals are not worshipped, these images are not forbidden. The lions are typically two dimensional – in painting or in carving – which also makes it less “real.” Eagles, as noted by Rav Moshe Feinstein, are not zodiac symbols and therefore don’t present a problem.
My shul has both an American flag with an eagle atop the pole, and an Israeli flag, with a star of David atop its pole. There have been individuals who have objected to these flags, the former arguing that an American flag doesn’t belong in a sanctuary, the latter being a chossid who objects to the flag of Israel, but by and large most people don’t pay any attention to the flags. Certainly the argument that “I don’t want to daven to a flag” is easily rebuffed with “so don’t direct your prayers toward the flag!”
But in the Mishkan we still have the challenge. Even though it is possible to “direct all services heavenward,” the fact remains that these images are there, and by divine command!
Rabbi Males’ points (which he attributed to admittedly greater scholars such as Rabbi Herzog, Rabbi Feinstein and Chatam Sofer) would easily address the Keruvim woven into the curtains. In this case, they’re more likely one-dimensional, so their existence shouldn’t raise any flags. Adornment is simply adornment.
But the Keruvim on top of the Mishkan are a different story! They were certainly three dimensional. And while they had the body of an angel and the face of a child, they were graven images made out of gold!
Chizkuni explains that the Keruvim are not made to be bowed to – they are for God’s domicile, an adornment at most. Further, the fact that there are two of them, and that they face downward towards the Ark and the Torah within it, plus the fact that they were only seen by the High Priest on Yom Kippur, all serve to indicate these are not the graven images God forbade.
Chizkuni also notes the seeming contradiction in some areas of Jewish life. For example, we are forbidden from doing constructive work on the Sabbath, and yet the Torah permitted the bringing of the Mussaf offering, the daily offering, and performing Brit Milah on the "day of rest." One may not have relations with one’s brother’s wife, but may if he does Yibum (levirate marriage after his brother dies childless). We are forbidden from wearing Shatnez (a weaving of wool and linen/flax), but are permitted to have Shatnez in tzitzit.
These examples are reminiscent of the statement Yalta made to Rav Nachman in Chullin 109b – “Whatever God forbade, He also permitted to us a corresponding item: Forbade blood, permitted liver; forbade ‘niddah,’ permitted ‘blood of purity;’ forbade cheilev (fats) of domesticated animals, permitted cheilev of wild (kosher) animals; forbade pork, permitted brains of shibuta (a kosher fish that tastes like pork); forbade girusa (a non kosher bird), permitted fish tongue; forbade a married woman, but allowed marrying a divorcee whose first husband is still alive; forbade a brother’s wife, permitted a yevamah; forbade a Cuthite, permitted the woman captured in war.” She then asked to taste something that tasted like milk cooked with meat, upon which Rav Nachman ordered to prepare an utter from a freshly slaughtered cow through roasting. The milk still in the utter is considered permissible, and will thus be “cooked” into the meat of the utter.
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi compared the making of a golden image to the making of medicine. In the hands of a pharmacist, making medicine is a safe practice. In the hands of a non-pharmacist, those same life-saving medicines could be life-taking poisons. Similarly, when the gold images are made under God’s orders, they can be viewed as spiritual medicine, whereas when made by humans without God’s instruction, it is a rejection of God.
While I won’t make the stretch to suggest that decorations in our synagogues are directed by God, I don’t think it’s farfetched to take Yalta’s designation to one more example: Those who would like to have graven images can find them placed, in a decorative and permissive fashion, in our places of worship.
And while such images are meant to be decorative, as long as no one is taking them the wrong way, and is rather properly directing all prayers to our Father in Heaven, we are doing just fine.