When I visualize cherubs, even though I don’t much believe in these mythic beings, I still imagine Michelangelo’s renderings. So much of our religious imagery is taken from Renaissance art. The great artists of those days still continue to provide us with many of our visual religious images. This is ironic given that Michelangelo for example mistakenly carved horns for Moses rather than the Torah’s “rays of light.” And despite our tradition’s insistence otherwise, we continue to imagine Eve handing Adam an apple. Judaism suggests the fruit was a pomegranate, fig or etrog. So why do we depend on Renaissance artists when these angelic cherubs are described in our very own Torah?
In this week’s portion, we read of the details of the ancient tabernacle and the cherubs that adorned it. “You shall make a cover (kapporet) of pure gold, two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. Make two cherubim (keruvim) of gold—make them of hammered work—at the two ends of the cover…. The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover…. There I will meet you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.” (Exodus 25:17-22)
What is a cherub? According to biblical scholars the Hebrew word keruv is most likely related to the ancient Akkadian meaning to pray, bless or be gracious to. These winged creatures are first mentioned in Genesis, when God positions them outside the Garden of Eden to guard its entrance. Their depiction was common throughout the ancient Middle East. One can surmise that the Bible’s lack of a detailed description indicates that the ancient reader had a clear understanding of what cherubim looked like. It appears that they had human faces, the body of animals, most often a bull or lion, and large wings. Renaissance artists depicted them as babies with wings.
I wonder why a tradition that seeks to abolish all forms of idolatry demand that we construct such images within the most sacred of precincts. Rabbi Gunther Plaut (z”l) suggests an answer: “Apparently the cherubim belonged to an old mythological tradition that could not be dislodged, and by hiding them away in a place totally inaccessible to the people at large the danger of their adoration was minimized…” Then again perhaps such imagery is part and parcel to being human. We need to build things in order to better imagine God and the accompanying heavenly entourage. Thus despite Judaism’s zealous prohibitions against idolatry and representations of the divine, attempts to picture the heavens all too often peak through.
Most years I gloss over the Torah’s descriptions about cherubs and angels, dismissing them as meaningless to my modern day faith. I don’t believe in flying mythic creatures. Yet human beings continue to conjure rich images, painting and sculpting our understanding of the Bible’s words. Human beings need to imagine detailed visions. And we rely on artists to visualize the divine. We are dependent on others to help us grasp at the divine. Perhaps we should instead take refuge in our own hearts and minds, allowing our thoughts to paint new and original images. That would be more in keeping with our tradition’s philosophy.
The cherubim’s purpose was to mediate between heaven and earth, to carry the prayers of human beings to the heavens. I choose instead to rely on my words. Perhaps a few reach to the heavens. More often than not my words are lifted by the words of my ancestors found in our prayerbook, especially when rendered as music and song. And then there are occasions when I discover a poem, a verse that lifts my prayers, as if soaring on wings. William Blake writes: “To see a world in a grain of sand/And a heaven in a wild flower,/Hold infinity in the palm of your hand/And eternity in an hour.”
And herein is the reminder I seek. The divine can more often than not be unlocked in the most ordinary and every day. We need not travel to beautiful buildings, even (and especially) those as striking as the Sistine Chapel. We need not even construct a tabernacle, ordained with cherubim. Our thoughts, our prayers, our visions and our very own renderings are all we require.